Catholic Media Unite in Opposition to the Death Penalty

Catholic Media Unite in Opposition to the Death Penalty March 5, 2015
Lethal Injection Room – San Quentin By CACorrections (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

‘Capital Punishment Must End.’  That’s the bold headline in the National Catholic Register this morning.  The Register, in a groundbreaking collaboration with three other Catholic journals, published a strong statement opposing capital punishment.

The editorial boards of the Register, the National Catholic Reporter, Our Sunday Visitor and America joined in opposition to the death penalty, as the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in Glossip v. Gross, a case out of Oklahoma that challenges the most widely used lethal injection protocol as being cruel and unusual punishment.

The editorial quotes Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, who said,

“… the use of the death penalty devalues human life and diminishes respect for human dignity. We bishops continue to say, we cannot teach killing is wrong by killing.”

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said:

“Turning away from capital punishment does not diminish our support for the families of murder victims. … But killing the guilty does not honor the dead nor does it ennoble the living. When we take a guilty person’s life we only add to the violence in an already violent culture and we demean our own dignity in the process.”

The joint statement by the four Catholic publications reads:

We, the editors of four Catholic journals — AmericaNational Catholic RegisterNational Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor — urge the readers of our diverse publications and the whole U.S. Catholic community and all people of faith to stand with us and say, “Capital punishment must end.”

*     *     *     *     *

As Catholics and other concerned citizens turn their attention to the issue of capital punishment this morning, I bring back a report I first published a few years ago on the Last Meals Project, an initiative to study death row prisoners’ last menu choices.


On September 21, 2011, Troy Davis died in Georgia. Davis, you may know, was convicted of murdering a police officer.  But in the twenty years since the crime, seven of the nine key witnesses have recanted their testimony. The lack of clarity regarding the case sparked anti-death penalty backlash.  Groups including Amnesty International and the NAACP petitioned the courts to grant Davis a new trial or evidentiary hearing.  World leaders including Pope Benedict XVI, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Renate Wohlwend of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, and former President Jimmy Carter called for a review of the case. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court refused to consider a last-minute appeal;

Davis, denied the opportunity to take a lie detector test, was executed on September 21, 2011, at 11:08 p.m. But Davis was not the only man to be executed on that date in the United States. Lawrence Russell Brewer died as well, although his conviction was not controversial:  Brewer had been found guilty of a hate crime in Jasper, Texas, for the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr.

Following these two prominent executions, many are talking about capital punishment, about whether it’s moral to take a life even when there is no ambiguity regarding the person’s guilt.  The Catholic Church opposes the use of the death penalty in almost every case, and Pope John Paul II spoke about it frequently.

But it’s not my purpose today to talk about the death penalty.  My purpose today is to talk about food—specifically, about the convict’s last meal.

The Last Meal Project

CBS’ “48 Hours” offered an unusual slide presentation, showing part of The Last Meals Project, photographer Jonathon Kambouris’ pictorial review of criminals’ dying requests.  In The Last Meals Project, Kambouris intersperses photos of the infamous killers and their last meals with statistics regarding the incidence of executions in the United States.

Lawrence Russell Brewer, convicted more than a decade ago for the “dragging death” murder, used his final meal to give the finger one last time to the criminal justice system and the taxpayers of Texas. Brewer asked for a large and very expensive dinner:  two chicken fried steaks, a triple-meat bacon cheeseburger, fried okra, a pound of barbecue, three fajitas, a meat lover’s pizza, a pint of ice cream and a slab of peanut butter fudge with crushed peanuts.  Then, according to prison officials, Brewer didn’t eat any of it. The story prompted Senator John Whitmire, chairman of Texas’ Senate Criminal Justice Committee, to call for an end to the longstanding tradition of permitting convicts to choose their final meal.  Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, agreed; and within hours, the practice was ended.  In the future, criminals on death row will have to settle for the same prison food that the others receive.

