Politics & Policy

Making the Case against the Death Penalty

With a Supreme Court case pending, a collaboration of Catholic periodicals calls for action.

This past Thursday, four leading Catholic publications — which are not always on the same page — issued a joint editorial calling for an end to the death penalty in the U.S. The editor of one of those publications, Gretchen Crowe, editor of OSV Newsweekly, talks about the process, the decision, and its importance. — KJL


Kathryn Jean Lopez: How did this death penalty joint editorial come about?

Gretchen Crowe: It all happened rather quickly, actually. Dennis Coday of The National Catholic Reporter sent a preliminary e-mail to me at Our Sunday Visitor, to Father Matt Malone of America magazine, and to Jeanette DeMelo of The National Catholic Register, inquiring whether we might be interested in publishing a joint editorial calling for an end to capital punishment in the United States. As you can imagine, when you involve four varied news sources and their editorial boards, there was much rapid exchange back and forth on the subject as we consulted with our various teams. But for Our Sunday Visitor, this joint venture was immediately appealing, as participating in this effort was very much in keeping with the paper’s position on the death penalty. We have long called for its abolishment, and this seemed like a unique opportunity to get our voice heard in a different and new way.


Lopez: What was the internal discussion like?

Crowe: As I mentioned, there were several phone calls and e-mails back and forth as we discussed the language, quotes, and wording — even down to the headline. Then, once everyone was on board, there were the logistical conversations: about when the editorial should go live on our sites, how we should promote it, and what issue dates it would be running in for each of our publications. From my perspective, the exchanges took place in a very positive and collegial atmosphere. Though our publications indeed can be worlds apart when it comes to content, there is a lot of respect for the leadership behind the mastheads, and it showed.


Lopez: Why is it an important statement?

Crowe: The joint editorial is important for two reasons. The first is that it brings an awareness to the issue of the death penalty in the United States and to the sea change that has been taking place in this country for the past several decades where capital punishment is concerned. While the Church has not definitively banned the death penalty, the U.S. bishops and our Holy Fathers, beginning with John Paul II and his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, have leaned against it. This is certainly the case in societies such as contemporary America, which have, as John Paul wrote, “the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.” This position is reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, amended in 1997, which states:

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” (No. 2267)

Our Sunday Visitor, as do these other publications, believes that the United States in modern times has sufficient non-lethal means to protect contemporary society from aggressors, and that position is reflected in our editorial.

The second reason the editorial is important is that it shows that there can be unity even among publications that have diverse readerships and opinions. Our coming together on this issue shows that the Catholic press, and the Church, have the ability to transcend political perspective or ideology. It reflects, instead, a truly Catholic consensus that the death penalty is an unacceptable devaluation of the dignity of human life. Any time we can all come together for the good of the mission of the Church is both important and to be celebrated.


Lopez: How realistic is the end goal?

Crowe: If the end goal is to help catechize Catholics and make them more informed on the issue and the teachings of our Holy Fathers and bishops, then it’s very realistic indeed. The end goal of the abolishment of the death penalty is another thing altogether, but with the upcoming Supreme Court arguments and the decision in Glossip v. Gross at the end of April, there is a real chance that we could at least see a moratorium while study continues. With the three high-profile botched executions in 2014 in Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma, public opinion certainly, I believe, is trending more in support of at least such a moratorium. What our justices decide, particularly the swing vote of Justice Kennedy, remains to be seen.


Lopez: What more can Catholics do?

Crowe: I think there are three action steps for Catholics. The first is to grow in awareness about the issue and about the teachings of Church leaders, particularly in this country. Reading Evangelium Vitae, the many statements on capital punishment by the American bishops and even Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium — which, while not on the death penalty specifically, still offers much wisdom and guidance when it comes to the common good and social concerns — are a good place to start. The second would be to make our voices heard. In this day and age there are so many ways to speak up and speak out. If Catholics feel strongly about this issue, or any others, they should feel confident to say it, particularly to their legislators. Much of this comes back to education and awareness. Finally, we never must forget to pray — for our country, for those on death row, for their victims, for peace in society, and for the wisdom to be able to discern and follow God’s will on this issue and others.


Lopez: Did you consider going ecumenical with it?

Crowe: I cannot speak definitively on this as I wasn’t the coordinator but simply one of the participants. My inclination would be that it was enough of an effort to get these four publications and their editorial boards to work together on this issue without expanding it further. Of course, in the editorial we call on the “U.S. Catholic community and all people of faith” to join us in speaking out on this issue. So that certainly leaves the door open for ecumenical support and participation.


Lopez: What more should we be doing — as Catholics, as people of faith, as people concerned with the common good — to support prison-reform efforts?

Crowe: Certainly on this point there is much to be done. Again, the biggest thing that Catholics can do is become educated, be vocal, be active, and work for change and improvements within the system. It’s important to look within our own communities to see where we can effect change. In Matthew 25, Jesus is clear about our mission and how we will be judged. Caring for the imprisoned is an important yet often overlooked corporal work of mercy. Our Sunday Visitor tries to be a regular contributor to this conversation. One piece that has stayed with me is from early 2014, about a deacon in Florida who ministered to men who had been involved in abortion. For those prisoners, this ministry offered a powerful opportunity for reconciliation and conversion. It would be great to see more programs like this.


Lopez: Why do this on the death penalty and not abortion? Do you see opportunities arising?

Crowe: For this particular editorial, one of the factors was timing. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments at the end of April in the Glossip v. Gross case, about the botched execution in Oklahoma. We wanted to insert our voices into the national debate ahead of those arguments. A judgment on this case, which of course involves the lethal-injection drug protocol, will likely be rendered in June.

I believe that where we can come together and show unity, we should. This is nothing but a hopeful first step toward further possible collaboration among our publications, and hopefully it will help unite Catholics as well.


Lopez: Are there other issues Catholic publications should be getting together on?

Crowe: Certainly this type of collaboration opens the door for future potential opportunities to speak with one voice, which I think is beneficial for the Church, especially as it faces so many attacks from without. Realistically speaking, we will have to see what the future brings.


Lopez: What is it about Catholic social teaching that you try to educate your readers about weekly? Is that part of your mission?

Crowe: The mission of Our Sunday Visitor is simply to serve the Church. It’s been that way for 103 years, since its founding by Father — and eventually Archbishop — John Francis Noll. In attempting to serve the Church, we make it our goal of every issue, and indeed every product that is put out by the company as a whole, to explain what the Church teaches and why.

Catholic social teaching certainly is an element of those efforts. We run many articles on the subject from various perspectives, but one that jumps to mind is an In Focus spread that we put together in 2014 called “What Exactly Is Catholic Social Teaching?” It looks at the Church’s teaching and its seven key themes — the life and dignity of the human person; the call to family, communion, and participation; rights and responsibilities; the option for the poor and vulnerable; the dignity of work and the rights of workers; solidarity; and care for God’s creation — in light of the full view of the human person and his or her social relationships. It’s a much more integrated way of looking at Catholic social teaching than what you’ll find if the issues are looked at through a political lens only.


Lopez: Who is your audience weekly? What are your goals weekly? What are some of your favorite recent features?

Crowe: Our Sunday Visitor’s president and publisher, Greg Erlandson, often quotes the esteemed Russell Shaw, saying that a good goal for the Catholic press is to be honest, intelligent, and loyal. OSV Newsweekly strives to fall squarely within those bounds. Certainly we want to be a place where the issues of the day are discussed and analyzed, and to make sure we offer a range of intellectual voices in doing so, but we never forget that element of loyalty — of being of service to the Church.

Our regular readership tends to be conservative U.S. Catholics, but we offer materials that are interesting and edifying to a wide audience — but again, always keeping in mind our mission.

Regarding articles, it’s hard to pick a favorite, but all are available on our website, OSV.com. Pope Francis continues to be a hot topic of interest and conversation, and with the two-year anniversary of his election coming up on March 13, I invited Austen Ivereigh, whose papal biography The Great Reformer has made a big splash, to write extensively on the Holy Father and his pontificate to date. It’s called “Understanding Francis,” and it’s been very popular so far.

Lopez: Who is the joint audience for this rally cry about the death penalty?

Crowe: All Catholics, all people of faith, and all people of good will who believe, as the Church is leading us, that the death penalty should be unnecessary in contemporary American society.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.


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