Catholics Make a Clear Impact Toward Death Penalty’s End

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, Catholic Mobilizing Network

Ending capital punishment in the United States is within reach.  We are living in a moment in history when it is possible to both glimpse the death penalty’s downfall and experience its cruel grip at the same time.  The movement to end the death penalty is steadily growing and Catholics have the power to significantly embolden it in the United States.

Glimpses of hope can be seen in the five people exonerated and released from death row in 2017, bringing the total number of exonerations to 161.  Last year for the first time since 1974, Harris County, Texas–the country’s most egregious user of the death penalty–neither executed nor sentenced anyone to death. Public support for the death penalty is on the decline and measuring at its lowest level in 45 years.  Death sentences and executions are among lowest in history.  The death penalty is on its way out.

But we aren’t there yet.  The death penalty’s dark shadow surfaced just last month when three states–Alabama, Florida, and Texas—for the first time in a decade scheduled executions on the same day.  Recent repeal efforts in Utah and Washington State failed. Capital punishment hangs on and snuffs out all possibility for restoration and redemption in the 31 states that have it.  We still have a lot of work to do.

Capital punishment won’t end in the United States without a persistent demand from Catholics that there is a better way.  Last October, Pope Francis reminded us that the death penalty “heavily wounds human dignity.”  During his historic visit to the United States in September 2015, Pope Francis shared inspiring words for working to confront our broken criminal justice system: “I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”  The resurrection hope that our Holy Father speaks of is the strength we need to end the death penalty once and for all.

Catholics are playing a significant role in the declining public support for capital punishment.  Catholics are influencing legislators, speaking out in the media, and bearing public witness to end the practice.  At the beginning of 2018, when the Washington State legislature considered a repeal during its 60-day legislative session, Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg, from the Archdiocese of Seattle, offered a compelling testimony before the state legislature. A tireless advocate and inspiring activist in that state, Sr. Joan Campbell, mobilized her own grassroots network to contact key legislators and push for repeal.  Washington’s Catholic Conference and Catholic Mobilizing Network collaborated closely to mobilize thousands of Washington Catholics to contact their state legislators to urge repeal.  Washington State moved farther than ever in this year’s initiative and registered a clear advance toward state abolition.

The state of Louisiana is set to consider a repeal of capital punishment as its spring legislative session begins. Archbishop of New Orleans, Gregory Michael Aymond, recently released a short video calling on Catholics to join the work to end the death penalty. And pro-life directors from each of Louisiana’s 7 dioceses gathered for a briefing about how to educate and empower parishioners to advocate for passing the legislation.

Much progress has been made. But we’re not there yet. The work of ending the death penalty will take all of us, at every level in the Church.

 

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy is Managing Director of Catholic Mobilizing Network.

Going Deeper

Catholic Mobilizing Network recently launched Faith and Action First Fridays, a simple tool developed to point Catholics to the areas where they can have the most impact in the death penalty debate.  As a way to bring Christ’s mercy to the broken system of capital punishment, each month CMN will feature timely and useful educational materials, prayers, and advocacy actions for that month.  Your prayers and actions will amplify the tens-of-thousands of actions made by people around the country who seek an end to the death penalty.

Respect Life Month: Working to End the Death Penalty

“Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.” Pope Francis, March 20, 2015

This memorial dedicated to Sister Paula Merrill, a member of the Sisters of Nazareth, and Sister Margaret Held, a member of the School Sisters of St. Francis in Milwaukee, was blessed and dedicated May 20 in Durant, Miss. The women, who were murdered in their home last fall, were nurse practitioners at a local health clinic. (CNS photo/Ruthie Robison, Mississippi Catholic)

Just over a year ago, two Catholic nuns were brutally murdered in Durant, Mississippi. Sister Margaret M. Held, a School Sister of St. Francis, and Sister Paula J. Merrill, a Sister of Charity of Nazareth, were beloved and committed nurse practitioners serving some of the poorest children and families in the country.  The community health clinic where they worked is in the 7th poorest county in the country, in the hungriest and poorest state in our nation.

