A Strong Voice for Life from Deep in the Bible Belt
By: Dale S. Recinella
Catholic Correctional Chaplain for Florida’s Death Row
In August of 1998, our family completed its move from Rome, Italy to the deep Bible belt in extreme north Florida.
Our new parish, St. Mary Mother of Mercy Catholic Church, was charged with pastoral authority for Catholic ministry to Florida’s death
row and long term solitary confinement.
This sleepy little parish with about 125 members from five counties (two in Florida and three in Georgia) is the only Catholic Church
between Jacksonville and Lake City, Florida (a distance of about 75 miles).
As most of our readers know, the Bible belt is the American death penalty belt.
Even so, in June of 1999, this small light on a hill in Macclenny, Florida spoke loudly and clearly for life by becoming one of the first
two Catholic parishes in the country to call for a moratorium on America’s death penalty.
The parish resolution, which is available to this day on the USCCB website under Justice, Peace & Human Development at USCCB is reproduced below.
Parish Resolution of St. Mary Mother of Mercy, MacClenny, Florida
Calling for a moratorium on the death penalty
Passed June 1, 1999 by the Parish Council of St. Mary's Mother of Mercy, Macclenny, Florida.
WHEREAS, Catholic social teaching calls us to oppose capital punishment:
- Pope John Paul II, on January 27, 1999 in St. Louis, Missouri instructed us, "The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life [and] who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."
WHEREAS, St. Mary's Mother of Mercy Catholic Church of Macclenny, FL is in the unique position of having pastoral responsibility for
the 368 men on Florida's death row, including the over 40 Catholic men on Florida's death row. [A]
- This Papal instruction is consistent with, and flows from, Pope John Paul II's Encyclical Evangelium Vitae which calls for
alternative means to defend and protect society, concluding that "as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases [meriting execution] are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes this teaching. (1)
- The Catholic bishops of the United States have called for an end to the death penalty in our land. (2)
- On Good Friday, April 2, 1999, the Administrative Board of the U.S. Catholic Conference (USCC) of American Bishops stated:
"The actions of Catholics who consistently and faithfully oppose the death penalty reflect the call of our bishops' statement Living
the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics: 'Our witness to respect for life shines most brightly when we demand respect
for each and every human life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others. The antidote to violence is
love, not more violence.' (3). Respect for all human life and opposition to the violence in our society are at the root of our
long-standing position against the death penalty. We see the death penalty as perpetuating a cycle of violence and promoting a
sense of vengeance in our culture. As we said in Confronting a Culture of Violence: 'We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. (4)'"
- On Good Friday, April 2, 1999, Our Bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine published the following open letter in The Florida Times-Union:
"Today, I join my brother bishops in a Good Friday appeal to end the death penalty. On the day when we recall the execution of Jesus Christ,
the administrative board of the Bishops' Conference has released a statement calling for an end to the death penalty in the United States.
As we approach the next millennium, we are challenged by the evolution in Catholic teaching on this subject and encouraged by new and
growing efforts to stop executions around the world.
"In January 1999, our Holy Father brought his prophetic appeal to end the death penalty to the United States, clearly challenging us
to ''end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.'' Our Holy Father has called us with new urgency to stand against
capital punishment. We oppose capital punishment not just for what it does to those guilty of horrible crimes, but for what it does
to all of us as a society. Increasing reliance on the death penalty diminishes all of us, and it is a sign of growing disrespect for
"We cannot overcome crime by simply executing criminals, nor can we restore the lives of the innocent by ending the lives of those
convicted of their murders. The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life.
"We are painfully aware of the increased rate of executions in many states. Since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976, more than
500 executions have taken place, while there have been 74 Death Row reversals late in the process. Through the states, more than 3,500
prisoners await their deaths. These numbers are deeply troubling. The pace of executions is numbing. The discovery of people on Death
Row who are innocent is frightening. [*]
“We strongly encourage all within the Catholic community to support victims of crime and their families. This can be a compassionate
response to the terrible pain and anger associated with the serious injury or murder of a loved one. Our family of faith must stand with
them as they struggle to overcome their terrible loss and find some sense of peace. This is not an easy issue. All of us need to consider
how we will stand up for life, stand with the victims of crime and work for a society that does not solve its problems with violence.
