By Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond, Clarion Herald Commentary
You’ve launched a major initiative to have Catholic high school students participate in a widespread effort to repeal the death penalty in Louisiana. Can you explain why?
I am working with St. Joseph Sister Helen Prejean, who has devoted much of her religious life to advocating for the repeal of the death penalty. Human dignity is God’s gift that no one can take away, no matter what grave offense a person may have committed. That has been a consistent theme of Catholic teaching. St. John Paul II summarized this teaching in “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”). By the very nature of our human dignity, he said, we must be “unconditionally pro-life.” In the case of someone “who has done great evil,” St. John Paul said “modern society has the means of protecting itself (through life sentences) without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.” Capital punishment is a pro-life issue and cannot be separated from the others.
Why make an appeal to our young people, many of whom can’t yet vote?
Young people who are on the verge of fully participating in the political process have the faith and energy to advocate not only for a change in mindset but also for a change of heart. They may not yet have a vote, but they do have a voice. For the past two years, bills repealing the death penalty have been filed in the state’s House of Representatives and Senate by both a Republican and a Democrat. This is the third year death-penalty repeal bills – HB 215 by Rep. Terry Landry and SB 112 by Sen. Dan Claitor – have been filed and will be debated. We’re asking our young people to reach out to the elected representatives of their parents with a simple message: “As a young adult and resident of the great state of Louisiana, I respect the dignity of ALL life and therefore ask that you vote “YES” for (HB 215/SB 112) to repeal the death penalty in our state. The state does not represent me when it believes it can take the life of a human being.” I believe our young adult church can become engaged citizens who will eventually tip the scales in ensuring that Louisiana does not have capital punishment. The reality is that the death penalty is a pro-life issue that deserves serious reflection.
How did Pope John Paul II frame the conversation surrounding the death penalty?
In 1999 during a visit to St. Louis, St. John Paul II clearly placed the issue of the death penalty as a pro-life issue. He spoke out strongly against abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide and the death penalty. Pope Francis spoke out last year when he said the death penalty was inadmissible. This is to be understood as a clarification to the catechism in that while we live in a civilized society that has a criminal justice system, there is essentially no exception for which the death penalty could be pursued. We should not live in “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” revenge but give the sinner a chance to repent and ask for God’s mercy.
What have the Louisiana bishops said about the death penalty?
In 2017, we released a statement that lifted up the church’s pro-life teaching. (That full statement can be accessed at www.laccb.org.) In part, we wrote: “The stark reality is that capital punishment fails to bring back life that has been lost. It does not provide healing, reconciliation or even peace to those impacted. The Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops asks all men and women of good faith, especially those members of the Louisiana Legislature, to search their heart in an effort to seek mercy and love to support the repeal of the death penalty and aid in building a culture of life.” God seeks out the person on death row for a change of heart and wants to offer new life.
What’s the current status of death-row inmates in Louisiana?
The state has 73 people on death row. Since 1976, there have been 28 executions; before 1976, there were 632. In capital cases, the jury decides the sentence, but life without parole is a sentencing option. One method of execution is lethal injection. Louisiana has the highest reversal rate of death penalty cases in the country, with sentences reversed or individuals removed from death row in 140 cases. Glenn Ford was exonerated in 2014 after spending nearly 30 years on death row at Angola. He died of lung cancer a year after his release. John Thompson spent 18 years in prison – 14 on death row – after being convicted of robbery and murder. Just before he was scheduled to be executed, an investigator discovered that prosecutors had hidden blood evidence that was used for his exoneration. Nationally, more than 160 people have been exonerated from death row. The death penalty is a complex question that deserves prayer and serious thought. Is it God’s justice? I think not. What do you think?
What’s the legislative schedule for hearing the death penalty repeal bills?
The Legislature will run through June 1, and the legislation could be heard at any time. I’m asking everyone to remain vigilant about this issue. More background for prayerful reflection and how to contact your legislators can be found at www.larepeal.org.