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Death penalty opponents: Hearts need to change

Action by Pope Francis appreciated; impact may take time

Though Pope Francis ordered a revision in the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding opposition to the death penalty, a change in attitudes may take a while, said Rita Linhardt, senior staff associate for the Missouri Catholic Conference and chair of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Some who support the death penalty may take the teaching to heart or look to it for guidance, Linhardt said. But “I don’t think people will automatically switch from being supportive of the death penalty to being opposed to it just like that. It gives us one more tool in the toolbox to use. We can articulate this teaching and might be able to change some hearts and minds that way” eventually, Linhardt said.

Pope Francis’ approach to the death penalty is clearer to understand by substituting the definition “not allowed” for the word “inadmissible,” Linhardt explained.

Marie Kenyon, director of the archdiocese’s Peace and Justice Commission, said the abolition of the death penalty is one of the first issues the commission addressed after its formation in 2015. The revision “gives us more affirmation that we are on the right track,” Kenyon said.

Christian Gohl, a St. Michael in Shrewsbury parishioner and member of the Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said the change in the language in the catechism “means so much to me — it’s the icing on the cake.”

All people are made in the image of God, he said, and life must be protected from conception to a natural death.

Kay Parish of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, King of France (Old Cathedral) Parish is an attorney who has represents clients on death row. She was the last attorney for four people executed by the state of Missouri. The values rooted in her Catholic faith drove her to do death-penalty work.

“Love is what is at the center of what we’re supposed to do, to love our fellow man,” Parish said.

Reading the book “Dead Man Walking” by Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, and later working with her clients made clear to her that “these people we are killing are human beings. They are people I have known and who I have loved. I feel like the position the pope is making official is the only position truly consistent with Catholic theology and truly consistent with who and what we are called to be as Catholics and the kind of policies we as Catholics need to be promoting,” she said, based on the dignity of each individual person.

She’s hoping the change in the Catechism leads more people in the Church to address the issue. “It’s a controversial issue, a difficult issue, because there’s a lot of pain on every side,” Parish said. “But we live in a democracy. The state acts on behalf of each of us. So each time that happens, I’m killing someone, you’re killing someone, we’re all killing someone.”

Though some at the parish level may not speak out because of a fear it will upset people, she said, “that’s a really weak position to take, and I don’t think that’s moral leadership. Our Church needs to take moral leadership. I was really glad to see the pope taking such as strong stand. I hope other leaders in the Church will find the courage to speak as clearly on that issue.”

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