Blog Template Theology of the Body: When Wonders Never Cease: Sr. Helen Prejean in San Antonio and the Death Penalty

Monday, December 11, 2006

When Wonders Never Cease: Sr. Helen Prejean in San Antonio and the Death Penalty

"There is and has been a certain sense that even in those cases where serious justifications can be offered for the necessity of taking life, those who are identified in a special way with Christ should refrain from taking life. We believe that this should be taken as an indication of the deeper desires of the Church as it responds to the story of God's redemptive and forgiving love as manifest in the life of his Son..."

Sr. Helen recently arrived at a cocktail party at the San Antonio Country Club (of all places) with various of her author friends and family members of capital punishment victims...I was there. For those in the know, Sr. Helen is the real-life nun turned life advocate for criminals on death row, who was depicted by Susan Sarandon in the excellent film Dead Man Walking.

It was so good to see Sr. Helen again, to recieve one of her famous hugs and slaps on the back, and to hear more about her life ministering to Death Rown inmates, their families, and to our very guilt-ridden, trigger-happy society.

My parents and I have been thinking about her pleas for life in our culture, and of such thorough defenses of the human person as presented in such statements as the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Statement on Capital Punishment approved during the crime tumult of the early 1980's.

I wish that every Christian took the time to read this 13 page Statement; I recently paused to highlight and summmarize some of the highlights:

1. As always, it is particularly necessary that Christians form their views on difficult political matters in a prayerful and reflective way, and that Christians show a respect and concern for the rights of all, rather than merely reacting to spectacular crimes or expediency. We should not expect or seek simple or easy solutions to profound evils, and we should always recall that Christ Himself who died for sinners, is the very "Justice" of God.

2. Allowing for the fact that Catholic teaching has accepted the principle that the state has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely serious crime, and that the state may take appropriate measures to protect itself and its citizens from grave harm, nevertheless, the question for judgment and decision today is whether capital punishment is justifiable under present circumstances. The availability of incarceration and means of reform in our present circumstances eradicates the possibility of such justification.

3. Given the validity of deterrence as a legitimate purpose of punishment, we note that while it is certain that capital punishment prevents the convicted individual from committing further crimes, it is far from certain that it actually prevents others. Empirical studies in this area have not given conclusive evidence that would justify the imposition of the death penalty on a few individuals as a means of preventing others from committing crimes. There are strong reasons to doubt that many crimes of violence are undertaken in a spirit of rational calculation which would be influenced by a remote threat of death. The small number of death sentences in relation to the number of murders also makes it seem highly unlikely that the threat will be carried out.

4. It is important to remember that the preservation of order in times of civil disturbance does not depend on the institution of capital punishment, the imposition of which rightly requires a lengthy and complex process in our legal system. Moreover, both in its nature as legal penalty and in its practical consequences, capital punishment is different from the taking of life in legitimate self-defense or in defense of society.

5. Granted that the need for retribution may indeed justify punishment, Christians recall the example of Jesus, who urges upon us a teaching of forbearance in the face of evil (Matthew 5:38-42) and forgiveness of injuries (Matthew 18:21-35). The satisfaction of vindictive desires is not and cannot be an objective of a humane and Christian approach to punishment. We believe that the appropriate forms of punishment must be determined with a view to the protection of society and its members and to the reformation of the criminal and his reintegration into society (which may not be possible in certain cases). In Christ, ours is not the era of retribution; rather, punishments are meant to be corrective by being conducive either to the reform of the sinner or the good of society, which becomes more peaceful through the punishment of criminals.

6. The abolition of the death penalty would promote values important to Christian citizens, requiring us to envisage more humane and more hopeful and effective responses to the growth of violent crime, and to manifest our freedom as moral persons striving for a just society. The abolition of the death penalty would also a challenge us as a people to find ways of dealing with criminals that manifest intelligence and compassion rather than power and vengeance.

7. We believe in the unique worth and dignity of each person from the moment of conception, a creature made in the image and likeness of God; the defense of life is strengthened by eliminating exercise of a judicial authorization to take human life.