The sisters’ ministry embodied what the Church calls “preferential option for the poor.”  The senseless loss of these sisters has caused tremendous pain for their families, their local clients, and their religious communities.

If you have followed this story at any length, likely you have been captivated by the courageous, Christ-like response the sisters’ religious Congregations shared following the murder, in part: “We want to reiterate our beliefs as women of faith, that we value life. For years now the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the School Sisters of St. Francis have worked to abolish the death penalty, even as we seek justice and truth.”

Close family members and fellow sisters alike say that coming forward with a statement to oppose the death penalty was clear and certain for them. Given the strong faith-held convictions and the life-long healing ministries of Sr. Paula and Sr. Margaret, everyone immediately understood the merciful action the sisters themselves would have wanted to respond to such a tragedy.

The modern Catholic Church is against the death penalty; the last three popes have made the Church’s opposition very clear. And while more Catholics are opposed to the death penalty than ever, statistics reveal that upwards of 43% of U.S. Catholics still support capital punishment.  Given this sobering reality, the response made by the families and sisters is even more courageous an example for us and witness for our times.

The truth is the death penalty is coming to an end and the time is now to make a difference.

As we observe Respect Life Month this October, we are invited to reflect on the depth of our convictions related to dignity of all life and our pro-life stance.  At the time of this writing, a disturbing six executions are scheduled throughout October. These executions demand action.  Catholic Mobilizing Network’s Mercy in Action Project  is an easy way to direct your faithful advocacy to end the death penalty and take a stand for life.

In their living, Sr. Paula and Sr. Margaret sought to heal people on the margins of society.  In their dying these sisters left their legacy of life – lived, shared and sacrificed; a story we recognize by our faith in Jesus Christ.

 Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy is Managing Director of Catholic Mobilizing Network. She is co-author of Advocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures.


Going Deeper

Respect Life Month is the perfect time to recommit yourself to our faith’s pro-life call.  To facilitate this, Catholic Mobilizing Network has created a Respect Life Month Toolkit to help your parish community renew its dedication to all life. This toolkit is full of resources to help you educate, advocate, and pray to end the death penalty, including a pro-life prayer service, social media ideas and bulletin articles. The toolkit also contains CMN’s new initiative, the National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty, a great way to begin your advocacy for all life, consider signing the pledge if you haven’t already.

In the Tsarnaev Case, Will Justice be Served?

Rachel Malinowski

Rachel Malinowski

Justice.

That was the single word at the top of my newsfeed when I opened Facebook after the thirty-count conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. As I continued to scroll, I saw similar cheers for justice and chants of “Boston Strong”.

I must admit that following Tsarnaev’s conviction, I felt a sense that justice had been served. As a native Bostonian, it had been painful to see my city and my neighbors under attack in 2013. I remember frantically texting my mom and being glued to the television during the chase in Watertown. Even from my current home in Connecticut, I felt angry and upset; I cannot fathom the pain, fear and anger that runners, spectators and victims felt when our city was attacked. In light of this, the conviction of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev brought some sense of justice to this tragedy.

But Tsarnaev’s conviction was somewhat expected and thus the real focal point of this case will come with the sentencing phase, which just began. So this begs the question, will justice ultimately be served in the penalty phase of this case?

In the Catholic worldview, justice is not a death sentence for Tsarnaev. Rather, for there to be justice, Tsarnaev’s life should be spared, a position that is rooted in the belief that the application of capital punishment today, unnecessarily violates the inherent dignity of human life. When we as Catholics talk about the inherent dignity of life, we are referring to the sacredness of life that springs from the fact that each and every human has been made in the image and likeness of God; nothing—not even committing heinous crimes—can take this dignity away from a person. Thus, taking a brother or sister’s life as a penalty for a crime violates the image of God among us and as such, is unjust.

