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A Catholic Call To Abolish The Death Penalty

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There were two state-sanctioned executions in the United States on September 21, 2011. In Georgia, Troy Anthony Davis, an African American man, was put to death for the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. In Texas, Lawrence Brewer, a white supremacist, was executed for his participation in the racist hate crime dragging murder of James Byrd in Jasper in 1998. As theologians, scholars, and social justice advocates who participate in the public discussion of Catholic theology, we protest the state-sanctioned killings of both of these men, and we call for the abolition of the death penalty in the US.

Davis' execution is particularly troubling for it shines a stark light upon many longstanding concerns about capital punishment in the US. We mourn the death of Officer MacPhail and express our deepest sympathies to his family for their tragic loss. However, we believe that a grave miscarriage of justice took place with Davis' execution. As many legal experts have pointed out, including former FBI Director and federal judge and prosecutor William S. Sessions, serious doubt remains about Davis' guilt. Until his last breath he maintained his innocence. The failure of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, a Federal Appeals Judge, the Georgia Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court to grant Davis a new trial reveals a deeply flawed justice system. We therefore call upon lawmakers and President Obama to immediately repeal the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which created the legal conditions for executing a man whose guilt was not established beyond reasonable doubt.

Even those who do not share our faith convictions ought to recognize, as Justice William J. Brennan put it, "the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are innocent." The horrific legacy of lynching in the US casts its evil shadow over current application of the death penalty. Studies have shown that black defendants are more likely to receive the death penalty. In many states with capital punishment, defendants are from 3 to 5 times more likely to be executed if their victim was white. In states that retain the death penalty, 98 percent of district attorneys are white and only 1 percent are black. Execution is also irrevocable, and innocent people have likely been victims of it. Since 1973, 138 persons have been exonerated from death row, most of whom were people of color and economically poor.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that "the sanction of death, when it is not necessary to protect society, violates respect for human life and dignity...Its application is deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors, and is biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation, and where the crime was committed. We have other ways to punish criminals and protect society." In earlier eras, Roman Catholic tradition acknowledged the necessity of capital punishment, in rare cases, to protect citizens from threats to the common good. In recent times, with more secure prison facilities that give us the means to offer such protection without executions, our church leaders have affirmed the need to eradicate the death penalty.

There are, moreover, theological reasons for this stance, and here we speak especially to our sisters and brothers in faith. In calling for the abolition of the "cruel and unnecessary" death penalty, Blessed Pope John Paul II argued that "[t]he new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate, and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil." Our theological tradition recalls that our Lord Jesus Christ was unjustly and brutally nailed to a cross to die. The great 20th century theologian Karl Barth put the matter this way: "Now that Jesus Christ has been nailed to the cross for the sins of the world, how can we still use the thought of expiation to establish the death penalty?" The Eucharistic celebration calls Catholics to remember all crucified people, including the legacy of lynching, in light of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His Gospel message of forgiveness and love of enemies presents a difficult challenge, especially to those who have lost loved ones at the hands of a murderer. Yet, the Gospel teaches us how to become fully human: love, not hatred and revenge, liberates us. We need to forgive and love both in fidelity to the Gospel and for our own well-being. The experience of groups like Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, who advocate against the death penalty, attests to this.

Therefore, in concert with our recent popes and bishops, we oppose the death penalty, whether a person on death row is guilty or innocent, on both theological and practical grounds. While we especially deplore and lament the killing of Troy Davis, we also decry the death sentences of the more than 3,200 inmates on death row and the 1,268 executions since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976. We urge our nation to abolish capital punishment, and we also implore our churches to work unwaveringly to end it as well as all other threats to human life and dignity.

