The Catholic Church is not a partisan institution, but its leaders occasionally wade into political matters. That’s why, at the direction of Denver’s Archbishop Samuel Aquila, parishioners who attended mass on Sunday, March 3, were told to call their state senators this week and voice support for Senate Bill 182, which if passed will repeal the death penalty in Colorado beginning July 1.
The Catholic Church’s stance on the death penalty has not always been concrete. For decades, it was generally opposed to capital punishment except for in certain cases. But the teaching narrowed last summer when Pope Francis approved a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church that reads: “The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” With that, it became official: The Catholic Church opposes the death penalty in all forms and circumstances.
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For Colorado, the Church’s revised teaching is timely. For the fifth time since 2007, the Colorado legislature is considering a bill to repeal the death penalty. In today’s political climate, with Democrats controlling the statehouse and the governor’s office, the bill is favored to become law. Though it’s not a strictly partisan issue—Democrats and Republicans both support or oppose the death penalty for personal and pragmatic reasons—momentum is building for a repeal. And in early February, Gov. Jared Polis indicated that he would sign the legislation if it makes it to his desk.
When you look at the bill’s origins, it’s hard not to find Catholic fingerprints on it. In fact, the Democratic Senator who introduced SB 182, Angela Williams, is a practicing Catholic and says her faith is one of the primary reasons she’s carrying the legislation to the Senate floor.
“For those of us legislators on either side of the aisle who profess the Catholic faith,” Williams says, “we take that into consideration. This is about ending human life. That’s a very personal decision.”
When it comes to ending a life, the Catholic Church’s teaching is as stringent as it is controversial. “Every human life has dignity,” says Deacon Geoffrey Bennett, who represented the Archdiocese and testified at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about the legislation on Wednesday. “The Church teaches that all human life—from conception to natural death—includes the life of a convicted murderer.”
The Church’s stance on the issue is largely a moral argument, but as the bill is debated by the legislature, practical and logistical rebuttals are being made to justify why the death penalty should remain in place. For instance, at the committee hearing, opponents argued that the issue should be voted on by the public in a referendum. Former Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler (who happens to be Catholic himself) also said that having the death penalty on the books has helped the state induce guilty pleas from defendants who fear receiving a death sentence at trial. He also speculated that, if the bill passes, Polis would likely reduce the sentences of the three men who currently sit on death row—something he says would retroactively betray the justice paid to the victims’ families.
Even among those who want the death penalty repealed, more practical arguments are being deployed. Proponents argue the cost of keeping someone on death row, particularly due to the appeals process, is a far greater expense than putting someone in prison for life. The American Civil Liberties Union estimated the average cost of a death penalty trial in Colorado is $3.5 million, though Brauchler testified on Wednesday that he thinks that number is grossly exaggerated. Williams and others have also argued that minorities are unfairly targeted by the death penalty, particularly because the only three people on death row in Colorado are black men.
To pass, the bill will need a majority vote in both the Senate and House, which will likely require a bipartisan push. That effort could be bolstered by moral arguments laid out by Catholics and other faith groups who have supported the legislation. For example, Sen. Kevin Priola, the only Republican cosponsoring the bill, says he wants the death penalty repealed because he is a pro-life Catholic. “I think it’s a beautiful thing to understand the church’s perspective on protecting life from conception to natural death,” he says. “We, as policy makers and people of faith, need to have the state protect life.”
The value in protecting life until natural death, according to church leaders, is that even the world’s most heinous criminals are capable of redemption. Deacon Steve Vallero, who coordinates the jail and prison ministries for the Archdiocese, has spent the past two decades working with inmates across northern Colorado and says a death sentence might prevent someone from finding God’s mercy. “The mission of the church is to repent,” he says. “I’ve seen conversions. I have witnessed that with my own eyes.”
Still, Vallero is unsure to what extent lawmakers and the public will listen to such a message from the church these days. When he testified about previous bills to repeal the death penalty at the Capitol, Vallero says legislators were largely indifferent to what he was saying. Moreover, he fears most Catholics support the death penalty. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, 53 percent of Catholics nationally are in favor of keeping capital punishment in place, and Vallero suspects that number might be higher in Colorado.
No one has been executed in the state of Colorado since 1997, and depending on what happens at the Capitol, the state might not sentence anyone to death again. After passing a committee vote 3–2 on Wednesday, the bill now heads to the Senate, where it will be debated next week. If it clears both legislative bodies, it could reach Polis’ desk by the end of the month.
In the meantime, whether or not anyone is listening to its message, the Catholic Church is rallying to make its voice heard, something Bennett says is essential to its mission. “We speak up. We’ll speak loudly, because we’re going to defend the dignity of human life,” he says. “If it goes against the teachings of the church, we have an obligation to speak up.”