-- John J. Snyder, Bishop, Diocese of St. Augustine, Jacksonville, FL USA"
WHEREAS, as Catholics, we must take note of the fact that there is ample evidence that the death penalty is applied in an unfair and
racially and economically discriminatory manner inconsistent with the principles of justice that are basic to our American ideals:
- In 1987, in McCleskey v. Kemp, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to act on data demonstrating the continuing reality of racial
bias in application of the death penalty in America.
WHEREAS, as Catholics, we must take note of the fact that prisoner appeals have been severely curtailed, increasing the risk of
imprisonment and execution of innocent people:
- In 1990, the U.S. General Accounting Office reported "a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in charging, sentencing
and imposition of the death penalty."
- Nationwide, 82% of those put to death had been convicted of murdering a white person even though people of color are the victims
in more than half of all homicides. [B]
- The U.S. Congress has failed repeatedly to pass the Racial Justice Act, which would allow prisoners to challenge their death
sentences using standards normal in civil racial discrimination cases.
- About 90% of those persons facing capital charges cannot afford their own attorney.
- No state, including our state of Florida, has met the minimum standards developed by the American Bar Association for appointment,
performance and compensation of counsel for indigent prisoners.
- In a series of rulings since 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court has drastically restricted the rights of death row prisoners to appeal
their convictions and death sentences in federal courts, even in cases where prisoners present compelling evidence of innocence.
WHEREAS, as Catholics, we must take note of the fact that the American Bar Association has concluded that administration of the death
penalty in America is "a haphazard maze of unfair practices with no internal consistency" and has called for a moratorium on executions.
- In 1996, new legislation drastically limited federal court review of death penalty appeals, and gutted public funding of legal
aid services for death row prisoners.
- With at least 19 wrongfully convicted capital defendants, our State of Florida has had more people found innocent on death row
than in any other state in the union. [C]
- With respect to some of the defendants executed with the approval of the Florida Supreme Court during his tenure, Gerald Kogan,
a retiring Florida Supreme Court Justice and a former homicide detective and prosecutor, stated in the Gainesville Sun on December 24,
1998: "There are several cases where I had grave doubts as to the guilt of a particular person."
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED: That the Parish Council of St. Mary Mother of Mercy Catholic Church, Macclenny, FL, calls on Governor
Bush and our state representatives, and President Clinton and our representatives in Congress, to enact and adopt legislation imposing
a moratorium on executions at least until this state and the nation implement policies and procedures which:
- Ensure that death penalty cases are administered fairly and impartially, in accordance with basic due process;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED: That copies of this resolution shall be forwarded to our Governor and our state representatives, to
President Clinton and our representatives in Congress, and to the Florida Catholic Conference and any other canonically recognized
entities of the Roman Catholic Church and any inter-religious body which may assist in accomplishing the forgoing.
- Minimize the risk that innocent persons may be executed by prohibiting application of the death penalty in any case where
competent evidence raises lingering doubt as to guilt at any stage of the proceedings;
- Prevent the execution of mentally retarded persons and mentally ill persons, whether or not they satisfy the legal standard
of not guilty by reason of insanity; and [D]
- Prevent the execution of anyone who was under the age of 18 at the time of their offense. [E]
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED: That our fellow parishes, churches and synagogues are hereby implored to respond in solidarity to this
moral crisis by passing resolutions similar to the foregoing.
05/10/99: Moved X Seconded X Tabled until 06/01/99 for publication to the parish at large.
06/01/99: Passed 9-0. Parish Council of St. Mary Mother of Mercy Catholic Church, Macclenny, FL USA
(1) Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2265-2267 (revised: Latin Edition - 1997; English Edition - 1998)
(2) USCC, Political Responsibility: Choices for the 1980's
(3) USCC, (December 3, 1998).
(4) USCC, Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action (1994).
[*] As of today, since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976, more than 1,288 executions have taken place, while there have been
140 Death Row reversals late in the process; and 3,200 prisoners await their deaths.
[A] As of today, there are almost 400 men on Florida’s death row and more than 55 of them are Catholic.
[B] As of today, 77% of those put to death since 1976 were convicted of murdering a white person even though people of color are the
victims in more than half of all homicides.
[C] As of today, State of Florida has had at least 23 wrongfully convicted capital defendants released from death row, still more than
any other state.
[D] In Atkins v. Virginia (June 20, 2002), the U.S. Supreme Court held it unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded. Unfortunately,
the Court left it to each state to determine the definition of mental retardation for death penalty purposes.
[E] In Roper v. Simmons (March 1, 2005), the U.S. Supreme Court held it unconstitutional to execute those whose crime was committed
while under the age of 18.