Biden Administration instates moratorium on federal executions

On July 1, 2021, the Biden Administration ordered a halt of all federal executions. The Justice Department will review the policies and practices of federal execution during the moratorium, including the use of barbiturate pentobarbital for lethal injections after reports that it caused severe pain following the injection. The temporary pause follows the Trump Administration’s decision to resume federal executions in 2019 with the last execution occurring earlier this year. Thirteen inmates were put to death between the Trump Administration’s resumption of executions and the Biden Administration’s decision to pause the use of capital punishment.

The moratorium is not permanent policy and federal execution can resume at any time if given approval by the current administration. Federal prosecutors are also allowed to continue seeking the death penalty in criminal cases. Thus, while inmates are no longer being executed, the death penalty is still present in the United States’ judicial system.

While the moratorium of federal executions is a step toward embracing a culture of life, more needs to be done to eliminate the death penalty in the United States.

In A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death (2005), the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) wrote, “the state has the recourse to impose the death penalty upon criminals convicted of heinous crimes if this ultimate sanction is the only available means to protect society from a grave threat to human life. However, this right should not be exercised when other ways are available to punish criminals and to protect society that are more respectful of human life.” Furthermore, “Church teaching on the life and dignity of every human person should guide all our decisions about life, including the use of the death penalty. We are called to reflect on what the Lord’s command, ‘You shall not kill’ (Ex 20:13) means for us today.”

To end someone’s life prematurely is to rob that person of the ability to repent of their sins and turn towards Christ. As Bishop Stephen Berg of Pueblo has stated:

“Indeed, I have witnessed the return to the faith of the most hardened criminals. The death penalty, while it might offer a sense of short-term justice, only adds to the cycle of violence and takes away this opportunity for conversion.”

The permanence of an execution also presents the possibility that an innocent person will be executed for a crime for which they were wrongly convicted. Since 1973, 185 individuals on death-row have been exonerated of charges due to a wrongful conviction. That means that approximately four wrongly convicted people on death-row have been exonerated every year since 1973. Once the death penalty is administered, the sentence is final.

Additionally, public approval of the death penalty has seen a steady decline since 1972. In a 2019 Gallup poll, 60 percent of respondents said that life imprisonment was a “better penalty” for murder than the death penalty.

Colorado is a national leader in promoting life for the incarcerated. On March 23, 2020, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 20-100, repealing the state’s death penalty, making Colorado the 22nd state to remove execution as a sentence. In his public testimony on the issue Denver Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez stated:

“The Catholic Church, many other Christians and many other people of faith believe that human life is sacred from conception until natural death. We believe that, because God made us in his image and likeness, it is not possible to lose the dignity that confers to our lives. We are, as Jesus said, his brothers and sisters, even if we have committed great crimes or sins.”

The federal government should follow Colorado’s example on the death penalty and make the moratorium of federal executions permanent. As a Catholic, President Biden should work to promote the sanctity of life and ensure that every human is ensured the right to life from conception to natural death. While his administration’s decision to halt federal executions is admirable, more action is needed to foster a culture of life in the United States.

For regular updates from the Colorado Catholic Conference and other information, please sign-up for the CCC legislative network here.  

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”