NOEL KING, HOST:
The ninth federal execution since July is scheduled for today. The Trump administration resumed putting inmates to death earlier this year. Before 2020, the Justice Department hadn't ordered the execution of any federal prisoner in the previous 17 years. Now, Attorney General William Barr, who leads the DOJ, is a practicing Catholic, and the Catholic Church opposes capital punishment. Its leaders are not happy with Barr. Here's NPR's Tom Gjelten.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, an event organized by a group of lay Catholics, this year honored Attorney General William Barr for his fidelity to the Catholic Church. He is a practicing Catholic who speaks often of his faith. In accepting the award, Barr noted how the Justice Department under his leadership has stood up for the right of people to exercise their faith freely.
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WILLIAM BARR: Advocating for religious liberty is just one way that lay Catholics can answer the call to serve. St. John Paul II noted that the lay faithful are never to relinquish their participation in public life.
GJELTEN: But in one aspect of his participation in public life, Attorney General Barr defied Catholic teachings even as he spoke. On the very day preceding the breakfast, Barr ordered a federal prisoner to be put to death. On the day after the breakfast, he ordered that another man be executed. In a statement justifying their death penalties, Barr said the men had been convicted of horrific crimes. But the Catholic Church could hardly be more clear in its rejection of the death penalty. Pope Francis says it's inadmissible under any circumstance. Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley says a genuine pro-life agenda has to mean opposing both abortion and the death penalty.
PAUL COAKLEY: We have to clearly articulate our position about the need to protect and defend even those who have committed heinous crimes. They don't forfeit their human dignity. It's a God-given dignity, not something that the state bestows, nor which the state can withdraw.
GJELTEN: Coakley chairs the U.S. bishops' committee on domestic justice. So what does he think of the Catholic Prayer Breakfast awarding Attorney General Barr for his faithfulness?
COAKLEY: I didn't think that it was an appropriate choice. They did not speak for the bishops of the United States in choosing to honor him in that way.
HELEN PREJEAN: I'm appalled at the blatant going against the teaching of the Catholic Church.
GJELTEN: Sister Helen Prejean has accompanied many prisoners on death row over the last 40 years. People, she says, are worth more than the worst act of their life.
PREJEAN: Human beings can always change. That's at the core of the Gospel of Life. That is what Jesus taught us.
GJELTEN: One Catholic group that defends Attorney General Barr is CatholicVote. Brian Burch, the group's president, says it does recognize the church's opposition to the death penalty.
BRIAN BURCH: As a Catholic organization ourselves, we look to the guidance of our church. And our church is saying we should be working to end its use in all circumstances.
GJELTEN: CatholicVote nevertheless co-sponsored the breakfast where Barr was honored. Birch says Barr has a strong anti-abortion record. And the number of federal executions under Barr's direction, while without modern precedent, has been relatively small, Birch says.
BURCH: Albeit unfortunate and regrettable that we've had to use the death penalty here, we're not talking about large numbers like the 800,000 children aborted.
GJELTEN: One difference with the death penalty - it's the government that does the killing. After today's execution, the Justice Department plans another later this month, with three more scheduled in January. But the federal executions are due to end when Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take office. Both have said they absolutely oppose the death penalty.
Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
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