Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Faithful show courage in face of criticism with execution protests


Published: 07.15.08

Whenever we at the Florida Catholic write about the church’s opposition to use of death penalty and the related activism of many of the faithful – as we did in our print editions and on our Web site before and after the July 1 execution of Mark Dean Schwab – we hear from readers who dissent. (Read the article here.)

Some of comments are anonymous and unkind, menacingly scrawled over newspaper clippings in all capital letters with lots of underlining and exclamation points. Many, though, are polite notes or telephone calls from devout and active Catholic parishioners who seem deeply troubled the teaching of their church on a subject as dire and dear as the taking of human life is at odds with what they feel.

They stand, and in many cases literally march, with the church on other issues involving the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death – abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research. But they are firm in the notion that, by taking a human life, a murderer forfeits his God-given right to live until natural death. They construe the state’s violent collection of that debt as an act of compassion for the family and friends of the murder victim. Such perceptions are especially strong when a crime is as heartrending as that for which Schwab was convicted – kidnapping, raping and killing an 11-year-old child whose picture he had seen in a newspaper.

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.” But 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.”

Receiving reader comments contrary to that teaching is never surprising. A November 2004 Zogby International poll cited by the U.S. bishops when they launched their campaign showed that slightly more Catholics supported capital punishment than opposed it – 48 percent to 47 percent. Behind those numbers, though, was promising news: the support was down from a previous high of 68 percent; about a third of Catholics who once supported use of the death penalty no longer did; and younger Catholics and those who attended Mass often were increasingly less likely to support the death penalty.

Those figures are now almost four years old. And perhaps the strong showing of the Catholic faithful for vigils and prayerful protests around Florida at the time of Schwab’s execution – the state’s first use of the death penalty in a year and a half – was a sign that the change of hearts is continuing. Catholic groups and individuals prayed, lit candles and carried banners at parishes in the dioceses of Venice, Palm Beach and St. Petersburg, some alongside busy highways. They gathered outside the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee. A 44-passenger bus, packed to capacity, carried prayerful protesters from two parishes in the Diocese of Orlando to the grounds of the state’s death chamber 90 miles away in Starke.

The protesters were echoing the words of Florida’s bishops, expressed in a letter to Gov. Charlie Crist dated a week earlier. The 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 were 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. They also pointed to economic and racial biases in the way Florida’s death penalty has been applied.

The faithful across Florida who turned out July 1 on the occasion of Schwab’s execution to draw attention to capital punishment as both a respect life issue and a social justice issue demonstrated courage in the face of potential criticism, even from some of the people with whom they share the pews on Sunday. If they remain steadfast in that prayerful courage as the scheduled executions mount – the legal wranglings that caused the 18-month lull are over, 387 men and women are on Florida’s death row, and Gov. Crist signed another death warrant July 9 – perhaps others will see their light, the trend away from public support for state-sponsored killing will continue and the practice will end.



dudleysharp said...

Catholic References: Support for the Death Penalty
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below
Religious positions in favor of capital punishment are neither necessary not needed to justify that sanction. However, the biblical and theological record is very supportive of the death penalty.
Many of the current religious campaigns against the death penalty reflect a fairly standard anti death penalty message, routed in secular arguments. When they do address  religious issues, they often neglect solid theological foundations, choosing, instead, select biblical sound bites which do not impact the solid basis of death penalty support.

The strength of the biblical, theological and traditional support for the death penalty is, partially, revealed, below.
Some references:
(1)"The Death Penalty", Chapter XXVI, 187. The death penalty, from the book Iota Unum, by Romano Amerio, 
Thoughtful deconstruction of current Roman Catholic teaching on capital punishment by a faithful Catholic Vatican insider and expert theologian
titled "Amerio on capital punishment "Friday, May 25, 2007 
 (2)  "Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty", at

 (3)  "Capital Punishment: A Catholic Perspective", by Emmanuel Valenza (Br. Augustine) at
(4) "The Purpose of Punishment (in the Catholic tradition)", by R. Michael Dunningan, J.D., J.C.L., CHRISTIFIDELIS, Vol.21,No.4, sept 14, 200


(7) "God’s Justice and Ours" by Antonin Scalia, First Things, 5/2002

(8)  "A Seamless Garment In a Sinful World" by John R. Connery, S. J., America, 7/14/84, p 5-8).

(9) "The Death Penalty", by Solange Strong Hertz at

(10) "Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says", Dr. Lloyd R. Bailey, Abingdon Press, 1987. The definitive biblical review of the death penalty.

copyright 1999-2008 Dudley Sharp

Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail,  713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas
Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS , VOA and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.

dudleysharp said...

The Catholic Bishops avoid that 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.