Being ‘pro-life’ also means saying no to death penalty

Archbishop Aymond    On March 5 at St. Louis Cathedral, you hosted an interfaith prayer service for an end to the death penalty in Louisiana. Even among Catholics, the death penalty is a controversial topic. Can you explain what the church teaches?
    I am grateful that the number of strong pro-life voices against the death penalty in the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the metropolitan New Orleans area is growing. Some people do not see the death penalty as a pro-life issue. However, if we believe in the sacredness of human life from the womb to natural death, that would mean that we would not foster the death penalty. There are many people in pro-life organizations, both in our church and in other religious groups, who take exception to this teaching. But Blessed John Paul II certainly did not take exception to this. He specifically wrote in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (No. 2267) that if “non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means.” He also added a very important observation. Because modern society has the means to prevent a dangerous person from harming anyone else, “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’” It’s hard to imagine in our day and age that there would be a situation where the death penalty is justified.
    Why should the death penalty be ended?
    In the Old Testament, the idea of justice was “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus came and told us that we are to rehabilitate people – to forgive them and to try to help them reform their lives.
    What happened at the prayer service?
    Sister Helen Prejean, who has been a vocal opponent of the death penalty for more than three decades, spoke about her conversion experience after living in the St. Thomas Housing Development and also about the need to support victims’ families. We heard from Mr. Calvin Duncan, who was wrongfully convicted of murder and spent 28 years in Angola before evidence was uncovered in 2003 that he did not commit the crime. Although Mr. Duncan was not on death row, his wrongful conviction should give everyone pause about the use of capital punishment. We also heard from Mr. Tom Lowenstein, whose father was murdered in 1980 and who still is  struggling with forgiveness. Mr. Lowenstein says the death penalty is no solution and offers no closure to families.   These were heart-wrenching testimonies. We talked about the culture of death, which we have created in the United States and other parts of the world. We are called to live a culture of life. There were nearly 400 people at the cathedral, and we prayed for those who have been murdered, for their surviving family members and for those who have perpetrated the violence, that they might reform their lives. We prayed for those on death row that they will reach out to God and ask for forgiveness.
    How does life in prison with no chance of parole impact the death penalty argument?
    We have to ask ourselves as a society if we have the right to take a person’s life and perhaps not give perpetrators the opportunity to reform their lives and to do penance for what they’ve done. Capital punishment does not allow the person the opportunity to do penance. We favor a life sentence. We also foster the idea of restorative justice, which helps people undergo some kind of change. While we know that some prisoners are capable of change, some are not. That doesn’t mean that we have the right to take their lives. I would add that most people who have witnessed the execution of a person who murdered one of their loved ones have indicated they felt no more sense of peace after witnessing the execution than they did before.
    Last week you also had the chance to meet with about 500 seniors from Catholic high schools on the northshore. What was that like?
    This is the third year I’ve done it, and I always come away excited about the young adult church. The day was sponsored by Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Mandeville and Father John Talamo, the pastor. We had an opening address by Marianite Sister Renee Daigle, and then there was a time of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, followed by Mass. After lunch, I had a chance to interact with the students about making the transition from high school to the next step in their lives.
    Were they attentive?
    Very much so. They listened and asked questions. Many of them are going on to college or community college, and some are going to enter the military or start working. Some don’t know yet what their next step will be, and I told them that’s fine. I asked them to consider some important points: First, be yourself; don’t try to act like or be someone else. Stay close to the Lord. Be bold in standing up for your values and who you are and what you believe in. Be bold in following the values of Jesus. Be insightful in how you pick your friends. No real friend would ever have you go against that which is good or that which is of God. No real friend would tempt you.
    We live in a world today in which there are lots of ways to put our lives in danger. I asked them to seek out the campus ministry at the college they attend so they can meet other people who have similar values. There was good interaction. I say with great sincerity that the young adult church of today gives blessing to our society and to our church and gives us great hope that they will be good family people and leaders for the future. I also talked about discerning their vocations in life – many of them are called to marriage, some to a single life and some to priesthood and religious life. I asked them to think seriously about what God is calling them to do. I have great confidence in them.
    Questions for Archbishop Gregory Aymond may be sent to

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