The news that President Donald Trump is planning to sign death warrants and kill federal prisoners during the sacred season of Advent must have affected how I heard the Genesis reading during Mass this past weekend.
In case you’ve forgotten, Abraham is in conversation with Yahweh who has announced he plans to punish those in Sodom and Gomorrah if he discovers their sin is as “grave” as it appears to be from those who cry out to him.
Abraham is concerned that Yahweh’s righteous anger will spill over and punish not only the guilty, but the innocent. And so he asks the Lord, “Should not the judge of all the world do what is just?” And Yahweh responds that if he finds “fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
But Abraham continues: What about 40? What about 30? What about 20? And finally, “What if ten are found there?” And Yahweh concedes, “For the sake of the ten, I will not destroy it.”
Make no mistake about it, destroy here means leveling the two cities and killing their inhabitants.
In contemplating the use of the death penalty — by federal or state governments — a Catholic who is really active in the faith might well assume the role of Abraham in a conversation with one who claims power over human life: The president or a governor.
And in that role of Abraham the good Catholic might say to a representative of legitimate authority claiming the power to execute, “Sir or madam, what if there are innocent men and women on our nation’s death rows? Do you still plan to execute them all?”
This is no rhetorical question. Our criminal justice system has wrongfully convicted thousands of inmates, many of whom are under sentence of death. According to a database found at deathpenaltyinfo.org “166 former death-row prisoners have been exonerated of all charges and set free.”
Eighteen years ago, on April 26, the seven justices of the Kentucky Supreme Court heard the appeal of Larry Osborne sentenced to die at Eddyville. They learned that the circuit court judge had allowed the Commonwealth Attorney to introduce hearsay testimony which the jury heard. As a result, they unanimously decided, “Accordingly, the judgments of conviction and sentences imposed by the Whitely Circuit Court are reversed, and this case is remanded for a new trial in accordance with the content of this opinion.” At that new trial, when the prosecutor could not use hearsay testimony to convict Osborne the case fell apart and the jury declared him “not guilty.”
Good Catholics must all play the role of Abraham and remind legitimate authority — whether a Donald Trump or some state governor — that there are other Larry Osbornes on the death rows of this nation. We must remind those that claim power over life and death, that they must exercise it in the spirit of Yahweh who said, “For the sake of the ten, I will not destroy it.” In other words, legitimate authority in this nation should not be signing death warrants during Advent or at any other time.
As Catholics we must adhere to our church’s teaching about the use of the death penalty found at paragraph 2267 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
Father Patrick Delahanty is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville and director of advocacy for the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.