For those on death row, redemption of souls is what matters most

photo by laiman nung for unsplash

Pope Francis’ decision to update church teaching on the death penalty was strongly opposed by some Catholics. Whereas previous church teaching permitted the termination of a criminal’s life on prudential grounds, Francis declared that capital punishment is “inadmissible” instead of “very rarely” justifiable.

The pope defended this alteration as an “authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium,” occasioning confusion and provoking reasonable questions as to the nature of “authentic development.” As Edward Feser has put it, “If Pope Francis really is claiming that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, then either scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes were wrong—or Pope Francis is.”

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It is the redemption of souls that should take priority over any other considerations around the death penalty.

Regardless of where one stands on the death penalty, however, all Catholics must not lose sight of the souls on death row who await the judgment that state-enforced terminations will quicken. It is the redemption of souls that should take priority over any other considerations around the death penalty.

Two women who, on the surface, would appear to have very little in common can help us to understand more fully the need to work for both justice in this world and salvation in the one to come.

Admirers of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, are well aware of her pacifism, a committment to the sacredness of life that led her to consistently oppose the death penalty. Those who are inspired by Day’s social activism and political agitation may be surprised to learn that she also had an intense devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux. As Robert Coles, a lifelong friend and biographer of Day, writes: “It is too easy...for those who admire [Day] to overlook this intense biblical side of her intellectual life. We are intrigued by her political and social views but miss the extent of her interest in, say, Thérèse of Lisieux or St. John of the Cross.” It would be a mistake, however, to see these two parts of Day as unrelated or somehow in tension.

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Some may be surprised to learn that Dorothy Day also had an intense devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

Thérèse—the “Little Flower”—attuned Day to the eternality of the souls of those awaiting capital punishment; through this spiritual friendship between Dorothy Day and Thérèse of Lisieux, we are reminded that corporal and spiritual works of mercy ought to be united as the body and soul of the incarnate Christ.

St. Thérèse can teach us much concerning the corporal works of mercy, including visitation of prisoners, even if—and precisely because—her charity came through prayers instead of in persona. The contemplator of the Holy Face teaches us still. Thérèse’s spirituality itself is rooted in imprisonment.

St. Thérèse can teach us much concerning the corporal works of mercy,

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En route to Rome, where she would ask the Holy Father’s permission to enter the Carmel monastery at age 15, Thérèse became enamored of the prisons in Venice. Uncharmed by the gondoliers, she writes in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul,that she found the city “full of sadness” even though “its dark dungeons are no longer a living tomb for unfortunate prisoners to pine within.” Visiting these “dreadful prisons,” Thérèse said she would be glad to choose “this sombre abode for my dwelling if there had been any question of confessing my faith.”

Lost in her reverie, the guide’s voice roused her and she “crossed the ‘Bridge of Sighs,’ so called because of the sighs uttered by the wretched prisoners as they passed from their dungeons to sentence and to death.” Her sympathy for the jailed is evidenced through phrases like “unfortunate prisoners” and “dreadful prisons.”

Thérèse became enamored of the prisons in Venice.

In Story of a Soul her references to prisoners are numerous, and many of them reveal her deep empathy and solidarity with the imprisoned.

In imitation of her “Divine Prisoner,” she argues that one can possess joy “as well in an obscure prison as in the palace of a king.” As proof of this, she says that she is happier in Carmel (here a metaphorical prison) than when she was “in the world where I had everything I wanted, and, above all, the joys of a happy home.”

Her references to prison are not always affectionate. For instance, when the sickly Thérèse received extreme unction, she wrote: “The door of my dark prison is ajar. I am steeped in joy, especially since our Father Superior has assured me that today my soul is like unto that of a little child after Baptism.” Although Carmel was filled with flowers, then, her imprisonment also included a terrible darkness, which was only lifted through the sacramental opening of her cell.

When the sickly Thérèse received extreme unction, she wrote: “The door of my dark prison is ajar."

One might object that as a contemplative, Thérèse did not grasp the weight of Christ’s commandment to visit the imprisoned and was cut off from the ugly realities one encounters in doing works of mercy. But we can find continuity between Thérèse’s prayers of charity and Day’s works of love. St. Thérèse, knowing that “He would have us give Him alms as to a poor man,” took seriously Chapter 25 of the Gospel of Matthew, wherein we read what Thérèse calls “those ineffably sweet words”: “Come, ye blessed of My Father, for I was hungry and you gave Me to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.”

We can find continuity between Thérèse’s prayers of charity and Day’s works of love.

