Approximately 3,000 men and women are currently sitting on death row in prisons across the country. How can we build a culture of life when our justice system sees death as an answer? As Boston Cardinal Seán O’Malley affirms, “We cannot teach killing is wrong by killing.”
In October, Catholics are called to dedicate time to prayer and dialogue in celebration of Respect Life Month. At Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), we are taking time to reflect on the words of our past and present Holy Fathers, who call us to defend all life, even the lives of those who have done great harm. As Pope Francis has said, “Although the life of an individual is a terrain full of weeds and thorns, there is always room for the good seed to grow, and we must trust God.’’
We also reflect on Pope St. John Paul II’s challenge to followers of Christ to be “unconditionally pro-life” in his encyclical The Gospel of Life. He reminds us, “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”
Likewise, we take to heart Pope Benedict’s words of encouragement to those working for death penalty repeal. In 2011 he declared, “I express my hope that your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”
Above all, we are energized by the outpouring of love Pope Francis has shown for our brothers and sisters in prison. His Holiness has encouraged us to make room in our hearts for the Gospel messages of love and mercy. He has urged us to reject a throwaway culture that sees certain human lives as disposable and instead to “struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty… but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty.”
A Window of Opportunity for a Pro-life Victory
This year has been full of success for the death penalty repeal movement. Nebraska repealed the death penalty, Pennsylvania instituted a moratorium on executions, and the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled capital punishment to be in violation of the state’s constitution.
As national momentum continues to grow, judicial repeal of the death penalty in our country is a real possibility within the next few years. Ending the death penalty would be a historic step on the journey to build a culture of life. This is an opportunity for us to send a clear message that all life is a gift from God that must be respected and defended, from conception to natural death.
Your voice is essential for such a victory to take place. Catholic Mobilizing Network is humbled by and grateful for the faith, energy, and passion with which students, faculty, and administrators at Catholic colleges and universities across the country are embracing the USCCB Campaign to End the Death Penalty. Examples include:
Students and faculty at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland are working to educate their community on the death penalty through courses, workshops, guest speakers, and theater.
Msgr. Stuart Swetland, president of Donnelly College in Kansas has recorded radio interviews and podcasts on this topic, reaching countless hearts and minds.
The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, has collaborated with CMN to host conferences (the next one on November 6) that open new space for academic dialogue on the theological and practical arguments against the death penalty.
CMN’s fantastic student interns work tirelessly to help us promote our efforts.
Whether you are a veteran of the movement or looking to learn more, Catholic Mobilizing Network has the resources to support your education and advocacy efforts.
- Sign up for our newsletter and action alerts at http://catholicsmobilizing.org.
- For an in-depth discussion on the death penalty, consider our book Where Justice and Mercy Meet, authored by Mount St. Mary’s University faculty and other experts in the field.
- If you are looking to start a conversation with your campus ministry office or student group about the death penalty, download CMN’s free Journey of Faith Death Penalty Workshop. This interactive workshop includes a Prezi presentation, presenter script, and participant packet.
- CMN also offers vigils and prayer cards perfect for organizers seeking to host an awareness event.
- For more general resources that present a Catholic perspective on criminal justice system reform, we invite you to explore the presentations and accompanying materials from our Living the Year of Mercy Workshop or our Restorative Justice Workshop.
Catholics are playing a critical role in ending the death penalty in this country. We are in the home stretch, but there is more work to be done. As you join us in our work to end the death penalty, I leave you with the commissioning words from a 2005 homily given by the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio: “Caring for life from the beginning to the end. What a simple thing, what a beautiful thing… So, go forth, and don’t be discouraged. Care for life. It’s worth it.”
Karen Clifton is the Executive Director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network.