Spanish – Archbishops Paul Coakley from Oklahoma City and Joseph Naumann from Kansas City unsuccessfully asked the Republican administration to stop the string of federal executions during the Advent season. The prelates expressed their disagreement to NPR (National Public Radio), arguing that human dignity “is a gift from God, and not something that the state grants or, conversely, can take away.”
This position places the ecclesiastical hierarchies at the antipodes of the support they gave at the time to Trump, who – despite having declared himself “pro-choice” in the past – assumed in this campaign a fiery personal defense of unborn life. Now, in contrast, the church has manifested its disagreement with the “lack of mercy” of the Republican administration regarding the fulfillment of firm sentences.
The repulse for executions is inscribed in the principles set forth fundamentally in John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” as well as in the timely call to governments issued by his successor, Benedict XVI, in which this pontiff requested that “every effort to eliminate the death penalty and to reform the penal system in a way that ensures respect for the prisoners’ human dignity.” Finally, the third source of argument would have emerged from the revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Faithful, carried out in 2018 by the current Pope Francis, in which it is made very clear that capital punishment is “inadmissible under any circumstances.”
The role of the Attorney General
But beyond the archbishop’s protests, and as the current Republican administration asserts, in a state of law, sentences must be served.
Such is the position of Attorney General William Barr, who in an interview with Associated Press has stated that his department is simply abiding by the rules.
“I think the way to stop the death penalty is to abolish it. But if you ask juries to impose it and they do, then you have to comply… We owe to the victims and their families to carry out the sentences imposed by our justice system.”
William Barr is otherwise a devout Catholic. In fact, in September, he was honored with the Christifideles Laici Award in recognition of his “Faithfulness to the Church, Exemplary Altruism and Continuous Service in the Lord’s Vineyard.” And even though the day before and the day after he received the award, the prosecutor ordered executions following federal court rulings.
While the Association of Catholic Priests noted, “The executions are clearly not pro-life,” Catholic Vote, the awarding body, maintained its support for the attorney based on its fervent opposition to abortion.
Its president, Brian Burch, said, “albeit unfortunate and regrettable that we’ve had to use the death penalty here, we’re not talking about large numbers.”
Regardless of “numbers,” other Catholic leaders justify their departure from the papal recommendations by pointing out that while it is true that the Vatican eliminated capital punishment some two decades ago, in 2001, it is also true that in practice, it used it for more than a thousand years. And they add that, in any case, the recent pronouncements against it issued by John Paul II, Benedict XVI, or Francis I do not constitute official doctrine.
In this line, Steven Long, professor of theology at Ave Maria University in southwest Florida, considers that papal addresses only qualify as “prudential admonitions.”
The Supreme Court
Gallup polls reveal that, despite its steady decline, support for the death penalty among the American population still prevails. And in keeping with this spirit, the Supreme Court has been particularly harsh in recent times.
For example, as early as April 2019, in response to a request by a convict to be executed by nitrogen inhalation – a method allowed in some states – because a pre-existing medical condition could make death by lethal injection particularly painful, Judge Gorsuch, appointed by President Trump in 2017, denied the request, saying the following: “the Eighth Amendment (to the U.S. Constitution) prohibits cruel and unusual methods, (referring to the administration of capital punishment) but it does not guarantee the prisoner a painless death.”
It should be noted here that lethal injections consist of three basic components: a fast-acting barbiturate that would cause unconsciousness, a blocker that would paralyze the diaphragm, thereby preventing breathing, and a third element to depolarize the heart muscle and trigger cardiac arrest.
However, a significant number of autopsies would have revealed faults in the dosage of the components so that those executed would have consciously experienced, although absolutely paralyzed, the sensations of suffocation associated with a progressively irreversible pulmonary edema.
Like Judge Gorsuch, and equally true to his principles, President Trump has shown an unwavering willingness to comply with court rulings, without ever using his powers to grant clemency.
This has been particularly notable in the recent execution of Bernard Branden, in which the prosecutor herself, Angela Moore, who accused the convicted man at the time, and five of the nine jurors who convicted him, requested the president to commute the sentence to life imprisonment, stating that “had they been aware of certain elements of judgment that were overlooked in the process, they would not have imposed the death penalty on Bernard Branden.”
Nor was the President influenced by the request of the jurists Alan Dershowitz and Ken Starr, prominent high level lawyers, who not only came to the defense of the defendant in the final instance but, for more information, were the same lawyers who had defended the President himself on the occasion of the senatorial impeachment known as the “Ukraine gate.”
Much less would the signatures gathered on the change.org platform (some 400,000) affect the presidential attitude.
For the Republican administration, the law is the law. And that is why Trump resisted all pressures, no matter where they came from, and the sentences were carried out. And they will continue to be served.