“The Golden Rule … reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.”
It was the first time a reigning Pope has ever addressed the U.S. Congress. And in that historic speech on September 24, Pope Francis’s call was clear: Abolish the death penalty.
“Every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes,” he said.
He also reaffirmed the stated position of U.S. Catholic Bishops that “the death penalty is unnecessary and unjustified in our time and circumstances.”
“Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation,” Francis said.
HIs message was unconditional: If you believe that every life is sacred, as Catholicism and many other religions teach, you cannot support the death penalty. That message could be why Catholic U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas did not attend the speech. All three are staunch supporters of the death penalty. In fact, at a Pew Research Center conference on religion and the death penalty in 2002, Scalia said, “The choice for the judge who believes the death penalty to be immoral is resignation rather than simply ignoring duly enacted constitutional laws and sabotaging the death penalty.” And he said, “You want to have a fair death penalty? You kill, you die. That’s fair.”
Whether the Pope’s remarks will affect how the Supreme Court, and especially its five conservative Catholic justices, will rule on death penalty appeals remains to be seen. But as U.C. Hastings College of the Law Professor Rory Little points out on scotusblog.com (http://www.scotusblog.com/2015/09/as-the-2015-term-opens-the-courts-unusual-eighth-amendment-focus/), in the term that opened this month, the Supreme Court will review five Eighth Amendment issues, four of them death penalty, meaning “This term may be the biggest Eighth Amendment term in 40 years.”
And he believes that the review of these five cases also “signals…the deep cultural (as well as economic and federalism) concerns that Americans in general seem to have regarding capital punishment.”
There is no question the Pope’s call for abolition was significant. It engendered headlines, and much analysis in the media. Its repercussions remain to be seen. But as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who co-chaired the 2002 Pew Conference at which Justice Scalia spoke, has said, “I think the religious community has played an enormous role in having people question their consciences about where they stand on the death penalty.”
Pope Francis is continuing his efforts to play a role in abolishing capital punishment. Just days after returning to Rome from his trip to the United States, he sent a letter to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles asking it to commute the sentence of Kelly Gissendaner, the only woman on the state’s death row. “While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms. Gissendaner has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been expressed to your board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy,” the Pope wrote.
The Board did not commute Gissendaner’s sentence, and in fact, executed her shortly after midnight on September 29th, hours after the board received Pope Francis’s letter. She was the first woman in 70 years to be executed in Georgia.
But Pope Francis is not giving up. It was revealed that he had sent another letter on September 14 asking Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin to commute the death sentence of Richard Glossip, who was scheduled to be executed on September 30. Like the letter to the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles, it was written on behalf of Pope Francis by Archbishop Carlo Vigano, and stated, “Together with Pope Francis, I believe that a commutation of Mr. Glossip’s sentence would give clearer witness to the value and dignity of every person’s life, and would contribute to a society more cognizant of the mercy that God has bestowed upon us all.”
Glossip’s execution was delayed, but not because of the Pope’s appeal. FIrst, Governor Fallin issued a 37-day stay to give the state time to address “last minute questions …raised about Oklahoma’s execution protocol and the chemicals used for lethal injection.” A day after Fallin’s order, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a staunch defender of the death penalty, asked the state Court of Criminal Appeals to postpone all scheduled executions, including two others slated for October, citing the state’s problems in its drug protocols.
So the tide may be turning. In a speech he gave at Rhodes College in Memphis two days before Pope Francis’s address to Congress, Scalia told the students he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in the near future.