Statement by Oregon Catholic Bishops on the Death Penalty, October 1984

Year Published
  • 2014
  • English

Oregon Catholic Bishops
October 1984

"The Lord is kind and merciful; slow to anger and rich in compassion" (Psalm 103). And we who are created in His image and likeness are called to be the same. We, who are redeemed by a God who became one of us, are called to mercy, forgiveness and compassion as followers of Jesus Christ.

What then must be our Christian response to a growing crime rate, to acts of terrorism, to an increasingly more violent society, to a growing disregard for the value of human life and the dignity of the individual person?

Death Penalty Not the Answer

To address these moral evils in our society, many in our nation and in our State of Oregon are calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty. But the death penalty is an inadequate response to violence in our world, for the death penalty does not deter; it is discriminatory; it is fallible; it is costly; it is real; it is final; it's ultimate victims are all of us.

Consistent Life Ethic

Our faith in God calls us to "choose life, not death." Our belief in a divine Redeemer calls us to respect life in all it's forms. Our commitments as followers of Jesus call us to a consistent life ethic, encompassing all human life from conception through natural death, from the innocent to the guilty.

The Basis for the Dignity of the Person and the Sanctity of Life

Rich in mercy and compassion is our God, who gives us the priceless gift of life, and creates us in His own image and likeness, the basis of our human dignity and the sanctity of life.

"Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who trespass against us," is the prayer of the Christian and the basis of our dignity as redeemed individuals and a redeemed community.

Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to dwell in His Body, the Church, and to make each of us a living temple of the Holy Spirit, the basis or our dignity as a holy people, a people capable of repentance and conversion.

But more, we are called to follow in the very footsteps of our divine Savior, to believe in our hearts the good news of our salvation, and to practice in our lives His message of love, forgiveness and peace.

The Example of Jesus

Jesus, our Redeemer, who taught peace and forgiveness by word and example, was Himself the Victim of capital punishment, the innocent Victim of the death penalty, who would pray for His executioners, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Luke 23:34.

As our Savior gave His life on the cross, He forgave the thief who repented, promising him, "This day you will be with me in Paradise" Luke 23:43. He forgave many others who repented and saved the woman taken in adultery from the death penalty with the words, "Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone." John 8:7.

Our Religious History

Our religious history, before and after the time of Christ, is replete with examples of those who suffered the death penalty innocently: the Apostles themselves, 30 of the first 31 Popes, the early Christian martyrs and those still being put to death today for their religious beliefs. It is fitting that the Church, long an innocent victim of the death penalty, should now seek a more Christ-like response to violence and crime. Our religious history is also one of repentance and conversion, of saints and sinners. The leader of the Chosen People, Moses, murdered an Egyptian (Exodus 2:12), The great King David, one of the ancestors of Jesus, would premeditate the murder of Uriah the Hittite, so that he could marry Uriah's wife, Bathsheba, who would give birth to King Solomon (2 Samuel 11:15). His repentance is recorded in the widely known 51st Psalm, "Have mercy on me, O Lord."

A man who participated in the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:58)and may have been involved in the deaths of some other early Christians (ACTS 9:1 and 22:4) repented and became the great Apostle St. Paul, after hearing the words, "I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting."

The Position of the Bishops

The American Catholic bishops have repeatedly called for an end to capital punishment in this country. In 1974, out of a commitment to the value and dignity of human life, the Bishops of the United States declared their opposition to capital punishment. In 1978, the Bishops' Committee on Social Development and World Peace reiterated this policy, "We continue to support this position (opposition to capital punishment) in the belief that a return to the use of the death penalty can only lead to the further erosion of respect for life in our society."

And in 1980 the Bishops overwhelmingly approved a lengthy statement calling for the abolition of the death penalty in this country.

A Development of the Public Conscience

Both our religious history and our national and state history show that there has been a development of our public conscience, a growth toward a more humane way of punishing the criminal, and a process that is in keeping with the dignity of the individual, the possibility of repentance and conversion, and the tender compassion of our God.

