February 7, 2020

We write once again in defense of life and against the use of the death penalty. We draw on our Catholic faith and our belief that every life, from conception to natural death, no matter how a person lives it, is a gift from God and, as such, carries with it a powerful dignity and everlasting value.

On Thursday, Feb. 20, the State of Tennessee will execute Nicholas Todd “Nicky” Sutton. He will be the seventh man executed by the state since August 2018.

Sutton was sentenced to life in prison in 1981 after being convicted of murdering three people, included a high school friend and his grandmother who had adopted him. While in prison, he was convicted of stabbing to death another prisoner and given the death penalty.

There was never much doubt about Mr. Sutton’s guilt. He willingly confessed to the first three murders and even some murders that never happened.

The way Sutton lived his life, it’s hard to see that he did much to earn people’s compassion. But God does not require us to earn the value of his gift of life before he bestows it upon us. The sanctity and value of every life is inherent in its very existence because they flow from the Creator.

Despite the callous violence that marked Sutton’s life as a young man, according to those who know him, he has changed. He became a devout Christian while incarcerated, and several prison guards have asked Gov. Bill Lee to spare Sutton’s life because he stepped in to save them when their lives were threatened by other inmates.

The Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty is clear and consistent. Following in the footsteps of his predecessors St. John Paul II and Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI, Pope Francis changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church to say that the use of the death penalty is inadmissible in all circumstances “because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

Bishop J. Mark Spalding and his fellow bishops in Tennessee have followed the lead of Pope Francis in repeatedly and publicly opposing the state’s use of the death penalty. 

In the past, they acknowledged that the state has the obligation to protect all people and to impose just punishment for crimes. But, they have argued, in the modern world the death penalty is not required for either of these ends.

Opposing the death penalty does not mean we disregard the pain and grief inflicted on the loved ones of the victims of heinous crimes, nor are we blind to the value of the lives lost. We seek justice for the victims and their loved ones and pray for their peace. But the Church does not believe the death penalty delivers either. Justice and peace can only flow from the example of Christ, who stepped in to protect the woman about to be stoned for adultery. In the end, Christ sent the woman on her way with the instruction, “Go and from now on do not sin anymore.”

When we see the state ignore our pleas for mercy, it can feel that we are simply shouting into the wind, our words floating into nothingness. It can be discouraging. 

What God asks of us is not easy, but his call to us to follow him is ever present. Even when the path is rocky and winding, even when we stumble, God urges us on, walking beside us, reminding us that this way lies holiness and eternal salvation.

To counter our discouragement we can recall a time when our message pierced the wall of resistance and allowed mercy to blossom.

In 1999, St. John Paul II visited the city of St. Louis. Before 100,000 people, he made his strongest statement ever on American soil against the use of the death penalty. He called on Catholics to be “unconditionally pro-life,” which includes opposition to the death penalty. “Modern society has the means of protecting itself without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform,” the pope said.

Later in that visit, the pope personally asked the governor of Missouri to commute the death sentence of a prisoner scheduled to be executed a few weeks later. Touched by the pope’s appeal, Gov. Mel Carnahan, a supporter of capital punishment, commuted the death sentence to life in prison without parole.

“I’ll have to say I was moved by his concern for this prisoner,” Gov. Carnahan told The New York Times.

St. John Paul II had asked for mercy for condemned prisoners before without success. But just as God keeps calling us to follow him, St. John Paul kept asking for mercy for those condemned to die. Finally, his message broke through.

We draw comfort and strength from St. John Paul II’s example. We too must continue to call our brothers and sisters to turn away from the death penalty, to choose mercy over vengeance. We must never relinquish our hope that our message and our prayers will finally find a home in the hearts of all people.

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