Pope Francis called on Catholic political leaders earlier this week to put a moratorium on using the death penalty during the Church’s Jubilee of Mercy, but it’s a rallying cry unlikely to have much of an effect in the United States.
“I appeal to the conscience of the rulers, so that we achieve an international consensus for the abolition of the death penalty,” Francis said Sunday to thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square. “And I propose to those among them who are Catholics to make a courageous and exemplary gesture that no sentence is executed in this Holy Year of Mercy.”
But barring any sweeping legislative changes or dramatic court rulings that suddenly put an end to capital punishment, the impact that Catholic leaders in the United States who could play a role in halting executions for the rest of 2016 is quite low.
For criminals sentenced to death in federal cases, only President Barack Obama, a non-Catholic Christian, has the authority to offer clemency.
At the state level, it works a bit differently, and of the 31 states with the death penalty, eight are led by governors who are Catholic:
- Greg Abbot of Texas
- John Bel Edwards of Louisiana
- Jerry Brown of California
- Sam Brownback of Kansas
- Doug Ducey of Arizona
- Terry McAuliffe of Virginia
- Butch Otter of Idaho
- Brian Sandoval of Nevada
Only Brownback and McAuliffe, and to a certain extent Brown, have the power to take a convicted criminal off death row. Governors in four of the other states must receive a recommendation for clemency from a review board before they can act, and in Nevada, the review board alone has the final say. (Not that it would matter much, as the remaining five Catholic governors all support the death penalty.)
McAuliffe and Brown say they are opposed to capital punishment, but both have taken steps to follow the law in their states.
The number of executions carried out in the United States has fallen in recent years. In 2015, 28 people were executed, down from a peak of 98 in 1999. Part of the reason is a lack of drugs available to put people to death, spurred in part by a 2011 decision by the European Union to stop shipping drugs used in US executions. Other companies don’t want the bad press and protests that go along with revelations that they supply drugs, so some have bowed out.
That’s the case in California, which has more than 750 criminals sentenced to death, but where an execution hasn’t been carried out since 2006.
Brown says he is an opponent of the death penalty. During his first stint as governor in 1977, he vetoed a bill that would have reinstated California’s death penalty, but it became law the following year anyway. Brown also voted in 2012 in favor of an ultimately unsuccessful ballot measure to abolish the practice.
But that same year, Brown also told criminal justice officials in California to consider using a single drug, instead of the standard three-drug cocktail, to carry out executions.
Brown’s office declined to comment for this article.
Earlier in his life, Brown was considering becoming a Jesuit priest, but he’s uneasy talking about his religious beliefs. During a visit to the Vatican last summer for a conference about climate change, Brown repeatedly deflected a reporter who asked him if he is Catholic.
“What does that mean, by the way?” he asked. “I’m not a Protestant. And I’m not a communist.”
“There’s a whole train of doctrines and beliefs, and I don’t want it to be understood that I’m ready to underwrite everything,” he continued. Still, he said his “Catholic upbringing and training” helped him make sense of the world.
Even if Brown did decide to grant clemency, he would be allowed to do so only if the person has not been convicted of more than one felony, which is unlikely for death row inmates. Otherwise, a majority of the California Supreme Court would have to agree with the governor’s decision.
In Virginia, McAuliffe says he is opposed to the death penalty, but vows to uphold the law.
Last year, he supported a bill that would keep the provenance of death penalty drugs secret, in order to lessen the political pressure on the companies that produce them. Last fall, McAuliffe declined to grant clemency to Alfredo Rolando Prieto, who was convicted of killing two people in Fairfax in 1998. He was executed in October using drugs given to Virginia officials from Texas authorities, where the origins of drugs can be kept secret.
In explaining how the governor was against capital punishment but in favor or acquiring the drugs needed to carry out executions, a spokesman for McAuliffe invoked a formula common to Catholic Democrats who favor abortion rights, which the Church opposes, by differentiating between personal belief and public duty.
“He is a Catholic,” Brian Coy told The Washington Post, “so there is a moral component to his position on the issue, but he’s governor, and he will enforce the law.”
McAuliffe’s office did not comment for this story.
Kansas’ Brownback is a convert to Catholicism, one of the many high-profile Catholics who studied with the Rev. C. John McCloskey, an Opus Dei priest who headed the Catholic Information Center in Washington, DC. Like Brown and McAuliffe, his views on the death penalty are also complicated.
In 2015, Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann came out in support of a bill to repeal the death penalty, but Brownback opposed the measure. During his campaign for governor in 2014, the Brownback campaign produced a political ad that criticized Kansas Supreme Court justices who overturned a death sentence for two brothers convicted of murder.
But Brownback has said he supports the death penalty only in cases where the public could face violence in the future, pointing to Osama bin Laden as a good candidate.
“I am opposed to the death penalty in cases other than where you cannot protect the society from the perpetrator,” he told Catholic News Service last year. He also pointed out that while nearly 10 men are on death row in Kansas, the state hasn’t executed anyone in nearly 50 years.
Brownback’s office did not respond for this story.
Pope Francis has repeatedly expressed his opposition to the death penalty, last year calling it “inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed,” and saying it “contradicts God’s plan for man and society” and “does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”
The Catholic Church does not expressly forbid its use, most notably in cases where the state cannot protect people from a violent individual. But Francis and his two predecessors, Pope Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II, have all suggested the death penalty has no use in the modern world.
That said, a 2014 Pew poll found that a majority of white Catholics in the United States support the death penalty, while a majority of Hispanic Catholics oppose it.