Signed:

1. Gerald J. Beyer, Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics, Saint Joseph's University

2. Alexander Mikulich, Research Fellow, Jesuit Social Research Institute, Loyola University New Orleans

3. Emily Reimer-Barry, Assistant Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, University of San Diego

4. Tobias Winright, Associate Professor of Theological Ethics, Saint Louis University

5. Maria Pilar Aquino, Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, University of San Diego

6. Karen Teel, Assistant Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, University of San Diego

7. Gerard Mannion, Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, University of San Diego

8. Meghan Clark, Assistant Professor of Theology, Saint John's University (NY)

9. Dana Dillon, Assistant Professor of Theology, Providence College

10. Charles Camosy, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics, Fordham University

11. Julie Hanlon Rubio, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Saint Louis University

12. Stephen B. Wilson, Associate Professor of Theology, Spring Hill College

13. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., Associate Professor of Biology, Providence College

14. Kathryn Getek Soltis, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics, Villanova University

15. Vincent J. Miller, Gudorf Chair in Catholic Theology & Culture, University of Dayton

16. Jana Bennett, Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics, University of Dayton

17. Terrence W. Tilley, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, Professor of Catholic Theology, Fordham University

18. M. Shawn Copeland, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology, Boston College

19. Todd David Whitmore, Associate Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

20. John Sniegocki, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Xavier University

21. Nancy M. Rourke, Associate Professor of Moral Theology, Canisius College

22. James F. Keenan, SJ, Founders Professor in Theology, Boston College

23. Nancy Dallavalle, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Fairfield University

24. John Inglis, Professor of Philosophy, Cross-Appointed in Religious Studies, University of Dayton

25. Dennis Doyle, Professor of Religious Studies, University of Dayton

26. Nancy Pineda-Madrid, Assistant Professor of Theology, Boston College

27. Daniel C. Maguire, Professor of Moral Theology, Marquette University

28. Anthony J. Godzieba, Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, Villanova University

29. J. Milburn Thompson, Professor of Theology, Bellarmine University

30. Susan Paulik Babka, Assistant Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, University of San Diego

31. Holly Taylor Coolman, Assistant Professor of Theology, Providence College

32. Kelly Johnson, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, University of Dayton

33. David O'Brien, University Professor of Faith & Culture, University of Dayton

34. Ronald Modras, Professor of Theology, Saint Louis University

35. Edwin L. Lisson, SJ, Associate Professor of Moral Theology, Saint Louis University

36. John F. Kavanaugh, SJ, Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University

37. June-Ann Greeley, Associate Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, Fairfield University

38. Jennifer Beste, Associate Professor of Theological Ethics, Xavier University

39. Elena Procario-Foley, Driscoll Professor of Jewish-Catholic Studies, Iona College

40. Carl Procario-Foley, Director, Center for Campus Ministries, Iona College

41. Daniel Finn, Professor of Theology and Professor of Economics, St. John's University (MN)

42. Bryan N. Massingale, Associate Professor of Theological Ethics, Marquette University

43. Marie Dennis, Director, Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Co-President, Pax Christi International

44. James T. Bretzke, SJ, Professor of Moral Theology, Boston College School of Theology & Ministry

45. Maura Ryan, John Cardinal O'Hara CSC Assoc Prof of Christian Ethics, University of Notre Dame

46. Francine Cardman, Assoc Prof of Historical Theology, Boston College School of Theology & Ministry

47. Dolores L. Christie, Independent Scholar

48. Daniel P. Horan, OFM, Franciscan Friar, Holy Name Province (New York)

49. MT Dávila, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics, Andover Newton Theological School

50. John Renard, Professor of Theological Studies, Saint Louis University

51. Laurie Johnston, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Emmanuel College

52. Nicholas P. Cafardi, Dean Emeritus & Professor of Law, Duquesne University School of Law

53. Christopher Pramuk, Assistant Professor of Theology, Xavier University

54. Bruce T. Morrill, SJ, Edward A. Malloy Prof of Catholic Studies, Vanderbilt Univ Divinity School

55. Matthew A. Shadle, Assistant Professor of Moral Theology, Loras College

56. Michael E. Lee, Associate Professor of Theology, Fordham University

57. Kenneth Parker, Associate Professor of Historical Theology, Saint Louis University

58. Mary Dunn, Assistant Professor of Modern Christianity, Saint Louis University

59. James Caccamo, Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics, Saint Joseph's University

60. Most Rev. John Michael Botean, DD, Bishop of the Eparchy of St. George, Canton, OH

61. Ronald Mercier, SJ, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Saint Louis University

62. Thomas J. Reese, SJ, Senior Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University

63. David Cloutier, Associate Professor of Theology, Mount Saint Mary's University

64. Thomas Massaro, SJ, Professor of Moral Theology, Boston College School of Theology & Ministry

65. M. Therese Lysaught, Associate Professor of Moral Theology, Marquette University

66. Randall S. Rosenberg, CSJ Endowed Chair in Catholic Thought, Fontbonne University

67. Vincent M. Smiles, Professor of Theology, College of St. Benedict & St. John's University (MN)

68. David Meconi, SJ, Assistant Professor of Patristic Theology, Saint Louis University

69. Mark J. Allman, Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics, Merrimack College

70. Susan A. Ross, Professor of Theology, Loyola University Chicago

71. Christine Firer Hinze, Professor of Theology, Fordham University

72. Brian W. Hughes, Associate Professor of Theology, University of Saint Mary

73. Tim Muldoon, Assistant to the Vice President for University Mission & Ministry, Boston College

74. Carey Walsh, Associate Professor of Theology, Villanova University

75. Maureen O'Connell, Associate Professor of Theology, Fordham University

76. William T. Cavanaugh, Professor of Catholic Studies, DePaul University

77. Paul Lakeland, Alloysius P. Kelley SJ Professor of Catholic Studies, Fairfield University

78. Bradford Hinze, Professor of Theology, Fordham University

79. Mary Ann Hinsdale, IHM, Associate Professor of Theology, Boston College

80. John Langan, SJ, Cardinal Bernardin Chair in Catholic Social Thought, Georgetown University

81. William L. Portier, Mary Ann Spearin Chair of Catholic Theology, University of Dayton

82. Paulette Skiba, BVM, Professor of Religious Studies, Clarke University

83. John R. T. Berkman, Associate Professor of Moral Theology, Regis College, Univ. of Toronto

84. Michael Patella, OSB, Professor of Theology, Saint John's School of Theology-Seminary

85. Una M. Cadegan, Associate Professor of History, University of Dayton

86. James B. Ball, Associate Professor of Theology, Saint Mary's University (TX)

87. Mary Jo Iozzio, Professor of Moral Theology, Barry University

88. Christopher Steck, SJ, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, Georgetown University

89. Beth Haile, Assistant Professor of Moral Theology, Carroll College

90. J. Matthew Ashley, Associate Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame

91. Franklin T. Harkins, Assistant Professor of Theology & Medieval Studies, Fordham University

92. Angela Kim Harkins, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Fairfield University

93. Joseph A. McCartin, Associate Professor of History, Georgetown University

94. Anthony B. Smith, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, University of Dayton

95. Lisa Sowle Cahill, Monan Professor of Theology, Boston College

96. Joe Holland, Professor of Philosophy & Religion, St. Thomas University

97. Dorian Llywelyn, SJ, Associate Professor of Theological Studies, Loyola Marymount University

98. G. Simon Harak, SJ, Director, Marquette University Center for Peacemaking

99. Mary Doak, Associate Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, University of San Diego

100. Stephen Schneck, Director, Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies, Catholic University of America

101. Stephen E. Lammers, Helen H.P. Manson Prof. of the English Bible, Lafayette College

102. Christopher P. Vogt, Assoc Professor of Theology & Religious Studies, St. John's University (NY)

103. Teresa Delgado, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Iona College

To be added to this list, email Tobias Winright at twinright@slu.edu with your name, position and institutional affiliation. Those wishing more information about this statement may contact the first four signatories, who co-authored it.

The statement has over 200 signatures now, and it can be viewed here: http://catholicmoraltheology.com/a-catholic-call-to-abolish-the-death-penalty/

Read also:

Pope Benedict XVI's plea to commute Troy Davis' sentence: http://savannahnow.com/troy-davis/2007-07-20/pope-makes-plea-spare-life-troy-davis

The Catholic Bishops' of Georgia letter to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles: http://www.archatl.com/media/storage/troydavis09122011.pdf

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