Catholic bishops in the US have emphatically endorsed a campaign to end the use of the death penalty in America, saying that the country cannot "teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill."
At their meeting in Washington this week, bishops debated an 11-page statement on capital punishment, which won overwhelming approval from the conference members.
The document, which was developed by the USCCB Domestic Policy Committee with the support of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities and the Committee on Doctrine, is the first comprehensive statement focused on the death penalty by the Catholic bishops of the United States in twenty-five years.
In it the bishops say that it is "time for our nation to abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life." Citing what they see as a growing national movement to abolish the death penalty, the bishops also announced the organization of a new initiative, the Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty.
A statement entitled; "A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death" approved by a vote of 237 - 4, suggests that the use of the death penalty contributes to a cycle of violence that must be broken. "The sanction of death violates respect for human life and dignity" it says.
The statement describes the death penalty as a continuing sign of a "culture of death" in US society. "It is time for our nation to abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life."
"When the state, in our names and with our taxes, ends a human life despite having non-lethal alternatives, it suggests that society can overcome violence with violence. The use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned not only for what it does to those who are executed, but what it does to all of society."
A number of churches in the US have committed themselves to opposing the death penalty including the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, The World Council of Churches, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church, and the eastern orthodox churches.
At the end of 2003 Pope John Paul II added his voice to support the renewal of the international campaign against the death penalty.
Previously, in a visit to St Louis in 1999, Pope John Paul II said: "The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. I renew the appeal I made for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."
The new statement from the bishops of the United States also acknowledges that more must be done to assist victims of violence and loss.
The Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty urges Catholics to pray for victims of crime and their families as well as those on death row and the prison officials who watch over them; to reach out to families who have lost loved ones through violence; to learn more about the Church's teaching on the death penalty; to educate others, especially through the Church's parishes, schools and other programs; to advocate for the end of the use of the death penalty in states that have capital punishment; and to change the debate by emphasizing life over death.
"We don't really expect the use of the death penalty to end in one piece of sweeping legislation or a stunning court decision, although we're making significant progress in both legislatures and the courts," explained Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, chair of the bishops' Domestic Policy Committee. "Rather, it will wither away in the daily and individual choices of prosecutors and legislators, judges and jurors and ordinary Catholics and others. We believe this day will not come easily, but with hard work and prayer it will come sooner rather than later."