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NOTE: The following letter was published in the September 6, 2018 edition of The Catholic Spirit, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen.
In 2007, New Jersey became the first state since 1965 to legislatively abolish the death penalty by passing a law to replace it with life without the possibility of parole. I remember being in Rome on December 19, 2007, when the Colosseum glowed in New Jersey’s honor with the words “No Justice without Life.” Many hailed the enactment of New Jersey’s law as a victory for the dignity of life.
Fast forward almost 11 years: On August 2, 2018, Pope Francis declares that the death penalty is “inadmissible in all cases, because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” This declaration by the Holy Father is consistent with the groundwork laid by his predecessors. Pope Benedict XVI urged “the attention of society's leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty,” and Pope St. John Paul II observed that “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.” Once again this development is being welcomed as a victory for the dignity of life.
While Pope Francis acknowledges that the Catholic Church has previously taught that the death penalty is appropriate in certain instances, he argues that modern methods of imprisonment effectively protect society from criminals, and hence the death penalty is not needed in our day. Pope Francis clarified the Church’s opposition to the death penalty by revising the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 2267), committing the Catholic Church to working “with determination” for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.
The Church certainly affirms the state’s duty to punish criminals and to prevent crime. We are called to care for our brothers and sisters who have been wounded by violence and support them in their loss and search for justice. They deserve our compassion, solidarity, and support. However, standing with families of victims does not compel us to support the use of the death penalty.
I recently visited the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Union Township, Hunterdon County, where I celebrated Mass for some 20 maximum security inmates. Many of these women have been caught in the cycle of abuse throughout their lives. Others have struggled with poverty, addiction or mental illness. As I greeted each of them, I was touched by their desire for God’s grace and His mercy even in their woundedness. I was reminded that whatever their misdeeds, a criminal remains a person — and therefore capable of remorse, a conversion of heart and redemption. It was a blessing for me to be able to pray with them and offer the Eucharist for them.
I am most grateful for those from Immaculate Conception Parish in Annandale and so many other priests, religious, deacons and lay volunteers throughout our diocese that minister in our prison ministries, volunteering their time to provide weekly Mass, confession, Bible study and most importantly the love and hope of Christ. Through ministry to family and friends of victims and offenders, as well as corrections personnel and the community, we can touch the hearts of those who are affected by violent crime, as Jesus taught us to do. Indeed, visiting those in prison is a corporal work of mercy.
Together, let us pray to our Merciful Father to give us wisdom and hearts filled with love as we work to build a culture that truly chooses life in all circumstances. We are currently in the midst of our 2020 initiative which is a state-wide effort to advance the NJ Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection act, legislation which would ban abortion past 20 weeks in our state by the year 2020. On Respect Life weekend, October 6 and 7, 2018, parishioners will have the opportunity to sign postcards urging our state legislators to defend life by supporting this bill. Similar laws have already been enacted in 17 states protecting vulnerable babies in the womb. Together, let us work towards another victory for the dignity of life by continuing to raise our voices to promote public policy that affirms and protects it. Truly there is no justice without life.
Thank you for all you do to build a culture of life here in our diocese; I am truly grateful. Know of my prayers for you, and I ask you to remember me in your prayers too. God bless you.
The Most Reverend James F. Checchio, JCD, MBA
Bishop of Metuchen