Education and communication are the starting points for abolishing the death penalty in the United States, according to the three panelists of the “Conversations of Hope: Ending the Death Penalty with Sister Helen Prejean” webinar that was sponsored by the Catholic Mobilizing Network on Thursday, Oct. 20, in honor of Respect Life Month.
Deacon Jim Booth, director of prison ministry for the Diocese of Nashville, joined Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, the author of “Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States,” and death row exoneree Kwame Ajamu for the panel discussion, which was moderated by Emma Tacke, the director of Community Engagement for the Catholic Mobilizing Network.
On Aug. 2, 2018, the Vatican announced in a statement that the Church had officially revised the text regarding the death penalty in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 2267 now states: “The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
It is one of many ways in which Pope Francis has spoken out against the death penalty during his papacy, following in the footsteps of his predecessors, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis released a video in September as part of his monthly intention, which was played at the beginning of the webinar.
“Each day, there is a growing ‘no’ to the death penalty around the world. For the Church, this is a sign of hope,” Pope Francis said. “From a legal point of view, it is not necessary. Society can effectively repress crime without definitively depriving the offenders the possibility of redeeming themselves.
“Always, in every legal sentence, there must be a window of hope. Capital punishment offers no justice to victims, but rather encourages revenge, and it prevents any possibility of undoing a possible miscarriage of justice,” he continued. “Additionally, the death penalty is morally inadmissible, for it destroys the most important gift we have received: life. Let us not forget that, up to the very last moment, a person can convert and change.
“And in the light of the Gospel, the death penalty is unacceptable. The commandment, ‘Thou shall not kill,’ refers to both the innocent and the guilty,” Pope Francis concluded. “I, therefore, call on all people of goodwill to mobilize for the abolition of the death penalty throughout the world. Let us pray that the death penalty, which attacks the dignity of the human person, may be legally abolished in every country.”
Following the video, the panelists started by offering their reactions to his words.
“These were powerful words and summarized beautifully the case for the abolition worldwide of capital punishment,” Deacon Booth said.
Sister Prejean noted the pope’s use of the word “mobilize.”
“A huge number of Catholics don’t even know the Church has changed its teaching on the death penalty or are unaware of the death penalty and need education and mobilization,” she said. “I admire Pope Francis so much. He’s such a man of the Gospel and keeps talking about the Gospel as a Gospel of encounter, which is what all of us hope to do with people in prison and people on death row because once you encounter a real human being then you can’t turn back and remove yourself into abstractions of ‘they deserve to die.’”
Encountering the humanity of the prisoner is how Deacon Booth said he got involved in the fight against the death penalty.
“When I began to do prison ministry, I was already convinced morally that there was something fundamentally wrong with killing people who posed no threat whatsoever to society,” Deacon Booth said. “I was certain that the death penalty constituted an attack on human dignity and God’s gift to us of life.
“I came to prison with those attitudes and met prisoners both in the general population and on death row and met people who had struggled, in many cases, for decades to change their lives, to transform their lives and have done so with tremendous success; people for whom the thought of execution was just an abomination,” he added.
Deacon Booth learned a lot while interacting with the prisoners, he said.
“The executioner’s gurney or the electric chair … are instruments of revenge, not reconciliation. It forecloses the possibility of change and transformation,” Deacon Booth said. “It is wrong and contrary to Christian beliefs in every respect.”
Through his work with prisoners, Deacon Booth shared images of the Stations of the Cross that death row inmates had painted that were then circulated around the churches of the diocese. He said it got a conversation started.
“To me, in a way, the most powerful statement from (the inmates) apart from the beauty of the artwork itself was that they asked that no statement … be put at the end of the scrolls. They wanted parishioners, they wanted the faithful seeing these to come up with their own questions about the meaning of these scenes,” Deacon Booth explained. “They wanted the meaning of these statements, for attitudes towards the death penalty to be questions that parishioners themselves would ask and pose and come to their own answers. We, of course, followed their wishes in this, and they were absolutely right.
“Parishioners would walk through the stations of the cross and question, ‘Here is our king, Christ the King, but he’s an executed king. What does the cross stand for here? It stands for an attack on dignity,’” he continued. “All of the right questions occurred to people, and it’s a very powerful teaching and mobilizing moment.”
Deacon Booth said this is why he urges others to meet with these prisoners face-to-face.
“There are few ways better than face-to-face meetings to change people’s hearts and minds. … For (visitors) to sit and talk face-to-face, to sit right across from another person, to hear their stories, to hear what they’ve tried to make of their lives in their years and decades in prison, is to encounter them in their humanity; both their fallenness, but also their capacity to restore themselves, to recreate themselves and to change,” Deacon Booth said.
“It changes people in ways that academic lectures or homilies I don’t think can do,” he said. “There is nothing like sitting, looking into a person’s face and talking to them about change and guilt to open your eyes to the reality of things.”
And that’s what led to his retirement from Vanderbilt University where he served as a professor in the political science and philosophy departments.
“I quickly ceased being a professor and tried to be the coordinator to bring in those people,” he explained, “and generally, to search out every opportunity we can to create a system of justice that’s tempered by mercy, that’s restorative in character and not revenge driven and, as Pope Francis mentioned, that window of hope.
“The pope’s outspoken opposition to capital punishment is a great source of hope about change in the Church and its taking a stronger and more active public role in opposition to the death penalty,” he concluded. “The three bishops in Tennessee, who consistently have spoken out about the rash of executions in that state over the past three or four years, the work of Sister Prejean, of Kwame, of thousands of nameless volunteers who go to prisons, meet these men, lobby around their fellow citizens, these have to be rays of hope that this terrible act of revenge will finally come to an end in our country and worldwide.”
Sister Prejean and Ajamu also shared their stories of coming into this fight against the death penalty, how human dignity can be upheld in the context of the prison system, and what gives them hope about the path forward during the panel discussion.
Following the main discussion, the panelists answered questions from attendees. To view the full discussion, visit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUWwRadXh9o&t=3378s.