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Mercy, Justice, and the Gospel of Life: US bishops on ending the death penalty

Washington D.C., Jul 20, 2015 / 12:25 pm (CNA/EWTN News) - Two leading U.S. bishops have renewed the call to choose life over the death penalty because, they say, heinous criminals deserve both justice and mercy – their lives too are from God.

“As Christians, we are called to oppose the culture of death by witnessing to something greater and more perfect: a gospel of life, hope, and mercy. To help build a culture of life, capital punishment should be abolished,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami said in a message on behalf of two major U.S. bishops’ committees.

They cited one of Christ’s Beatitudes: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

Cardinal O’Malley signed the July 16 message in his role as chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, while Archbishop Wenski signed as chair of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

“We are all sinners, but through the Father’s loving mercy and Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice upon the Cross, we have been offered the gift of life everlasting,” the bishops said. “The Lord never ceases his loving pursuit of us in our sin and brokenness, offering us the choice of life over death.”

“The use of the death penalty cuts short any prospect for transforming the condemned person’s soul in this life. Catholic opposition to the death penalty, then, is rooted in mercy. It is also eminently pro-life, as it affords every opportunity for conversion, even of the hardened sinner,” they continued.

The two bishops’ message comes 10 years after the U.S. bishops began a campaign against the death penalty. In 2005, the U.S. bishops issued the anti-death penalty statement, “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death.”

Since 2005, at least seven states have ended the use of the death penalty, Archbishop Wenski and Cardinal O’Malley noted. Other states have placed moratoria on executions. The number of death sentences is at an all-time low since 1976.

The two bishops invoked Pope Francis’ March 20 words to a delegation from the International Commission against the Death Penalty, which declared capital punishment “inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.”

“It is an offense against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, one which contradicts God’s plan for man and society and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective,” the Pope said. “It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”

Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Wenski called on everyone of goodwill to “advocate for better public policies to protect society and end the use of the death penalty.”

The bishops urged prayers for crime victims, for those facing execution and for those working in the criminal justice system. They encouraged outreach and “bringing Christ’s love and compassion” to the families of those affected by violent crime.

In addition, they encouraged people to learn about the Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty and to educate others.

They said that Church teaching on the death penalty is not indifference to “the sinfulness of crime and attacks on human life.” Rather, it is “an affirmation of the sacredness of all life even for those who have committed the most heinous of crimes.”

They noted that violent crime has affected bishops like Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas. The archbishop’s own father was murdered. However, Archbishop Naumann has said that the refusal of the death penalty is not because we reject “the horror of the crime,” but because “we refuse to imitate violent criminals.”

Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Wenski urged solidarity and support for crime victims and their families and to help them in their deep pain and loss. They also asked everyone to remember criminals.

“We also acknowledge the inherent human dignity of those who have committed grave harm, affirming that, even as they repay a debt to society, they too should receive compassion and mercy,” the bishops added. “As we seek to tend to the eternal needs of those who commit serious crimes we must build up a culture of life in matters of justice and punishment.”

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