Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput was in the news this week after a Denver protege was elevated to a national position at the U.S.C.C.B. and after he joined with a few other notable conservative bishops in NOT endorsing Mitt Romney for president while finding some things to like about Paul Ryan's views on America's social safety net. What gathered not quite as much attention was a column he wrote for CatholicPhilly.com challenging the continuing use of the dealth penalty in the United States.
"Most American Catholics, like many of their fellow citizens, support the death penalty," Archbishop Chaput wrote. "That doesn’t make it right. But it does ensure that the wrong-headed lesson of violence 'fixing' the violent among us will be taught to another generation.
"As children of God, we’re better than this, and we need to start acting like it. We need to end the death penalty now."
Archbishop Chaput argued, "Even when a defendant is well defended, properly tried and justly found guilty, experience shows that capital punishment simply doesn’t work as a deterrent. Nor does it heal or redress any wounds, because only forgiveness can do that. It does succeed though in answering violence with violence—a violence wrapped in the piety of state approval, which implicates all of us as citizens in the taking of more lives.
He added, "Real murderers deserve punishment; but even properly tried and justly convicted murderers—men and women who are found guilty of heinous crimes—retain their God-given dignity as human beings. When we take a murderer’s life we only add to the violence in an already violent culture, and we demean our own dignity in the process."
Archbishop Chaput was inspired to write on the controversial topic to urge that the execution of Terrance Williams, scheduled for October, be halted and that his death sentence be commuted to life in prison. It would be the first execution in Pennsylvania in 13 years. Williams had been sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of Amos Norwood, a crime he indisputably committed. New evidence has emerged, however, that alleges Williams had been a victim of repeated sexual assaults by Norwood, evidence that was not introduced during his trial and which may have affected his sentence.
The archbishop argues that while Scripture and Catholic tradition support the legitimacy of the death penalty under certain limited conditions, "the Church has repeatedly called us to a higher road over the past five decades."
"We don’t need to kill people to protect society or punish the guilty," he wrote. "And we should never be eager to take anyone’s life. As a result, except in the most extreme circumstances, capital punishment cannot be justified. In developed countries like our own, it should have no place in our public life."
That last observation is an echo of current Catholic catechism on the death penalty (2267): "If...non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an abolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically non-existent.' (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 56)"
Urging area Catholics to contact the Governor and Pennsylvania Board of Pardon to urge the commutation of Williams’ sentence to life in prison (via Catholic Advocacy Network), Archbishop Chaput wrote: "Terrance Williams deserves punishment. No one disputes that. But he doesn’t need to die to satisfy justice. We should think very carefully in the coming days about the kind of justice we want to witness to our young people."