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New Mexico Catholic Conference Opposes Death Penalty & Calls for Prison Reform

Toward A More Humane Correction System
A Call to Prison Reform in New Mexico

Opposes Death Penalty

On Thursday, September 7, 1995, the New Mexico Catholic Conference met in Albuquerque to discuss issues relating to Catholic moral teaching and public policy. During this session the three bishops of New Mexico - Most Rev. Michael Sheehan, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe; Most Rev. Ricardo Ramirez, CSB, Bishop of the Diocese of Las Cruces; and Most Rev. Donald E. Pelotte, SSS, Bishop of the Diocese of Gallup - reviewed the Catholic Church's past and present teaching on capital punishment. This was prompted by a request from a local Albuquerque attorney for the church's official position relating to the death penalty. Following is a brief summation of the church's teaching regarding the death penalty which is endorsed by the three Catholic bishops of the state of New Mexico.

In their September, 1991, "Political Responsibility: Revitalizing American Democracy" statement, the U.S. bishops wrote:

In view of our commitment to the value and dignity of human life, we oppose the use of capital punishment. We believe that a return to the use of the death penalty is leading to, indeed can only lead to, further erosion of respect for life in our society. We do not question society's right to punish the offender, but we believe that there are better approaches to protecting our people from violent crimes than resorting,to executions. In its application, the death penalty has been discriminatory toward the poor, the indigent, and racial minorities. Our society should reject the death penalty and seek methods of dealing with violent crime which are more consistent with the Gospel vision of respect for life and Christ's message of healing love. (Community in Crime, 1978; U.S. Bishops' Statement on Capital Punishment, 1980)

This principle is set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church:

If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1994, Par. 2267)

More recently Pope John Paul H in his eleventh encyclical entitled "The Gospel of Life" (March 25, 1995), toughens the church's stance on the death penalty. In this papal letter is found one of Catholicism's strongest condemnations of capital punishment. Accordingly, part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church will have to be revised to reflect these stronger reservations about the death penalty in accordance with the Holy Father's new pro-life encyclical.

In this recent teaching, Pope John Paul II affirmed the catechism's teaching that the death penalty is acceptable under some conditions, but in the encyclical he said such conditions are very rare or even non-existent in the modern world. (Par. 56)

In the encyclical, the pope listed the death penalty as one of the pro-life issues calling for church concern and action. The pontiff's stance adds to the quandary faced by Roman Catholic lawmakers and voters who endorse capital punishment. The encyclical does not address how Catholic politicians should reconcile potentially conflicting views by the church and their constituents.

Neither did the pope explain under what circumstances the death penalty might be necessary. But the new encyclical moves the church to the brink of insisting that the fifth of the ten commandments - "Thou shalt not kill" - be applied to penal codes.

The only legitimate use of executions would be in cases where an inmate poses a danger to the "common good of the family or of the state," the pope writes, noting that improvements in prison security now make it possible to completely isolate prisoners from society.

"There is a growing tendency, both in the church and in civil society, to demand that (the death penalty) be applied in a very limited way, or even that it be abolished completely," the pope writes. (Par. 56)

While many people claim they support capital punishment because of its potential to deter other criminals, the pope does not mention deterrence as a possible justification for the death penalty. He says that capital punishment must be examined "in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society." (Par. 56)

The three bishops of New Mexico strongly support this position which has previously been affirmed through the executive director of the New Mexico Catholic Conference, Juan B. Montoya, during the last legislative session.