Friday, July 4, 2008

Catholics gather in prayer against the death penalty

ORLANDO Over the prayerful protests of Florida’s bishops and many Catholics in their flocks, Gov. Charlie Crist declined to halt the July 1 execution of Mark Dean Schwab — the first use of the state’s death penalty in more than a year and a half.

Schwab, who was on death row for the April 18, 1991, rape and murder of 11–year–old Junny Rios–Martinez of Cocoa, died by lethal injection at 6:15 p.m. in the state’s death chamber in Starke, about 40 miles southwest of Jacksonville and near the Florida State Prison in Raiford. He was 39.

In a June 25 letter, Florida’s nine bishops called on the governor to “set a new standard of respect for life” by stopping the execution. They said they were praying for the victim, and knew they are unable to fully grasp the pain experienced by his family. They lamented, though, that taking the life of another who has killed perpetuates violence as a solution.

Jackie and Shawn Cosgrove join dozens who prayed and lit candles at the time of the execution at St. Paul Parish in Tampa in the St. Petersburg Diocese.
Prayer vigils scheduled to coincide with the execution took place in parishes in the dioceses of Palm Beach, St. Petersburg and Venice. A 44–passenger busload of people from two Orlando Diocese parishes took a 90–mile ride to pray outside the building that houses the death chamber. Their prayers — according to interviews at the various vigil sites — were for an end to use of the death penalty, for the young murder victim and his family and friends, for the condemned man and his family and friends, for the governor, for those participating in the execution and for all the people of Florida.

“This execution and other executions are being done in our name. We need to take a stand and say ‘not in my name,’” said Barbara Richardson, a member of St. Ann Parish in West Palm Beach, who was among those praying the evening of July 1 with Palm Beach Bishop Gerald M. Barbarito outside the Cathedral of St. Ignatius Loyola in Palm Beach Gardens. “What the state is doing is wrong. There are other ways to protect society.”

The only sounds heard on the cathedral grounds were the slow continuous beats of a drum and cars passing by on busy Military Trail as the crowd of about 50 processed with rosaries in hand carrying a large black and white sign with the words “State–sponsored Killing is Wrong.”

In the Diocese of Venice, 15 people attended an execution–time prayer service at St. Thomas More Parish in Sarasota and, outside St. Joseph Parish in Bradenton about 20 people held up signs denouncing the execution and Gov. Crist.

“It is not the right of the state to take a life,” St. Joseph parishioner Esther Ricker said. “We need to convince people that this just isn’t right.”

Esther Ricker expresses her beliefs on the sign she carries while participating in a Deathwatch Vigil at St. Joseph Parish in Bradenton July 1. “We need to convince people that this just isn’t right.”
The busload of parishioners and others from Our Lady of Lourdes in Daytona Beach and Our Lady of Grace in Palm Bay brought what may have been the sole touch of anti–death–penalty sentiment to the crowd outside the death chamber building. According to news reports, they prayed aloud briefly, then stood in silence, keeping their distance from relatives of the murder victim, who cheered when they heard Schwab had died.

“We do not go to judge or condemn but to show compassion, support and mercy,” Nancy Sturm, Our Lady of Lourdes director of faith formation, said early that afternoon in Daytona Beach, as she and the others waited to board the bus. “There’s so much pain the world, prayer is powerful. The family of the young boy are in our hearts, we are there for them, it’s for healing.”

The two Orlando Diocese parishes have made it a custom to travel to Starke for executions. In the past, the bus trip has originated at Our Lady of Grace in Palm Bay, 95 miles south of Daytona Beach, and picked up Our Lady of Lourdes passengers on the way. This time, fuel prices prompted the Our Lady of Grace representatives to meet up with the bus by car.

Many on the bus, including Sturm, were veterans of the Starke trips. But longtime, active Our Lady of Lourdes parishioners Vivian and Gary Bowden were making the trek for the first time and admitted to being unsure of where they stood on the death penalty.

“We are on a journey between two places and feel the Lord has been speaking to us and wants us to experience this, to be there learning,” Bowden said.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, assuming guilt is indisputable, 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.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has held for more than 25 years that such instances are rare to nonexistent in the nation, and in 2005 launched a campaign to end use of the death penalty “not only for what it does to those who are executed, but what it does to us as a society. We cannot teach respect for life by taking life.”

A series of polls over the years shows Catholics in general are coming around to their bishops’ point of view. Though a November 2004 Zogby International poll on the subject showed slightly more Catholics supported the death penalty than opposed it — 48 percent to 47 percent — the support was down from a previous high of 68 percent.

The last person to be executed in Florida was Angel Diaz in December 2006. Mistakes made during his execution resulted in a moratorium on executions in Florida until the state’s lethal injection procedures were reviewed. Following that review, Schwab was scheduled to die last November, but received a stay while the U.S. Supreme Court considered a Kentucky case challenging the constitutionality of lethal injection. The high courts ruling in April that lethal injections similar to Florida’s were not cruel and unusual punishment cleared the way for Schwab’s execution to be rescheduled.

ENDNOTE: Linda Reeves, Jennifer Surgent, Bob Reddy and Janet Shelton contributed to this story.


dudleysharp said...

Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, 10/7/2000, from no. 2 at

"At no point, however, does Jesus deny that the State has authority to exact capital punishment."

"In his debates with the Pharisees, Jesus cites with approval the apparently harsh commandment, He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die (Mt 15:4; Mk 7:10, referring to Ex 21:17; cf. Lev 20:9). "

"When Pilate calls attention to his authority to crucify him, Jesus points out that Pilate's power comes to him from above-that is to say, from God (Jn 19:1 l).Jesus commends the good thief on the cross next to him, who has admitted that he and his fellow thief are receiving the due reward of their deeds (Lk 23:41). "

"Paul repeatedly refers to the connection between sin and death. He writes to the Romans with an apparent reference to the death penalty, that the magistrate who holds authority does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer (Rom 13:4). No passage in the New Testament disapproves of the death penalty."