The Last Meals Project showcases some other prominent killers and the meals they chose:

  • Timothy McVeigh, convicted of the Oklahoma City bombing, asked for two quarts of mint chocolate chip ice cream before his execution in Indiana in 2001.
  • Mass murderer Ted Bundy asked for steak, eggs, hash browns and coffee before heading off to the electric chair in 1989.
  • Karla Faye Tucker requested a garden salad with ranch dressing, a peach and a banana.
  • Prostitute Aileen Carol Wuorlos was executed in 2002 for killing seven men in Florida.  She didn’t want a meal before she died—but she did ask for and receive one cup of coffee.
  • The founder of the Crips, a Los Angeles street gang, Stanley “Tookie” Williams was convicted of killing four persons in California.  Williams declared his innocence until the end.  Perhaps as a sign of his pacifist streak, he asked for a last meal of oatmeal and milk.
  • Victor Feguer was hanged in Iowa in 1963, but not before eating his last meal of a single, unpitted olive.  When Feguer was buried, the pit from the olive was still in his suit pocket.
  • And here’s the guy who most caught my attentionJonathan Wayne Nobles, on death row for the stabbing deaths of two young women, was an ex-con with a history of drug abuse and mental illness.  His request:  All he wanted, before his death by lethal injection, was to receive the Holy Eucharist.

Nobles’ heart was apparently turned toward repentance just three weeks before his execution when he met with Paula Kurland, the mother of one of his victims.  Nobles had first refused to meet with her; but Kurland hoped that a face-to-face meeting with her daughter Mitzi’s killer would help her to put the past behind her. With the help of a state program called the Victim/Offender Mediation Dialogue, the meeting was arranged.

Murderer Jonathon Nobles and grieving mother Paula Kurland talked, first uncomfortably, about that day, about Paula’s grief, about Jonathon’s regret.  Apologies were offered and accepted.  They talked for five hours.  In the end, Paula Kurland reported feeling more at peace than she had been in the previous twelve years.  And Jonathon, forgiven by his victim’s mother, was ready to accept the forgiveness of God.

He died as we all might hope to die—having just received the Body and Blood of Christ.

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  • Tom Cahillane

    Kathy you have outdone yourself with this article! This is my favorite of all your blog posts and I love your well written charm and wit in regards to all your posts!

    • kathyschiffer

      Thanks, Tom! And I love your humor!

  • Sarx Discuss

    Not at all. We’re not a Bible-only Church. The Magisterium, and all of us, continues to discern God’s will. In this case, as the Catechism makes clear, the death penalty can rarely be defended because criminal justice systems have become better at preventing violence than they were in Biblical times.

    Here it is:

    2267 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 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 nonexistent.”

    • bill bannon

      We do however have to obey scripture rather than skip it or find casuistry to circumvent it. Cardinal Newman said abrupt developments are not real developments. Going from the papacy executing 500 criminals in the first half of the 19th century ( google ” papal executioner wiki” ) to a Pope calling the death penalty “cruel” in St. Louis, 1999 is abrupt in the long run of things…we executed from 1253 AD till 1850 while having locked cells capable of life sentences which are as old as Rome and were sentences within the Inquisition.
      The two largest Catholic populations on earth are Brazil and Mexico. Both have no death penalty, high murder rates (over 20 per 100,000 each…Japan is .4 per 100,000 with a death penalty).
      The head of the Sinaloa cartel, Chapo Guzman, escaped from maximum security prison in Mexico and in Brazil, last December 2012, 2400 prisoners on Chrimas furlough did not return to prison.
      Ergo ccc 2267 never checked Catholic reality in the concrete outside of Europe. The two worst murder rates on earth by UN figures are heavily Catholic El Salvador and Honduras. The
      catechism writer probably checked Malta, Luxembourg, Andorra and several other countries within Europe. He never checked the two most populous Catholic countries…Brazil and Mexico which are c.50 times less safe than Shinto Japan as to murder. Your family is fifty times safer from murder touring Japan than touring the two largest Catholic population centers.

      • Sarx Discuss

        The catechism permits your conclusion “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

        • bill bannon

          Unforetunately, Rome and Bishops encourage abolishment of the death penalty in the real political world… which actions by them contradict the catechism passage itself.

          • Sarx Discuss

            No. The Catechism doesn’t require what it barely permits.

          • bill bannon

            The catechism permits what the magisterium shuts down in real life and that is a contradiction unless you sell used cars.

          • Guest

            So the Church is required to favor the death penalty?

