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Holy See representative urges all states to abolish death penalty

Protest against death penalty

Pro-life message: People hold a banner and signs on the steps of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta during a vigil for death-row inmate Troy Davis before his execution on September 21, 2011.
Photo: CNS/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin

THE Catholic Church firmly opposes the death penalty and urges all states to move toward its abolition, the Vatican’s permanent observer to United Nations agencies in Geneva said.

“My delegation contends that bloodless means of defending the common good and upholding justice are possible and calls on states to adapt their penal system to demonstrate their adhesion to a more humane form of punishment,” Archbishop Silvano Tomasi told the UN Human Rights Council on March 4 during a discussion on the death penalty.

The archbishop said the Vatican “fully supports the efforts to abolish” the death penalty and suggested two steps to reach this goal. The first was to “sustain the social reforms that would enable society to implement the abolition of the death penalty, and the second is to improve prison conditions to ensure the human dignity of prisoners”.

Citing the past three pontificates, Archbishop Tomasi briefly explained Church teaching on the issue, saying the “steady improvements in the organisation of the penal system” in most states made it “evident nowadays that means, other than the death penalty”, were sufficient to protect public safety against aggressors.

Countries working to change their penal law – both to respect prisoners’ human dignity and to protect public safety – “are moving in the right direction”, he said.

Archbishop Tomasi noted growing public opinion in favour of abolition, which he said the Vatican delegation hoped would “encourage states” to drop capital punishment.

In addition, he said, the death penalty has not worked to deter crime and its “irreversibility … does not allow for eventual corrections in the case of wrongful convictions”.

Archbishop Tomasi’s statements come at a time when Australia is particularly focused on the death penalty with condemned Bali Nine members Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, along with several prisoners from other nations, about to be executed in Indonesia.

According to the United Nations, 160 countries have either abolished the death penalty or have enacted a moratorium. In the past six months, Chad, Fiji and Madagascar abolished the death penalty. While the trend was generally toward abolition, there were more state executions in 2013 than in 2012, and some states reintroduced it, the United Nations reported.

In the United States, the death penalty remains legal in 32 states. According to the Death Penalty Information Centre, the number of death sentences imposed in the US has dropped in the past 10 years, from 138 to 72. In the first two months of 2015, eight inmates were executed in the US; 35 inmates were executed last year.

Meanwhile, four nationally circulated Catholic publications in the United States called for abolishing the death penalty in a jointly published editorial.

America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor urged their readers, the US Catholic community and people of faith to “stand with us and say, ‘Capital punishment must end'”, the editorial stated.

The editorial was published online on March 5 by each publication and was to appear in the printed versions of each journal in the coming weeks.

Dennis Coday, editor of National Catholic Reporter, said the effort evolved after the US Supreme Court agreed in January to hear arguments in an Oklahoma death penalty case.

The case, Glossip v. Gross, involves the use of a lethal-injection protocol widely used across the country that resulted in three botched executions in 2014.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide the constitutionality of lethal-injection executions in Oklahoma by the end of its term in June.

“Our hope is that (the court) will hasten the end of the death penalty in the United States,” the editorial said.

“There’s been a growing consensus among the public and especially among Catholics of the need to bring an abolition, or at least a moratorium, to the death penalty in the country,” Mr Coday told Catholic News Service. “I think that’s perfectly clear from public opinion surveys, especially in the last year that execution after execution has failed or been botched.”

The editorial was translated into Italian and appeared in the March 6 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper.

The editorial cited St. John Paul II’s work to amend the Catechism of the Catholic Church to effectively prohibit capital punishment and the words of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI, who wrote in 1997 that “where other means for the self-defence of society are possible and adequate, the death penalty may be permitted to disappear”.

The editorial also noted Pope Francis’ 2014 call “to fight … for the abolition of the death penalty”.


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