ST. LOUIS – Recalling Christ's death on Good Friday provides an opportunity to reflect on Catholic teaching and the death penalty, the Missouri bishops state in a new pastoral letter opposing executions.
"He was unjustly sentenced to death and executed on a cross, the cruelest form of capital punishment at the time," the bishops wrote.
More violence, they added "is not a solution to society's problems."
The letter summarizes church teaching and discusses the Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty started by the U.S. bishops last year. It points to Pope John Paul II's urging for people to be "unconditionally pro-life" and affirms a commitment to support victims and their families.
The letter is signed by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke and Auxiliary Bishop Robert J. Hermann of St. Louis, and Bishops Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, John R. Gaydos of Jefferson City and John J. Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau. Retired Bishop Raymond J. Boland of Kansas City-St. Joseph also signed the letter.
A statement accompanying the letter notes that recent developments have given death penalty opponents hope and provided a teaching moment for the bishops.
On Feb. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down an appeal from the state of Missouri to lift a stay of execution for Michael Taylor, who was scheduled to die that day. As a result, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was scheduled to hear arguments on the case April 18 to determine if the way the state administers lethal injection is unconstitutionally cruel and inhumane punishment.
The bishops urged Catholics to pray for a ruling against the death penalty and to contact their elected officials to advocate a halt in executions.
"This pastoral is very timely," said Rita Linhardt of the Missouri Catholic Conference. "The recent court interventions have focused attention on the inhumaneness of executions. As Catholics who believe in the sacredness of life, the use of state-sanctioned killing in our names diminishes us all."
She noted that studies have shown that the death penalty is not a deterrent and that it costs more to execute someone than to put them in prison for life because of the expense of legal appeals.
In addition, she said, 124 people have been let go from death row because of evidence uncovered in their cases that exonerated them. False convictions remain a real fear, in part because of a reliance on eyewitness identifications, she told the St. Louis Review, archdiocesan newspaper.
Linhardt said the bishops continue to be concerned with murder victims' family members. "We have to be sensitive to what they are feeling and recognize the difficult times they're going through."
A sentence of death offers the illusion of closure and vindication, the bishops stated, "but no act, even an execution, can bring back a loved one or heal terrible wounds. The pain and loss of one death cannot be wiped away by another death."
In Illinois, a speaker made a similar link between the Lenten season and advocating to end capital punishment.
Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille and author of the best-selling book "Dead Man Walking" and the recent book "The Death of Innocents," addressed a Catholic college audience in the Joliet Diocese and urged them to become stronger advocates against the death penalty, particularly during Lent.
Sister Prejean, keynote speaker April 4 at Lewis University's annual "Signum Fidei" Lecture, called on her listeners to engage those they encounter in a dialogue that promotes a better understanding of the issues related to the death penalty.
She said that during the final days of Lent participants should become "moral wedges" on the issue, reminding people that pro-life advocacy is on behalf of all human beings.
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops