Bishops Condemn Death Penalty, Approve Guidelines for Lay Ministers

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c. 2005 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops on Tuesday (Nov. 15) issued a renewed call to end the death penalty, saying state-sponsored executions are unfair, unnecessary and unhealthy for America’s moral soul.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, meeting here, affirmed church teaching that allows capital punishment in limited circumstances, but said life imprisonment is a better alternative.

“We seek to build a culture of life in which our nation will no longer try to teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill,” the bishops said in an 18-page statement. “This cycle of violence diminishes all of us.”

In other action, the bishops approved new guidelines for the 30,000 U.S. Catholics who are working as lay ministers and doing many of the jobs once performed by a dwindling number of priests and nuns.

The bishops said new standards are needed to make sure Catholics involved in education, counseling and even running parishes in the absence of resident priests are operating “in cooperation with the hierarchy.”

On the death penalty, the bishops are hoping to harness growing skepticism over capital punishment, both among Catholics and the general public. A poll commissioned by the bishops last March found that support for the death penalty among Catholics has slipped to just 48 percent, down from 68 percent in 2001.

It might be a mistake, however, to make too much of the declining numbers. A separate Gallup Poll conducted last spring for the National Catholic Reporter found that 57 percent of Catholics support “stiffer enforcement” of the death penalty.

While abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty are frequently condemned as part of a “culture of death,” the bishops were clear that capital punishment is different, and that “people of goodwill disagree” on its merits.

Indeed, church teaching allows the death penalty when it “is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor,” but says such circumstances are rare.

Catholic politicians who have been criticized for their support of abortion rights have complained that the bishops are not applying equal pressure on politicians who support the death penalty.

“The death penalty has never been considered intrinsically evil by the church,” said Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who shepherded the document. “We’re not saying that anyone who would be signing a death warrant would be committing an intrinsically evil act. That’s the difference.”

Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976, nearly 1,000 people have been executed. But the number of annual executions has dropped by about 40 percent since 1999, and at least 119 death row inmates have had their death sentences overturned.

Given those realities, plus growing skepticism about the fairness of the death penalty and recent Supreme Court decisions that outlawed executions for juveniles and the mentally retarded, the bishops said the death penalty has become obsolete.

“The use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned not only for what it does to those who are executed, but for what it does to all of society,” the bishops said.

Turning their attention to lay ministers, the bishops approved new national standards for recruiting and supervising lay Catholics who are filling the gaps left by a shortage of clergy. There are currently 18,000 lay Catholics in ministry training programs _ a figure six times larger than the number of men studying for the priesthood.

The bishops were clear, however, that lay ministers do not take the place of priests, and many bishops wondered aloud whether the work done by lay Catholics should be described as “ministry” or “service.”

“Lay ministry differs from and complements the sacred ministry of the ordained,” said Bishop Dale Melczek of Gary, Ind., chairman of the bishops’ committee on the laity.

In other business, the bishops elected a Milwaukee priest, Monsignor David Malloy, as their general secretary. Malloy, 49, will run the day-to-day affairs of the bishops conference during a five-year term that begins in February.


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