By Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond
Clarion Herald – 5/6/17
How pleased were you that the Louisiana Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-1 last week to ask the entire Senate to debate a bill that would repeal the state’s death penalty?
I feel very positive about this because we as the Catholic Church, along with many other people in the community, have been urging lawmakers to look at this issue and to see it as a pro-life issue. It’s hard to make the argument logically as Catholics that we’re against abortion, against euthanasia and against assisted suicide, but we’re in favor of the death penalty. Some would say, “Well, these people committed serious crimes and they should pay the consequences.” But that’s an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, and that’s not what Jesus said. Jesus said that we have to forgive and help people rehabilitate their lives.
Why did the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops issue its most recent statement opposing the death penalty?
We wanted to communicate to the lawmakers our position because many of them already had asked us for that. We wanted to make sure our theological position was communicated clearly. Theologically, what’s important is that even though people have made mistakes, a human life is a human life. It’s important for people to remember that Jesus, on the cross, forgave the Good Thief and said he would be with him that same day in paradise. That gives us the example of divine forgiveness. Most recently, Pope Francis said we need to be more attentive to rehabilitating people and to welcoming them when they leave prison, helping them experience a new way of life. Some would just say it would be better to kill the person, but do they not deserve, as did the Good Thief, the opportunity to repent and form a new way of life? We have the capacity through our penal system to protect society by keeping someone who has committed a grave crime in prison for life.
Is this still a challenging position for some Catholics to accept, especially when you are not talking about “innocent” human life?
It is challenging. But I think St. John Paul II made it clear in “Evangelium Gaudium” that the death penalty is “an offense against the inviolability of life and dignity of the human person, which contradicts God’s plan for man and society.” St. John Paul II also said in the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” that if non-lethal means are “sufficient” to protect society from an aggressor, government should be limited to those means. The catechism goes on to say: “The cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’”
Are you concerned about what is happening right now in Arkansas and Mississippi?
Yes. Arkansas has scheduled a series of executions over the coming weeks, and Mississippi is considering reinstating the firing squad as a form of execution. I believe this is a prophetic moment for Louisiana. With all that being said, there are more and more states abolishing the death penalty. Some of the spark for the movement to repeal the death penalty is the result of the work of Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph, who has devoted more than 25 years of her life to this pro-life cause.
Do you have any thoughts about the prospects of the bill on the Senate floor?
When it comes to politics, I make no guesses whatsoever, but I pray. I hope people will speak to their legislators and try to help them understand the position of the church. Our position is rooted in the Gospel message. Jesus forgave the Good Thief on the cross because he asked for forgiveness. What many people who have lost loved ones through violence don’t realize is that when their loved one is gone, the death of another person does not bring them peace. Some people say unless the person is executed for the crime they will not experience closure or peace. The death of another does not usually bring peace or closure. Studies verify this.
What do you think Gov. Edwards would do in this matter?
We know that he is very pro-life and that he values the dignity of human life as given to us by God.
Questions for Archbishop Aymond may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org