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In 1887, the same year she made her pilgrimage to Rome, Henri Pranzini—who maintained his innocence until the end—was accused of triple murder: “A courtesan named Monty, or Regnault, lay dead at the foot of her bed, with two gashes on her throat, while her servant-maid and her daughter, a girl of 12, had been murdered in their bed.” Thérèse, who was nearly the same age as the murdered girl, heard talk of “a great criminal just condemned to death for some horrible crimes; everything pointed to the fact that he would die impenitent.”

This concern about “impenitence” would have been one that Dorothy Day shared. In her diary, Day notes that Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot was “a help in prayer. Also to counteract a sense of futility.” Early in the novel the protagonist, Myshkin, describes a public execution he witnessed while in France. The fictionalized death by guillotine has uncanny parallels to the actual execution of Pranzini, to whom Thérèse bound herself through prayer.

Thérèse heard talk of a "great criminal just condemned to death...everything pointed to the fact that he would die impenitent.”

Most of Dostoevsky’s narration, which reads like a protest against the death penalty, punctures the reader with the peculiar mental pains that come with capital punishment. Horrible as these agonies are, the pinnacle of the reader’s terror comes when the criminal refuses to fully unite himself to the God who was also punished with death:

He kissed the cross greedily, hurriedly—just as though he were anxious to catch hold of something in case of its being useful to him afterwards, though he could hardly have had any connected religious thoughts at the time.

Day knew that, though scandalous, the cross can carry good thieves into paradise. She knew that, absent a sense of an eternal destiny, the sufferings of this world seem to be the ultimate. The imprisoned falter, they despair. The soon-to-be-executed lose hope. Facing such despair and anxiety, what good can we do? Like Myshkin, Day’s favorite French saint had to learn to face soberly the limits of our littleness.

This concern about “impenitence” would have been one that Dorothy Day shared.

As she records in her Story of a Soul, Thérèse reckoned that she herself “could do nothing,” but nonetheless undertook a spiritual campaign to “prevent [Pranzini] from falling into hell.” Although she considered him “guilty,” she did not, like some Catholic supporters of capital punishment, cynically dismiss the criminal. She is certain that Christ will “pardon the poor, unfortunate Pranzini.” She ensured that Mass would be offered on his behalf. Her faith is staggering: Even if he should go to his death without any visible signs of repentance, even if he passed without passing through confession, she was “absolutely confident in the mercy of Jesus.”

In the aftermathof Pranzini’s execution, St. Thérèse, against her father’s wishes, read the newspaper La Croix about the event. Pranzini, the paper said, had not gone to confession. But what she (and we) read next dramatized the most moving fruits of her faith:

Day knew that, though scandalous, the cross can carry good thieves into paradise.

He had mounted the scaffold and was preparing to place his head in the formidable opening, when suddenly, seized by an inspiration, he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of Him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance.
Pranzini’s last seconds of life stand in marked contrast to the criminal whose execution Myshkin witnessed. Pranzini, buoyed up, we believe, by the Little Flower, kissed the crucified Christ three times. The guillotined man, on the other hand, presses his lips to the cross “greedily, hurriedly,” clinging to its “usefulness.” Dostoevsky’s image of uncertain repentance unsettles us to pray for the capitally punished. Pranzini’s humility gives us substance to hope for and hastens us to beg God’s mercy.  

Thérèse undertook a spiritual campaign to “prevent [Pranzini] from falling into hell.”

Catholics who campaign for an end to capital punishment—or for more just laws concerning capital punishment that “qualify” convicted persons for death row—can look to Dorothy Day, who looked to St. Thérèse. Well into her 80s, Day protested the death penalty, but, guided by Thérèse, she did not reduce her concerns to justice in this world. Catholics who oppose executions would do well to contemplate Thérèse’s contention that when Christ called out “I thirst!” he meant also to communicate his “thirst for souls,” a thirst that moved Thérèse to “burn...with the desire to snatch them” from what she chillingly describes as “eternal flames.”

More than a few Catholics may remain troubled by Pope Francis’ alterations to the catechism’s teachings on capital punishment. But those who stand behind prudential use of the death penalty can also learn from St. Thérèse. We must never devolve, through contentious disagreements, into cynical indifference toward or condemnation of even the greatest criminals.

Followers of Thérèse know that corporal works of mercy can be meaningful even if they are merely petals: a good book sent to a solitary man or woman living the long loneliness in a cell; a letter offering correspondence with someone whose family can only offer them silence; and prayers for all who await state-sanctioned executions, that the innocent might be freed and the guilty might be met with God’s mercy.

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