Healing Catholic Divisions in Year of Mercy


My parish: St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill, where Democrat and Republican Senators, conservative think tank staff and Democratic strategists worship together.

Divisions within the US Catholic church dispirit. Mirroring American cultural divides, too many Catholics identify as progressive and conservative. Progressives tend to concern themselves with poverty, immigration, workers’ rights, war and peace and climate change while conservatives focus on abortion, euthanasia, religious freedom and gay marriage.

Persons within these factions insist you believe as they do on each issue, and if you feel a certain way about societal issues, you must feel the same way about church issues. And persons within these factions conflate the person’s policies with the person.

For conservatives, Obamacare embodies everything wrong with the man and progressive policies, and to progressives the Ryan Budget reflects everything that’s wrong with the Republican leader and conservative policies. And some Catholics hold the extreme view: the persons holding these views are bad persons.

Angry, overly personal Catholic disagreements counter the gospel message of love and mercy, and healing these divisions would be a good way for Catholics to demonstrate mercy in the Year of Mercy. Other Catholics should learn from the experience of Nebraska’s progressive and conservative Catholics.

In the summer of 2015, Catholics there worked with others to repeal Nebraska’s death penalty, offering hope Catholics can heal their divisions. These church advocates discovered capital punishment, which has long been considered a progressive cause, isn’t a progressive or conservative issue, but a Catholic one.

As Catholics we’re urged to work against the death penalty as we do to stop abortion because we must defend life at all stages and in all circumstances. That’s the fundamental philosophy informing the church’s seamless garment approach, which views abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, war, militarism, poverty and racism as connected threats to the sanctity and dignity of human life.

If conservative and progressive Catholics embraced this consistent ethic, they could unite to create a culture of life that promotes social justice and peace. Catholics could also find common ground with the 80% of Americans, according to a 2014 Gallup Poll, who aren’t consistently liberal or conservative. Promoting life and finding common ground, Catholics could do more for the common good and God’s Reign.

This will require Catholics repudiating the animosity that has marked our cultural and political arguments because only love will convert persons who disagree with us. Leading with love will liberate Catholics from the cultural compulsion to take sides and from the boxes in which they find themselves.

When this happens, Catholics will learn to become comfortable just being Catholic, nothing else. We may never achieve unanimity, but we’ll grow closer if we recall what we have in common.

Broken sinners, all need God’s grace and mercy, and want, however imperfectly, to follow the Lord. The Eucharist nourishes all, and the gospel and church teachings inspire all to live their faith.

Recalling this mutuality should urge Catholics who disagree with each other to worship and pray more together, listen more to others’ stories of their faith journeys, spend more time together studying the scriptures and what the church says about today’s issues, and engage in service and advocacy.

When Catholics live their faith more closely together, they’ll develop a greater appreciation of, gratitude for and commitment to their rich and distinctive tradition. The more Catholics defend life, the more they’ll advocate justice, and the more Catholics work for peace, the more they’ll uphold all persons’ dignity.

Defending life, advocating justice, working for peace, uplifting dignity, Catholics will increasingly become the church the Pope has called us to be: one that encounters persons on the peripheries, that’s poor and stands with poor persons.

Honoring these actions that mark us as Catholic, and celebrating ourselves as just Catholic, we’ll work to become just Catholics. We’ll extend love and mercy to: the man awaiting execution, the unborn child, the woman on food stamps, the man sleeping on our streets, children fleeing war zones, and even, especially those who disagree with us.



Murder Victim Families Can Change President on Death Penalty

Journey of Hope Founders Sam Sheppard, George White, Bill Pelke, SueZann Bosler and Marietta Jaeger with Sister Helen Prejean CSJ (center front.)

Journey of Hope Founders Sam Sheppard, George White, Bill Pelke, SueZann Bosler and Marietta Jaeger with Sister Helen Prejean CSJ (center front).

President Obama, according to his former law professor, Harvard’s Charles Ogletree Jr., is close to opposing the death penalty. I’ve worked to abolish capital punishment for 31 years and would welcome his support.

Obama should advocate for the end of the federal death penalty and offer hope for possible reprieves to the 62 persons awaiting executions in federal prisons. The President’s advocacy for abolition would furthermore send a powerful message to the 31 states, which still have the death penalty: it’s days are numbered.

Obama has held the death penalty should be reserved for the worst offenders, but concerns about racial bias in capital punishment’s application may prompt the President to change his position.

I hope the fact persons who kill white persons are three to six more times more likely to receive death sentences compels Obama to conclude, like former Supreme Court Justice Blackmun, he “will no longer tinker with the machinery of death.”

If, however, the President still needs persuasion to change his position on capital punishment, perhaps listening to the Journey of Hope members’ stories will convince Obama to support abolition.

I serve on the Journey of Hope’s board. Begun in 1993, and led by murder victim family members, this national organization conducts educational tours against the death penalty.

Beginning with a World Day Against the Death Penalty Conference in Dallas, the Journey will conduct a tour in Texas October 9 -25. These tours emphasize love, compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation to break the cycle of vengeance, death, and violence prevalent in our society. Journey members embraced their messages of hope through experiencing a family member’s murder.

After 15-year-old African American Paula Cooper was sentenced to death for stabbing his beloved grandmother Ruth Pelke 33 times to death in May 1985, Bill Pelke, the Journey’s President, thought the death penalty was justified.

However, the white crane operator from Indiana, while sitting atop his crane on morning in November 1986, was brought to tears, recalling his Nana preached Jesus’ message of forgiveness to everyone she met.

Her example converted Pelke to become part of an international movement that spared Cooper’s life in 1989, because she was a juvenile at the murder’s time.

Emotion almost overcame Pelke when he re-told his story at the annual Fast and Vigil against the death penalty outside the Supreme Court in July. It was first time he spoke publicly about Cooper’s recent suicide, a few days after the anniversary of Ruth’s murder.

Although tragic death has cycled painfully full for him, Pelke still believes “love and compassion for all of humanity is the answer.”

Also speaking that night, SueZann Bosler, faced unique challenges learning to forgive as Pelke has.

On December 22, 1986, Bosler was 24 and happy. She and her dad the Reverend Billy Bosler planned to travel to Indiana to meet her first niece and his first granddaughter. That day, she wanted to do some last-minute Christmas shopping.

As she got ready in her bedroom at the Church of the Brethren Parsonage in Opa-Locka, Florida, where her father was the pastor, Bosler heard strange moans from the living room.

When Bosler investigated, she discovered a man stabbing her dad. Bosler went to help her dad, and the man stabbed her in the head.

High on drugs, James Bernard Campbell stabbed Rev. Bosler 24 times to death, and Bosler 5 times. She only survived because she played dead, and several surgeries repaired her brain injuries.

As a preacher’s kid, Bosler had been taught forgiveness was central to her faith, and she publicly forgave Campbell, while privately conceiving ways to hurt him.

Five and half years after the murder at a second sentencing hearing for Campbell, Bosler finally understood the depth of her forgiveness when she said, “James Bernard Campbell, I forgive you.”

Her new understanding liberated Bosler. And despite a Judge’s threat to cite her for contempt for objecting to the death penalty, the white hairdresser fought to save the life of the African American man who assaulted her and killed her dad.

June 13, 1997 Bosler considers her day of victory because that day a jury voted to spare Campbell’s life.

As Bosler told her story that July night, her throat caught when she said it upset her when others implied her support for Campbell meant she didn’t love her dad or cherish his memory.

She worked to end capital punishment to honor her dad, who opposed the death penalty, and whose favorite hymn was Let There Be Peace on Earth.

Bosler, Pelke and other Journey members re-live the worst experiences of their lives to show us the way to peace. Their heroic testimonies, I hope will convince the President to urge others to embrace the peace that comes from abolition.


One Vote Away From Ending Executions

We may be one Supreme Court Justice’s vote away from ending executions in the United States. The Supreme Court’s decision to hear Glossip V. Gross later this year gives death penalty opponents that hope. This case challenges the constitutionality of Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocols on the grounds they violate 8th Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment. Attorneys will likely cite Oklahoma inmate Clayton Lockett’s April 2014 execution to exemplify why Oklahoma’s current form of lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment. That execution’s observers witnessed the grisly spectacle of Lockett choking and gasping, writhing and grimacing for 43 minutes before he expired. The Court’s four liberal justices will likely rule Oklahoma’s form of lethal injection unconstitutional. Changes in lethal injection protocols since 2008 when the court upheld lethal injection’s constitutionality may convince one other judge to side with the liberal justices and rule lethal injection unconstitutional. Since 2008, European drug companies’ refusal to sell US prisons drugs formerly used in executions such as Sodium Thiopental and Nembutal has compelled states to develop new untested drug combinations to execute death row prisoners. As a result, executions have been carried out without any good idea how these new drugs would interact or their impact more significantly upon the persons on the gurneys. We have witnessed the horrific consequences of states’ ill-considered decisions: persons have become lab rats in states’ grotesque experiments in the putative name of justice. You would think states pursuing justice would want to act transparently. The opposite in true, however. A recently passed Ohio law protects the anonymity of persons involved in carrying out executions and of pharmacies, which provide drugs used in executions. The Virginia Senate has also passed legislation, which would shroud everything about Virginia executions in secrecy and bar Freedom of Information inquiries into executions. The Virginia House hasn’t voted on this legislation, which Minority Leader Richard Saslow (D) sponsored. He acknowledges he doesn’t want to return to the electric chair, and believes secrecy will ensure humane executions. His reasoning belies what most reasonable persons know is true: people act secretly because they know they’re wrong and don’t want to get caught. As officials in Virginia and elsewhere calibrate the right drug combinations to carry out lethal injections, more death row offenders will likely suffer cruel and unusual punishment, which will likely increase the public’s opposition to executions. Growing opposition will compel more states to conclude there isn’t a humane way to kill another person, and states will abandon the death penalty. The Court’s Glossip decision may forestall states’ scrambling to find elusive humane execution methods before concluding they can’t, and I hope Pope Francis and Chief Justice Roberts’ wife Jane influence Roberts to vote to end lethal injection. I hope as a Catholic Roberts is influenced by what the Pope said in October 2014: “It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend people’s lives from an unjust aggressor. All Christians and people of good will are called today to struggle … for the abolition of the death penalty.” Furthermore, I hope the man behind the words, who has inspired Catholics and non-Catholics, will also inspire Roberts to strike down lethal injection. If Pope Francis’ words and examples aren’t enough, perhaps his wife Jane will influence Roberts to do the right thing. For many years she has been involved with Feminists For Life, and currently serves as the group’s legal counsel. Feminists For Life opposes capital punishment because they connect it to abortion and euthanasia as “inconsistent with the core feminist principles of justice, nonviolence and nondiscrimination.” If the Pope and Roberts’ wife influence Roberts to side with the Court’s liberal justices to outlaw lethal injection, their decision would likely end executions in the United States because states wouldn’t want to revert to execution methods they don’t view as humane as lethal injection. In almost 40 years since capital punishment’s 1976 reinstatement, the vast majority of the more than 1,400 executions nationally have been carried out against the poor and persons of color in 13 southern states. These state killings haven’t made society safer or better, or brought closure to murder victims’ families. Executions have cheapened human life and degraded all. It’s past time we ended this inhumane practice. I hope Roberts concludes, he, as former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun said, “shall no longer tinker with the machinery of death.”


