WASHINGTON, DC — Catholic leaders are encouraging believers to get involved in lobbying efforts against capital punishment and to discuss the issue in their parishes and with family members.
Two recent webinars on this topic have brought this message to Catholics across the country.
On January 27, Catholic Mobilizing Network hosted a webinar, “Ending the Federal Death Penalty: The Road Ahead,” and on February 1, Renew International and the Archdiocese of Washington hosted, “Dignity and the Death Penalty: A Conversation with Cardinal Wilton Gregory and Sister Helen Prejean.
The panels highlighted not only the position of the Catholic Church against capital punishment, but also the need for believers to step up and do their part to help end the practice in the United States.
“This is a pivotal moment,” said Ingrid Delgado, policy adviser at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops‘ Office of National Social Development. She reminded viewers on January 27 that 44 people are currently on federal death row and that President Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to end the federal death penalty.
She said anti-death penalty bills in Congress especially need Republican support “to show that this is a bipartisan issue.” She also noted that the federal death penalty abolition law, introduced last year, “is unlikely to pass at this time.”
“But we are people of faith and hope; we can and we will get there,” she said.
Delgado urged people to sign the Catholic Mobilizing Network‘s online petition calling on Biden to end the death penalty, available at: https://catholicsmobilizing.org/biden-end-federal-dp. She also asked them to contact members of Congress about the issue and speak to state lawmakers if their state still has the death penalty.
But the work should not stop there. She also urged webinar viewers to “think about your circles of influence” – such as parishes – and take this topic forward there.
That was the focus of the Feb. 1 panel with Washington Cardinal Wilton D. Gregory and Sister Helen Prejean, a sister of St. Joseph de Medaille, who has long campaigned for the abolition of the death penalty.
Gregory said pastors should form social justice ministry teams with parish leaders who can engage parishioners on a consistent ethic of life. He also said discussing this issue can be difficult as people have strong feelings about it, and stressed that the dialogue should be in Christian charity with an emphasis on listening to each other.
“Be nice, especially at the beginning of this dialogue. It will touch the hearts of devotees,” he said, stressing that the same approach is also needed when discussing this matter with family members who disagree on the matter.
“These conversations can be uncomfortable and painful,” he noted, but that doesn’t mean they should be avoided.
Prejean is used to such conversations and said that when she is invited to parishes to talk about the death penalty, she tells stories about the men she has visited on death row.
She also recounted conversations with a man whose son was shot and killed. She said he was “ridden with anger and lost in it” before he learned to forgive, which he says ultimately saved his life.
She reiterated what she has often said about death row inmates: that they are “more than the worst thing they’ve ever done.”
Sister Barbara Battista, a Sister of Providence from St. Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana, had a similar message in the Jan. 27 panel. Sister Battista, a member of Terre Haute Resistance to the death penalty, which mobilizes against federal executions, accompanied two men during their federal executions in 2020.
She said that William LeCroy, who was executed on September 22, 2020, “was not at all the man who had committed murder years before”, which she said shows that “healing and reconciliation can happen”. In the years leading up to his death, he became deeply spiritual, she added.
Just hours before his execution, his lawyers unsuccessfully petitioned the Supreme Court for a stay.
On January 27, the day of one of the webinars, two executions took place in the United States, both after obtaining authorization from the Supreme Court, which did not issue the requested reprieves.
Donald Grant was executed at Oklahoma State Penitentiary that morning by lethal injection, and Matthew Reeves was executed that evening by lethal injection in Holman Jail in Alabama.
Reeves had requested, and been denied, the opportunity to be executed by nitrogen gas.
Grant and another death row inmate had asked a federal judge to grant them a temporary injunction that would delay their executions until a trial could be held to determine whether Oklahoma’s use of the injection protocol three drugs was constitutional. They had asked to be killed by firing squad as an alternative, arguing that it would be quicker and less painful.
Catholic Mobilizing Network reacted on social media to the executions of Grant and Reeves, the first executions in the United States this year.
Of Grant’s execution, the group tweeted, “Every human life is endowed with God-given dignity, even the lives of those who have done great harm. #DonaldAnthonyGrant is a child of God, and we mourn that #Oklahoma State chooses to go ahead with his execution.
As for Reeves, he said in a tweet that his execution that night “represents a legal system that allows violence to cheaply replace real justice. Executions contribute to a culture of death and further alienate us from a culture of reconciliation.