Virginia's bishops called on Catholics in the state's two dioceses to step up to change the debate about the use of the death penalty.
Bishop Francis DiLorenzo of Richmond and Bishop Paul Loverde of Arlington said it was time to shift the conversation from who should be executed and how to execute people to why the death penalty continues to be applied, especially when other means to protect society without taking a human life exist.
Citing the words of Pope Francis in opposing capital punishment, the bishops said in a statement released Wednesday* that by ending the death penalty in the state, "we would take one important step ... to abandon the culture of death and embrace the culture of life."
They pointed to the tenets of Catholic teaching, which hold that all human life is sacred, fueling the church's drive to advocate for the needs of poor and vulnerable people, the elderly, the unborn and immigrants and refugees.
"But our faith challenges us to declare sacred even the least lovable among us, those convicted of committing brutal crimes which have brought them the ultimate penalty, the penalty of death," the bishops said.
The statement also cited the U.S. bishops' 2005 statement "A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death," which summarized church teaching on the death penalty in saying that "no matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself from without ending a human life, it should do so."
The Virginia bishops' statement noted that since 1973, 152 death row inmates nationwide, including one in Virginia, have been exonerated. "We must also be aware of the racial inequity inherent in the system, and that the death penalty has been administered to individuals with severe intellectual disabilities," they wrote.
"These circumstances further illustrate that, in Virginia and elsewhere, we are having the wrong debate," the two bishops said. "We should no longer debate which inmates we execute and how we execute them. Instead, we should debate this: If all human lives are sacred and if a civilized society such as ours can seek redress and protect itself by means other than taking a human life, why are we continuing to execute people?"
*An earlier version of this story named the incorrect day.