During the Easter season, Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection and triumph over death. In his 2015 Easter message, Pope Francis stated: “In Jesus, love has triumphed over hatred, mercy over sinfulness, goodness over evil, truth over falsehood, life over death.” In the spirit of love and mercy that we celebrate at Easter, Catholic institutions – including colleges and universities – speak out against the use of the death penalty in the United States.
Church teaching affirms that all human life is from God, and He alone is the master of life and death. The Church has long acknowledged the right of the state to use the death penalty in order to protect society from those who may harm others. However, in recent years the Church has been increasingly clear and consistent that the use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned in the United States because alternative ways to protect society exist. As Pope Francis wrote in a recent letter to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty: “Today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been. It is an offence to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person which contradicts God’s plan for man and for society and his merciful justice, and it fails to conform to any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather foments revenge.” The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have echoed this sentiment, fighting against the use of the death penalty for 40 years. Since 2009, the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty has worked to educate Catholics about the use of capital punishment, advocate for laws repealing the death penalty, and support restorative justice initiatives.
Momentum against the death penalty has been building among various Catholic groups. In March 2015, the editors of four Catholic publications, America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor, issued a joint editorial calling for the end of the use of the death penalty in the United States. The editorial called attention to Glossip v. Gross, an upcoming Supreme Court case that focuses on the use of lethal injection. The contributors to the blog Catholic Moral Theology, many of whom are faculty theologians at Catholic colleges and universities, also publicly called for the abolition of the death penalty in a March 2015 post. The group stated that “regardless of partisan affiliation, continued use of capital punishment in the United States is unjustified by any reading of current Catholic teaching.” Additionally, during Holy Week, many Catholic leaders, including a number of Catholic college presidents, joined with other Christian leaders in sending a letter to public officials, calling for the end of the death penalty. These publications emphasize many of the recent controversies surrounding the death penalty: a botched lethal injection execution in Oklahoma, new legislation permitting death by firing squads in Utah, the recent execution of an inmate with brain injuries in Missouri, and the postponed execution of a female inmate and theology student in Georgia.
Responding to the Church’s call and sensitive to the issues emerging in recent news, a number of ACCU member colleges are undertaking various initiatives to raise awareness and advocate against the use of the death penalty in the United States:
Mount Saint Mary’s University (MD) offers courses in “Forgiveness and Mercy” and “Perspectives on the Death Penalty.” These courses are co-taught by Dr. Trudy Conway, a faculty member in Mount Saint Mary’s philosophy department, and the Education Coordinator at Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty, Vicki Schieber, who advocated against the death penalty for her daughter’s murderer. Students study forgiveness, mercy, and the death penalty through the lens of various philosophical, theological, and political works.
Early in 2015, the University of Dayton (OH) hosted the Dead Man Walking event series, named after the book written by Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ. These events, which were free and open to the public, included a panel discussion, a film screening of Dead Man Walking, a visit to The Last Supper art installation, and a theatrical interpretation of Dead Man Walking staged by the Dayton Opera. The events also included screenings of other films and a gallery talk on the art installation. This creative focus on the death penalty is part of a larger university campaign to examine complex issues through multiple academic disciplines, including the arts.
Georgetown University (DC) held an event in April featuring Mario Marazziti, co-founder of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and author of 13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty. He is also known internationally as the spokesperson for the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay Catholic movement devoted to peacemaking and human rights. The event featured a conversation about Marazziti’s book.
Also in April, Chestnut Hill College celebrated its third annual “Forgiveness Day.” This event, sponsored by the college’s Institute for Forgiveness and Reconciliation, included talks by board members from “The Witness to Innocence Project,” one of whom is a death row survivor. The guests speak about their experiences with the prison system and death row, and how they work for prisoner rights.
By drawing attention to the topic of capital punishment in the United States, these Catholic colleges and universities have the opportunity to explore the Church’s social teaching on life and human dignity, joining together with other Catholic institutions to educate, raise awareness, pray, and inspire change in our society.
Andrea Price is a graduate student at Georgetown University and the Peace and Justice Intern at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. Alexandra Weber Bradley is Member Services Associate at the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.