In a major speech on Wednesday Oct. 11 Pope Francis said in blunt terms that the death penalty is contrary to Gospel teaching. Given the setting and context of the talk—a celebration marking the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church—Vatican observers speculated that a change in the Catechism may be forthcoming. The passage in question (No. 2267) allows for the death penalty in very rare cases. But now even that small window may be closed.
America reached out to Sister Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking and longtime opponent of the death penalty, for her response to the news.
At last, a clear, uncompromising stance of moral opposition to the death penalty by the highest authority of the church.
Words in official teachings matter. At death penalty trials, in state legislatures and before pardon boards I have witnessed as pro-death penalty district attorneys passed over the words of Jesus calling for forgiveness of enemies to quote instead church teachings that they felt justified the premeditated killing of criminals.
In New Orleans, I watched priests sent by the archbishop to the death penalty trial of Willie Watson, an indigent African man, to assure Catholic jurors that in good conscience they could vote for the state to kill Willie. Which, in fact, the state did on July 24, 1987, electrocuting Mr. Watson to death in Louisiana’s (very busy) killing chamber.
This torture and killing in states continues today, terrible and mostly unseen, and Pope Francis’ words or a change in church teaching are not enough to change that. Only we, the people, freshly awakened to the call of the Gospel can make that transformation happen. First, we must meditate on and ingest the pope’s message so that the Gospel call in his words may set us on fire to act boldly, pouring into death rows, legislative halls and stations of public dialogue to persuade our citizens to truly become people of life.
May the Holy Spirit enliven our hearts and guide us all. Thank you, Pope Francis. Again and again, you renew my hope.