The SAFE California Act would replace the death penalty in California with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Parishes in the diocese conducted an effective signature gathering campaign in February to help the initiative reach the ballot.
“We knew that getting the signatures was the first step in a much longer process,” said Verne Schweiger, director of the diocesan Office of Social Concerns and a key coordinator of the signature gathering effort. “These parish leaders and others who gather with them will continue to work hard to help their fellow parishioners both develop a deeper appreciation of the Gospel of Life and work to get out the vote so we can support the initiative.”
Officials of the California Catholic Conference, the legislative advocacy arm of the California bishops, say the Catholic effort on SAFE California will be mainly educational. A statement of support will be issued by the bishops and a series of educational handouts will be provided for parish bulletins.
Locally, Bishop Gerald Barnes is expected to issue a statement on the initiative and Catholic teaching on the death penalty later in the Summer. There will also be three high profile events in the diocese in October designed to raise awareness about SAFE California and spark dialogue about the death penalty.
On Oct. 2, Franky Carrillo, who had his murder conviction overturned after spending 20 years in prison, will give a talk in Spanish at the Dicoesan Pastoral Center. Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, a leading advocate against the death penalty and author of the best- selling book “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States,” which inspired the Academy Award-winning film of the same name, will speak at the Diocesan Pastoral Center on Oct. 3. On Oct. 23, two former state prison wardens who support SAFE California are scheduled to speak at St. Catherine of Alexandria parish in Riverside.
The Office of Social Concerns also expects to issue a discussion guide on SAFE California and the Death Penalty that will be provided to parishes to help promote discussion of the issue at various ministry meetings and meetings of parish leadership bodies.
“It is in those moments of open discussion with your fellow Catholics and fellow ministers that you can reach deeper understanding and conversion on a difficult issue like this,” said Schweiger. “We want to help foster that kind of environment around this initiative.”
The Bishops of the United States have been waging a campaign for more than 20 years to end the death penalty, nationally. The Fifth Commandment (‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’) is among the scriptural references for the Church’s opposition to the death penalty. While the Catechism of the Catholic Church permits the death penalty if it is the only recourse for defending human lives against an unjust aggressor, it further states that because of the ability of states today to protect the public through other means, the need for execution is, in the words of Blessed John Paul II “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”