          • bill bannon

            At least in Mexico and Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Colombia and Venezuela… if She the Church wants to protect lives rather than reimage for the Nobel jury due to the Inquisition which was wrong…because prison per se only protects you from the “caught” murderers which in the US is 62% of them but in Mexico etc. is probably closer to 20% ( Guatemala 5%). Hence one needs detterence which 2267 never addresses. Hence the immense hole in ccc 2267 as to logic. The death penalty is a detterent though only if one does it enough according to economists using regression analysis:

        • Phil Steinacker

          The catechism is NOT the only element guiding us. We have 2,000 years of Church teaching overturned by the personal opinions of one pope. The current spin is not doctrinal or dogmatic; it falls under what is referred to as common teaching.

    • mollysdad

      The above teaching of the Church does not apply to the power the State has from God does not apply to the stage of judgement and sentencing, but to the execution of the sentence. It recommends suspending execution during the good behavior of the criminal, so that the execution may proceed if while in prison he commits a crime or interferes with the rehabilitation of other criminals.

      The common conscience of mankind has always been revolted by the crime of wilfully taking the life of an innocent human being, but there is no universal outrage at the proposition that the State might wilfully put a murderer to death.

      If the death penalty can in God’s truth never be justified, then the Church and the men who wrote the Scriptures have never had any excuse for their use of the adjective “innocent” to qualify the definition of murder and thereby to lie contrary to a truth about God and His law.

    • Phil Steinacker

      False all the way around. We have not gotten better at preventing violence.

      And when God instituted the death penalty in the Old Testament, it was a command not a suggestion. It was intended as punishment not rehabilitation or reduction in violence. It was a consequence not a social engineering tool.

      Your “reasoning” is that of a liberal seeking to transform Church teaching into his own image and likeness. The arguments you put forth are specious.

      • Redbird25

        Agreed…another example of how liberalism is a cancer in the church.

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    A brutal and sociopathic murderer with a life sentence in a state that has no death penalty can terrorize other prisoners – they know he has nothing to lose and he can extort sexual favors, gifts, whatever he wants. What an unspeakable hell to live with such a monster who can kill with impunity. Hundreds of other men are terrorized by him over years, even decades. .And that isn’t even considering the guards who can be killed at any moment by such a man.

  • Adam Rasmussen

    Yes, the Catechism and papal encyclicals define what the Catholic church teaches. Welcome to the cafeteria, Bill.

    • Phil Steinacker

      Sorry, Adam. Not everything in the catechism is dogma or doctrine. It contains plenty of what is called common teaching which is neither permanent or infallible. This arrant nonsense is pure liberal sophistry.

      • Adam Rasmussen

        lol!!! Thinking that everything in the Catechism is doctrine (from the Latin, doctrina, which means “teaching”) is liberal?! That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.

  • Linda

    And read the Catechism of the Council of Trent. It confirmed the biblical basis of the death penalty as a matter of justice!

    The convicted person doesn’t need several years to repent. If he knows he’ll be executed in 6 months, or whenever, he has plenty of time to repent. In fact, true repentance need only take one second!

    The Trent Catechism has never been abrogated. If there are many exceptions to “Thou shalt not kill” (actually, “murder”), such as war and self-defense, defense of one’s spouse or child, etc, then it is not radical to think that the death penalty is NOT a violation of the 5th Commandment.

  • I said this at Anchoress on this subject:

    “Put me down as completely disagreeing. Justice cries for it and some crimes (not many, but some) require a clear moral line of consequence. But hey, the culture has gone to hell in a hand basket anyway. What’s another crack in the wall going to do.”

  • Johannes

    The “Catholic” Reporter is not Catholic, and has been told by their bishop to remove the word “Catholic” from their name.

  • I wonder if everybody who thinks that the Magisterium’s opposition to capital punishment is some wishy-washy innovation that opposes the weight of thousands of years of tradition think the same about the Magisterium’s opposition to legalized slavery?

  • By your same logic, it was wrong for the Church to oppose legalized slavery. If that’s what you call “Catholic” morality, then call me an apostate!

  • Mary

    I agree with the Church’s teaching against the death penalty. I live in a country where it hasn’t been part of law since the 1950s.

    However I do think that there might need to be a distinction in the case of homegrown terrorists. This is treachery against the whole nation with the crime of murder committed at the same time. What we do know is that they would do it again.