But it is not only the dignity of the individual sentenced to death that is violated when the death penalty is utilized; the dignity of the entire society is violated. In a 2005 statement on the death penalty, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops expressed the hope that, “our nation will no longer try to teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill.” More important than the logical flaw with the application of the death penalty, is the fact that the death penalty perpetuates a vicious cycle of violence and death that threatens all human life. By violating the dignity of our brothers and sisters, we necessarily violate our own.

I do not mean to make an anti-death penalty stance sound easy. In fact, it would be much easier to refuse to see the dignity of our enemies and not to worry about the culture of death that we are creating. It is imperative, though, that we resist this culture of violence and death. Violent penalties only breed more violence; they proclaim a disregard for life and express that violence is an acceptable vehicle for communicating ideals. Justice can only be realized when we boldly assert the sanctity of life in the face of horrific destruction.

I invite you to join me in praying that justice will be served and the culture of death and violence will be resisted.

Rachel Malinowski is a third-year Master of Divinity candidate at Yale Divinity School. She received her undergraduate degree at Fordham University. Rachel is an alumna of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development intern program.

Yes. The Church Is Opposed to the Death Penalty

“All Christians and men of good will are thus called to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty, whether legal or illegal, and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, with respect for the human dignity of the people deprived of their freedom”
Pope Francis, October 23, 2014

Anthony Granado, USCCB

Anthony Granado, USCCB

Last week, the chairmen of the USCCB Committees on Domestic Justice and Human Development and Pro-Life Activities, joining Pope Francis, reasserted their opposition to the death penalty. In their statement, Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski welcomed the U.S. Supreme Court’s January 23, decision to review the drug protocols for lethal injections in Oklahoma. This comes after the April, 2014 botched execution of Clatyon D. Lockett, where witnesses recounted that he was seen in pain for some time before finally dying.

The case of Glossip v. Gross is being brought by three men on Oklahoma’s death row, Benjamin Cole, John Grant and Richard Glossip. They are asking the court to reject the three-drug protocol used in lethal injection in Oklahoma claiming this violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Court is expected to begin hearing arguments in April.

Pope Francis, building on the legacy of his predecessors, has called for the abolition of the death penalty. It was Pope Saint John Paul II in his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, who was instrumental in urging society to reconsider the death penalty. He reminded us that the Lord is not a god of death but the God of the living. He spoke of the very limited means when recourse to capital punishment may be unobjectionable, such as when there is no other way to protect the common good of civil society (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2267). But such theoretical instances in modern society, he said, “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

With scandalous frequency, people on death row have been exonerated through DNA testing of crimes for which they were convicted. It is abhorrent to hear of innocent people being put to death by the State or that botched executions have taken place resulting at times, in the slow, painful death of a human being; a person created in the image and likeness of God.

Cardinal O’Malley and Archbishop Wenski’s statement is consistent with over 40 years of opposition to the death penalty by the American bishops. According to Archbishop Wenski, “the bishops continue to say, we cannot teach killing is wrong by killing.”

Cardinal Sean O’Malley echoes St. John Paul II in reiterating that there are better ways to protect society without taking human life. He hopes the Supreme Court’s review of Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocols will lead to the realization that that state’s actions erode a reverence for human life. The only logical and life affirming conclusion he sees, is that “capital punishment must end.”

We believe and put our trust in a merciful and loving God. We are conscious of our own brokenness and need for mercy. Our Lord calls us to imitate him more perfectly by witnessing to the inherent dignity of all persons, including those who have committed evil acts. Today, instead of repaying death with death, the Church is calling us to also witness to something greater and more perfect: a Gospel of life, hope and mercy.

Anthony J. Granado is a policy advisor at the USCCB Department of Justice, Peace & Human Development.

Go deeper:
Listen to Anthony’s interview last week on the Catholic Church and the death penalty on the Drew Mariani Show.
Check out the work of our collaborator, Catholic Mobilizing Network, to end the use of the death penalty.

