AMERICAN bishops have overwhelmingly condemned the death penalty, placing them on a collision course with President George W Bush.
At the annual autumn meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops last week a new statement calling on society to “reject the tragic illusion that we can demonstrate respect for life by taking life” was passed by a vote of 237 to four, with one abstention.
“It is time for our nation to abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life,” says the 11-page statement, “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death”.
“When the state, in our names and with our taxes, ends a human life despite having non-lethal alternatives, it suggests that society can overcome violence with violence. The use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned not only for what it does to those who are executed, but what it does to all of society.” On his visit to St Louis in 1999 Pope John Paul II called capital punishment “cruel and unnecessary”, saying that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil”. The bishops say that America must stop using the death penalty for four reasons: there are other ways to punish criminals and protect society; state-sanctioned killing diminishes all people; execution undermines respect for human life and dignity; and the application of capital punishment is “deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors and is biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation and where the crime was committed”.
With this uncompromising statement the American Catholic Church is aligning itself with other denominations including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the World Council of Churches, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, and the eastern orthodox churches.
But in taking such a strong stance against capital punishment the bishops are setting themselves against George W Bush, who has been a supporter of the death penalty both as Governor of Texas and as President. But the bishops have until this point held back from an open attack on pro-death penalty politicians.