Monday, April 04, 2005

SISTER HELEN PREJEAN writes in the New York Times today about John Paul II and the death penalty. She describes how she struggled for years over how she might be able to engage the pope in a conversation about the death penalty, from the point of view of someone who for 14 years had accompanied convicted killers into the death chamber and watched them be killed, in cold blood. Sister Prejean was especially eager to talk to John Paul about the 1995 encyclical in which he wrote that life in prison should be substituted for execution, "except in cases of absolute necessity."

At last, in 1997, I finally got my chance to communicate directly with Pope John Paul II. It happened through the case of a Virginia death row inmate, Joseph O'Dell, whose spiritual adviser I had become and whose plea for justice had attracted the pope's attention. Lori Urs, who was working on the legal team trying to save Mr. O'Dell's life, visited Rome and handed my letter to the pope on Jan. 22, 1997. A friend of mine in the Vatican, present when my letter was delivered, assured me that John Paul read every word of my letter.

And an impassioned letter it was, pouring into the pope's lap 14 years of searing experiences of accompanying human beings into killing chambers and watching them be put to death before my eyes. "Surely, Holy Father," I wrote, "it is not the will of Christ for us to ever sanction governments to torture and kill in such fashion, even those guilty of terrible crimes. ... I found myself saying to them: 'Look at me. Look at my face. I will be the face of Christ for you.' In such an instance the gospel of Jesus is very distilled: life, not death; mercy and compassion, not vengeance."

I spoke candidly about my disagreement with one part of the pope's 1995 encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae" ("Gospel of Life"), which, while urging imprisonment instead of execution, allowed the use of the death penalty in cases of "absolute necessity." Whenever governments kill criminals, I pointed out in my letter, they always claim to act out of "necessity." I urged him to close the loophole and make Catholic opposition to government executions unequivocal.

This was no small thing. The teaching of the Catholic Church upholding the right of the state to execute criminals "in cases of extreme gravity" had been in place for 1,600 years.

But that's precisely what the pope did: he removed from the Catholic catechism the criterion "in cases of extreme gravity." The omission changes everything, because Catholic teaching now says that no matter how grave the crime, the death penalty is not to be imposed. This cuts the moral ground out from under American politicians who advocate the death penalty for the "worst of the worst criminals."

Via a post by Jeanne at Body and Soul. The same post has links to three other articles about John Paul: one by the former archbishop of Sao Paulo, Brazil, on the pope and liberation theology; one by Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice; and the last from Democracy Now! about one woman's decision to disobey a papal order not to speak publicly on the ordination of women.

Some of the commentary in these articles is critical of the late pope's positions on specific issues, but they are all worth reading.

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