Catholics On Capital Punishment Pope Francis has declared that the death penalty is unacceptable in all circumstances. NPR's Don Gonyea speaks with Sister Helen Prejean about the history of the church's stance on capital punishment.
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Catholics On Capital Punishment

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Catholics On Capital Punishment

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Catholics On Capital Punishment

Catholics On Capital Punishment

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Pope Francis has declared that the death penalty is unacceptable in all circumstances. NPR's Don Gonyea speaks with Sister Helen Prejean about the history of the church's stance on capital punishment.

DON GONYEA, HOST:

If there's any one single person who embodies the fight against capital punishment in the United States, it's Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun from Louisiana. Her book, "Dead Man Walking," inspired an Oscar-winning film of the same name. So it was a big moment for her last week when Pope Francis changed church teaching and declared that the death penalty is unacceptable in all circumstances. We have Sister Helen on the line to talk about this moment.

Sister Helen, welcome.

HELEN PREJEAN: Thank you. Glad to be here.

GONYEA: What was your reaction when you heard the pope's announcement?

PREJEAN: Oh, I was overjoyed. You've got to know in the history of the Catholic Church, it took 1,600 years to reach this position of unequivocal opposition to the death penalty, no exceptions. And it follows the development in society because it used to be so violent, and there were no prisons. So the church always, in its teaching, upheld the right of the state to take life to keep society safe. It was never about eye for an eye - they kill; we should kill them. So it's been about self-defense of society but as we developed prisons. So the church has grown in that, too, and we've finally reached a point where you had Pope John Paul talk about the dignity of life, then you had Pope Benedict following up, and now you have Pope Francis knocking the volleyball over the net.

GONYEA: And until this ruling by Pope Francis, there was always that loophole that it could be applied in, say, extreme cases?

PREJEAN: Right, and I'm going to give you the loophole. When Pope John Paul II had written his encyclical, the sanctity of life, he said it should be rare, if not nonexistent, and so forth, but in cases of absolute necessity. So any DA that wants to go for the death penalty, any governor running for public office says, well, it'll only be applied in cases of absolute necessity. And how did they define absolute necessity? They'll say, well, look, a policeman was killed or, look, a whole bunch of people were killed. And they do it by the horror of the crime. So what the teaching says now - no matter how grave the crime, we do not intentionally take a person and give the government power to intentionally kill them.

GONYEA: Still, polls of American Catholics suggest a majority favor capital punishment. They think some crimes deserve it. How do you interpret that?

PREJEAN: Well, that's the ideal thing of the death penalty rhetorically. Do you believe in the death penalty? Yeah, I believe in it theoretically for some crimes. But the more you bring it home to the people, that changes. And in fact, nationally now, we have it slipping below 50 percent. And I believe that's changing with Catholics, too. Pro-life Catholics believe in the dignity of innocent life, but now it's being stretched and extended to even those who are guilty of terrible crimes. As Pope John Paul said in St. Louis, even those people have a dignity that must not be taken from them.

GONYEA: It's always interesting to see how these things play out in the political arena - or don't play out. I'm wondering if you foresee consequences for Catholic politicians in the U.S. Good bishops deny communion to officials or candidates who support the death penalty. We've certainly seen that at times with politicians who support abortion rights, for example.

PREJEAN: Yeah. I don't know that we'll ever witness that a bishop would refuse communion to somebody who believes in the death penalty. Certainly, for other moral issues, there have been some bishops who have denied communion to people. But what changes - and this is this growth, this evolutionary growth in consciousness and morals and values - juries are showing they're content with a life sentence. And there are more and more reluctance in juries to put to death a fellow human being. And so as that changes, the politicians change.

GONYEA: That's Sister Helen Prejean. We reached her today in Billings, Mont.

Sister Helen, thanks for talking to us.

PREJEAN: Thank you.

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