OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR, New York Times
By HELEN PREJEAN
Published: April 4, 2005
The effects of the pope's leadership will be felt for years to come, both in
the highest echelons of the Catholic hierarchy and among the Catholic faithful
in the pews. Whereas polls once showed that American Catholics supported the
death penalty about as much as other Americans, they now show that support for
the death penalty among Catholics has fallen below 50 percent. Just last month,
Catholic bishops in the
This is a moment I have been waiting for, hoping for and praying for more
than two decades, ever since I walked out of the killing chamber in
In the early 1980's, I began looking for a way to have a direct dialogue
with the pope about the death penalty. During this time I had accompanied three
people to execution and plunged headfirst into public debate. My efforts to
persuade Catholic bishops in the
At last, in 1997, I finally got my chance to communicate directly with Pope
John Paul II. It happened through the case of a
And an impassioned letter it was, pouring into the pope's lap 14 years of searing experiences of accompanying human beings into killing chambers and watching them be put to death before my eyes. "Surely, Holy Father," I wrote, "it is not the will of Christ for us to ever sanction governments to torture and kill in such fashion, even those guilty of terrible crimes. ... I found myself saying to them: 'Look at me. Look at my face. I will be the face of Christ for you.' In such an instance the gospel of Jesus is very distilled: life, not death; mercy and compassion, not vengeance."
I spoke candidly about my disagreement with one part of the pope's 1995 encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae" ("Gospel of Life"), which, while urging imprisonment instead of execution, allowed the use of the death penalty in cases of "absolute necessity." Whenever governments kill criminals, I pointed out in my letter, they always claim to act out of "necessity." I urged him to close the loophole and make Catholic opposition to government executions unequivocal.
This was no small thing. The teaching of the Catholic Church upholding the right of the state to execute criminals "in cases of extreme gravity" had been in place for 1,600 years.
But that's precisely what the pope did: he removed from the Catholic catechism the criterion "in cases of extreme gravity." The omission changes everything, because Catholic teaching now says that no matter how grave the crime, the death penalty is not to be imposed. This cuts the moral ground out from under American politicians who advocate the death penalty for the "worst of the worst criminals."
The quantum change in the catechism took place in September 1997, and in
1999 when the pope visited
"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil."
For this statement, and for his leadership, I am forever grateful. Thank you, Pope John Paul. Because of you, the Catholic Church can at last stand alongside those human rights groups that oppose, unequivocally, government killing.
Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun, is the author of "Dead Man Walking" and, most recently, "The Death of Innocents."