Archbishop backs end to death penalty, says it offers ‘tragic illusion’

Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore testifies in support of the repeal of Maryland's death penalty during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis, Md., Feb. 14. (CNS photo/Tom McCarthy Jr., Catholic Review)
Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore testifies in support of the repeal of Maryland’s death penalty during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee in Annapolis, Md., Feb. 14. (CNS photo/Tom McCarthy Jr., Catholic Review)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (CNS) — The Catholic Church’s objection to the death penalty comes from its consistent teaching that life must be protected from conception to natural death, said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori.

“At the core of all of (the church’s) public witness is an evident consistency that reflects our reasoned belief that every human life is sacred and to be protected, because every life comes from God, and is destined to return to God as our final judge,” he said.

Archbishop Lori said that view compels him to advocate against Maryland’s death penalty.

He testified Feb. 14 to support a proposed repeal of Maryland’s death penalty at back-to-back committee hearings in the state’s Senate and House of Delegates.

His testimony followed Gov. Martin J. O’Malley, who also spoke in support of the repeal bill he introduced. Other Maryland officials also testified as part of the governor’s panel.

Late Feb. 21, the state Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee voted 6-5 to send the measure to the Senate floor. It was the first time in many years that the committee advanced repeal of the death penalty to a full Senate vote passed the bill and was to be taken up by the full Senate the next week.

The state House of Delegates was to consider the measure in coming weeks.

The death penalty hearings, held by the Senate committee and the House Judiciary Committee, were the first time Archbishop Lori has personally testified before the Maryland Legislature.

The archbishop told lawmakers there are many “worthy arguments” for death penalty repeal, but that the faith community’s perspective “goes beyond these issues.”

“While those who have done terrible harm to others deserve punishment, we urge a response that meets evil with a justice worthy of our best nature as human beings, enlightened by faith in the possibility of redemption and forgiveness,” he said.

Archbishop Lori told The Catholic Review, newspaper of the Baltimore Archdiocese, that the issue affects him personally, as the wife of a now-deceased cousin was murdered “years ago.”

His family did not seek capital punishment because they did not expect it to bring them closure, he said.

The incident has been in his mind as he has pushed for death penalty repeal in the state, he said.

“Once it touches your family, it gives (the issue) a little more impetus,” he said. “It’s closer to home.”

In his testimony, Archbishop Lori expressed “respect and compassion” for victims’ families, and urged lawmakers to devote more resources to helping them.

“I hope my presence today conveys to you a sense of how important this issue is to the Catholic Church,” he said.

Archbishop Lori is aware that not all Catholics agree that the death penalty should be repealed, and he told The Catholic Review that he urges those who disagree “to look at the reasonable position that the church is offering.”

“We also have the example of Blessed John Paul II, who many times intervened before the execution of someone on death row. I think that should also speak powerfully to us,” he said.

Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Denis J. Madden also attended the hearings, although he did not testify. He said he hoped his presence also signified his support for repeal.

In 2008, Bishop Madden sat on the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment, which ultimately recommended death penalty repeal. He said that many of the questions asked by legislators during the hearing were addressed by the panel and included in their final report.

The death penalty, along with gun violence and abortion, topped the issues Maryland Catholics discussed with their state lawmakers Feb. 18 during the Maryland Catholic Conference’s annual Lobby Night.

Archbishop Lori, Bishop Madden and Baltimore Auxiliary Bishops Mitchell T. Rozanski were among the state’s bishops’ who attended the event.

The event began in the afternoon at St. John Neumann with prayer and briefings from the catholic conference’s staff on legislation related to pro-life issues, education and social concerns. Following the presentations, Catholics met with their lawmakers to advocate for laws reflecting Catholic social teaching.

– – –

By Maria Wiering, on the staff of The Catholic Review, newspaper of the Baltimore Archdiocese.

Phoenix efforts

Local Catholics are invited to a series of public events commemorating International Death Penalty Abolition Day and Amnesty International’s Death Penalty Action Weeks Feb. 23-March 10.

Events include a noontime panel discussion at ASU in Tempe March 1, an annual meeting March 2 for the Death Penalty Alternatives for Arizona, a Feb. 28 Glendale and March 1 Flagstaff presentation by a death row exonerate and a March 5 vigil for Edward Schad, who is scheduled for execution the following day.

Info: or call (602) 357-4848.


  1. The Church has not “consistently” opposed the death penalty. The Catechism maintains that it is not an intrinsic evil and in certain albeit “rare” cases may be used. As late as Pius XII, popes advocated the death penalty, precisely as a means of justice and to encourage repentance. It is true that Pope John Paul II did ask mercy for some convicts and in at least one case in California, the convicted man, who dismembered and raped his victim, eventually raped and murdered another woman in Florida.

  2. “If the Pope were to deny that the death penalty could be an exercise of retributive justice, he would be overthrowing the tradition of two millennia of Catholic thought,denying the teaching of several previous popes, and contradicting the teaching of Scripture.” — Avery Cardinal Dulles

  3. If someone would like to get a different and very traditional Catholic perspective on the death penalty, please read This is Fr. George Rutler’s excellent article, Hanging Concentrates the Mind. It introduced me to some ideas that I had never before considered. I include here an excerpt:
    “It is not my concern here to take a position on capital punishment which the Catechism (# 2266) acknowledges is not an intrinsic evil and is rightly part of the state’s authority. This is nuanced by the same Catechism’s proposition that its use today would be “rare, if not practically non-existent. (#2267)” As a highly unusual insertion of a prudential opinion in a catechetical formula, this would seem to be more mercurial in application than the doctrine of the legitimacy of the death penalty. What is oddly lacking, however, is reference to capital punishment as medicinal as well as punitive. Tradition has understood that the spiritual aspect of the death penalty is to “concentrate the mind” so that the victim dies in a state of grace. Simply put, the less I believe heartily in eternal life, the more disheartened I shall be about entering “a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

  4. Is the ‘death penalty’ really an issue? 522 people were murdered in Chicago last year. 50,000 humans have been killed in the Mexican drug war in the last five years. 70% of African American and 60% of Hispanic American kids are born out of wedlock. Over 80% of American Catholics don’t go to Mass any more. If we solved those problems would the ‘death penalty’ even be an issue?


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