As with most pronouncements on this issue by American bishops, it is full of both theological error from a Catholic point of view, and factual error from the point of view of criminal justice and penology.
Theologically, the bishops strongly imply that the death penalty is not simply prudentially uncalled for given the mysterious "improvements" to our criminal justice system, but rather is immoral as being opposed to "human dignity" or the "Gospel of Life:"
The death penalty does not provide true healing for those who mourn, nor does it embody the Gospel of Life, which each of us is called to affirm even in the most difficult circumstances.The notion that these, and other bishops have floated, that it contravenes human dignity or that it violates the "Gospel of Life" and embraces the "culture of death" to execute an offender, is an absurd and anti-Christian error with zero support in either sacred Scripture or the Tradition of the Church, which has always and everywhere taught that life is not an absolute value, but may justly and without sin be taken in certain circumstances, such as self-defense, just war, or capital punishment (See, Rev. Thomas Williams, L.C., “Capital Punishment and the Just Society” in Catholic Dossier, Vol. 4, No. 5 (Sept./Oct. 1998), and here, here, and here). Period, end of story. Any who claim to be orthodox Christians but deny these simple moral truths are deluding themselves and are in serious error; moreover they attack the Church by implying that for 2,000 Her understanding of this issue was wrong.
By ending the use of the death penalty we would take one important step – among significant others we must take – to abandon the culture of death and embrace the culture of life.
Let us take the more courageous step and choose life instead, even when it seems “unlovable.”
Beyond their attempt to imply that the death penalty is per se immoral, the bishops tell some flat out lies about its use:
Since 1973, some 152 death row inmates nationwide – including one in Virginia – have been exonerated.This is an extremely misleading claim, but others have floated this lie. In fact there is strong evidence that not one factually innocent person has been executed in this country since the reintroduction of capital punishment in 1976. Which is to say, the "error rate" in death penalty cases is, so far, zero. But the Catholic Left has picked up on disinformation peddled by the advocacy outfit DPIC, which has been thoroughly debunked.
The case in Virginia referred to by the bishops, Earl Washington, Jr., was a legitimate exoneration, but it also was an example of how the "system," so criticized by the Left, actually works. Washington was convicted largely on the basis of a confession, but when DNA technology advanced enough to test evidence left at the crime scene, it became apparent Washington was not the rapist. A Democrat governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment, then a subsequent Republican governor fully pardoned Washington and released him from incarceration. In other words, the system worked. And given modern developments in forensic science and DNA technology, the growing expectation by juries that forensic evidence be present before a capital conviction, and the increasingly careful and selective process prosecutors are using in seeking death sentences, error rates can be lowered even further.
A second whopper the bishops tell is: "We must also be aware of the racial inequity inherent in the system..." It's possible, but not believable, that the bishops, so keenly following this issue, did not see the study that demonstrated that race is simply not a factor in Virginia death penalty cases. Will they apologize to the prosecutors whom they have slandered as racist?
Of course, as always in these discussions, clerics who delve into the mechanics of the criminal justice system and penology have shown themselves utterly ignorant of the fact we have never found the magical "means" to "render offenders harmless" such that the death penalty would be rendered unnecessary. And now that Pope Francis has declared that even life imprisonment is unacceptable, there is even less reason to believe that we can protect society merely by incarceration.
But the clerical Left will no doubt continue to try to undermine protection of the innocent and the just punishment of the worst offenders in Virginia..