by Sister Julian Cleary

In May of 2018, Pope Francis formally changed the official Catholic Church teaching on the death penalty from “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” to now being “inadmissible” in light of the Gospel. This final proclamation was preceded in time by a series of statements concerning the seriousness of the death penalty made by Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. With this change, Pope Francis declared that the Catholic Church will work with determination to abolish the death penalty worldwide (emphasis added).

In July 2020, following a 17-year pause in federal executions in the United States, an astonishing and painful series of federal executions began. Thirteen human beings were executed by the government, the last on the anniversary of the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. in January of 2021, apparently a statement in itself (more black persons are executed on death row than persons of any other color). Not since the 1800’s have there been so many federal executions by one Administration.

These are the persons who have been executed since July 2020:

+Daniel Lee Lewis
+Wesley Ira Purkey
+Dustin Lee Honken
+Lezmond Mitchell
+Keith Dwayne Nelson
+William Emmett Lecroy
+Christopher Vialva
+Orlando Hall
+Brandon Bernard
+Alfred Bourgeois
+Lisa Montgomery
+Cory Johnson
+Dustin John Higgs

It is indisputable that the crimes these individuals were convicted of were heinous in nature. Most of these individuals repented for their crimes and asked forgiveness from God and the families of their victim(s). Pope Francis noted that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes, and there is always the possibility of redemption.

Each of these persons was:
–Male or Female;
–Hispanic, Native American, Black or White;
–38 to 68 years of age;
–Intellectually disabled, of average intelligence, or even of superior intelligence; and
–Had experienced serious trauma and abuse in their own lives.

Details of these cases revealed the presence of serious unresolved issues such as longstanding mental illness, culpability, racial bias, intellectual capacity, justice and fairness.

We know that both Cory Johnson and Dustin Higgs suffered with the coronavirus and that their spiritual advisors and others who might have accompanied them in their executions, were not able to be present with them at the time of their deaths.

Pax Christi has initiated a campaign asking people to urge President Biden to abolish capital punishment and immediately suspend all pending federal executions. In a previous plea to President Trump, Pax Christi wrote:

As people of faith, we support a justice system that is both humane and restorative. This includes standing with the victims of violent crime and their family members in their grief and suffering, seeking ways of comfort and material support for them, and working on their behalf to transform the culture of violence in our society. It also includes providing those who have been convicted of a crime the opportunity to seek repentance, demonstrate remorse, and dedicate
their lives to the service of others.”

We at St. Placid Priory pray for those who have been executed and their families, their victims and their families, and our government. We stand in solidarity with Pope Francis and the Catholic Church, advocating the abolition of the death penalty.