Religion News Report
Archived News items about religious cults, sects, and alternative religions
About RNR Archive News Database RNR FAQ
Religion Journal: Standing Against Death Penalty
By GUSTAV NIEBUHR
The New York Times, Apr. 21, 2001
Next month, the United States will resume executing federal prisoners, ending a four-decade hiatus, putting to death Timothy J. McVeigh, the man convicted of mass murder in bombing the Oklahoma City Federal Building six years ago.
To speak out against the execution means going against the current, taking a minority position.
But some, like the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Indianapolis, Daniel M. Buechlein, whose jurisdiction includes Terre Haute, have. The archbishop's statement, posted on the archdiocese's Internet site, minces no words about the enormity of Mr. McVeigh's crime, declaring it difficult to conceive of a more heinous act or to imagine the impact on the families of the 168 people who were killed.
"Rational analysis is difficult in the face of the emotion that this man's crime evokes," he writes. "Yet, in matters such as this, the good of society requires that we rise to the challenge of a measured and larger vision."
Thus, Archbishop Buechlein wrote, the church opposes the death penalty, even in this case, because it can cause society more harm than good by feeding a demand for revenge.
In an interview, the archbishop said he had "seen no evidence that capital punishment" worked as a deterrent to vicious crimes. Moreover, he said, "to kill people who have killed people, whether that's government-sponsored or otherwise, is feeding a cycle of violence that I think is alarming."
Archbishop Buechlein said he had emphasized to people that the church was "deeply concerned for the victims and their loved ones."
The church does not deny government a right in principle to take a convict's life. But Catholic teaching on the circumstances in which capital punishment may be used has changed in recent years.
That was discussed last fall by Cardinal Avery Dulles, the Jesuit theologian, in a lecture from which Archbishop Buechlein drew heavily for his statement. Cardinal Dulles, who teaches at Fordham University, said that church teaching held that punishment of criminals should have four purposes: rehabilitation, society's defense against the criminal, deterrence to crime and retribution.
He analyzed each in relation to the death penalty, paying particular attention to the idea of retribution. He said that in earlier eras, government could be seen to act symbolically on behalf of God, as the protector of "a transcendent order of justice."
That idea, he wrote, no longer holds, as government is instead seen to represent the popular will.
"In this modern perspective, the death penalty expresses not the divine judgment on objective evil but rather the collective anger of the group," he wrote.
In an interview, Cardinal Dulles said that in a democracy, "the state is not seen as a superior institution over against the people, but rather as an instrument of the people."
That, he added, "changes the rules of the game" where capital punishment is concerned.
The publisher of Apologetics Index / Religion News Report is opposed to the death penalty.
There is no evidence that the death penalty deters crime:
U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, the country's top law enforcement official, said on Thursday that she has yet to find any evidence that the death penalty deters crime.
''I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point,'' Reno said at her weekly Justice Department news briefing.
No Evidence Death Penalty Deters Crime, Reno Says. Excite/Reuters, Jan. 20, 2000
No one comes remotely close to our record on the death penalty -- 227 dead so far since 1982 -- more than the total of the next five death-penalty states combined. If this were working, Texas would have the lowest crime rate in the nation. As of the end of the year 1999, there were 706,600 Texans in prison, jail, parole or on probation, five percent of all adult Texans, one out of 20 are under some form of criminal justice supervision,'' says the Institute report. ''The scale of what is happening in Texas is so huge, it is difficult to contrast the size of its criminal justice system to the other states it dwarfs. There are more Texans under criminal justice control than the entire populations of some states, including Vermont, Wyoming and Alaska.
Even more prisons wanted in Texas, The Spokesman-Review, Sep. 5, 2000
» Amnesty International's Report on U.S. Human rights abuses includes a look at the death penalty.