(Taken from Reflections on “Dead Man Walking”, written by Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ and Lucille Sarrat, Session 6, page 23-24. Available from RENEW International,
Reflection 1 - Recent Developments in Churches
In his visit to St. Louis in January 1999, Pope John Paul II, for the first time ever, positioned the death penalty as a “life issue” alongside abortion, euthanasia, and physician-assisted suicide. Calling the death penalty “cruel and unnecessary,” the pope called on people to work for its abolition. In his previous four visits to the United States, the pope had never mentioned the death penalty. Polls show that, in fact, Catholics and most Christians support the death penalty in roughly equal proportion to other pro-capital punishment Americans. Most people who call themselves “pro-life” seem to mean pro innocent life. Most feel that those guilty of heinous crimes lose their right to life and should be executed.
For about 1500 years, Catholic teaching has upheld the death penalty, supporting the state’s right to punish criminals “by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2266). But, on September 8, 1997, the Vatican announced that those words in the Catechism were to be removed. It was a seismic shift. It meant that the criterion for deciding the death penalty would no longer be determined by the “gravity” of the crime. A new criterion was help up: the inviolable dignity of every human person. In St. Louis, the pope said: “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.”
This growing appreciation for the dignity of persons coincides with the recent growing worldwide appreciation of human rights. In his encyclical, The Gospel of Life, the pope pointed to incarceration as the way available to societies today to incapacitate dangerous and violent people without having to kill them. Incarceration, he said, is more “befitting the dignity of the human person and the common good.” Looking back at the history of most Christian churches’ support of the death penalty, one of the key arguments had always been the right of a society to self-defense. Thomas Aquinas and others had argued that, just as in was societies could defend themselves by killing the enemy, so too societies could execute dangerous criminals. But with the “self-defense” of incarceration available to societies today, the pope and other Christian leaders reason, no society needs to execute its citizens.
On Good Friday, 1999, the Catholic Bishops of the United States, noting the increased pace of executions in the United States, issued a special appeal:
We urge all people of good will, particularly Catholics, to work to end capital punishment…We ask pastors to preach and teachers to teach about respect for all life and about the need to end the death penalty…We must commit ourselves to a persistent and principled witness against the death penalty, against a culture of death, and for the Gospel of life.
Over the past twenty years, leadership of virtually all mainstream religious bodies in the United States has spoken out against the death penalty – Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, United Church of Christ, American Baptists, and the Religious Action Center on Reform Judaism. Because statements are made by leaders, however, does not mean that the people in the pews embrace their leaders’ anti-death penalty stance. Often in religious congregations there is a dramatic gap between what the leadership proclaims about the death penalty and what the people in the pews think and believe. Statements issued from the leaders, unaided by extensive education, dialogue, and prayer, can never be enough to persuade hearts and minds to be against the death penalty in a culture which readily turns to violence as a means of solving social problems, and where legalized vengeance – an “eye for an eye” – seems to be the prevailing wisdom of the day.
by Stephanie Pompeani
Associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Northwestern Pennsylvania
I remember when Sister Mary Claire Kennedy mentioned to me that Helen Prejean, CSJ, was coming to Erie to receive an award from Gannon University. Prior to working for the SSJs, I couldn’t have told you that Helen Prejean was the Sister from Louisiana who worked with death row inmates and who wrote the book, “Dead Man Walking” that ultimately became a major motion picture. I had heard that Sister Helen was an incredible woman and dynamic speaker and was eager to attend the award ceremony to see and hear her myself. I must admit, it wasn’t a desire to learn more about the death penalty issue that motivated me to attend. Rather, I was a little star struck with Sister Helen and her “celebrity status.” After all, she is friends with Timothy Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It was bitter cold and blustery the day of the presentation and I had a sick child at home. As much as I had been looking forward to it, I almost didn’t attend. But something compelled me to go and I know now it was God. I believe I was meant to hear and meet Helen Prejean that night. Sister Helen captivated me. I listened intently as she relayed her personal experiences of working with death row inmates and victims’ families. There was something about her - her voice, her southern drawl and mannerisms, and her personality that drew me to her every word. She was so real. The more I listened to her, the less I was intrigued by her “celebrity status” and the more I heard her message. Her knowledge and eloquence opened my mind and her passion and conviction opened my heart. Prior to hearing her, I wasn’t sure where I stood on the death penalty issue. Although I didn’t believe capital punishment was right, I often felt torn by the pain the victims’ families endured and their need for justice. After listening to Sister Helen, I came to a much clearer understanding of the issue. She had convinced me - it finally made sense. After her speech, I signed my name to a petition requesting a moratorium on the death penalty. I had no doubt about putting my name on that list. I purchased her book and stood in line for her to sign it. As I approached her, I took a business card out of my pocket. I wanted her to know of my affiliation with the Sisters of St. Joseph.
I introduced myself and handed her my card. At that moment, something happened. She held out her hand to mine and, for a brief moment that seemed to last for minutes, she took my hand and looked me in the eyes. What happened at that moment has changed me, touched me in a way I never I experienced. I believe that I had a spiritual experience that evening. I have never felt such strong spirituality from someone before. I can’t fully describe or express it, but it was an experience I will never forget. The next day, Sister Helen came to the Community Living Center before leaving to speak in another city. I was there to take photographs and was pleasantly surprised when I was asked to join a group having lunch with her. I believe God made that possible and, once again, found myself in awe of this woman and captivated by the powerful words she spoke. That evening, I re-watched the movie Dead Man Walking with a different perspective. I poured myself into Sister Helen’s book and couldn’t wait for the end of each day — my reading time. I became attached to the book and felt like I became Sister Helen’s friend. I was sad when I finished it. I watched a video of her speech at the Call to Action Conference in Milwaukee in November, 2000. I couldn’t get enough of Helen Prejean and her message. I then read Forgiving the Dead Man Walking, by Debbie Morris who, along with her boyfriend, were victims of Robert Willey, the first death row inmate that Helen Prejean befriended. Debbie’s story was very powerful as she journeyed a difficult path to come to the freedom of forgiveness. It was clear that meeting Sister Helen had a tremendous impact on Debbie. She states in the last line of her book, “Justice didn’t do a thing to heal me. Forgiveness did.” What a powerful message. After meeting Sister Helen I understood what the SSJ charism in action means. Sister Helen lives the charism in how she works with both inmates — to help them reach a point of reconciliation — and victims and their families to reach a point of forgiveness. We hear the question, “What would Jesus do?” If Jesus were here today, is there any doubt he would embrace the convicted person as much as the victim? Not in my mind. The Sister of St. Joseph is always moving toward the more. For Sister Helen, her work on behalf of the Moratorium Campaign against the death penalty is a constant “moving toward the more” effort. Helen Prejean exemplifies the charism of the SSJs and is a powerful example to us all. I am so grateful that the path of my spritual journey has crossed, if ever so briefly, the path of Helen Prejean. She has helped to illuminate my way and open my eyes and my heart to the powerful message she carries. She will never know the impact she has had on me, and maybe it doesn’t matter — as long as I got the message. I did.