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Issue Date:  January 11, 2008

Catholic efforts bolster U.N. resolution

Vote favors death penalty moratorium

New York

Victory may have a thousand fathers, but experts say the Catholic church can at least claim to be among the parents of a historic Dec. 18 vote of the General Assembly of the United Nations in favor of a global moratorium on the death penalty.

Although the Vatican was not among the primary architects of the nonbinding resolution, there are nevertheless an impressive number of indicators of Catholic influence:

  • The principal nongovernmental organization lobbying for the measure, the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, composed of 64 member organizations in various parts of the world, was founded in Rome in 2002 under the auspices of the Community of Sant’Egidio, one of the “new movements” in the Catholic church.
  • Ten nations coauthored the resolution: Albania, Angola, Brazil, Croatia, Gabon, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, Portugal and East Timor. Eight of the 10 are majority Catholic states, where numerous Catholic associations and activists, as well as bishops’ conferences, have been in the forefront of abolitionist efforts.
  • The nation that formally presented the resolution was Gabon, one of nine majority Catholic nations in Africa. In announcing its own decision in September to remove the death penalty from its statute books, the government of Gabon cited the work of Sant’Egidio.
  • When Egypt attempted to scuttle the measure by attaching an antiabortion amendment, both the Philippines and the Vatican responded by saying that while they would enthusiastically support a separate resolution on abortion, they did not want the pro-life cause to be used in order to block progress on the death penalty, thereby saving the resolution.
  • Perhaps the diplomatic mainstay of the campaign for a global moratorium over the last 15 years has been Italy, with the strong backing of the Vatican.

This activity, observers say, reflects a strong anti-death penalty climate that has taken shape within global Catholicism over the last two decades, driven in part by strong leadership from Pope John Paul II. Veterans of efforts to abolish capital punishment suggest that Catholic mobilization is a significant part of the reason that the call in favor of a moratorium, which failed to pass the General Assembly twice in the 1990s, was adopted this time around.

“The Catholic church, especially under John Paul II and continuing with what it’s doing now, has had a real role in accompanying this change over the last 20 years,” said Mario Marazziti, a spokesperson for Sant’Egidio and a key figure in the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.

The resolution was adopted by a vote of 104 nations in favor to 54 against, with 29 abstentions.

Practically speaking, experts say the resolution will have little immediate effect since it does not compel nations that practice capital punishment to change their laws. Those nations that generally record the highest number of executions each year, including China, Iran and the United States, all voted in opposition to the measure.

Proponents argue, however, that even if it does not have immediate legal force, the measure nevertheless establishes a new moral consensus among nations and renders the situation of those states that continue to put people to death at least a bit more embarrassing.

“The death penalty has officially become a question of human rights. From the point of view of the international community, this is new,” Marazziti said. “It fixes an official standard of justice without death.”

The U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, called the vote “a bold step by the international community” and “further evidence of a trend towards ultimately abolishing the death penalty.”

The U.N. resolution calls for a moratorium on capital punishment as a step toward eventual abolition. It urges states that still have capital punishment to “progressively restrict the use of the death penalty, and to reduce the number of offenses for which it may be imposed.”

Speaking in a Dec. 20 interview with L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, welcomed the outcome.

“It’s an important step forward,” Martino said, although he described himself as only “half-satisfied.”

“I will be fully content only when the death penalty is abolished everywhere and by everyone,” Martino said.

Anti-death penalty campaigners had tried twice before, in 1994 and 1999, to persuade the General Assembly to adopt a call for a death penalty moratorium.

Martino asserted that various Catholic forces played a significant role in the Dec. 18 result.

“The Community of Sant’Egidio obviously should be recognized, which has carried out efforts to sensitize opinion throughout the world with good international visibility,” Martino said. “We also should remember so many other Catholic forces -- movements, associations, diocesan organizations, far too numerous to cite them all -- constantly engaged in education, assistance and witness.”

The Catholic role in the U.N. resolution is seen by many observers as a leading example of what then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, referred to in 1996 as a “development in doctrine” within the church on capital punishment. While traditional Catholic teaching generally accepted the death penalty as a legitimate exercise of state power, the recent drift of official statements has clearly been in the direction of an abolitionist stance.

Pope John Paul II, for example, called capital punishment in 1999 “both cruel and unnecessary.” While allowing in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae for the theoretical possibility of a legitimate use of the death penalty, the pope said that today “such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

More recently, Martino stated bluntly in late November that “the death penalty is homicide.”

Marazziti of Sant’Egidio said that the opposition to the moratorium within the United Nations was led by three nations: Singapore, on behalf of some Asian countries; Egypt, in the name of Arab and Islamic states; and Barbados for several Caribbean countries.

During debates in a preparatory commission in November, Marazziti said, opponents made three basic arguments against the measure:

  • Capital punishment is a matter of the internal affairs of member states.
  • It’s an inappropriate subject for a General Assembly resolution, since there’s no consensus among nations.
  • The death penalty ban represents the imposition of a Western view of human rights.

When it became clear the opponents would not prevail on those points, Marazziti said, Egypt then introduced an amendment proposing to add a paragraph stating that in the name of defending life, the General Assembly should also condemn abortion.

At this stage, Marazziti said, the contribution of Catholic voices was decisive.

“The central point was that the Holy See supports the defense of life in every circumstance, but on this very important subject we don’t want to see [the resolution] instrumentalized for other questions,” he said. “The Holy See doesn’t support the way some say, ‘We have to abolish the death penalty,’ but don’t care about abortion, and meanwhile those who were now proposing something against abortion were doing so to uphold the death penalty We shouldn’t get into deciding which lives are worth defending.”

The moratorium was approved by the commission Nov. 15, clearing the way for the Dec. 18 vote in the General Assembly.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2008

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