Death penalty contradicts church teaching


“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me,” Dustin Lee Honken reportedly said minutes before he was put to death by the federal government. Honken, 52, was executed July 17 by lethal injection in the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. He had been convicted and condemned to death for the slaying of five people in Iowa in 1993, two of them children.

Bishop Thomas Zinkula and his fellow bishops in Iowa had requested clemency for Honken and three other men facing capital punishment in the weeks before their executions. The bishops said, “It is a duty of the state to punish offenders and defend the common good and this would still be accomplished by commuting his sentence.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the death penalty is inadmissible.

Federal executions had not been carried out in 17 years. Last summer, U.S. Attorney General William Barr, who is Catholic, announced that federal executions would resume. This appointed government official has chosen to act in God’s place.

Last week, in the midst of Respect Life Month, Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, a longtime advocate of abolishing the death penalty and author of “Dead Man Walking,” gave a virtual presentation to the Newman Catholic Student Center in Iowa City. Sister Prejean, the 1998 recipient of the Pacem in Terris Peace and Freedom Award, described her experience accompanying a death-row inmate to his execution, and throwing up afterwards. Execution is legal in civil law, but she asked herself, was it the law of God? Execution is not God’s law.


Execution is “not the heart of the Gospel,” Sister Prejean said in a later interview with The Catholic Messenger. As civil law, the death penalty is unjust because its application skews toward poor people and people of color, Sister said. Furthermore, some people sent to death row were innocent! “Since 1973, 172 former death-row prisoners have been exonerated of all charges related to the wrongful convictions that put them on death row” ( The statistics beg the question: How many innocent people have been executed?

Sister Prejean applauds the new encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” in which Pope Francis definitively stated that the death penalty is inadmissible and Catholics and other people of goodwill should work to abolish it. “I rejoice in Pope Francis’s ringing proclamation of the inviolable dignity of all human life, even the life of murderers,” she tweeted on the social media platform Twitter. “I am heartened by the church’s unequivocal opposition to governments’ use of the death penalty in all instances.”

The Catholic Messenger asked Sister Prejean for her advice to Catholics and other people of faith on the death penalty issue. We share the following call to action:

• Contact U.S. Attorney General William Barr and advocate for abolition of capital punishment. Ask him why he resumed capital punishment, which contradicts church teaching. Contact his office by email at or by mail: U.S. Department of Justice, 950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20530-0001 or by phone at (202) 353-1555 (comment line), Department of Justice Main Switchboard at (202) 514-2000 or TTY/ASCII/TDD: (800) 877-8339.

• Write to a prisoner on death row. Years ago, as requested, Sister Prejean wrote a letter to a prisoner on death row. Their correspondence marked the beginning of her journey accompanying people condemned to death row and advocating for abolition of the death penalty. She provides excellent guidelines for pen pals on her website (www.sister

• Read and study the encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” which Pope Francis released Oct. 4 (

• Pray. Sister Prejean wrote “A Prayer for Justice” which you can find on her website (

Attorney Shawn Nolan, in a statement on the execution of his client wrote: Dustin Honken was redeemed. He recognized and repented for the crimes he had committed, and spent his time in prison atoning for them. With Father Mark, Sister Betty, Cardinal Tobin and other religious mentors, Dustin worked every day at the Catholic faith that was at the center of his life…

“The Dustin Honken they wanted to kill is long gone. The man they killed today was a human being who could have spent the rest of his days helping others and further redeeming himself …”

As we pray during Mass, for others, and ourselves “Lord, have mercy.”

Barb Arland-Fye, Editor

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