By Elisabeth Kincaid
This summer, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church made a number of theological decisions that may result in greater distance from our Anglican brethren and from some of our ecumenical partners, including the Roman Catholic Church. Given this new distance, it is worth pausing to celebrate one important theological question on which Episcopalians and Roman Catholics moved closer together: opposition to the death penalty.
In resolution D077, the 79th General Convention “reaffirms the longstanding principle espoused by the Episcopal Church that the Death Penalty in the United States of America should be repealed.” Previous General Conventions had weighed in on the death penalty in 1958, 1969, 1979, 1991, 2000, and 2015. General Convention also called upon bishops in states where the death penalty was legal to develop task forces to repeal it, and to encourage laypeople to advocate vigorously against its imposition.
On August 2, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, at the instruction of Pope Francis, sent a letter to all Roman Catholic bishops informing them of a revision to the catechism. This revision will state that the “Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267).
This revision replaces earlier language stating that cases in which the execution of an offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent,” given the capacity of modern states to ensure through incarceration that most offenders are no longer capable of causing harm to others. The changes to the catechism also harmonize with papal statements against the death penalty during the pontificates of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. For example, the catechism’s phrase concerning the rarity of cases requiring the death penalty was drawn from John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae, and Pope Francis has signaled in recent years that he would seek a formal change to the catechism.
A shared commitment to ending capital punishment offers opportunity for rich and significant ecumenical engagement between Episcopalians and Roman Catholics. In addition, the letter issued by the CDF and the revisions to the Roman Catholic Catechism indicate two ways in which Episcopalians can better develop our theology of opposition to capital punishment to be both broader and deeper. In this way, we may fulfill General Convention’s mandate to be more effective advocates against the death penalty, and also engage wholeheartedly in the process of “receptive ecumenism,” such as that commended by the most recent ARCIC report Walking Together on the Way: Learning to be the Church — Local, Global, Universal.
In terms of breadth, one of the most glaring differences between the convention’s resolution and the CDF’s letter is the scope of the project. While Episcopalians are advocating against corporal punishment nationally, Roman Catholics are challenging it globally. Seven General Conventions have condemned capital punishment in the United States, which remains an issue requiring advocacy. But perhaps the next step for Episcopalians is to begin to consider how opposition to the death penalty could become a Communion-wide question. We could undoubtedly learn how to be better advocates, both from fellow Episcopalians in Haiti and most of Province IX and from our brothers and sisters in other countries within the Anglican Communion where the death penalty has been outlawed, such as England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Mexico. On the other hand, working with other Anglicans in countries where the death penalty is still permitted (e.g., Nigeria, Uganda, Japan) would provide opportunities to make common cause with other members of the Communion on a hot-button issue.
The letter from the CDF also challenges Episcopalians to strive for greater depth and doctrinal cohesion in articulating a theology of why we oppose the death penalty. The simple claim that it is contrary to human dignity, while true, lacks both rhetorical power and theological weight. Convention’s resolutions from 2000 (A083) and 2018 (D007) both seem to acknowledge this deficiency when they call for study and continuing engagement.
Our opposition so far, at least corporately, fails to indicate anything that can be contributed to the debate from a uniquely theological perspective. Is there anything the Episcopal Church says that the New York Times editorial page, for example, can’t say more effectively and to a much larger audience? In contrast, the CDF letter not only considers the sociological realities of improved prison conditions and changing perspectives of the purpose of punishment, but also the theological claim that, whenever possible, no judicial degree should cut short the opportunity for repentance and conversion.
Furthermore, Episcopal theology lacks rigor on this issue, both in failing to define human dignity adequately, and in treating opposition to the death penalty as a relatively isolated theological issue. It is true that the discussions at General Convention 2018 and 2000 placed opposition to the death penalty within the context of the failures of racial justice within the American court system. This critique, however, does not go far enough, since it fails to address the issues with the nature of the act. Again, in contrast, the letter from the CDF places this development of doctrine within a rich theological nexus, including earlier papal teachings by John Paul II and Benedict XVI, working out a “seamless garment” theology of life and dignity, reaching across all spheres and stages of life. That Episcopalians can offer nothing similar limits our ability to articulate why we believe the death penalty is wrong, and therefore it limits our advocacy. Perhaps we would do well to commend reading one of the papal encyclicals, like Evangelium vitae?
The ecumenical convergence and potential are exciting, and should be celebrated and embraced, but they should also serve as a spur to deepen and expand our challenge and our witness.