Federal Executions Pit The Trump Administration Against The Catholic Church
For the ninth time in six months, the Trump administration is preparing to put a federal prisoner to death.
Brandon Bernard, 40, is due to be executed Thursday evening at the U.S. Penitentiary Terre Haute in Indiana, as punishment for the murder of a young couple in Texas in 1999. The Justice Department plans another federal execution later this month, with three more scheduled in January.
In a statement on the resumption of federal executions after a 17-year hiatus, Attorney General William Barr said the death penalties were justified because the people sentenced to die had been convicted of "horrific crimes."
The spate of federal executions has put the Trump administration in sharp conflict with the Catholic Church, which in recent decades has vigorously opposed capital punishment.
In his 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II declared that "the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil." His successor, Benedict XVI, called on governments "to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty and to reform the penal system in a way that ensures respect for the prisoners' human dignity."
Pope Francis in 2018 took the cause one step further, revising the Catholic Catechism to make clear that capital punishment is "inadmissible" in all circumstances.
Halt for Advent
Under Attorney General Barr's direction, the Justice Department began ordering federal executions in the midst of the presidential election campaign, and the U.S. Catholic Church grew increasingly outspoken in its opposition.
In their latest appeal, U.S. Catholic leaders this week asked the Trump administration to halt scheduled federal executions during the Advent season, celebrated by Christians as the period of expectation and preparation of Christmas.
"We call on President Trump and Attorney General Barr, in recognition of God's unmerited gift of self-giving love: Stop these executions," said Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan. Coakley chairs the U.S. bishops' domestic justice committee, and Naumann chairs the bishops' committee on pro-life activities.
"We have to clearly articulate our position about the need to protect and defend even those who have committed heinous crimes," Coakley told NPR. "They don't forfeit their human dignity. It's a God-given dignity, not something that the State bestows, nor which the State can withdraw."
A survey in early 2020 by Real Clear Opinion Research and the Catholic television network EWTN found that 57% of U.S. Catholics support the death penalty, a finding that indicates, according to Coakley, that Church leaders need to do more to educate Catholics.
"There are still a lot of [Catholics] who don't understand the Church's teaching," Coakley says. "It's a teaching that deserves our assent and respect. I don't think it can be simply disregarded."
Among the lay Catholics not yet in line with their Church's position on the death penalty, few rank higher than Attorney General Barr, a practicing Catholic who speaks often of his faith. In September, Barr was honored at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast with the Christifideles Laici Award in recognition of his "Fidelity to the Church, Exemplary Selfless and Steadfast Service in the Lord's Vineyard."
The annual breakfast event, held virtually this year, is organized by a group of lay Catholics and is not officially associated with the U.S. Catholic Church. The award came despite Barr's strong support for capital punishment. On Sept. 22, just one day before the prayer breakfast, Barr ordered a federal prisoner be put to death. The day after the breakfast, he ordered another man to be be executed.
For Catholics who had been working to oppose the death penalty, Barr's recognition at the prayer breakfast was inappropriate, given his record of ordering federal executions.
"I'm appalled," said Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic activist nun who has worked for nearly 40 years to end capital punishment. "It's a blatant going against the teachings of the Catholic Church."
Notably, U.S. bishops did not endorse the award to Barr.
"I don't think that it was an appropriate choice," Coakley told NPR. "They didn't speak for the bishops of the United States in choosing to honor him in that way."
During his remarks while accepting the award, Barr quoted John Paul II as saying, "the lay faithful are never to relinquish their participation in 'public life.'" He noted how the Justice Department under his leadership has stood up for the right of religious people "to exercise their faith and be treated the same as others." He did not mention the death penalty.
Among the groups sponsoring the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast is Catholic Vote, a lay advocacy group that this year vigorously supported President Trump's reelection effort. Brian Burch, the group's president, says his organization does recognize the Church's opposition to the death penalty.
"As a Catholic organization ourselves, we look to the guidance of our Church," Burch told NPR, "and our Church is saying, 'We should be working to end its use in all circumstances.'"
Catholic Vote nevertheless supported Barr's award because of his record in opposing abortion.
"Albeit unfortunate and regrettable that we have had to use the death penalty, we're not talking about large numbers," Burch says. "The numbers [of executions] pale in comparison to the heinousness of the abortion numbers in our country."
One difference between abortion and capital punishment, however, is that in the latter case, it is the government that does the killing.
Archbishop Coakley, while sharing the Catholic Church's steadfast opposition to abortion, notes that the death penalty amounts to "violence by the State committed in our name."
Evolving Catholic view
Other Catholic leaders, however, point out their Church actually supported the use of the death penalty for well over a thousand years, and they argue that recent pronouncements against it don't necessarily rise to the level of official Church doctrine.
Steven Long, a theology professor at Ave Maria University in southwest Florida, says the Church's relatively recent condemnations of the death penalty qualify as "prudential admonitions." As such, he says, "one has to take them seriously ... [but] ... they are limited by circumstances which are not the same in different times and places."
Other Catholics, however, note that when the Church previously condoned use of the death penalty, it was for the purpose of protecting society from dangerous criminals, not for the purpose of retribution.
"In his Gospel of Life encyclical, John Paul II called the death penalty unnecessary," notes Coakley, "given the development of other alternatives that criminal justice systems can use to protect society and restore the balance of justice."
For Sister Helen Prejean, who has accompanied many prisoners on Death Row, the unacceptability of the death penalty is simply a matter of Christian teaching.
"People are worth more than the worst act of their life," she says. "Human beings can always change. That's at the core of the Gospel of Life. That is what Jesus taught us."
In any case, any controversy over federal executions is due to end after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take office Jan. 20. Both have repeatedly emphasized their opposition to any use of the death penalty.