Bishops call for an end to the federal death penalty


Bishop W. Shawn McKnight joined Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of St. Louis and their fellow U.S. Catholic bishops in calling for a halt to executions by the federal government and an end to the death penalty in the United States.

“I call on the U.S. Department of Justice and government leaders to stop these executions, and in doing so I echo the words of Archbishop Paul Coakley and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann in saying that ‘We can accomplish justice without (the death penalty) and strengthen respect for the sacred dignity of every human life, which is so needed today,’” Archbishop Rozanski stated Jan. 11.

This followed a joint statement from Archbishop Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Archbishop Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

In that statement, both archbishops said ending the federal use of the death penalty is “long past time.”

“We renew our constant call to President (Donald) Trump and Acting Attorney General (Jeffrey) Rosen: Stop these executions,” they stated.

The two archbishops noted that in 2020, the federal government, for the first time, executed more people than all 50 states combined.

Federal executions resumed in 2020 after a 17-year reprieve.

Archbishops Coakley and Naumann also called on President-elect Joe Biden and Congress to “make this a priority. One vehicle to accomplish this in federal law is the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act. In addition, we ask President-elect Biden to declare a moratorium on federal executions and to commute current federal death sentences to terms of imprisonment.”

President Biden succeeded President Trump on Jan. 20.

“It is long past time to abolish the death penalty from our state and federal laws,” the archbishops stated.

Ten times in the past two years, bishops, groups of bishops, or the full U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had either spoken out against capital punishment, asked the faithful to add their voice on the issue, or sought to end its use in the courts.

Also Jan. 11, the Catholic Mobilizing Network launched an online petition campaign asking President-elect Biden to make an end to federal executions a priority once he is sworn into office.

“After six months of needless death from what will soon amount to 13 executions, the Trump administration has driven home why an end to the federal death penalty is so urgently needed,” said a Jan. 11 statement by Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director.

During a Jan. 6 Georgetown University-sponsored forum on capital punishment, Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, cited the “throwaway culture” line frequently used by Pope Francis and said, “We let people die or we kill people, in the death penalty’s case, to solve problems. And the Church is simply saying: Enough blood. Stop.”

The petition urges the incoming administration to “uphold the sacred dignity of every person” and make good on its promises to dismantle the federal death penalty system.

It names several possible avenues toward abolition that the president-elect could pursue, including declaring an official moratorium on federal executions, commuting the death sentences of all those currently on the federal death row, and advocating to end the death penalty in law.

Pope Francis in 2018 called for a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, on the death penalty in a manner that affirms that “no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”

He reaffirmed that the death penalty, regardless of the means of execution, “entails cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment.” Furthermore, it is to be rejected “due to the defective selectivity of the criminal justice system and in the face of the possibility of judicial error.”

Pope St. John Paul II, while offering Mass in St. Louis in 1999, called for a consensus to end the death penalty, declaring it to be “both cruel and unnecessary.”