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.

Solidarity and Vision

October is Respect Life Month.

Each of us is a masterpiece of God’s creation. This is a fact of Christian belief. At the center of Catholic social teaching stands the conviction that each person is a beautiful work of the Creator, a masterpiece that elicits wonder and affection from those with eyes to see. Such a teaching is what Pope Benedict XVI calls a performative truth. It is not a truth “out there” but one that makes a claim on us. It challenges us to see the world in a particular way. How can we deepen our vision, that we might see and help others to see?

In his 2014 Respect Life Month statement, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, states that “solidarity is the antidote” to “the culture of death that flows from the extreme individualism of our age.” Solidarity heals this wound in our age, in part, because it opens our eyes to the beauty in all persons. Solidarity enables us to proclaim that each of us is a masterpiece.

Solidarity means that we act with a common purpose. It is not merely an attitude. To faintly echo St. James, if I feel badly for poor persons in my community, but contribute to a culture that ensures their invisibility, what good is my attitude? Solidarity requires that the concerns of my neighbors become my own concerns. It requires that I act with a view toward the good of others. It requires that I encounter others.

When I begin to take up the aims and struggles of my neighbors, all my neighbors, as my own, then my vision expands. My experience of the world is inseparable from the practices and rituals that make up my life. Through the actions that I repeat day after day, I develop habits of thought and affection. When I act in solidarity, when I share a common life with others, a particular vision develops. The “issues” are no longer abstractions. Solidarity with vulnerable persons – immigrants, the poor, the oppressed – opens my eyes and enlarges my understanding of the beauty of human life.

Many people are invisible to our society. The poor and the disabled, the elderly and the unborn – these persons are simply irrelevant in the moral calculus of powerful segments of our culture. Pope Francis rightly refers to this culture of exclusion as a throw away culture. Through our acts of solidarity, we who are disciples of Jesus Christ form a habit of seeing the handiwork of God in all people, and this habit enables us to make the audacious claim that those whom our utilitarian society regards as disposable are, not only persons with rights, but masterpieces of creation.

The 2014 Respect Life Program presents a beautiful truth that reaches to the core of our Christian faith. We are loved. This truth that makes a demand on us. It demands that the Church build bonds of community and friendship with those that the world would rather not see. When our work, worship, and lives break out of the “extreme individualism of our age,” out of the “throw away culture,” then we become liberated to see each person as a masterpiece of God’s creation.
Weldon headshot
Aaron Matthew Weldon is a staff assistant for the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. He is also a Ph.D. Candidate in Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America and a former intern for the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

Go deeper:
Learn about the USCCB’s pro-life advocacy.