December 19, 2022 | The Vatican announced last week that Pope Francis has personally invited heads of state to grant clemency to prisoners this Christmas season. Advocates say the Holy Father's appeal presents a keen opportunity for President Biden to commute the U.S. federal death row.
Pope Francis has, throughout his papacy, maintained a posture of compassion towards prisoners — especially those on death row. In September 2022, the Holy Father dedicated his monthly prayer intention to the global abolition of the death penalty. In this worldwide prayer, Pope Francis urged that “in every legal sentence, there must be a window of hope.”
In this most recent petition from Pope Francis on behalf of those in prison, he asks state leaders to make a “gesture of clemency…towards our brothers and sisters who are deprived of their liberty and who are held eligible to benefit from such a provision.”
President Biden and the Federal Death Penalty
President Biden is the first U.S. president to publicly oppose the death penalty, and he campaigned on an anti-death penalty platform.
Commuting the death sentences of the 42 individuals currently on federal death row would fulfill this campaign promise.
Since 2021, more than ten thousand Catholics have urged President Biden to honor the sanctity of life and commute the federal death row, an act endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops endorsed.
Biden’s administration took an important step by declaring a moratorium on federal executions in July 2021 — a first for a presidential administration. This move was made even more significant by the fact that the previous administration restarted federal executions after a 17-year hiatus and proceeded to execute 13 people.
But advocates insist that a moratorium on federal executions is not enough.
Commuting the Row
Almost all of the people on federal death row were raised in profoundly adverse circumstances. Many spent their childhoods in extreme poverty, experienced abuse and severe neglect, witnessed pervasive violence in their homes and communities, or suffer from untreated, long-standing serious mental illness.
Given how swiftly the last administration restarted federal executions, advocates maintain that it is critical that these sentences be commuted — otherwise, lives remain at risk.
President Biden would not be the first in the United States to make such a move. In fact, there are very recent examples for him to lean on.
Catholic advocates are hopeful that President Biden will be inspired by the courageous leadership of his fellow American decision makers and the Holy Father, to choose mercy this Christmas season.