prejean on life

I am breaking my vow to keep wmtc a pope-free zone in order to bring you an essay by Sister Helen Prejean from last week's New York Times. Prejean's book Dead Man Walking was politically formative to me: it crystallized my opposition to capital punishment, causing me to take that final step to the absolute.

It turns out that Prejean's work was formative on a global level. She was instrumental Pope John Paul II's change of the Church's stance on capital punishment. About her letter to the Pope, she writes:
I spoke candidly about my disagreement with one part of the pope's 1995 encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae" ("Gospel of Life"), which, while urging imprisonment instead of execution, allowed the use of the death penalty in cases of "absolute necessity." Whenever governments kill criminals, I pointed out in my letter, they always claim to act out of "necessity." I urged him to close the loophole and make Catholic opposition to government executions unequivocal.

This was no small thing. The teaching of the Catholic Church upholding the right of the state to execute criminals "in cases of extreme gravity" had been in place for 1,600 years.

But that's precisely what the pope did: he removed from the Catholic catechism the criterion "in cases of extreme gravity." The omission changes everything, because Catholic teaching now says that no matter how grave the crime, the death penalty is not to be imposed. This cuts the moral ground out from under American politicians who advocate the death penalty for the "worst of the worst criminals."
Sister Prejean is a tremendous woman. You can learn more about her on her website. In her press clips, I found an interview in Time, where she says of Bush: "Honestly, it's hard to look at [Bush's] face on television because everything he says is so untruthful. . . . I hate the way he uses religion. It's a sacrilege to me."

Not growing up Catholic, my direct experience with nuns has been very limited. It's also been great. I have personally known only two nuns in my life. One was a teacher who worked with inner-city teenagers who had dropped out of school and were studying to get their high-school equivalency degrees. (We taught in the same program.) The other is a nurse in Harlem. She is a rape survivor who speaks publicly about her experience and volunteers enormous amounts of time to the cause of lessening violence against women. Both are feminists.


Anonymous said...

What do you expect from the GOP, though ...

Lately, the TV *news* in the US has used all its stories on the Pope's death as an opportunity to not-so-implicitly compare the Prez to him. Basically saying he is a man as holy as the Pope - not kidding at all on this one. Pictures that have them in eerily-similar stances? The whole Bush-supports-a-culture-of-life-just-like-the-Pope bit? Vote-boosting for a future campaign, perhaps? If you're looking for a definition of Gross Sacrilege (or a way to not sleep well anymore) ... you've just found it, my friend, on your nightly newscast.

Anonymous said...


How can a dude who supports the death penalty and wages an ethically debatable war that kills but a few of the so-called enemy, and tens of thousands of women and children, seriously support a "culture of life"?

Can anyone answer this?

Anyone? Anyone? Buehler?

Got to love those oxymoronic buzzwords ... taking the paradox to a whole new level here ...

laura k said...

"Anyone? Anyone? Buehler?"

LOL! Very funny.

Call on George Orwell, I believe he knows.

You are completely right, of course. And even though it's obvious, we need to keep repeating it, to affirm reality, and to stay sane.

Kyle_From_Ottawa said...

I really hate that "culture of life" thing the GOP claims. Its such baloney.

The Pope on the contrary really had a "culture of life". Humans aren't allowed to intervene in the life process at all, that's God's perogative. Thus no executions, abortion, contraception, suicide, euthanasia, etc. While we might not agree with his views, at least they were consistent and had a foundation. The GOP's "culture of life" extended only to those who would vote Republican. Everybody else is expendible (collateral damage) or deserves to die (criminal/traitor/terrorist/liberal).

laura k said...

Yeah, Crabletta and I have been going on and on about that disgusting CoL expression. It's just another Orwellian marketing ploy.

It's true about the Pope. I vehemently (and vociferously!) reject some old man in Rome deciding what women around the world should do with their pregnancies. However, if you believe abortion is murder, then you should oppose all abortion, with no exceptions. And oppose the death penalty, without exception. And war. And terrorism no matter in what cause (i.e. democracy, islam, oil).

Crabbi said...

Sister Helen is great, a true progressive. I saw her speak a few years ago, and in addition to being passionate and eloquent about social justice, she is funny as hell. I spent years and years in Catholic schools and saw my share of asshole priests. The nuns, for the most part, were very cool.

I'm guessing the Pope thought Bush was an asshole, but couldn't come out and say it. If I were Pope, though, I would totally say it.

laura k said...

How cool you saw her speak - and that she has a wicked sense of humor! Now I like her even more.