Our Faith Calls Us to Restore Justice

Clifton

Karen Clifton, Catholic Mobilizing Network

In Pope Francis’ call to abolish the death penalty in all forms, he tells us that the American criminal justice system is in need of a new and restorative approach. The United States incarcerates an appalling number of its citizens. While our country represents 5% of the world’s population, we are home to 25% of the global prison population and we imprison more citizens per capita than almost any other country. [i] [ii]

When we sentence men, women and children to be incarcerated, we send them to a prison system in which they are at an exponentially greater risk of becoming victims of violence and suicide. On any given day in the United States, an estimated 600 people are raped in prison and roughly 80,000 incarcerated adults and youth are held in conditions of solitary confinement, a practice considered by many as a form of torture.[iii] [iv] These statistics are shocking but none of these numbers conveys the ripple effect this system has in our society in creating broken individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities.

Our corrections system costs us tens of billions of dollars a year but is neither effective in rehabilitating offenders, nor in deterring crime.[v] Haunted by institutionalized racism and the criminalization of mental illness, prison dehumanizes and hardens its residents rather than “correcting” them. Over half of all inmates are re-arrested within three years of their release. [vi] We have created a system that pushes inmates into gangs and substance abuse to cope with prison life and the dead-end opportunities they face upon release.

How can we provide these persons the opportunity to experience the unconditional love of God? How can we meet their needs by counseling their broken spirits and addressing their addictions and mental illness?

Shujaa Graham spent 4 years on California's death row for a crime he did not commit. He was raised on a plantation in the segregated South in the 1950s. (Photo by Scott Langley)

Shujaa Graham spent 4 years on California’s death row for a crime he did not commit. He was raised on a plantation in the segregated South in the 1950s. (Photo by Scott Langley)

Retribution focuses on punishing the offender. Restorative justice, by contrast, focuses on the needs of victims, their communities, and the offender and seeks to repair broken relationships and heal harm. Restorative justice is at the core of the Gospel. It witnesses to the dignity of all human life, guilty and innocent.

To offer the convicted person a path to restoration is not to be soft on crime. It calls the convicted person to do the hard work of justice, shoulder responsibility and seek forgiveness, repair broken relationships with victims and communities, and address the issues that led them to their actions.

In the words of Fr. David Kelly of the Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation, we cannot write off offenders as worthless, banish them and expect a different result. Rather, we need to ensure that offenders are held accountable and remain part of the community while they serve their sentence.[vii] Restorative justice programs prove that broken people can be rehabilitated through encounter and prayer. The results of restorative justice pilot programs in the US are promising. Bridges to Life, a restorative justice program that began in Texas, reports recidivism rates lower than half of the national average.[viii]

As Pope Francis says, our media and political system promote “violence and revenge, public and private, not only against those responsible for crimes, but also against those under suspicion.” Violence as a quick solution to our problems has become culturally ingrained and changing this is hard work. As Catholics, we must confront this culture of violence to create a new generation of hope and justice. It will take something as radical as the Gospel message of forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.

(Photo by Scott Langley.)

(Photo by Scott Langley)

Karen Clifton is executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network.

[i] View comparative data about worldwide prison populations from The International Centre for Prison Studies here.

[ii] Sean McElwee. “America’s Awful, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Prison System.” The Huffington Post. July 1, 2013.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] National Religious Campaign Against Torture “Ending Torture in US Prisons

[v] For more information about total state correctional expenditures (not including federal expenditures) see the Bureau of justice Statistics report “State Corrections Expenditures, FY 1982-2010.” April 30, 2014.

[vi] According a report made available by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, among state prisoners released in 30 states in 2005, 67.8% of prisoners were re-arrested within 3 years. Alexia Cooper, Matthew Durose and Howard Synder. “Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 30 States in 2005: Patterns from 2005 to 2010.” April 22, 2014.

[vii] See the transcript of the conference “Restore Justice!” held in Washington DC on November 21, 2014.

[viii] GuideStar Exchange Charting Impact Report. “Bridges to Life.” April 24, 2014. Page 3.