"Turning to Christian tradition, we may note that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are virtually unanimous in their support for capital punishment, even though some of them such as St. Ambrose exhort members of the clergy not to pronounce capital sentences or serve as executioners."

"The Roman Catechism, issued in 1566, three years after the end of the Council of Trent, taught that the power of life and death had been entrusted by God to civil authorities and that the use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to the fifth commandment. "

"Summarizing the verdict of Scripture and tradition, we can glean some settled points of doctrine. It is agreed that crime deserves punishment in this life and not only in the next. In addition, it is agreed that the State has authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death."

"The Catholic magisterium does not, and never has, advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty. I know of no official statement from popes or bishops, whether in the past or in the present, that denies the right of the State to execute offenders at least in certain extreme cases. The United States bishops, in their majority statement on capital punishment, conceded that Catholic teaching has accepted the principle that the state has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely serious crime. Cardinal Bernardin, in his famous speech on the Consistent Ethic of Life here at Fordham in 1983, stated his concurrence with the classical position that the State has the right to inflict capital punishment."

"Pope John Paul II spoke for the whole Catholic tradition when he proclaimed, in Evangelium Vitae, that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral (EV 57). But he wisely included in that statement the word innocent. He has never said that every criminal has a right to live nor has he denied that the State has the right in some cases to execute the guilty. "

This recent, clear review by
Andrew Tallman

"If Jesus elsewhere opposes capital punishment, then He is not only contradicting the Father but even His own words. "

"Typically, (the anti death penalty) view is that the harsh and mean God the Father of the Old Testament established execution, but the loving and kind God the Son of the New Testament abolished it."

"I’m pretty sure such people don’t realize they’re denying the Trinity when they say this."

"The doctrine of the Trinity affirms the eternal unity of all three persons of the Godhead, but such a fundamental disagreement between the Son and the Father would rupture this unity. In fact, if Jesus had contradicted any of the Father’s principles, let alone such a well-established one, that very disagreement would have immediately disproved His claims to be the divine Son."

"This was exactly the heresy the Pharisees were hoping to trap Him into when they brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus. Even His enemies knew that He absolutely had to affirm capital punishment in order to prove Himself not a false prophet. "

"How truly strange, then, that those who claim to love Him assert that He did exactly what His enemies failed to trick Him into doing! Far from opposing capital punishment, Jesus actually advocated it, as His unity with the Father required."

"Matthew 5:17-18“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished.”

"Just a few verses later, He extends the prohibition against murder to hatred and condemns haters to “the hell of fire” in verse 22, which is very strange talk for someone who opposes capital punishment. It’s very hard to dismiss these verses because they occur smack in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, which is so often mistakenly offered as the repudiation of Old Testament justice."

"Later, Jesus scolds the Pharisees and scribes for teaching leniency toward rebellious children by quoting the Old Testament, “For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.’” (Matthew 15:4)"

"Subsequently, when the Romans come to arrest Jesus, Peter rather ineptly tries to defend Him by killing Malchus, but only succeeds in slicing off his ear. Jesus rebukes him with the warning, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Far from advocating pacifism, as this passage is often misused to do, Jesus here teaches Peter that using the sword (for murder) will only get the sword used against him (for execution)."

"Shortly thereafter, Jesus tells Pilate in John 19:11, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above…” This authority to put Jesus to death would be odd if it didn’t entail the general power to execute criminals."

"Finally, when He is dying of crucifixion, Jesus accepts the repentance of the thief on the cross, who says to his reviling companion, “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds….” (Luke 23:40-41)"

"Had Jesus disagreed with this statement, responding to it with the promise of eternal salvation was a rather obtuse way to express the correction."

"Beyond all this evidence that Jesus affirms the consistent Biblical principle of capital punishment, there is yet one more vital concept to grasp. Christians believe that Christ died on the cross to pay for the sins of us all."

"Although His sinlessness merited eternal life, He endured the death we deserved to extend that gift to us. As Prof. Michael Pakaluk so perfectly expressed the point, “If no crime deserves the death penalty, then it is hard to see why it was fitting that Christ be put to death for our sins….” If we didn’t deserve the death penalty ourselves, then why would Christ need to suffer it on our behalf in order to satisfy the justice of God? Denying the death penalty directly assaults the justice of the Father, Who required His own Son to pay precisely that price in our stead."

"What about the rest of the New Testament?"

"Since both Jesus’s teaching and His death affirm the capital punishment, it should come as no surprise that the rest of the New Testament reinforces this view."

"When confronting Governor Festus, Paul says in Acts 25:11, “If I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of these things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. He both affirms capital statutes and accepts them as binding on him if he has broken one."

"Later, in the New Testament’s most famous passage on the nature of government, Paul explains, “But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for [the government] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.” (Romans 13:4)"

"Finally, the same Bible which begins in Genesis 9:6 with the establishment of capital punishment, then carries the theme consistently throughout the text, and ends by reiterating it in Revelation 13:10, “If any one is destined for captivity, to captivity he goes; if any one kills with the sword, with the sword he must be killed. Here is the perseverance and the faith of the saints.”

"Literally from beginning to end, the Bible teaches that capital punishment is authorized and required by God."

dudleysharp said...

70% of Catholics supported the death penalty as of May, 2oo5, according to the Gallup Poll on Moral Values and Beliefs. The May 2-5, 2005, Gallup Poll also found that 74% of Americans favor the death penalty for murderers murder, while 23% oppose.