LOCKETT: In His Light - Jesus suffered the fate of capital punishment by the state

March 12, 2019

In Matthew’s Gospel, we read:

“Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus inside the praetorium and gathered the whole cohort around Him. They stripped off His clothes and threw a scarlet military cloak about Him. They placed a woven crown of thorns on His head and a reed in His right hand. Kneeling before Him, the soldiers mocked Jesus, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat upon Him and took the reed and struck Him on the head. After mocking Jesus, the soldiers stripped Him of the cloak, dressed Him in His own clothes, and led Him off to crucify Him.” (Matthew 27:27-31.)

We profess as Roman Catholics that Jesus was arrested by Roman authorities in Jerusalem’s Garden of Gethsemane. He was tried and sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect for the province of Judea. Our Lord, Savior and Brother, was executed by the state and experienced the sentence of capital punishment as deemed by the state.

For those of us who reside in Harris County, we enjoy what economic experts call a “neverending phase of new development.” Our climate is nearly perfect all year long. Our temperate climate sustains tropical vegetation and allows us and our guests an enviable outdoor lifestyle. Freezing temperatures are extremely rare in winter, and in summer the temperatures usually rise over 100 degrees. We are by far the most diversified county in the nation.

However, no county has been as prolific in its application of the death penalty as Harris County. If the county were a state, only one state would have executed more people since 1977, which is the year capital punishment was reinstated in the United States — Texas itself.

For the first time in more than 40 years, no one from the county was executed until Robert Jennings was executed by the state on Jan. 30 for the July 1988 fatal shooting of Officer Elston Howard during a robbery at an adult bookstore. No one was sentenced to death in 2016. In fact, no one has been sentenced to death since 2014. There is some disagreement over precisely why both numbers hit zero, and it could be years before it happens again. However, experts see the landmark as a symbol of shifting attitudes toward the death penalty both in Harris County and across our nation.

Let us be thankful and grateful that we who reside in Harris County no longer have to bear the badge of being identified as the capitol of capital punishment of the world.

In August 2018, Pope Francis changed the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching, and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church — the compilation of official Catholic teaching, to declare that the death penalty can never be sanctioned because it attacks the inherent dignity of all humans. Previously, the catechism said the Church had not excluded capital punishment unless it was “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

The new teaching indicates that the former policy is outdated and that there are other ways to protect society. It states, “Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is an inadmissible attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

I can recall a conversation I had with a funeral director with more than 25 years of experience in his profession and how a drive to the Ellis Unit in Huntsville altered his psyche on the death penalty.

He shared with me his experience after being secured by a family whose loved one was scheduled for execution. The funeral director said he woke up the morning of the execution feeling uncomfortable even to the point of asking a staff member to ride with him to Huntsville.

He told me: “Leonard, I have probably made hundreds of calls to hospitals, homes and hospice care facilities to secure the remains of an individual, but I cannot describe the feeling I was experiencing driving up to Huntsville knowing I would be driving back to Houston later with the remains of someone who has been executed by the state.”

I have been blessed for the last four years to serve as a theology faculty member at St. Thomas High School. One of my favorite courses is a required senior course titled, “Living as a Disciple of Jesus Christ In Society.” The purpose of the course is to help students understand that it is only through Christ that they can fully live out God’s plans for their lives. Students are to learn the moral concepts and precepts that govern the lives of Christ’s disciples. Among the topics presented are conscience, decision making, mercy and sin, and the virtuous life. Respect life issues of stem-cell research, abortion and euthanasia are studied in the course.

My favorite portion of the course is when we address the issue of capital punishment. We deal with the subject matter by first viewing the movie “Dead Man Walking,” a film about the relationship between a convicted murderer on death row in Louisiana and the religious sister who befriends him. At the beginning of the course, it has been my custom to question the young lads to determine if they had seen the movie before and then take a very unscientific poll on their position on capital punishment. It is always a shift on their position to oppose capital punishment after the students have viewed the movie. Isn’t an education a wonderful odyssey?

Merciful Father, we ask your blessing on all we do to build a culture of life. Hear our prayers for those impacted by the death penalty. We pray for all people, that their lives and dignity as children of a loving God may be respected and protected in all stages and circumstances. We pray for victims of violence and their families, that they may experience our love and support, and find comfort in your compassion and in the promise of eternal life. We pray for those on death row, that their lives may be spared. That the innocent may be freed and that the guilty may come to acknowledge their faults and seek reconciliation with You. We pray for the families of those who are facing execution, that they may be comforted by Your love and compassion.

We pray for civic leaders, that they may commit themselves to respecting every human life and ending the use of the death penalty in our land.

Compassionate Father, give us wisdom and hearts filled with your love. Guide us as we work to end the use of the death penalty and to build a society that truly chooses life in all situation.

We ask this Father through Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever and grant us the grace to remain glowing in His light. Amen. †

Deacon Leonard Paul Lockett, ASBS, is a deacon at the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.