No exceptions to God’s love

September 18, 2012

HOUSTON — As Respect Life Month approaches in October, and elections continue to be on the minds of all Americans, issues that focus on respecting human life, such as abortion, euthanasia and capital punishment, are in the forefront of the media.

One of those, capital punishment, may be one of the most controversial and confusing topics around the globe from a moral, intellectual and political standpoint. When it comes to the views of the Catholic Church, the fundamental principles of its faith call each person to go forth and work for social justice and defend the life, dignity and rights of all people.

Dr. Marcella Colbert, Director of the Archdiocesan Respect Life Office, said that, while this is a complex issue, the Catholic Church has very clear thinking on the death penalty.

“We believe a person, or a society in the case of war, has the right to defend itself against an unlawful attack by a dangerous person, so you may kill in self-defense only,” Colbert said. “The Catholic Church does everything in its power to protect life, not just innocent human life, such as in euthanasia and abortion, but also even those who have committed major crimes.”

Catholics main opposition to the death penalty is that, if there are alternate means to protecting individuals and society from that dangerous person, there is an opportunity to reform that person. Colbert explained that seeking punishment or revenge is completely outside of the Church’s teaching.

“[Its] teachings on social justice look at the whole person within society, and we are obligated to look after everyone,” she said. “That man or woman on death row is Christ — in a very flawed form, but they are made in God’s image and likeness and there is no need to kill them. They should be kept alive so we can minister to them and provide the opportunity to come to God, following the example led by Jesus and his disciples in the Gospel.”

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston takes an integrated approach in teaching the Church’s viewpoint on capital punishment. The three main facets are:
1) Pastoral care to the death row inmates, their families, the victims’ families and law enforcement personnel;
2) Teaching the fundamentals to children through the Catholic school system and youth, young adults and adults through continuing education programs;
3) Creating awareness with government officials and community groups to help influence public policy developments, voice concerns and support justice and peace efforts locally, nationally and globally.

From a pastoral standpoint, Father Ron Cloutier, Archdiocesan Director of the Office of Correctional Ministries, is responsible for the daily Catholic ministry at 10 county jails, 21 state prisons, Immigration and Detention facilities, one federal prison and several city and local jails. In addition, while Texas Death Row is at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas, and under the pastoral jurisdiction of the Diocese of Beaumont and its office of Criminal Justice Ministry, Cloutier’s staff and volunteers support this group’s effort to provide pastoral and sacramental ministry to the prisoners on death row, including victims, ex-offenders, their families and law enforcement. 

“We write letters regularly to the inmates on death row, provide one-on-one visits for prayer and support and I personally try to visit once a month to offer them Communion,” Father Cloutier said. “We also assist the inmates’ families so they can understand the process and visit with their loved one before the execution, sometimes even providing financial assistance to those that can’t afford to travel here. We also offer Mass and confession the night before the execution.” 

Over the past 23 years of being with the ministry, Father Cloutier said he has come to know many of these death row inmates personally and has witnessed the executions with their families. 

In addition to visiting death row inmates and their families, Correctional Ministries also reaches out to the families of those victims who have been brutalized by the crimes of those executed. 

Father Cloutier said he believes the process is about restoring and healing all of God’s family through forgiveness and reconciliation.

“Many people have the perception that those who are opposed to the death penalty believe that all inmates are innocent, which is not accurate,” Father Cloutier said. “We help these inmates and their families find peace and reconciliation and come to understand that our God loves us regardless of our sins or what crimes have been committed.” 

Deacon Sam Dunning, Director of the Archdiocesan Office of Justice and Peace, agrees.

“As with all Church teaching and doctrine that addresses aspects of the human condition within society, we begin with the foundational principle that we are all created in the image and likeness of God,” Deacon Dunning said. “Thus, our dignity is not conditioned by our race, language, social status, point of geographic origin or other external factors, so even those who commit crimes possess this inherent dignity. Nevertheless, it is the legitimate role of government to apply rules of incarceration and punishment to curtail evil behavior and to protect society.”

“However,” he continued, “as the catechism emphasizes, this inherent dignity cannot be ignored when considering the punishment of offenders and when ‘non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety…authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good…’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267).

In his own experience as director of the Office of Justice and Peace, Deacon Dunning believes there are a sizeable number of Catholics who engage in this issue on a regular basis. 

“Our own Archbishop [Joseph A. Fiorenza] has long been an articulate and active champion in opposing the use of the death penalty, as well as Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, who has been active in this regard, joining with other faith leaders in the Jewish and protestant communities in opposing the death penalty,” Deacon Dunning said. “In addition, the U.S. bishops’ conference has also gone to great lengths to advance the cause through their campaign to abolish the death penalty. And, during each session of our state legislature, crowds of Catholics descend on our capitol to argue for legislation that decreases, if not abolishes the death penalty.”

Deacon Dunning said he also would be remiss in not applauding the staunch and dedicated efforts on the part of the Texas Catholic Conference — both the bishops and staff — to thwart legislation and public policy that would expand the use of the death penalty. He believes the Church is making many successful efforts to help our state government change the laws on capital punishment, being that Texas has more people executed than other states.

“There is a continual and persistent presence in Austin that has advocated over the years against executing minors, the mentally ill, arguing for more attention to the racial discrimination that has plagued the criminal justice system, especially as it applies to the use of capital punishment,” he said. 

“Catholics can be found not only in the ranks, but also in the forefront of this very serious, life and death struggle. While it’s easy to despair in a state such as ours where the death penalty has been employed with such vigor and frequency, the life without parole option in sentencing, the strictures on using this penalty against minors and mentally ill, although not perfectly applied, nevertheless counts as significant strides in reducing state executions.”

In addition, Deacon Dunning said there is the hard reality of so many people on death row being exonerated through the use of current forensic technology — innocent people who if convicted in an earlier era would have been executed. Further, he said there appears to be less enthusiasm on the part of Texas district attorneys to press for the death penalty.

“There are a variety of reasons for this, no doubt, but I credit in part the expanded awareness of the poverty and racial elements that come into legal defense, jury selection, sentencing and so on,” he said. “This, in turn, is due to the fact that the Catholic Church, from our pope to our bishops, priests and deacons and lay activists who preach, protest and pray over this issue, keeping the conversation in the forefront of our public debate over criminal justice in this country.” 

Colbert agrees the Church is making strides. “Prayer and education are the two most important aspects of changing hearts and minds on this matter,” she said. “Our pastoral care ministry works toward rehabilitating the offenders and supporting their families. Then, we have to influence legislatures to pass just laws — laws that are compassionate and concerned with the whole person, not an abstract view of law and order.”

Deacon Dunning agrees that prayer, as well as mercy and forgiveness, are fundamental to making change. He has been touched by the stories of people who have had loved ones murdered, and yet they dedicate themselves to opposing the death penalty.

“They talk of the need, a deeply felt spiritual need, to offer forgiveness — often in the name of the loved who has been murdered,” he said. “Often, they echo either wittingly or unwittingly, the Catholic sensitivity to the ongoing need for all of us, each of us to constantly seek redemption. By killing someone, even someone convicted of a horrible, violent crime, we remove from them possibility of seeking God’s forgiveness, of finding redemption.”

“Further,” he concludes, “Those of us opposed to the death penalty do not seek to romanticize the criminals. They have in most cases committed egregious crimes against innocent people and deserve to be punished, but in a society such as ours, echoing Pope John Paul II, we have the capacity to incarcerate for life these criminals and the moral imperative to do so outweighs the compulsion to kill for reasons of vengeance.”