Statement by Bishop Furey on the Death Penalty, 1977

Year Published
  • 2014
  • English

This is a follow-up of last week's letter to Today's Catholic. You will recall that I wrote about the abomination known as abortion and I blamed the "Supreme" Court's ruling of January 22, 1973, for many of the ills our time. The ruling opened a Pandora's box of lurid happenings.

For example, the philosophy of torture is rampant. Cramped prison quarters, inadequate toilet facilities, prolonged interrogation under great tension, fatiguing physical exercise and semi-starvation, all these calculated to "kill people without them dying."

The experience of extreme torture is likely to remain with a person for the rest of his or her life. A vivid example of this is a young woman who was cruelly tortured in a certain prison. So deeply had she been affected psychologically that even several years after her release, as she was relating her experience, she became hysterical, screaming that her head was burning, and yelling at her husband whom she mistook for a torturer.

Robert Burns said it long ago: "Man's inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn."

It's bad enough that so many have become dehumanized in the last four years. It is even worse that they do not care and even that so many do not even realize how inhuman they are. There is not a new code of morality. There is none at all. Premarital intercourse, extramarital intercourse, birth prevention of every kind and description, rape, murder, theft, "rip off," and every conceivable crime—all being done because they happen to be somebody's "thing." So what's wrong with that? Nothing if one does not know the difference between right and wrong! The sad thing is that many do not know, many do not care to know, and many do not care even if they do know.

On Monday, January 17, one Gary Gilmore was put to death by the state of Utah for crimes punishable by death in that state. He was given a fair trial and many, many stays of execution. Immediately after his death there arose an unholy clamor from the mouths of a small but vociferous minority. "We're back in the dark ages," they shouted. Here was an admitted criminal who was given the punishment he deserved and the protectors were many. Yet not a word from the same people when on that very same Monday thousands of innocent human beings were snatched from their mothers' wombs and thrown in the waste basket. Where is our sense of decency? Perhaps we are back in the dark ages.

To those who say "Capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime" I say this is a lot of hogwash. Without capital punishment and swift justice life would have been unlivable in the pioneer days of our West. It would be unlivable today in vast areas of the wastelands of the world. An editorial in one of our daily papers wrote of Gilmore's execution, "The country will go on arguing about executions and will go on knowing little about our criminal justice system." How true! Another paper said "Various judges played hot potato with his (Gilmore's) life." Again, how true!

What about the position, if any, of the Catholic Church with regard to the death penalty? The truth of the matter is that there is no such position. It is a divisive issue in the church in this country. Perhaps that is as it should be. There are arguments on both sides. However, to say that the U.S. hierarchy, as such, is opposed to capital punishment, is just a plain lie. I was present and voted on a proposed "resolution" of the hierarchy on this subject. It was November 19, 1974. The "resolution" was defeated 119 to 103. However, in order to be adopted by the bishops, two thirds of those voting was required by our bylaws. Therefore, the "resolution" failed miserably.

The church has always supported the right of the state to impose the death penalty in order to protect itself and its citizens. The question is when and in what manner this right should be used. In the humble opinion of this writer, the when is now and the manner depends on circumstances. I am thoroughly convinced that people who commit heinous crimes, such as brutal murder, and other crimes against society, should be made to pay with their most precious possession, their life. Only in this way can the punishment be made to fit crime.

With a fervent prayer that crime may cease and that all men may become more respectful of their neighbors' rights, I remain

Very sincerely in Christ,
Most Rev. Francis J. Furey
Archbishop of San Antonio