A few years ago I was able to attend the yearly conference of the National Catholic Educators Association with a coworker. After a very eventful series of flights, we arrived in New Orleans exhausted, hot, and without my coworker’s luggage. We had missed the first day of the conference, which was disappointing, but we hit the keynote session ready to go. My coworker was excited; she had heard the speaker before. I was still just tired.
And then a small women in simple clothes and a crucifix stepped up to the podium. She greeted us in a soft southern drawl and asked us to join her in prayer. By the end of the prayer, I knew I was listening to someone special. The story she told that morning was not just the story that changed her life and perspective, but it also changed mine.
You may have heard of Sister Helen Prejean and her work to end the use of the death penalty in the United States, but up to that morning, I hadn’t. I am ashamed to say, that like many others, I had only ever associated the right to life with the rights of the unborn to be born. The idea of a convicted criminal’s right to life had never occurred to me, and quite frankly, made me very uncomfortable. As Sister Helen’s story unfolded, I started to realize I needed to learn more. So I borrowed 20 dollars from my coworker, bought both of Sister Helen’s books, met her and started to learn whatever I could.
At that time, when I started researching on Catholic websites, there were few resources available, which I found both odd and frustrating. One website that I contacted said that they didn’t have any resources because capital punishment wasn’t a respect life issue. To say that steamed me a bit is an understatement. Thankfully, when I did the same search today before writing this post, this was no longer the case. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website in particular had a lot of resources available for reading and also for teaching about the death penalty.
I’ve learned a lot about the death penalty in the last few years. Before Sister Helen’s activism, there were only a few small paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which summed up say basically that the Catholic Church is not categorically against the death penalty but that it should only be used when there is no other way to protect society from that person. It does go on to say that in modern society, these cases are extremely rare, if maybe even non-existent. (#2267) When Sister Helen started working to end the death penalty in the U.S., she met with Saint John Paul II and asked him to do more. Later, in his encyclical The Gospel of Life Saint John Paul asked Catholics to be “unconditionally pro-life”.
From a non-Catholic perspective, there are still some good arguments for ending the use of the death penalty. First of all, it is expensive! In the state of Washington, where I live, a Seattle University study revealed that death penalty cases cost the state an average of 1 million dollars more than cases where the death penalty is not an option. Other studies show that the death penalty is used more for black defendants who kill white victims than for any other group. Also, over 90% of people on death row across the United States were too poor to afford their own attorney. (more information available at http://www.usccb.org/ and http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org)
During Respect Life Month, my eighth grade students do research on the use of the death penalty in the United States, using the USCCB website as their starting point. We also read a series of pro and anti death penalty articles and interviews. We learn Sister Helen’s story of being pen pals with a man on death row and how that changed her opinion on the death penalty and also caused the issue to become a pressing life issue for Catholics. At the end of the unit, students write a persuasive essay encouraging Catholics to become educated about the death penalty and the Church’s perspective.
Even if this feels like something too controversial to talk about with your class, I think it is a really worthwhile thing to do. I have been consistently impressed with my students’ ability to listen and learn from one another, even when they don’t agree with each other. Either way, I hope this post has inspired someone to become more educated on the issue, even if the death penalty doesn’t make it in to your lesson plans this year.