I recently saw a movie at the Heartland Film Festival called, Clemency. The movie is set for general release on December 27th, an odd time to release a thought-provoking movie about capital punishment. You know, ho ho ho and death by lethal injection don't seem to mix well, but I digress.
Bernadine Williams is a prison warden. The movie details what happens to her as she participates in 12 executions with one pending. Bernadine is tasked with following the rather bizarre rituals of such a death—an inmate's last meal, last meetings with family members, ensuring that the right people are witnesses and even an execution rehearsal.
The film reminded me of the movie Unplanned, which details the real-life moral struggle of Planned Parenthood director Abby Johnson who slowly came to terms with what abortion really is, the taking of innocent human life. Abby Johnson walks away from the abortion industry in horror and by the end of the movie, it seems like Bernadine Williams will do the same. Her prison work takes a psychological toll. She drinks heavily. She has marital problems. Post-traumatic stress seems to swallow her alive.
For much of my life, it was different to me. An innocent preborn baby is so much more worthy of life than someone on death row who has murdered and maimed his way there. There has been an evolution of thought around the topic of capital punishment in the Church. Our Catechism of the Catholic Church states that, "Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good."
As a young person, I often asked, "Why should I care?" Part of my evolution in thought came when I visited criminals in a prison outside Louisville while in seminary. Hearing their stories made me thankful for my "bubble world." That is, I lived in a home with parents who loved me and cared for me. I was warm, well fed and had educational advantages that these men did not. Childhood abuse was standard among these men.
In August 2018, the Catechism of the Catholic Church was revised, stating that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person." There are "more effective systems of detention…which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption." I read it as justice tempered with mercy.
Research by the Catholic Mobilizing Network suggests that capital punishment does not deter violent crime as we once thought. Further, death penalty cases are 10 times more expensive than non-death penalty ones! It seems logical that such huge sums of money could be used to assist the families and victims of crime.
Lastly, there is the reality that our system has its flaws. Since 1973, 166 death row inmates have been exonerated and set free. 166 people that were sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit were wrongly accused of crimes they didn't commit! I hope we are better than this. It seems that any assault against human life leads to a perpetuation of the culture of death.
Fr. Don Kline, V.F.