A prophet’s reward is not acclaim but fidelity to the call. And, in our Judeo-Christian tradition, the prophet frequently experiences disdain, scorn, ridicule, even death, and, on rare occasions, vindication. Unfortunately, any type of vindication is often post-mortem. Witness modern prophets like King, Romero, Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day and Sister Helen Prejean, SSND.
Prophets today call us to faithfulness to our ideals, religious, societal or political. Such has been the role of Sister Prejean. Her advocacy for ending the death penalty for more than 30 years has been a major factor in raising awareness of the issue through her book Dead Man Walking, which was made into a powerful motion picture. She is indeed a modern prophet.
Her vindication is clearly the fact that more than 20 states have outlawed the death penalty or have a governor imposed moratorium. In his address to Congress last September, Pope Francis stated his conviction that the death penalty is no longer appropriate or acceptable punishment for criminals, stating:
“This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.
“Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.
The international conference, “For a World Without the Death Penalty,” opened in Rome this week. There, the Holy Father called on “All Christians and men and women of good will … to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, but also to improve conditions in prisons, in respect for human dignity and the dignity of those deprived of freedom”.
Our Christian tradition recognizes that man is capable of redemption because of the effect of God’s healing and forgiving mercy upon his free will. Our emphasis should recognize that retribution does not justify the taking of life.
The increasingly strong public opposition to the death penalty, even as an instrument of legitimate social defense, is a sign of hope. The Pope noted, “Indeed, modern societies are able to effectively control crime without definitively removing from the criminal the possibility of redeeming himself.”
Again addressing political leadership as he did with Congress, Pope Francis concluded his remarks with a call to action, stating that, “The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy is a good opportunity to promote in the world an increasingly mature respect for life and the dignity of each person. Because even a criminal has the inviolable right to life, a gift of God. I appeal to the consciences of those who govern, so that an international consensus may be reached for the abolition of the death penalty. I propose to those among them who are Catholic to make an exemplary gesture of courage: that the death penalty not be applied in this Holy Year of Mercy”.
Concluding his remarks, the Pope reminded the conferees that, “The commandment “You shall not kill,” has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty.”
Image Credit: By Ken Piorkowski – Lethal injection table, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons