By Jennifer ROGERS, GUEST COLUMN
Last October, the Clarion Herald published “A Pastoral Letter on the Death Penalty” by the East St. Tammany-Washington Deanery (https://tinyurl.com/wk9f3kj). Here’s the story of how it came to be, offered as an example of clergy-lay collaboration in action.
Several months earlier, a member of Loyola’s Jesuit Social Research Institute (JSRI) encouraged me to help bring awareness of the catechism’s current teaching on the inadmissibility of the death penalty. After doing some research and consulting with others, I gave a presentation to all of our priests and deacons of the East St. Tammany/Washington Deanery asking for help.
In response, an ad hoc committee of clergy was formed by our dean, Father Wayne Paysse, to compose a pastoral letter. The ad hoc committee prayerfully spent a few months preparing a draft focusing on the catechism’s unequivocal rejection of the death penalty because it violates the God-given dignity of human life, particularly in a modern society that has other means to protect its citizenry. The ad hoc committee also wrote a legislative letter outlining the importance of being an informed voter on Catholic social teachings, and the clergy unanimously approved both the pastoral and legislative letters.
While the priests and deacons were drafting the letters, laity worked with the Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), the national Catholic organization dedicated to ending the death penalty and promoting restorative justice. CMN provided fact sheets called “Standing for Life” and “The Death Penalty in Louisiana,” highlighting relevant facts in our state, including that 11 innocent men have been exonerated from Louisiana’s death row since 1976.
To provide context, 28 men have been executed in Louisiana during the same time period. Bringing these statistics together, of the 39 men on Louisiana’s death row since 1976 who have had a final outcome (“final” meaning either exoneration or execution), incredibly more than 1 in 4 of those men were innocent.
It bears noting that 127 Louisiana death sentences have been reversed on appeal since 1976, so the 11 exonerations are part of a larger story of errors (see https://deathpenaltyinfo.org and https://innocenceproject.org for more information).
While statistics reveal that Louisiana has one of the highest error rates in the country in its use of the death penalty, we spend millions every year to maintain our system of capital punishment. Maintaining our capital system is extraordinarily more expensive than life without parole because of the capital-specific appeals involved. We hear people (even some of our Catholic elected officials) argue far too often that executions should be “faster” and with fewer appeal protections, but we need only look again at Louisiana’s error rate to understand the necessity of those appeals. To be clear, the catechism’s teaching does not hinge on innocence or fiscal realities, but these are practical matters to be considered.
Once the deanery’s clergy finished their pastoral and legislative letters, clergy and laity together went to work. During Respect Life Month, copies of the pastoral and legislative letters were distributed to every parish in the East St. Tammany/Washington Deanery. They were shared with every parishioner and highlighted Catholics’ commitment to the dignity of life from conception to natural death.
The next three weekends, parishes in the deanery distributed CMN materials to highlight relevant facts and to promote prayerful reflection by the laity of each parish as their pastors and deacons had prayerfully considered the issues when drafting the letters. The collaboration by clergy and laity, then, was both in the physical distribution of the letters and CMN materials, and also in hearts and minds to prayerfully consider the catechism. We were honored and grateful to have our dean’s leadership on this important issue. We were equally grateful that all of the clergy in our deanery signed on to share the pastoral letter in a unified proclamation of life over death.
It was challenging at times to coordinate the various moving pieces and to ensure each parish had all the necessary materials for distribution. Yet, with persistence and patience, our clergy, CMN partners and parishioners were able to realize a beautiful model wherein clergy and laity worked together as one body in Christ to bring one aspect of our inspirational tradition of Catholic Social Teaching to life!
Jennifer Rogers is a parishioner of Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Lacombe, a graduate student in the Loyola Institute for Ministry and a volunteer member of the archdiocesan racial harmony efforts.