away from violence
appeal by the bishops of Colorado
to end the death penalty
Dear brothers and
sisters in Christ:
We address these
reflections to the Catholics of Colorado, but we also invite their thoughtful
consideration by all persons of good will. Capital punishment, as an issue,
concerns us all.
The repugnance which
the death penalty evokes even in some who approve it points to the vital
matters at stake: whether human life is sacred, and whether inflicting
death is a "healing" act for society or one that does it grave
Our conviction is
clear: Whatever may have been the case in the circumstances of other times
and places, capital punishment is wrong and cannot be justified
today. Thus, to everyone who reads or hears these words we say, "Choose
life" (Deut 30:20).
Criminals must be
punished. But the need to punish them does not lead logically to the conclusion
that capital punishment can be justified.
The punishment of
crime can help foster rehabilitation. But capital punishment by
definition prevents rehabilitation and brings it to a permanent
Punishment is necessary
to protect the community. But, as Pope John Paul II has observed, improvements
in the penal system make those situations in which inflicting death is
the only way to protect the community "very rare, if not practically
nonexistent" (Evangelium Vitae, 56).
Punishment is needed
to deter potential criminals. But the evidence on whether capital punishment
deters anyone from murder is ambiguous and inconclusive.
Punishment is required
to restore the justice that crime disturbs. But, in practice, people look
on capital punishment merely as society's way of extracting revenge from
particularly serious offenders.
The moral reality
of inflicted death becomes even clearer when we consider arguments against
to death for serious crimes sometimes turn out to be innocent. A mistake
in these circumstances can hardly be corrected once the sentence is carried
The death penalty
is disproportionately imposed on the poor and disadvantaged, on those
with limited intelligence and an abnormal degree of impulsiveness, on
those who have suffered family breakdown, abuse, and neglect. Certainly
people who commit serious crimes should experience a full measure of justice;
but in taking their lives, society often chooses an easy way to dispose
of the human consequences of problems it has previously ignored.
The death penalty
cheapens respect for life and increases our taste for vengeance. Since
capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976, nearly
700 executions have taken place. Thousands wait on the death rows of America
to die. This is an appalling record for a society that considers itself
very well," someone might reply, "but what about Timothy McVeigh?
He deliberately committed a terrible crime, his guilt is clear, and he
shows no remorse. If anyone deserves to die, it is he."
Yes, let's consider
Timothy McVeigh. His reasoning was perverse, his crime an act of barbarity.
But doesn't society adopt his reasoning and sink to his barbarity in killing
him for revenge?
The spirit of vengeance
is visible in the decision to let victims and families of victims of McVeigh's
crime watch him die on closed-circuit television. This bizarre concession
is said to be for the sake of closure. But true closure would mean ending
the cycle of violence and revenge, not continuing it.
supports culture of death
We realize that the
Christian tradition does not speak with one voice about capital punishment.
The Bible contains passages that accept the death penalty, and even apparently
require it, for some acts.
But the words and
deeds of Jesus in the New Testament communicate a very different message:
"Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone
at her" (Jn 8:7); "Put your sword back into its place; for all
who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Mt 26:52). The Lord
also tells his followers, "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful"
Over the centuries,
various theologians have argued that the death penalty can be justified.
But in our times, Pope John Paul has powerfully and persuasively condemned
it. This teaching has been incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic
Church. It has been preached repeatedly by individual bishops and groups
of bishops. Those speaking from other religious traditions can tell a
In an Appeal To
End the Death Penalty, published on Good Friday of 1999, the bishops
of the Administrative Board of the U. S. Catholic Conference expressed
the hope a hope we share that people whose fear of crime
and anger at the loss of innocent lives lead them to support capital punishment
"will come to see, as we have, that more violence is not the answer."
capital punishment not just for what it does to those guilty of grievous
crimes, but for what it does to all of us as a society," the bishops
Violence is the curse
of our society. It is a common denominator in everything from violent
video games, movies and song lyrics, to school shootings, teenage suicides,
euthanasia and abortion. High and low culture alike exploits mayhem for
entertainment. Outside the prison where Timothy McVeigh is to die hawkers
will sell T-shirts with the slogan "Hoosier Hospitality." Some
Americans stockpile guns as casually as canned food.
is not the cause of all these things, but it lends them support and is,
in turn, fed by them. It is part of a culture of violence and death.
For the sake of
our own humanity and the humanity of our families and children, let us
turn away from violence and build a culture of life. Let us end the death
penalty for the love of life. "I have set before you life
and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your
descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and
cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days" (Deut
+ Most Rev. Charles
J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver
+ Most Rev. Richard
Bishop of Colorado Springs
+ Most Rev. Arthur
Bishop of Pueblo
+ Most Rev. José
Auxiliary Bishop of Denver