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California bishops to visit death row inmates at San Quentin

March 7, 2023 Catholic News Agency 0
The lethal injection room at California’s San Quentin State Prison. / California Department of Corrections via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Denver, Colo., Mar 7, 2023 / 08:40 am (CNA).

A group of Catholic bishops will visit San Quentin Prison’s death row inmates on Tuesday as inmates await transfer to other facilities in light of California’s moratorium on executions.

The visit is “simply extending a pastoral presence to those whose lives are on the line and on a time clock,” Bishop Oscar Cantu of San Jose told CNA March 6.

Cantu is scheduled to visit the prison with Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, and Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland. The California Catholic Conference organized the March 7 visit.  

In 2019, Gov. Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on executions and ordered the closure of the execution chamber at San Quentin Prison, the Marin County facility near San Francisco that dates back to the 19th century.

The state of California aims to move 671 death row inmates, 21 of whom are women, to high-security units at other prisons, National Public Radio reported in January. Prison officials will approve inmate transfers based on the specific facts about each prisoner. They will make further judgments about whether the inmates may have prison jobs or cellmates, National Public Radio reported.

No prisoners were pardoned or released from prison and California prosecutors can still seek the death penalty.

Cantu said he regularly visits prisoners in his diocese. For him, such visits are “a reminder that we believe in the dignity of every human person from conception until natural death.”

Though the death row inmates have “committed some heinous crimes,” he said, “we recognize that human dignity does not disappear when one commits a crime,” even if sometimes that dignity is “marred and scarred.”

“We know from our theology, our Catholic theology of grace, that God’s grace is available until the moment of death. We’re simply practicing and following up in a very practical way on that theology of grace,” the bishop said.

“It’s not so much what we say. It’s what they say,” Cantu said about the inmates. “We represent the Church. We represent Christ. And what does that mean to them? What do they want to open up about?”

“Is there an element of remorse for crimes that they’ve committed?” he continued. “Do they want to ask for forgiveness, or are they simply hardened and closed off to God’s grace?

The bishops are visiting the prison “simply to be a reminder of God’s presence and of compassion and a reminder that Jesus had interactions with two criminals on the cross: one who derided Jesus, the other who asked for compassion and forgiveness.”

Cantu also had a message for crime victims and their families.

“We’re always here, present for them,” he said. “If any of them would like to visit with us, we are more than available to them. And we do reach out regularly.”

“We offer them our compassion,” Cantu said.

The San Jose bishop noted the work of his diocese’s restorative justice ministry for victims of violent crime and their families. Ministry participants offer Mass for crime victims and gather to pray at the site of crimes, whether the crime is a murder or a traffic death.

After Newsom announced the death penalty moratorium, Archbishop Cordileone issued a statement on behalf of the California Catholic Conference encouraging the governor to “use well the time of the moratorium to promote civil dialogue on alternatives to the death penalty, including giving more needed attention and care to the victims of violence and their families.”

“Capital punishment is not a cure for the suffering and turmoil inflicted by violent crime; the restorative healing of victims and their families to the extent possible is an essential part of justice,” he said.

California’s last execution was on Jan. 17, 2006. The state’s death row, with 671 inmates, is the largest in the country. Its numbers comprise nearly one-quarter of the total number of condemned prisoners in the United States.

After California, Florida has the second-most number of inmates on death row, 300, the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper reported Feb. 27. Texas has fewer than 190 on death row. The state executed three people this year and has five more executions scheduled, including two next week, according to the Texas Tribune.

Newsom has said the death penalty is costly, ineffective, and racially biased in its application. Before Newsom’s moratorium, California had not conducted an execution in over a decade due to a lack of availability of the drugs needed for lethal injection.

“The governor sees a problem with the death penalty,” Cantu told CNA. “I think that’s significant for a former Catholic who kind of thumbs his nose at the Church at times, in public ways. There seems to be a Catholic element here, where the governor is seeming to acknowledge that there is reason to pause the death penalty.”

Cantu summarized Catholic teaching on the death penalty in recent decades. With St. John Paul II there was an “addendum” to Church teaching on the death penalty that “virtually made it impossible to justify the death sentence.”

“Pope Francis just closed the door on it,” Cantu said. “In modern-day society we can protect ourselves from dangerous criminals, so the death penalty becomes unnecessary.”

“I think that society is opening its eyes to this realization. I think there’s hope in that,” the bishop said.

Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Another 14 states, including California, have not executed a prisoner in at least 10 years.

A November 2022 Gallup survey, however, reported that 55% of U.S. adults support the death penalty for murders.