July 17, 2020


Scheduled executions remind us of dignity of all human life

The Catholic Church believes that all human life is sacred—from conception to natural death. And there are no exceptions to that tenet.

As our faith teaches us, that includes the unborn, the hungry, the homeless, the elderly. Even the prisoner on death row.

We are all God’s children.

But understanding how those who have committed heinous crimes—including taking the lives of young, innocent children—can still be loved by God and others is a challenge for many members of society.

And how some individuals have the courage to minister in prison to those who have committed these capital crimes is another life lesson many don’t understand.

We do not condone the unthinkable crimes committed by such inmates. We pray for the victims’ families, that God is with them and helps them heal from their deep and personal wounds.

Here in central and southern Indiana, we’ve had three shepherds in recent times who have made it a priority to minister to those in prison: the late Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein; Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, now shepherd of the Archdiocese of Newark N.J.; and Archbishop Charles C. Thompson.

All three visited men and women who were incarcerated to let them know they were not forgotten, and that Christ’s love was still available to them.

Archbishop Thompson said as much when he visited the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis in 2018 and baptized and confirmed two inmates, and later gave them their first Communion.

“These are the ones that Pope Francis reminds us are on the margins, on the peripheries, that society tends to want to brush aside or forget,” the archbishop said during his visit. “We have to remember that Christ is present here, and remember the goodness and dignity of every person.”

The vision of the Archdiocesan Corrections Ministry, led by Deacon Marc Kellams, is to build a Christ-centered Catholic community that upholds the dignity of every human person touched by crime in order to practice mercy and foster hope and peace. Its mission is to create an environment of trust through a lens of Catholic social teaching by witnessing the Gospel to the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and victims/families, through healing and mentoring processes.

We understand that practicing mercy and fostering hope and peace are no easy tasks, especially when talking about individuals who have committed grave criminal acts.

But our faith teaches us that God’s forgiveness is available to each of us—if we truly seek repentance for our sins, even the most heinous ones. And the priests, deacons, religious and lay Catholics who minister to incarcerated men and women can share stories of conversion by the most hardened of criminals.

Despite several legal challenges, death-row inmate Daniel Lewis Lee was executed by lethal injection at the Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) in Terre Haute on the morning of July 14. Lee was the first federal prisoner put to death since 2003.

As The Criterion went to press this week, the future of three other death-row inmates scheduled for execution at the FCC was uncertain.

The July 17 execution of Dustin Lee Honken was still scheduled to take place—even though Cardinal Tobin has written a letter to President Donald J. Trump asking that he grant him clemency. Cardinal Tobin ministered to Honken on death row while he was shepherd of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Another death-row inmate, Wesley Purkey, was granted a temporary stay of his July 15 execution by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit on July 6. A fourth inmate, Keith Nelson, is scheduled to be executed in Terre Haute on Aug. 28. As part of their guilty verdicts, all were convicted of killing children in separate crimes.

Pope Francis, in his revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 2018, made it clear the death penalty should no longer be a part of society:

“Today … there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

“Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide” (#2267), the updated catechism reads.

As our Church leaders, including our Holy Father, have said, we believe the death penalty is another act of violence. And like our shepherds, we believe life without parole also offers justice.

—Mike Krokos

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