The Law of the Covenant with Moses required the death penalty for some 15 different crimes, including idolatry, false prophecy, adultery, homosexual behavior, cursing one's parent and kidnaping.

In our own country's history, people have been put to death for petty theft, counterfeiting, spying, arson, witchcraft, sodomy, rape and adultery.

The Teaching and Example of Pope John Paul II

Our present Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has often spoken on the dignity of the individual as a basis of respect for life in all its forms, saying in his recent encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, "The human person - every person without exception - has been redeemed by Christ, because Christ is in a way united to the human person, even if the individual may not recognize this fact." (#l4, p. 11)

Our Holy Father, himself the victim of attempts on his life, has shown by word and example what our attitude should be. During the Christmas season, 1983, he visited one of his assailants, Mohammet Ali Agca, in prison. Afterwards, he said, "We have spoken to one another as brothers." In the face of the love, compassion and forgiveness of theVicar of Christ, a convicted criminal would express sorrow and repentance.

Experience of Other Nations

Capital punishment is not a solution to capital crime. The death penalty is a dying institution in this latter part of the 20th century. It has already been abandoned in much of the civilized world. England, Canada, the Scandinavian countries, most of Western Europe and the majority of countries in the Western Hemisphere have abolished it.

The State of Oregon

In our own State of Oregon, the citizens first abolished the death penalty in 1914, but with World War I and the great social changes of the time, the people restored it 6 years later. In 1964, Oregonians overwhelmingly ended the death penalty, but again reestablished it in 1978. (This measure was later declared unconstitutional by an Oregon supreme Court decision in 1981.)

Arguments Against the Death Penalty

If we have learned anything from our religious and social history about capital punishment, it is that the death penalty is not equal justice; that the death penalty is not a deterrent to serious crime; that the death penalty is costly; that the death penalty makes irreversible mistakes: and that the death penalty is not consistent with our respect for life as Christians.


The death penalty is not equal justice. It is clearly discriminatory. Only one percent of all convicted killers end up on death row. They are on death row often because they are poor, young, uneducated, or members of minorities.

In 1954 ten teenagers were legally executed. All were black. As of August 1, 1984, of those now on death row in our country, 42% are black (compared to a 12% black population) and 51% are white (compared to 83.2% white population).

In Oregon, the young, the unskilled, the poor, the minorities make the record of those put to death really: Frank Seymour, age 19, and Mike Spanos, a 21-year old tailor from Greece, put to death by hanging in 1913; John Anthony Soto, age 17, put to death in the gas chamber in 1942; Harvey Cunningham and Robert E. Lee Folkes, age 20, both blacks, both put to death for "killing a white" as noted in the records of Oregon in the 1940's; James Harvey Thomas, 19 year old mechanic, Wardell Henderson, 24 year old black mechanic.

Does Not Deter

The death penalty is not a deterrent to serious crime. Various studies and data definitely question the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. Most serious crimes are committed in the heat of passion and are not premeditated. If anything, some studies show the death penalty may stimulate more violent crime, by demonstrating a public disregard for life. (The six states with the lowest murder rates have all abolished capital punishment.)

Does Not Save Money

The death penalty is costly. It does not save money. A study by the New York State Legislature estimated the costs for the execution of one person (with the mandatory court appeals) at more than $2 million, while maintaining a prisoner for 30 years costs between $300.000. and $750,000.

Capable of Error

The death penalty makes irreversible mistakes. Of 93 people sentenced to die in Oregon since 1903, two were later found innocent, and a significant question arose about the guilt of a third. Nationwide, 105 of the persons executed or imprisoned for life were later found to be innocent. (Palmer: A Study of Murder, 1960).

