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On the Death Penalty, part 1

Director’s Reflection

Dear Companions on the Journey,

Two parts to my reflection with you about the Death Penalty: this week, content; next week, form:

At least three times, the Paulist Center Community has conferred its Hecker Award for Social Justice to persons who have fought against the death penalty:  Sara Ehrmann (1981), Helen Prejean (1994), and Charlie and Pauline Sullivan (1990, for wider prison reform).  Although hardly in their category, during my first TDY as Director (1978-86), I/we worked with the Massachusetts Campaign Against Restoration of the Death Penalty.  So the Paulist Center community has had a long track record working on this singular prolife issue. 

Ca. 1979, I vividly remember being interviewed on radio about religion and the death penalty. I fielded many listener telephone calls asking me questions and voicing their opinion (then usually much more polite than on today’s call-in shows!). What struck me about that experience was the listeners’ almost unanimous preoccupation with crimes that were not liable for the death penalty.  The tone and the substance usually went something like, “Have you ever been robbed, Father?” or “It’s easy for you to pontificate, Father; I’ll bet you have never had your life savings taken from you!”  And so on.

Reflecting on that admittedly limited experience, I concluded that, for many, the death penalty was a way of expressing outrage and revenge against horrific crimes.  (Indeed, in a similar vein, one recent commentator suggested the reinstatement of the death penalty for those priests exposed in the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s report for sexually abusing children.  I have to confess I felt some of the same outrage and desire for revenge.)

But now working for a number of years with Catholic Mobilizing Network, who have condemned the proposed resumption of the federal executions, I signed their National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty.  This included the following:

  • “I will educate myself and my community about the injustices of the death penalty, including the ways it risks innocent life, fails victims’ families, and contradicts the Catholic Church’s pro-life teaching.
  • “I will advocate for the dignity of all life, including those who are on death row and awaiting execution, and actively work to end the death penalty in my state and my country.
  • “I will pray for mercy and healing for all who are involved in the criminal justice system: victims of crimes and their families, those in prison and on death row, communities where crimes are committed, and all who work in the legislative system.”

It concludes with the prayer, “God of mercy, help me to remember your loving compassion as I go forward to work for an end to the death penalty.  Allow me to be a vessel for your mercy, so as to heal the broken and welcome the outcast. Amen.”

Next week: the process.

What do you think? 

And let us pray for/with one another.
The Paulist Center