October 8, 2008 22:12 Age: 6 yrs

Archbishop Says Church Must Add Voice to Debates of State

By: Mary Loftus

Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory

Even as the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to accept or reject an appeal from death-row inmate Troy Davis, a Georgia man whose case has attracted international attention and an appeal for clemency from Pope Benedict XVI, Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory spoke at Emory University on October 7 about the Catholic Church’s revised stance on capital punishment. View webcast.

Gregory spoke at Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) as the Decalogue lecturer, the first address in a new two-year lecture series titled “When Law and Religion Meet.” Emory’s Aquinas Center of Theology co-sponsored the event.

“There has been a change in the church’s moral position on the use of the death penalty,” Gregory told the capacity crowd at Emory Law’s Tull Auditorium, which included faculty, students, clergy, members of the community, and anti-death penalty advocates. “The key distinction is the way in which purposes of punishment are defined.”

Appointed the sixth archbishop of the Archdiocese of Atlanta in 2004, Gregory does not shy away from controversy, or from speaking out about contemporary issues of morality. During his tenure as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the American bishops issued the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” in response to sexual abuse cases in the church. Gregory has written extensively on church issues, including pastoral statements on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide as well as the death penalty.

The state and the church are distinct, said Gregory, and the church cannot take up the battle of the state to create a just society. “But neither,” he added, “can the church remain on the sidelines. It must provide an important and reasonable voice in the debates of our time.”

Traditional justification for the use of punishment, with the death penalty being the ultimate punishment, has been to redress the damage caused by the offense, defend life, and protect public order, said Gregory, or in short, “restitution, deterrence and reform.” This view, he said, rests in biblically grounded convictions about “good and evil, sin and redemption, and justice and mercy.”

The section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church—the full and complete exposition of church doctrine for its 1.1 billion followers—that pertains to capital punishment was significantly revised in the late 1990s, Gregory said, in a way that lessened the role of restitution and deterrence as justifications for capital punishment.

The new text, based on Pope John Paul II’s moral analysis, would indicate that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

“The only purpose that would render an execution morally licit is the defense of society from the criminal whose sentencing is under question”—a situation not likely to be found in a modern, industrialized society with a secure prison system, he added.

Catholic bishops and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace have long registered their opposition to the death penalty, Gregory said, believing that there are systemic flaws in the application of capital punishment and “an alarming amount of mistaken convictions of men and women on death row, who are later exonerated.”

There is also a shared belief in the church’s leadership that the deterrent effect of capital punishment on potential offenders lacks empirical support. “My own view, as a Catholic Bishop and an American citizen, is that the studies are inconclusive on this matter, and that . . . the Catholic moral tradition calls for an unambiguous preference to preserve life.”

Gregory himself has written a letter to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles asking for clemency for Davis, who maintains that he is innocent and whose lawyers are asking the Supreme Court to declare that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment bars the execution of the innocent and requires at least a court hearing to assess recantation evidence.

Since Davis’ trial, seven of nine key prosecution witnesses who identified him as the shooter in the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail have recanted their testimony.

Beyond questions of guilt and innocence, which the state must determine, says Gregory, exists the larger issue of forgiveness. In a society that embraces “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” Gregory said, individuals and communities become slaves to vengeance.

Christians are called to show mercy and not vengeance, he said, and punishment should include remedies for both the victims and the perpetrators of crimes. “Even the dignity of those who deny the dignity of others is itself a gift from God, rather than something that is earned or lost through malicious behavior,” he said.

The church’s counsel and position on tough topics like the death penalty is exactly what these public forums are intended to address, says John Witte, Jr., Jonas Robitscher Professor of Law and CSLR director.

“We shall be bringing to this lectern distinguished religious leaders to discuss how state law challenges their religious communities and how their religious communities might, in turn, challenge state law,” he said. “We shall be confronting some of the hardest legal, political, and moral questions that face us today, questions of life and death, of war and terror, of faith and freedom, of church and state, of marriage and family, and much more.” 

Upcoming lectures in the series:

March 18, noon: Mona Siddiqui, professor of Islamic studies and public understanding at the University of Glasgow, lectures about the stark differences between Islamic law and English law in a talk titled "Islamic Law in Britain: A Minor Problem or a Problem for a Minority?"

March 30, 7:30 p.m.: V. Gene Robinson, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, delivers the CSLR's annual Currie Lecture in Law and Religion. He will address the divide in the Episcopal Church caused by his election as bishop in 2003 in a lecture titled "Why Religion Matters in the Quest for Gay Civil Rights."

All lectures take place at Emory Law's Tull Auditorium, 1301 Clifton Road, on the Emory Campus in Atlanta.


The Center for the Study of Law and Religion (CSLR) at Emory University is home to world-class scholars and forums on the religious foundations of law, politics, and society. It offers first-rank expertise on how the teachings and practices of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have shaped and can continue to transform the fundamental ideas and institutions of our public and private lives. The scholarship of CSLR faculty provides the latest perspectives, while its conferences and public forums foster reasoned and robust public debate.

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