Bishops urge governor to sign law to abolish death penalty in Illinois

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011

Nearly two weeks after the Illinois legislature voted to abolish the death penalty in Illinois, Catholic leaders were urging Gov. Pat Quinn to sign the bill into law.

Gov. Quinn, a Democrat from Chicago, had not indicated whether he would sign the bill. It was passed 60-54 by the Illinois House Jan. 6 and 32-25 by the Illinois Senate Jan. 11.

In a statement released Jan. 13 by the Catholic Conference of Illinois, the bishops of the six Illinois dioceses wrote: “This important legislation advances the development of a culture of life in our state, a state that remains a haven for those who kill unborn children.”

Life issue

Nicholas Lund-Molfese, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Peace and Justice, also noted that the death penalty, like abortion, is a life issue.

“The deepest reason to support the abolition of the death penalty is our respect and reverence for the human person and human life,” Lund-Molfese said. “Human persons are created by God with an inherent dignity that no human action can erase.”

That means that even murderers retain their God-given human dignity, he said.

“The dignity of a person, because it comes from God, remains,” he said. “No human can overturn an act of God. Society has a legitimate need and interest in protecting people from those who would harm them. In our time the state has means at its disposal to accomplish that without recourse to the death penalty.

“Catholic teaching in this area, like all of Catholic social teaching, takes into account the application of moral principles to the contemporary context. In our contemporary society what’s most lacking is not protecting persons from criminals but protecting human life.”

“Our priority is to build a culture of life where killing is not seen as the solution to problems,” he said. “Of course, anyone who respects human life will be concerned for the millions of unborn killed every year.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

“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 are 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 non-existent’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 2267).

Moratorium in effect

The governor, a Catholic, said while campaigning that he personally supports the death penalty, but that he would honor the moratorium on executions put into place by then-Gov. George Ryan in 2000.

Ryan, now serving a federal prison sentence for corruption, stopped executions and emptied Illinois’ Death Row because too many people who had been convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to die were later found to be innocent.

While no executions have taken place in the state since 2000, 15 people have been sentenced to death.

The votes to overturn the death penalty came in a very active lame-duck session in which the legislature also approved civil unions and increased the state income tax rate by 66 percent.

Illinois is one of 35 states that have the death penalty as an option for certain crimes.