December 5, 2000

Dear Mr. President:

As President of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, I recently joined with a number of  prominent religious and other leaders in a letter to you calling for a moratorium on federal executions.  We continue to believe that a moratorium is appropriate in light of serious concerns raised by the Department of Justice about racial bias and arbitrary application of the federal death penalty.

Today, I write on behalf of the country’s Catholic bishops to reiterate that call and urge something more fundamental.  In this Jubilee Year, we ask that you commute to life in prison the sentences of all 31 people (civilian and military) awaiting execution in federal prisons.

Our request takes on special urgency since Mr. Juan Raul Garza faces execution on December 12.  For Catholics, this day is the great feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas, who appeared before a peasant to share the Good News that God has special concern for the poor and the forgotten.  Despite their horrible crimes, the men and women on our nation’s death rows are often themselves poor and forgotten.

As you know, for nearly thirty years the U.S. Catholic bishops have been working to end the death penalty in the United States.  We believe that there are other means to keep society safe from murderers—means that demonstrate a respect for life and ensure that innocent people will never be put to death.  We do not believe that the state can teach society that killing is wrong by killing those who kill others.  Executing Mr. Garza not only ends a life, but diminishes all of us and contributes to the cycle of violence.  In addition, we do not believe that executions offer anything but temporary and false comfort to those who have lost a loved one to murder.  Their pain and anguish requires sustained care by society and the loving presence of those of us called to minister to their spiritual needs.

These courageous acts—a moratorium or commutations—would demonstrate to the nation and the world that Americans are turning away from death and towards life by protecting even the lives of those who failed to demonstrate a similar respect for life.

But commutations would have far greater significance in this Jubilee Year.  In working for the relief of the crushing debt of so many poor countries, your Administration undertook an action that is very much in keeping with the spirit of the Jubilee Year.  Changing a sentence of death to a sentence of life reflects this same spirit.  Just as debt relief will save hundreds of thousands of poor people from death by hunger and disease, so too will commutations save the lives of these condemned.  The Jubilee year is not the time to begin again the execution of those who commit federal crimes.


Most Reverend Joseph A. Fiorenza
National Conference of Catholic Bishops


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