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Newsom leaves Vatican with Pope’s praise for refusing the death penalty

In an opulent hall of the Apostolic Palace framed in marble and adorned with Renaissance murals, Gov. Gavin Newsom waited among a line of governors, mayors and scientists for a chance to greet Pope Francis.

The queue was not the ideal configuration envisioned by the governor’s advisers. Newsom traveled more than 6,000 miles from California to the Vatican to deliver a speech to the pope — and hopefully speak with him — about climate change.

Pope Francis, however, had other topics in mind than global warming.

“I was struck by how he immediately brought up the issue of the death penalty and how proud he was of the work we are doing in California,” Newsom said afterward. “It struck me because I wasn’t expecting it, especially in the context of this meeting.”

The discussion was brief and informal. But the politically savvy leader of the Roman Catholic Church still used the moment to support one of Newsom’s most controversial actions as governor.

By executive order two months after his inauguration, Newsom declared a temporary moratorium on the death penalty and ordered the dismantling of the state’s execution chambers at San Quentin State Prison. Families of murder victims criticized the decision and legal experts called it an abuse of power.

Newsom’s refusal to impose the death penalty could harm him politically if he runs for president.

As a Catholic, however, the governor’s decree is consistent with the Church and the teachings of the Pope.

In an interview with The Times after leaving the Vatican, Newsom said he had not yet proposed a statewide ballot measure to abolish the death penalty because he was not convinced that she would be adopted. California voters rejected measures to ban executions in 2012 and 2016.

Newsom said recent polls conducted by his political advisers show low support for a ban.

“We constantly put it in our investigations, which I do,” Newsom said in an interview with The Times. “It’s in the margins. But I think about that a lot, beyond that, because we are reinventing death row. I think about the moment I leave; I mean, I’ve been pretty honest about it. I’m trying to figure out what more I can do in this space.

There were more than 730 inmates on death row when Newsom took office. San Quentin’s death row was the largest prison in the Western Hemisphere. As part of his plan to reform prison to emphasize rehabilitation, Newsom said California is just weeks away from completely emptying death row.

The governor said he was outspoken in his opposition to capital punishment during his 2018 election campaign. He endorsed ballot measures in 2012 and 2016 to abolish the death penalty.

“I campaigned very openly as lieutenant governor, as governor. I’ve done everything I can to say, ‘If you elect me, this is what I’m going to do,'” Newsom said. “And I also have the legal authority. So I didn’t dispute that.

Currently, 21 of the 50 states impose the death penalty. The remaining 29 are not on death row or have had their executions stayed due to executive actions – including in California, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Newsom’s moratorium may not appeal to voters in some swing states in a potential presidential campaign, reinforcing perceptions that left-leaning California and the Democratic governor are soft on crime and misaligned with the rest of the nation. The governor has repeatedly dismissed speculation that he is eyeing the White House and he has actively campaigned for President Biden’s re-election.

Kevin Eckery, a political consultant who has worked with the Catholic Church in California, said the death penalty would not be a deciding factor in an election.

“Nationally, the death penalty has been used so rarely over the last 50 years that I don’t see people voting based on your position on (the) death penalty,” Eckery said. “They are going to vote on portfolio issues. They will vote on other subjects, but not on this one. »

The Catholic Church has long held that the death penalty can only be justified in rare situations. Francis updated Church doctrine in 2018 to say that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it constitutes an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

Newsom lunched in a jasmine-covered vaulted courtyard at the American Academy in Rome after, in a speech at the Vatican, accusing former President Trump of “open corruption” in soliciting campaign donations from oil executives.

Sitting on a weathered wooden chair under the shade of a tree, the governor explained how his Catholic background and the inequities of the criminal justice system influenced his refusal to approve executions as governor.

His paternal grandparents were devout Catholics, and his late father, William Newsom, who served as a state appeals court judge, went to church every day growing up, he said.

Later in life, Newsom’s father considered himself “an estranged Catholic,” the governor said, and “kind of pushed back” because of church politics.

Newsom said the Jesuit teachings at Santa Clara University, where he attended college, spoke a language he appreciated “that of faith and works.” His own religious beliefs, he said, have always been exercised “around a civic framework.”

“The Bible teaches many parts, one body,” Newsom said, mentioning a quote he often references. “One part suffers, we all suffer, and this notion of communitarianism.

“You can’t come out of Santa Clara University without the required education and some sort of religious foundation: God and common frames of thought,” he said.

As a Catholic and a San Francisco native, Newsom said his beliefs follow “the Spirit of Saint Francis” and the idea of ​​being good to others, but not necessarily strict religious doctrine.

The governor said he attended the private Catholic school Notre Dame des Victoires in San Francisco for a short time early in elementary school. He said his family often attended Glide Memorial, a nondenominational church in San Francisco. The governor said he attended church on Easter with his family.

Newsom mentioned religion at other points during his trip, telling reporters outside the room where he was speaking at the Vatican about the importance of the bridge between science and the pope’s moral authority on climate change.

“As we know in the Church, it’s faith and works,” Newsom said. “So as we pray, we move our feet. It is this action with our passion.

Daniel Philpott, a political science professor at the University of Notre Dame, said it’s smart for politicians from both parties to talk about faith.

“We have learned over the last 30 years that presidential candidates in general benefit when it can be demonstrated that they are religious or practice their religious faith,” Philpott said.

Newsom said he did not want to exaggerate the influence of religion on his stance on the death penalty, which his father also opposed.

His father and grandfather were involved in the case of Pete Pianezzi, a friend who was wrongly convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting and killing of a gambler and a bus boy in Los Angeles in 1937.

Pianezzi escaped the death penalty by a single vote and served 13 years in prison. He was later exonerated.

Even if it were possible to limit inequities and wrongful convictions in the criminal justice system, Newsom said he would still be against the death penalty.

“To me, the basic paradigm that we were going to kill people to make the general public understand that killing is wrong never made sense,” he said. “I could never understand that. I could never approve of that.

California Daily Newspapers

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