Archbishop Coakley: “The Death Penalty is Morally Obsolete”

April 7, 2015

By Archbishop Paul S. Coakley, Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, OK
April 2015

In April, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case out of Oklahoma (Glossip v. Gross) that challenges the widely used lethal injection protocol in carrying out the death penalty. This comes a year after the high profile flawed execution of convicted killer Clayton Lockett.  At that time, I called for a reexamination of the use of the death penalty in our state and a moratorium that might lead ultimately to its abolition.

I want to reaffirm my opposition to the use of the death penalty and call upon Catholics, and all people of Oklahoma, to work together toward the abolition of the death penalty in our state. Let us pray together that the court’s review will lead to a recognition that this form of institutionalized violence against persons is not in the best interest of the state, and is ultimately harmful to society because it further erodes respect for the dignity of the human person.

In turning away from the use of the death penalty, we do not withdraw any measure of our support and concern for the victims of heinous crimes, nor the families of murder victims. They deserve our support and await justice. But, taking the life of a guilty person does not restore the loss of a loved one, nor does it honor their memory. The death penalty only further erodes our respect for the sanctity of life. It coarsens our culture and diminishes our humanity.

Catholics have fought against the use of the death penalty for decades. In his encyclical letter called the “Gospel of Life,” which he published in 1995, Saint John Paul II clearly articulates the Church’s nuanced position on this sensitive issue. Acknowledging the state’s right to the death penalty as a matter of society’s self-defense, he emphasized that with other secure and non-lethal means of protecting the innocent now available, instances where the use of the death penalty are justified “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” The pope amended the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church to reflect this de facto prohibition against the use of the death penalty (CCC 2263-2267). This past October, Pope Francis called on “Christians and all people of good will” to fight “for the abolition of the death penalty in all its forms.”

There also are numerous practical reasons for seeking the abolition of capital punishment; among them are cost and potential innocence. First, the process of capital punishment is extremely expensive, and resources spent on the appeal process for condemned criminals could be spent on crime prevention and restorative justice for those convicted of lesser crimes. Second, there is the real possibility of condemning the wrong person. For example, DNA evidence, unavailable only a few years ago, has led to at least 25 exonerations of those who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. This certainly should give us pause when considering the unimaginable injustice of mistakenly executing an innocent man or woman.

Though the moral weight of capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, war and human trafficking may differ, they are all fundamental life issues. At a moment when the tide of violence is rising globally and we are witnessing inhumane atrocities committed daily by violent extremists, our moral opposition to these acts, and credibility as witnesses to the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person will be enhanced immeasurably if we can unite our voices in rejecting the use of the death penalty here in Oklahoma and throughout the United States of America.

Read the Statement on the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City’s website.