By Barb Arland-Fye
St. John Paul II, as pope, made a powerful call for abolition of the death penalty nearly 24 years ago during Mass in a stadium in St. Louis. He spoke of “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. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitely denying criminals the chance to reform.” While in St. Louis, he appealed to Missouri’s governor to have mercy on a death row inmate. The governor granted the pope’s request, sparing the inmate’s life and reducing his sentence to life in prison without parole (Chicago Tribune, 1-29-1999).
Nearly 20 years later, Pope Francis revised Church teaching on the death penalty. The Catechism of the Catholic Church now states that the death penalty is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide” (2267).
Last month, the pope dedicated his prayer intention to the global abolition of the death penalty. Now, in the lead up to the World Day Against the Death Penalty Oct. 10, Catholic Mobilizing Network asks us to participate in a novena — nine days of prayer and meditation — to pray for the abolition of the death penalty. This novena coincides with Respect Life Month, an appropriate time to pray for the dignity of all human life.
While the novena ends Oct. 9, the prayer intentions apply year-round (https://tinyurl.com/mr29vbtp). We pray for people who have been executed, for victims and their families, for people on death row and their families and for wardens, guards and others who work on death row. We pray for communities impacted by violence and for judges, juries, parole boards and prosecuting and defense attorneys. We pray for the innocent, wrongfully convicted and mentally ill who are on death row. We pray for lawmakers and for all people of goodwill.
“This prayer, while worldwide, is especially poignant here in the United States. The U.S. is one of only 55 countries to retain the death penalty, and it contributes to many of the total executions each year,” Catholic Mobilizing Network said in a Sept. 28 statement (https://tinyurl.com/55esudnj). The organization cited a plan by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals to set execution dates for 25 individuals on death row over the next two years. The first of those executions took place Aug. 25.
Oklahoma’s plan, which includes “multiple prisoners with severe mental illness, brain damage, and claims of innocence” (deathpenaltyinfo.org), is an appalling reminder that we have failed to respond to God’s gift of mercy and redemption.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, a staunch defender of the unborn, wrote a column in America (Sept. 22) calling for abolition of the death penalty. He concluded, “But today we no longer need capital punishment to protect the common good. If it is not necessary to kill to defend innocent life, then it is time for us to claim the higher moral ground and abolish the death penalty once for all. It is a reminder to us that the inherent dignity of every human being calls for us Americans to do better” (https://tinyurl.com/fyv9h7vt).
Sister Helen Prejean, longtime advocate for abolition of the death penalty, told an interviewer that she thought the reason many people still support the death penalty is because of lack of exposure to the way the criminal justice system works. “So when I go to talk to audiences, I just take them with me on my journey,” she said, referring to her accompaniment of inmates on death row (https://tinyurl.com/yv5jteev).
Read her memoir, “River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey,” and The Catholic Messenger’s story of Sister Dolores Schuh, CHM, a longtime pen pal to a prisoner on death row (https://tinyurl.com/2p8uxzfd). St. Teresa of Kolkata, the subject of a documentary that premiered Oct. 3, was a strong advocate of life — innocent or guilty. “Mother Teresa taught us there are no expendable people,” Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Patrick E. Kelly said in the documentary “Mother Teresa: No Greater Love.” “Everyone has dignity and worth because everyone is made in the image of God” (https://tinyurl.com/5deuva79).
Ask members of Congress (congress.gov) to support the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act (H.R. 262/S. 582), which would abolish capital punishment at the federal level. Urge President Biden and his administration to prioritize an end to the federal death penalty (catholicsmobilizing.org/contact-congress).
In a brief video featuring his prayer intention for the abolition of the death penalty, Pope Francis tells us “Capital punishment offers no justice to victims, but rather encourages revenge … The commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ refers to both the innocent and the guilty” (September 2022, https://www.popesprayer.va/)
Prayer, coupled with a willingness to learn more and followed by action, will inspire us to follow the merciful heart of Jesus.
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor