Sister Helen Prejean’s ‘happy day’ as Pope Francis revises teaching on the death penalty

Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, and an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, is pictured in a 2010 photo in Geneva. (CNS photo/Salvatore Di Nolfi, EPA)Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, and an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, is pictured in a 2010 photo in Geneva. (CNS photo/Salvatore Di Nolfi, EPA)

Sister Helen Prejean called it a “happy day,” 1,600 years in the making.

On Aug. 2 Pope Francis announced a revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church that includes a complete rejection of the use of the death penalty and calls on all Catholics to work toward its global abolition. It had been a day Sister Prejean and other anti-death penalty advocates have worked for over the course of three papacies.

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“No exceptions on the death penalty,” Sister Prejean said, marveling. “I’m a very happy person,” she told America in an interview live-streamed over Facebook.

“The huge thing,” she said, is the recognition by the church of “the inviolable dignity even of guilty people who have done terrible crimes.”

“The Catechism had often stated the dignity of innocent life, and people who are pro-life Catholics stand for the dignity of all life,” Sister Prejean said. “But where it pushed today, right into the heart of the Gospel, is [to say] even those who have done terrible crimes have an inviolable dignity,” she said. “And part of that dignity is not to be strapped down and rendered defenseless and killed by an intentional act. That’s what changed in this. No exceptions.”

“The huge thing,” she said, is the recognition by the church of “the inviolable dignity even of guilty people who have done terrible crimes.”

“Now all the loopholes are shut off; it’s the pure gospel of Jesus: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ And you cannot put power in the hands of the state to decide that some of its citizens can be killed for their crimes.”

Previous rewrites of the Catechism inspired by Pope John Paul II’s encyclical “Joy of Life” had rejected the use of the death penalty as a form of punishment and described it as acceptable only out of absolute necessity in societies that were structurally unable to otherwise to defend themselves from violent actors. It was St. John Paul II’s belief, included in a revision of the Catechism promulgated in 1997, that such cases were “very rare, if not practically non-existent” (“Joy of Life,” No. 56) given the capacity of modern incarceration facilities.

Sister Prejean remembers describing the executions she has witnessed, with shackled men escorted to execution chambers where they were strapped down on gurneys, to Pope John Paul II before he began his own reworking of the catechism in the mid-1990s. “Where is the dignity in this death?” she had asked John Paul, adding, “Can you help the church solidify its opposition to the death penalty?”

But changes initiated under John Paul still left that tiny opening on “absolute necessity” that was hugely exploited by U.S. prosecutors, according to Sister Prejean. Now they will no longer be able to cite Catholic catechism as a justification for its use, she said.

The United States is the only nation in the West that still executes those sentenced under capital crimes, so the revised Catechism, which calls the death penalty “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” may have the greatest impact and generate the greatest controversy here. The death penalty may be imposed at the federal level and in 31 states; 19 states have abolished or overturned it. There are a little over 2,700 inmates on death row across the nation. This year 14 inmates have been executed and 14 more are scheduled to be executed.

As the Vatican made its announcement yesterday, New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat and Catholic who has been a prominent supporter of abortion rights, said that he would pursue the abolition of the death penalty in his state in solidarity with the pope and in honor of his late father, Mario Cuomo, a staunch death penalty opponent during three terms as New York governor from 1983 to 1994. Though the death penalty was reinstated in New York in 1995, the state has not executed a prisoner since 1963.

In Nebraska, Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Catholic, pro-life Republican, said the change in the catechism would have no impact on policy in his state. In the past, according to The New York Times, the governor has said that he viewed his position on the death penalty as compatible with church teaching.

Changes initiated under John Paul still left that tiny opening on “absolute necessity” that was hugely exploited by U.S. prosecutors.

He issued a statement in response to yesterday’s announcement. “While I respect the pope’s perspective, capital punishment remains the will of the people and the law of the state of Nebraska,” Mr. Ricketts said. “It is an important tool to protect our corrections officers and public safety.”

Carey Dean Moore, convicted of homicide, is scheduled for execution in Nebraska on Aug. 14, in what would be the state’s first execution in 21 years.

Despite the Nebraska governor’s undeterred enthusiasm for the death penalty in his state, Sister Prejean sees signs of a growing weariness with capital punishment across the nation. Public opinion polls in recent years suggest a marked turn against its use, and the number of inmates sentenced to death has plummeted. “The first signal you look to see when a country is abolishing the death penalty,” Sister Prejean said, “is what it does in practice. And now we see executions [are] way down.”

Discriminatory patterns in the application of the death penalty are becoming more obvious to courts and public alike, according to Sister Prejean. Most of the nation’s executions occur in southern states where slavery was once the law of the land, and just 2 percent of counties in the nation, she points out, are responsible for the majority of U.S. executions since the Supreme Court’s reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976.

“We're beginning to see the shutting down of the death penalty,” she said.

How the catechism shift will affect the behavior and priorities of U.S. Catholic politicians—and even U.S. bishops—remains an open question, according to Sister Prejean, but the changes do pressure Catholics in the pews to consider how they can take part in the effort to abolish the death penalty. “When we say we’re part of the seamless garment and believe in the dignity of all life,” she said, “it means we believe that unborn children have a right to be born, of course…but [that] we also stand for the value of people who have committed murder but who are more than that.

“We stand for [life] across the board, not just for innocent life but also for guilty life,” Sister Prejean said.

The pope’s revision of the Catechism has provoked criticism from some Catholics who say that Francis is changing what should be inviolate church tradition by morally closing the door on capital punishment. Sister Prejean disagrees.

“When we made statements as a church against slavery, would the claim be that we were going against tradition?” she asked. “Because you could look back and you could see that definitely there was a time when the church upheld slavery and quoted St Paul’s words: ‘Slaves obey your masters.’

“And in the South where I grew up, in Louisiana, you could see the churches where the plantation owners would go and they would hear definitely that God supported slavery and they were O.K. morally as slave owners, and we changed that.

“So do we say then, ‘Hey, look we changed that tradition?’”

No, Sister Prejean said, “we grow as human beings, so there is always going to be development.”

Sister Prejean points out that when St. Thomas Aquinas offered his approval of the death penalty as a means of dealing with violent people “there were no prisons.”

“The bent of the Gospel is always going to be toward life,” Sister Prejean said. “Now we have a way to keep society safe without imitating the violence in killing people, so is that going against tradition or is that growing in the spirit of Jesus and his Gospel?”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Trish Sullivan Vanni
2 weeks 3 days ago

God bless you, Sr. Helen and I pray in thanksgiving for your tireless commitment to justice for so many years. Your faithful witness was instrumental in this happening.

Susan Liang
2 weeks 3 days ago

I guess Hermann Goering and Adolf Eichmann didn't deserve the death penalty for aiding and abetting the killing of millions of human beings, for bystanding while fake "scientific" medical experiments were done on twins -- such as injecting blue dye into their eyes, or binding the legs of pregnant women about to give birth, or throwing Jewish infants up in the air and "catching" them on bayonets.

She has no idea what Justice requires.

I guess its okay for her that Kiki Camerena was tortured and killed by a drug cartel, no problem, no death penalty.

The sister should "stay in her own lane." She's not a prosecutor. She's not the government, something God ordained to limit the bad acts of mankind until He returns.

She has no idea of real suffering.

Christopher Lochner
2 weeks 3 days ago

She "suffers" when she is not being glorified by her adoring fan base. She loves the limelight. There was a handout at a local Jesuit University, written by her, which stated, "Jesus was a victim of capital punishment." This is rather a "wow!!" theology. Likely a bit of Stockholm Syndrome thrown in there but she has become famous and income from book , movies, and the like are certainly helpful. The deceased are of little value, you know. And they do not assist in the brand recognition which is S.H.P. She should be in marketing, or maybe she is!

cathykitson@mail.com
2 weeks 2 days ago

Christopher Lochner Jesus WAS a victim of capital punishment! He was killed by the state, according to the law - He wasn't stabbed or strangled by a criminal. That's all an execution is - a legal killing carried out by the state.

Christopher Lochner
2 weeks 1 day ago

Why, there is a tiny problem in theology here. If Jesus didn't die then there'd be no Resurrection, Christian religion, you know, everything. Recall what was said to Peter who was trying to stop the procedure. So the nun who is, I presume, Catholic decries the very manner of death which gave rise to our religion, a very foolish use of this example to make a point. I imagine when one has the Swiss Guard for protection then one can remove themselves from the actuality of the world and live in the world of the exhortation. Jesus saw there was sin and Mercy while Francis only sees mercy. Naive and utopian this man is.

Tim Donovan
2 weeks 1 day ago

Although I both sympathize with the loved ones of murder victims and strongly oppose capital punishment, I agree that while Jesus, being executed by Roman authorities, was a victim of capital punishment, I agree with you that Jesus had to come to earth as a human being (who was also divine) and die in order to rise from the dead, and gain for us the opportunity of salvation. Perhaps Pope Francis is a bit of a utopian. For instance, while I agree with him both concerning the absolute immortality of the death penalty, as well as his opposition to solitary confinement, I respectfully disagree with the Pope's opposition to life imprisonment for those convicted of murder. However, as an aside, I do believe that it may be both just and humane to release such people from prison and put on probation when they are extremely elderly or have a serious disease or severe disability. I'm disappointed that Nebraska Gov. Ricketts, who is pro-life on abortion, favors the death penalty. However, I find it much more disappointing that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who (rightly, in my view) wants to abolish capital punishment in his state, is a radical proponent of the violence of legal abortion for any reason. I find it to be disturbing that one favors sparing the lives of often heinous murderers, yet finds it acceptable to legally kill almost 1 million innocent unborn human beings each year. Although I've only been a moderate Republican for a few years who often disagrees with typical Republican policies, I was a registered Democrat from when I first registered at age 18 in 1980 until just several years ago. I'm fairly sure that Gov. Cuomo is one of those Democratic leaders who have stated that if a man or woman is pro-life, that he or she has no place in the party. Although a small minority, there are pro-life Democrats who agree with most party positions on the issues but believe that the law should protect the innocent unborn. There are some Democratic elected officials, particularly at the state level who are pro-life. Unfortunately, Gov. Cuomo and others in power are pressuring Democrats to favor legal abortion, or leave the party or remain but vote against so-called abortion rights advocates. I think such an approach is unwise, as most pro-life Democrats in my view will vote for pro-life candidates either while remaining Democrats or become Republicans or Independents.
Finally, I believe that Jesus both saw sin and spoke out against it, but also showed forgiveness and mercy. It may be that Pope. Francis, either because of his personality or for pastoral reasons, emphasizes mercy more than sin. However, the Pope has said on more than one occasion that abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, human trafficking, terrorism, war in many if not most circumstances, sexual abuse by priests and others are immoral acts. The Pope has also said in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si (which I read) that deliberate, wanton action which harms out environment is immoral. Although there is some opinion among a minority of scientists (and I'm certainly no scientist, but a retired Special Education teacher) that climate change isn't caused by human activity, I believe that most scientists agree that climate change is to a large degree caused by human activity.

Stanley Kopacz
2 weeks ago

It should be pointed out that capital punishment is compelled by and performed by the state. Abortion is not compelled by or performed by the state but by the decision of an individual with an embryonic human inside them, aided by a doctor with a shop vac. Although not explicitly compelled to have abortions, many Chinese had them to conform to China's One Child Policy. This, along with the slaughter of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators in Tienenman Square, provoked only mild criticism from the so-called pro-life party and certainly no concrete policy actions. The rush to build up the manufacturing infrastructure of our present prime rival accelerated because immediate profits are way more important than principle. Atrophied consciences were easily soothed with the delusion that capitalism and profit would bring democratic reform to China. Well, we can see how that's working.

Bill Collier
2 weeks ago

Thanks for your comments, Mr.Donovan. They mirror my positions on the issues you address. I’m sure you’ll agree that Mario Cuomo’s views on abortion (expressed most notably in his (in)famous speech at Notre Dame, were flawed by his assumption that opposition to abortion is primarily predicated on a person’s religious views. He failed to understand, or he chose to ignore, that there are substantial numbers of people opposed to abortion who are either atheists or for whom religion does not provide a moral code for living one’s life. Unfortunately, his son, the current governor of New York, has swallowed whole his father’s flawed reasoning.

Carlos Orozco
2 weeks 3 days ago

Sure hope the Holy Father was as clear on divorce and communion, instead of hiding from questions on the subject.

T. Saenz
2 weeks 1 day ago

My dear God, must we endure fake, partisan news on Catholic websites? What dies this nun's happiness have to do with anything? What about presenting the side of those who disagree with her?

Stanley Kopacz
2 weeks ago

Fox News makes billions presenting the other side. Mostly the other side of truth. You can go there for relief from horrible America Magazine.

Tim Donovan
2 weeks 1 day ago

As a pro-life advocate who opposes the violence of legal abortion as well as supports stringent gun control laws and favors war only as a last resort after all diplomatic efforts have been exhausted, I support Pope Francis ' absolute ban on deliberately killing even people found guilty of serious crimes. However, according to the Washington Post (August 5, 2018) while for several decades there has been a downward trend in support of the death penalty, according to a survey in the spring by the Pew Research Center, support has slightly increased for the death penalty, which I think is regrettable. It's particularly surprising to me that while only 43% of Catholics in 2016 supported the death penalty, this year a 53% majority advocate it, which is higher than the rise in support compared to the nation in general. However, Sister Helen is correct that the number of people executed in our nation has greatly declined in recent years. I oppose capital punishment because I believe that our nation should find humane alternatives to serious social problems. Also, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, 159 people in recent years who have been convicted of serious crimes eligible for execution have been exonerated. Also, for many years I have been a pen pal with a man who is serving life imprisonment for a serious crime. However, from our years of correspondence, I believe that my friend, who is a devout Jehovah's Witness, has sincerely reformed his life, and that such convicted prisoners should be given the opportunity to reform their lives. Fortunately (I 'm my opinion) only 23 countries executed people last year, according to Amnesty international. However, another 53 nations had prisoners in death row. The group documented 993 people deliberately killed by capital punishment last year, although it's believed that thousands were executed,particularly in nations such as China, North Korea, and Vietnam that don't report executions. Other nations which permit capital punishment include other countries which are not known for respecting human rights, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. While I understand and respect that many people favor capital punishment because they believe it brings justice (more on that in a moment) I think it's very regrettable that our nation is included among the small minority of those which frequently violate human rights.
I do sympathize with the loved ones of murder victims. However, if myself or someone I loved was murdered, I wouldn't want the murderer to be executed. Although I think it's wrong for anyone to deliberately kill someone, I particularly don't like the idea of the government doing the killing. Capital punishment doesn't bring the murder victim back to life. More good news (in my opinion). According to the Post article, by the end of last year, 142 countries had abolished capital punishment (either by law or in practice).

Tim Donovan
2 weeks 1 day ago

As a pro-life advocate who opposes the violence of legal abortion as well as supports stringent gun control laws and favors war only as a last resort after all diplomatic efforts have been exhausted, I support Pope Francis ' absolute ban on deliberately killing even people found guilty of serious crimes. However, according to the Washington Post (August 5, 2018) while for several decades there has been a downward trend in support of the death penalty, according to a survey in the spring by the Pew Research Center, support has slightly increased for the death penalty, which I think is regrettable. It's particularly surprising to me that while only 43% of Catholics in 2016 supported the death penalty, this year a 53% majority advocate it, which is higher than the rise in support compared to the nation in general. However, Sister Helen is correct that the number of people executed in our nation has greatly declined in recent years. I oppose capital punishment because I believe that our nation should find humane alternatives to serious social problems. Also, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, 159 people in recent years who have been convicted of serious crimes eligible for execution have been exonerated. Also, for many years I have been a pen pal with a man who is serving life imprisonment for a serious crime. However, from our years of correspondence, I believe that my friend, who is a devout Jehovah's Witness, has sincerely reformed his life, and that such convicted prisoners should be given the opportunity to reform their lives. Fortunately (I 'm my opinion) only 23 countries executed people last year, according to Amnesty international. However, another 53 nations had prisoners in death row. The group documented 993 people deliberately killed by capital punishment last year, although it's believed that thousands were executed,particularly in nations such as China, North Korea, and Vietnam that don't report executions. Other nations which permit capital punishment include other countries which are not known for respecting human rights, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. While I understand and respect that many people favor capital punishment because they believe it brings justice (more on that in a moment) I think it's very regrettable that our nation is included among the small minority of those which frequently violate human rights.
I do sympathize with the loved ones of murder victims. However, if myself or someone I loved was murdered, I wouldn't want the murderer to be executed. Although I think it's wrong for anyone to deliberately kill someone, I particularly don't like the idea of the government doing the killing. Capital punishment doesn't bring the murder victim back to life. More good news (in my opinion). According to the Post article, by the end of last year, 142 countries had abolished capital punishment (either by law or in practice).

Michael Barberi
2 weeks ago

While I am against capital punishment, I am also against lifetime solitary confinement. Both are inhumane and violate the dignity of life. Presented with each, I would select lifetime confinement which in many cases often means solitary confinement. Granted, sometimes prisoners ask for solitary confinement to avoid being murdered by another inmate. However, this does not change the fact that both capital punishment and lifetime solitary confinement violate the human dignity. Unfortunately, U.S. Justice and Penal System do not offer good alternatives. If one prisoner has a change of heart and repents, lifetime confinement is the lesser of two evils here.

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