By Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond
On Jan. 7, you represented the Louisiana Catholic bishops at a candlelight prayer service highlighting the fact there have been no executions in the state in the last 10 years. Is that a sign of progress toward the total abolition of the death penalty in the state?
Yes, it is. Over the last two decades, there has been a stark reduction in the number of executions in our state. From 1983-99, 25 people received the death penalty in Louisiana. In the 20 years since 2000, three people have received the death penalty. The prayer service was tied to mark the 10-year anniversary of the last execution in the state – on Jan. 7, 2010. We have had one execution in the last 18 years. This is a hopeful, new reality in our state. We continue to pray for all victims of crime and for those who took the lives of others.
Who coordinated the prayer service?
It was sponsored by Resurrection After Exoneration, a nonprofit group that was established by family members of those who had been on death row wrongfully and later exonerated when new evidence came to light. There were speakers of many faiths, including our own Sister of St. Joseph Helen Prejean, who has advocated for more than 30 years for the abolition of the death penalty. I was happy to represent Louisiana’s Catholic bishops.
It’s important to note what Pope Francis did in 2018 in reference to the death penalty.
Yes, Pope Francis approved changes to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” in 2018 that stated the death penalty is no longer admissible under any circumstances “because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” He added that the Church is now working “with determination for its abolition worldwide.” In 1992, St. John Paul II approved the catechism text that permitted the death penalty only in circumstances where there was no other way of protecting society from further violence. Then, in 1995, in “Evangelium Vitae,” Pope John Paul II wrote that the death penalty was unnecessary as a practical matter because of “steady improvements in the organization of the penal system,” meaning that cases requiring the death penalty “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” Pope Francis and Pope John Paul II have told us that every human life is valuable. Even a person who has committed the worst of crimes does not lose his God-given, human dignity. A person’s life cannot be defined by the most egregious thing he or she has done in life.
Is that teaching difficult for some people to accept?
It is, but this is very much a life issue. People remember that in the Old Testament, the redress for offenses was “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth.” But that is not what Jesus teaches. Jesus teaches that we must offer forgiveness to those who have hurt us. We know that forgiveness is difficult for those who have been hurt and who have lost loved ones through murder. It may take a very long time, and some people may never be able to move beyond their hurt. The person who has inflicted the harm has the right to repent for what he has done, pray for those he has hurt and acknowledge the harm he has caused. The person who has committed the offense has the opportunity for conversion. This is a life issue. Many times when we are thinking about pro-life issues, the immediate thing that comes to mind is the life of the unborn. And that, indeed, is a fundamental, most important issue. But other life issues include the death penalty, euthanasia, assisted suicide, poverty, racism and pornography. All of those are life issues that the Church must give attention to.
What are your hopes for repealing the death penalty in Louisiana?
I remain hopeful. Over the last four years, a death penalty repeal bill has advanced to both the House and Senate floors for debate. We must continue to write and talk to our legislators. There are so many people who do not understand the evil of the death penalty. It is God who gives life, and it is only God who can take life.
Questions for Archbishop Aymond may be sent to email@example.com.