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Archbishop: Church ‘cannot remain on sidelines’ on death penalty
Rebecca Rakoczy
Published: Thursday, December 11, 2008
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ATLANTA (CNS)—In an address on the death penalty, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said the church "cannot and must not replace the state but cannot remain on the sidelines" on this issue.
"Our faith must stand as a reasonable voice to promote a culture of life, which means every human being is recognized to have an innate and inalienable value," he said at Emory University's law school Oct. 7.
His talk kicked off the university's Center for the Study of Law and Religion lecture series on the theme "When Law and Religion Meet."
The series, co-sponsored by the Aquinas Center of Theology, is designed to provide a forum for religious leaders to discuss difficult legal, moral and ethical issues that their religious communities are facing.
"I'm here not as an expert on civil jurisprudence, nor as a specialist in criminal justice, but as a pastor and teacher of the Catholic Church of Atlanta," Archbishop Gregory told the crowd.
The archbishop noted that since the 1970s, when the death penalty was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court, the U.S. bishops as a body have issued statements against the death penalty at least four times.
But 11 years ago, the release of the revised edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church for 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide stirred the most debate among the faithful about capital punishment.
The revised catechism does not include the long-standing historical reference to the use of capital punishment as restitution to public order. It also minimizes the idea that capital punishment acts as a deterrent to others who might commit similar acts, the bishop said.
Archbishop Gregory credited the change in the catechism to the influence of Pope John Paul II and his 1995 encyclical, 'Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), which took up a number of moral issues related to the defense of human life and dignity, including the death penalty.
Pope John Paul said the death penalty was "morally permissible only in those rare instances where it would not be possible otherwise to incarcerate someone safely and keep them from harming society."
And today "such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent," Archbishop Gregory said.
Still, the debate continues on the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent to future crimes, he said.
He said the bishops have conceded that the death penalty "defends society from the particular prisoner," but they also have raised "serious doubt as to the deterrence value of executions."
The bishops have pointed out the alarming number of mistaken convictions of men and women on death row who were later exonerated, he added.
The archbishop personally pleaded for clemency for Atlanta death-row inmate Troy Davis. The Supreme Court, without explanation, refused to hear Davis' appeal Oct. 14. His execution has been scheduled for Oct. 27.
After the talk, Archbishop Gregory took questions from audience members. One questioner asked why there was still a "window" for the death penalty within the Church's teaching. The archbishop noted the limited means of other countries to safeguard their own populations as the reasoning.
Asked why more Catholics do not oppose the death penalty, the archbishop said the church "can lay out its moral principles, but the application of capital punishment is in the legal world."
"Currently 70 (percent) to 80 percent favor capital punishment; 50 percent favor life in prison without parole," he said. He also cited as a problem "what seems to be the cavalier sentencing in our judicial system. There doesn't seem to be a consistency."
"The Church's mission and teaching responsibility is something that we all share," he told the audience. "The letters from concerned laity about justice and inequities and the penal system—the fact that laypeople are invested in it—is a source of comfort to me as bishop."
He added that, as is the case so many times, it is laypeople who are inspired and driven to implement the work of justice.
"The ultimate implementation of social change is going to come from laity and teachers," he added.

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