Does Not Respect Life

The death penalty is not consistent with our respect for life as People of God. The death penalty denigrates the very gift of life which we are all taught to respect, and so all life suffers the life of the unborn, the life of the disadvantaged, the life of the elderly, the life of our brother, our sister, our fellow human being. The hidden victim of any execution is the public conscience, and we all suffer in our respect for the sanctity of all human life each time someone is put to death in our name.

The Bishops' Challenge

The Catholic Bishops of our nation recently challenged all of us to the witness of Jesus' own love, which calls us always to love our neighbor and leads us to the "presumption which binds all Christians; we should do no harm to our neighbors; how we treat our enemy is the key test of whether we love our neighbor; and the possibility of taking even one human life is a prospect we should consider in fear and trembling. " (Challenge of Peace, Art. 80)

A Call to Prayer and Reflection

We, the Catholic Bishops of Oregon, call our people to reflect prayerfully on this issue of capital punishment and the larger moral issue of respect for life.

We agonize in faith and love over the value of life in a society that gives every evidence of a disregard for human life: alcoholism of epidemic proportions, drug trafficking as a multi-billion dollar a year business, carnage on our streets and highways, legalized abortion on demand, sexual exploitation of the young, the portrayal of sex and violence in the media, excessive consumption of this world's goods, the endangering of all life on our planet by the continuing proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The Victims of Crime

We empathize in a special way with the victims of violent crime and their families, who are often the first to show forgiveness and compassion to the perpetrators of crime.

Our hearts go out, too, to those who work in the legal and correctional professions as they deal daily with the rehabilitation of criminals in our society in a just and humane way.

The Concern of the Bishops

We repeat here the words of the Bishops' Statement on Capital Punishment of 1980: "We do not profess the abolition of capital punishment as a simple solution to the problems of crime and violence. We affirm that there is a special need to offer sympathy and support for the victims of violent crime and their families . . . The care and support that we give to the victims of crime should be both compassionate and practical . . . it is the special responsibility of the Church to provide a community of faith and trust in which God's grace can heal the personal and spiritual wounds caused by crime and in which we can all grow by sharing one another's burdens and sorrows."

Practical Solutions

The Bishops call for practical steps to be taken to improve the criminal justice system: "We insist that important changes are necessary in the correctional system in order to make it truly conducive to the reform and rehabilitation of convicted criminals and their reintegration into society. We call upon governments to cooperate in vigorous measures against terrorists who threaten the safety of the general public and have taken the lives of the innocent. We acknowledge that there is a pressing need to deal with social conditions of poverty and instances which often provide the breeding grounds for serious crime."

Our Personal Response

The Bishops' Statement tells us that we must all be a part of the solution to the problem of crime and violence: "We urge particularly the importance of restricting the easy availability of guns and other weapons of violence. We oppose the glamorizing of violence in entertainment, and we deplore the effect of this on children. We affirm the need for education to promote respect for the dignity of all people. All of these things should form part of a comprehensive community response to the very real and pressing problems presented by the prevalence of crime and violence in many parts of our society."

A Reform of the Criminal Justice System

In conclusion, it is our judgment that neither the reinstatement nor the abolition of the death penalty will provide a solution to the growing rate of crime. Its reinstatement will tend only to escalate brutality and encourage violence. Its abolition may be interpreted by some that we are soft on crime. Rather, we advocate a basic reform of the very system of justice which will make it possible to abolish the death penalty, reduce crime and thus improve the criminal justice system at work in our nation.

This will require careful study, immense energy, adequate funding, and great perseverance - but after all, doesn't all justice that is tempered with mercy require this? The easy solution that is based on vindictiveness doesn't solve anything - it only punishes.

Rich in Mercy and Compassion

"The Lord is kind and merciful; slow to anger and rich in compassion." As members of God's family, created in His image and likeness, we are called to love all our brothers and sisters without exception. As members of God's holy People, a redeemed community of faith and love and service, we are called to the same mercy and compassion of our Divine Redeemer, who came and lived among us.