Catholic governors inconsistent on role of death penalty

A death chamber table is seen at the state penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, in this file photo from 2010. (OSV News Photo courtesy of Jenevieve Robbins, Texas Department of Criminal Justice handout via Reuters)

By Kate Scanlon

WASHINGTON — Some Catholic governors are embracing the use of capital punishment as part of their political platforms despite the Catholic Church’s opposition to the practice. Another Catholic governor in a southern state recently called for an end to the practice.

However, despite the support for the practice from some Republican governors, a growing number of Republican state lawmakers are backing efforts to repeal the death penalty, marking a notable shift in conservatives’ views on the matter.

On April 20, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation, SB 450, that will eliminate the state’s requirement that juries in capital punishment cases agree unanimously to recommend death sentences, lowering the number of jurors needed to hand down a death sentence to eight from 12, the lowest threshold of any U.S. state. Florida’s Catholic bishops criticized the legislation, which is an outlier among states where the death penalty remains legal. Of the 27 states that permit capital punishment, three do not require a unanimous jury to impose it. Alabama allows a 10-2 decision, while Missouri and Indiana allow a judge to decide when there is a divided jury, according to the National Center for State Courts.

DeSantis, who is seen as a likely contender for the 2024 Republican presidential primary but has not declared his candidacy, is Catholic.

Texas has a long history of capital punishment, having carried out more executions than any other U.S. state to date, executing 583 people since 1982, according to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. A 1998 report by the Department of Justice found that Texas “executes more people than any other jurisdiction in the Western world.”

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is Catholic, has called capital punishment “Texas justice.” Abbott oversaw five executions in 2022, tying his state with Oklahoma for most executions in the country last year.

Former Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican and a Catholic who is now a U.S. senator for the Cornhusker State, helped finance a referendum in 2016 to preserve the death penalty after his state’s unicameral Republican Legislature voted to repeal it the previous year.

Meanwhile, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who is Catholic, called for an end to the death penalty in Louisiana during his final State of the State address April 10, arguing doing so would reflect Louisiana’s identity as a “pro-life state.”

Despite a push from some Republican governors in defense of the practice, Demetrius Minor, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said that support for the death penalty is not conservative.

“It’s natural to have an emotional response to tragedies that occur. But policy cannot be rooted in emotion,” Minor said. “Here are the facts about the death penalty: It’s a wasteful and expensive government program. It has an unacceptable probability of executing innocent people. It is failed policy for victims’ families. It is also arbitrarily and unfairly administered by the government.”

Minor said Texas and Florida should follow the example of “Republican states such as Ohio, where there is legislation in the Ohio General Assembly, with the GOP controlling both the House and Senate chambers, to repeal the death penalty.”

In the previous two years, 11 states had GOP-sponsored bills to end the death penalty, Minor said.

“Republicans are also helping lead death penalty repeal campaigns in Kentucky, Kansas and Missouri,” he added.

Minor argued there “is a shift happening with GOP voters, where more are starting to become opposed or skeptical of the death penalty, given the government’s inability to be effective in most cases.”

“This skepticism is only going to continue to grow,” he said.

Several decades of surveys conducted by Gallup have shown that more Americans say they favor the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. A Nov. 14 Gallup survey found support for the death penalty was at 55% last year, a significant decline from 1994, when the survey recorded its all-time high of 80%.

Justin McCarthy, a spokesperson for Gallup, said that “with a few exceptions in the 1950s and ’60s, majorities of Americans have consistently supported use of the death penalty throughout Gallup’s measures over nearly 90 years.”

“In recent decades, smaller majorities have supported capital punishment compared to the peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s — but still, most Americans support it,” McCarthy said. “Today, 55% are in favor of the death penalty in the U.S.”

In his 2020 encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis cited the writings of St. John Paul II, arguing that his predecessor “stated clearly and firmly that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice.”

“There can be no stepping back from this position,” Pope Francis wrote. “Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.”

In 2018, Pope Francis revised paragraph No. 2267 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church to reflect that position.

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, said that “for years, capital punishment was considered a partisan issue, but over time, that’s become less and less true.”

“Today, much of the progress being made to abolish the death penalty is being spearheaded by Republican politicians,” Vaillancourt Murphy said. “More than ever before, Republicans and Democrats are collaborating on bipartisan repeal efforts, often finding far more success by working together than they ever could have by working separately. Increasingly, the death penalty is becoming a rare area of common ground in our modern political landscape, where people are seeing eye to eye, rather than finding themselves at odds.”

Vaillancourt Murphy said opposition to the death penalty is a consistent pro-life view, and it is not surprising more Republican lawmakers and voters are embracing that view, despite the actions of some Republican governors.

“It’s not hard to see why this is,” she said. “Republicans — especially Catholic Republicans — who profess pro-life values, fiscal conservatism and a dislike for government overreach have ample reasons to oppose the death penalty. Likewise, Democrats who focus on racial equity, fairness, fighting against inequality and health and safety recognize that capital punishment does not advance any of these goals.”

Noting the church’s teaching that capital punishment is inadmissible in all cases because it violates the sanctity of life, Vaillancourt Murphy argued “the evidence is clear that capital punishment is an error-prone and expensive government program. Ending the death penalty is a growing area of agreement in a very divided time.”

Despite growing bipartisan opposition to the practice, Vaillancourt Murphy said, “when an election season rolls around, we sometimes start to see politicians promote pro-execution rhetoric and legislation.”

“Recently, a handful of Catholic Republican leaders deviated from their party’s increasingly anti-death penalty position, and their church’s unconditionally pro-life position, in order to ramp up executions in their states for political gain,” she said. “These leaders might believe what they’re signaling is a ‘tough on crime’ public image, but what they’re actually signaling is a willingness to compromise on deeply held Catholic principles and so-called Republican values.”

“By pursuing executions, and quite literally putting human lives on the line, these politicians are treating people on death row as pawns. Nothing could be further from ‘pro-life,’ ” Vaillancourt Murphy said. “Though the politics of capital punishment might shift from one election cycle to the next, Catholic teaching on the issue does not. In his 2020 encyclical, Pope Francis wrote about the concreteness of the church’s anti-death penalty stance, saying “there can be no stepping back from this position.’”

Vaillancourt Murphy called for prayer “for their hearts to soften to embrace the fullness of the Church’s pro-life ethic, and we must advocate on behalf of the lives of people on death row, which rest in these leaders’ hands.”

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