The end of the death penalty

Sister Helen Prejean is the writer of Dead Man Walking and a leading advocate against government killing, the death penalty.

In today’s New York Times, she writes of Pope John Paul II’s legacy, his unequivocal opposition to state killing:

“Of the many great legacies of Pope John Paul II, the one I prize the most is this: he was instrumental in helping the Catholic Church reach a position of principled opposition to the death penalty – an opposition that brooks no exceptions.

The effects of the pope’s leadership will be felt for years to come, both in the highest echelons of the Catholic hierarchy and among the Catholic faithful in the pews. Whereas polls once showed that American Catholics supported the death penalty about as much as other Americans, they now show that support for the death penalty among Catholics has fallen below 50 percent. Just last month, Catholic bishops in the United States inaugurated a vigorous educational campaign to end the death penalty.

This is a moment I have been waiting for, hoping for and praying for more than two decades, ever since I walked out of the killing chamber in Louisiana after watching Patrick Sonnier electrocuted to death in 1984. And it is the pope who made it possible.

In the early 1980’s, I began looking for a way to have a direct dialogue with the pope about the death penalty. During this time I had accompanied three people to execution and plunged headfirst into public debate. My efforts to persuade Catholic bishops in the United States to include the death penalty as an integral part of their pro-life campaign had been futile. While the bishops had issued numerous statements that cited the moral failure of the death penalty, they had failed to conduct energetic educational campaigns to change the hearts and minds of the people in the pews.

At last, in 1997, I finally got my chance to communicate directly with Pope John Paul II. It happened through the case of a Virginia death row inmate, Joseph O’Dell, whose spiritual adviser I had become and whose plea for justice had attracted the pope’s attention. Lori Urs, who was working on the legal team trying to save Mr. O’Dell’s life, visited Rome and handed my letter to the pope on Jan. 22, 1997. A friend of mine in the Vatican, present when my letter was delivered, assured me that John Paul read every word of my letter.

And an impassioned letter it was, pouring into the pope’s lap 14 years of searing experiences of accompanying human beings into killing chambers and watching them be put to death before my eyes. “Surely, Holy Father,” I wrote, “it is not the will of Christ for us to ever sanction governments to torture and kill in such fashion, even those guilty of terrible crimes. … I found myself saying to them: ‘Look at me. Look at my face. I will be the face of Christ for you.’ In such an instance the gospel of Jesus is very distilled: life, not death; mercy and compassion, not vengeance.”

I spoke candidly about my disagreement with one part of the pope’s 1995 encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae” (“Gospel of Life”), which, while urging imprisonment instead of execution, allowed the use of the death penalty in cases of “absolute necessity.” Whenever governments kill criminals, I pointed out in my letter, they always claim to act out of “necessity.” I urged him to close the loophole and make Catholic opposition to government executions unequivocal.

This was no small thing. The teaching of the Catholic Church upholding the right of the state to execute criminals “in cases of extreme gravity” had been in place for 1,600 years.

But that’s precisely what the pope did: he removed from the Catholic catechism the criterion “in cases of extreme gravity.” The omission changes everything, because Catholic teaching now says that no matter how grave the crime, the death penalty is not to be imposed. This cuts the moral ground out from under American politicians who advocate the death penalty for the “worst of the worst criminals.”

The quantum change in the catechism took place in September 1997, and in 1999 when the pope visited St. Louis, he uttered words of opposition to the death penalty that could not have been more uncompromising:

“A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.”

For this statement, and for his leadership, I am forever grateful. Thank you, Pope John Paul. Because of you, the Catholic Church can at last stand alongside those human rights groups that oppose, unequivocally, government killing.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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