    Until terrorists feel the pressure of the state against them more than they want to be jihadists then the problem will grow. They can leave or if they stay and commit these acts then it is a special case which always for its magnitude and intent can only be met with execution as a just punishment.

    I see no difference in these cases than executing the nazi war criminals.

  • johnnysc

    The cafeteria is wide open now. Those liberal ‘catholics’ with a ‘properly formed’ conscience will have no problem voting for politicians that support abortion and homosexual marriage justifying it because that same politician is against the death penalty.

  • Bro AJK

    At the Dayton Art Institute, currently they have a display of about 550 plates in the Dutch style (blue and white) that represent these last meals. Thank you for the reminder.

  • texasknight

    By elevating this issue as some moral absolute, you further dilute the imperative of the true issues, giving more invalid cover to those who cast their vote for the party of death. In less than a day, we allow the execution of more innocent human beings hidden in their mother’s womb than our states have executed after being found guilty of heinous crimes over the past 40 years. Proportionally, you would need to run atricles on nothing but abortion for the rest of your life.

    Jesus says, “So by their fruits you will know them.” So ask yourself these questions: Why do we have to continuously battle to keep God in our public life? Why is abortion still legal after 40+ years? Why is the hormonal contraceptive pill still legal despite it being listed as a group 1 carcinogenic? Why do we still have no-fault divorce laws? Why are Christian businesses penalized for their beliefs? Why is the definition of marriage under attack? Why do our public schools teach our children abstinence plus sex ed? Why does our society allow IVF? euthanasia? public access to pornography? All of these issues stem from true intrinsic evils.
    So why have the leaders of His Church failed to properly prioritize these issues and form the consciences of the laity? Every generations sees more and more intrinsic evils piled on our society. These fruits are straight from the pit. This is truly the work of the enemy.
    Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins. Save us from the fires of hell. Lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy. Amen.

    • Carolyn C

      Excellent points! Would all these publications join together to condemn abortion? As you rightly say: millions of innocent babies have died, but have we seen a united front on this issue?

  • Carolyn C

    More importantly, what does God say about the death penalty? It is unbiblical to say God opposes the death penalty. God has instituted capital punishment in His Word. It is presumptuous to think we, humans, know better than God. Christians should never rejoice in the death penalty, but it is clear that death penalty is not always wrong. Was God wrong in these examples? Genesis 6:7 He said: I will destroy man, whom I have created, from the face of the earth, from man even to beasts, from the creeping thing even to the fowls of the air, for it repenteth me that I have made them. God destroyed man with the flood. Samuel 15: 2-3 2 Thus saith the Lord of hosts: I have reckoned up all that Amalec hath done to Israel: I how he opposed them in the way when they came up out of Egypt. Now therefore go, and smite Amalec, and utterly destroy all that he hath: spare him not, nor covet any thing that is his: but slay both man and woman, child and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. St. Thomas Aquinas: They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. St. Pius V on clergy who rape children: “the nefarious crime and who are not frightened by the death of their souls, we determine that they should be handed over to the severity of the secular authority, which enforces civil law. “we establish that any priest or member of clergy, either secular or regular, who commits such an execrable crime, by force of the present law be deprived of every clerical privilege, let him immediately be delivered to the secular authority to be put to death. Jesus Christ said: “Think not that I have come to destroy the law, but to fulfill it.” Christians should never rejoice in the death penalty, but God is just and He will execute justice. Better to lose your life, than to lose your soul: Matthew 25:41 Then the King will say to those on his left, “Get away from me! God has cursed you. Go into everlasting fire that was prepared for the devil and his angels.” As much as Jesus is merciful, He is a just judge.

  • John Albertson

    Capital punishment is in the same order of natural law as the illicitness of contraception. Church teaching explicates but does not invent the nature of these things, since natural law predates the Church. If the uninterrupted teaching of the Church on capital punishment were to be absolutely voided, then the door is also opened for voiding “Humanae Vitae. “

  • Resbo

    “When we take (an INNOCENT CHILDS) life we only add to the violence in an already violent culture and we demean our own dignity in the process.”

    Of a CONVICTED KILLERS punishment Jesus said “Give unto Caesar what is Caesars and unto God what is Gods.”

    The INNOCENT are the ones in need of protection the CONVICTED KILLERS must pay for their actions.