In the aftermath of the horrific mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, our hearts ached for the victims, their families and the entire Jewish community affected by this senseless act of violence. Seeing the pain the Jewish community faced at the time of the shooting, this Editorial Board declared, “We stand in solidarity with them, recognizing the special connection between the Jewish faith and Catholicism.”
The evidence presented during trial revealed that, on Oct. 27, 2018, Robert Bowers drove to the Tree of Life Synagogue where members of the Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light Jewish congregations had assembled for worship. Carrying several firearms, including three Glock .357 handguns and a Colt AR-15 rifle, Bowers entered the premises. He opened fire, resulting in fatalities and injuries among members of the three congregations. Several responding police officers were injured while attempting to rescue survivors.
On June 16, after three weeks of hearing evidence, the jury found Bowers guilty on 63 counts, including hate crimes resulting in death and obstruction of the free exercise of religion resulting in death, that were potentially punishable by a death sentence. On Aug. 2, a jury unanimously recommended the death sentence for Robert Bowers following his conviction for the murder of 11 worshipers. The following day, Bowers’ sentence was imposed.
Violence, justice and the sanctity of life
“The evidence in this trial proved that the defendant acted because of white supremacist, antisemitic and bigoted views that unfortunately are not original or unique to him,” said U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan for the Western District of Pennsylvania. “Our Constitution protects a person’s right to hold repugnant beliefs. But our Constitution also protects every person’s right to practice his or her faith.” Bowers’ abhorrent behavior must be unequivocally condemned. As Catholics, such a violent demonstration of hate should strengthen our resolve to denounce antisemitism in all its forms.
But as Catholics, we are guided by the teachings of Jesus Christ to uphold the sanctity of all life, even in the face of such heinous crimes. Recognizing the desire for justice that all Americans of goodwill feel, we must say that a deep sense of moral responsibility compels us to denounce the sentencing of Robert Bowers to death.
We stand united with Jewish leaders who have called for clemency in this case, urging that the death penalty not be imposed. Instead, we echo their plea for mercy and compassion, recognizing that the death penalty perpetuates a cycle of violence and fails to address the root causes of hatred and prejudice that led to this tragedy.
As Pope Francis emphasized in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, the death penalty can no longer be permitted. The Holy Father writes: “St. John Paul II stated clearly and firmly that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice. There can be no stepping back from this position.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church was revised in 2018 to reflect this position clearly, stating that “the death penalty is inadmissible.” Our Church is committed to calling for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.
Ending the death penalty
If we are to truly work toward healing and preventing future violence, we must address the root causes of hatred and discrimination. Sentencing Robert Bowers to death will not accomplish this. Rather, it reinforces the notion that society’s response to violence should be more violence, which runs counter to the teachings of Christ and the message of hope and redemption.
We pray for the victims and their families, and we stand in solidarity with the Jewish community as they continue their healing journey. Let us remember that the pursuit of justice does not necessitate the taking of another life. As Catholics, we must strive to promote a culture of life, mercy and forgiveness, even in the face of the darkest acts of hatred.
The Biden administration and the Department of Justice must recant this decision and honor their commitment to end the federal death penalty. President Biden, choose the path of compassion and healing; seek a more just and merciful way to respond to such acts of violence. Only then can we hope to foster a world free from hate and violence, where all individuals are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve as children of God.