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Cardinal Cupich says death penalty makes right to life 'conditional'

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
August 3, 2018

Cardinal Cupich says death penalty makes right to life 'conditional'

On the same day that Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to say the death penalty is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” Cardinal Cupich spoke about how Catholic teaching on the death penalty developed. Putting people to death — even criminals who are certainly guilty of terrible acts — makes it seem that the God-given right to life is conditional.
Ronald J. Tabak listens to Cardinal Cupich discuss the development of Catholic teaching on the death penalty at an Aug. 2, 2018, panel discussion on the issue at the American Bar Association's annual conference in Chicago. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Cardinal Cupich, second from left, joined a panel of speakers to discuss the development of church's teaching on the death penalty Aug. 2 at the 2018 American Bar Association's annual conference in Chicago. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Meredith Martin Rountree was among the panelists for an Aug. 2, 2018, discussion of the evovling thinking on the death penalty at the American Bar Association's annual conference in Chicago. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Ronald J. Tabak listens to Cardinal Cupich discuss the development of Catholic teaching on the death penalty at an Aug. 2, 2018, panel discussion on the issue at the American Bar Association's annual conference in Chicago. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Marty Schukert listens to an Aug. 2, 2018, panel discussion on the evolving thinking on the death penalty hosted by the American Bar Association Section on Civil Rights and Social Justice. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
ardinal Cupich listens at a panel disciussion on the death penalty hosted by the American Bar Association Section on Civil Rights and Social Justice Aug. 2, 2018, in Chicago. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, listens to Cardinal Cupich talk about the development of Catholic teaching on the death penalty at an Aug. 2, 2018, panel discussion hosted by the American Bar Association Section on Civil Rights and Social Justice. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Cardinal Cupich listens to Ronald J. Tabak listens at an Aug. 2, 2018, panel discussion on the death penalty at the American Bar Association's annual conference in Chicago. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

On the same day that Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to say the death penalty is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” Cardinal Cupich spoke about how Catholic teaching on the death penalty developed. Putting people to death — even criminals who are certainly guilty of terrible acts — makes it seem that the God-given right to life is conditional.

The cardinal spoke as part of an Aug. 2 panel discussion, “Has the Death Penalty Become an Anachronism? A Discussion of Changing Laws, Practices and Religion on Our Standard of Decency,” hosted by the American Bar Association’s Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.
He was invited in part to reflect on an October 2017 talk by Pope Francis, in which he spoke about how Catholic tradition develops. In that address, the pope used Catholic teaching on the death penalty as an example.

While the Catechism, until Aug. 2, allowed for the possibility that there might be a time when the death penalty was necessary to protect society, Pope St. John Paul II said that such circumstances were so rare as to be “virtually nonexistent.”

That teaching was continued under Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis has consistently advocated for the abolition of the death penalty, Cardinal Cupich noted.

He was joined on the panel by Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center; Meredith Martin Rountree, senior lecturer at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law; and Karen Gottlieb, co-director of the Florida Center for Capital Representation at Florida International University. The panel was moderated by Robert J. Tabak, chair of the death penalty committee of the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice.

The other speakers discussed the development of law with regard to the circumstances under which the death penalty can be applied constitutionally, if at all, and the many ways it has been applied unfairly and arbitrarily.

Dunham said the biggest indicators as to whether someone will be sentenced to death have little do with how horrific the crime was, or how morally culpable the person is judged to be. Receiving the death penalty has more to do with the county in which the crime was committed, the political views of the prosecutor, whether the accused receives a competent and committed defense, and race — both the race of the accused and the race of the victim.

Rountree pointed out that since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, dozens of people have been executed under laws that were later found to be unconstitutional, including those who were under 18 when they committed their crimes, those who were intellectually disabled, and those who were sentenced under rules that did not allow mitigating factors to be introduced.

Advocates now argue that people with serious mental illness and those who are under 21 when they commit crimes should not be eligible for the death penalty, she said.

Gottlieb spoke of the arbitrariness with which the death penalty has been imposed. In Florida, she said, the system originally called for the jury to make a non-binding recommendation to the judge about whether a defendant should be put to death. At least two people were executed after a judge overruled a unanimous recommendation from the jury that the defendant be sentenced to life in prison.

Florida has declined to rehear the cases of 160 prisoners on death row sentenced under the old rules because they were sentenced before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in an Arizona case that defendants have the right to have a capital sentence determined by a jury.

Popular support for the death penalty, the number of death sentences imposed and the number of executions carried out have all decreased since the 1990s, Dunham said, but the racial disparity in death penalty cases has actually increased.

Cardinal Cupich said that it wouldn’t matter if the death penalty were applied perfectly; it would still be wrong. It goes against the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which holds that it is the task of all Christians to “build a more human world.”

“God’s work, which we must make our own, is about bringing people together toward a more profound level of human intercommunion and shared life,” Cardinal Cupich said. “So we have to do all we can to make sure that no one is excluded, and we are especially to be attentive to those who live at the margins of society, the poor, the vulnerable, the weak, those whose lives are at risk, including those on death row, because God’s plan is to bring people together and leave no one behind.”

At the same time, Catholics and others who consider themselves pro-life cannot argue that all human beings have dignity because they are created in the image and likeness of God, but deny that dignity to any group, even criminals.

“We are left confronting the unavoidable moral question posed by capital punishment: Is the right to life conditional, or is it unconditional?” Cardinal Cupich said. “Can men and women forfeit their right to life by their behavior, or is that right irrevocably given by God? Can society — that is, we, the people — determine that the crimes committed by human beings supersede their intrinsic claim to life?”

He acknowledged that the announcement of Pope Francis’ revision of the catechism will not win universal support, even among Catholics.

“At a profound human level, we tend to believe that by executing a murderer, we are somehow helping rebalance the scales of justice,” he said. “But that thinking is flawed, for the real tragedy of murder is that there is no way to rebalance the scales of justice, no way to bring life back to those who have been killed or to restore them to their grieving families.”

Topics:

  • cardinal blase j cupich
  • capital punishment
  • death penalty

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