My Abolitonist Anniversary

On the road to abolition in central Texas in 19991.

On the road to abolition in central Texas in 19991.

October 24 marks a significant milestone for me. On that date in 1984, I joined 25 others on a three day 78-mile march, from outside New Orleans to the Louisiana state capital Baton Rouge to protest the death penalty.

I was 24, and after two years in the JVC, I had begun work at the Holy Ghost Community Center, providing direct assistance to persons in an uptown New Orleans community near the Magnolia Housing Projects. And I was restless to do more to promote justice.

The late George Lundy got me involved in the Ernest Knighton case that fall. He faced imminent execution, and George and others were trying to gain clemency for him from Louisiana’s Pardon Board. High on drugs, Knighton shot a convenience store clerk during a botched robbery in Bossier City. The bullet ricocheted off the clerk’s shoulder before traveling to his heart killing him.

Knighton’s impulsiveness argued for clemency. Circumstances in another contemporaneous Bossier City murder also demonstrated how racist and arbitrary Knighton’s sentence had been. In that case, three white men raped and murdered a young African American woman. They slit her throat, and let out a rebel yell of triumph. Yet, a jury spared these men’s lives.

The Knighton case was the march’s catalyst, and when I received the invitation to join it, I was ready to move. Catholic social justice types, civil rights leaders and civil libertarians formed our ranks. “A rag tag band of protestors,” was how one journalist described us.

We certainly weren’t properly prepared for that kind of march. It was in the 80’s that weekend, but we didn’t apply enough sunscreen and discovered moleskin’s virtues to protect blisters belatedly. As a result, we walked a marathon three consecutive days, sweaty and sunburned, with blisters and sore legs.

Misery engendered solidarity, which our mutual convictions about capital punishment strengthened. We slept on gym floors, and showered in strangers’ homes. We ran through BENGAY tubes, and cracked numerous jokes about our quarters smelling like old folks’ homes. Yet, generous volunteers fed us well, and the camaraderie we experienced as we got to know our new friends, over a few beers, nourished our souls and lifted our spirits and prepared us for the journey ahead. By the time we arrived at the capitol at dusk Sunday evening, our legs burning with lactic acid build up, I was a confirmed abolitionist.

As I committed to do more to end Louisiana’s death penalty, I soon discovered however how difficult and long the road to abolition would be. We were trying to change a law that the overwhelmingly majority strongly supported. We didn’t know how to address victims’ families’ members understandable anger or counter the perception we were bleeding hearts more concerned with murderers than crime. We were also largely a movement of white justice types that had to confront our own racism if we hoped to sustain our movement. Plus, we faced the typical internal personal and philosophical differences.

Until I left New Orleans in 1987, I worked alongside Helen Prejean to organize more actions against the death penalty, working imperfectly, messily, painfully, all too humanly through the above issues. I encountered similar issues when I worked with my good friend Rick Halperin and others to organize the statewide Texans Against State Killing march in 1991.

In 1993, I participated in the first Journey of Hope in Indiana. Persons who had lost a family member to murder but opposed capital punishment led this two-week educational tour, which represented a sea change in advocacy against the death penalty.

Family members’ powerful eloquent testimony exposed the myth all victims’ family members wanted vengeance. Journey members also exposed the lie the death penalty brings closure to them, when nothing can bring back their loved ones; executions merely compound their suffering. Compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation will heal victims, rehabilitate offenders, and turn our society away from vengeance, violence and death toward mercy, peace and life.

That message has gradually taken hold nationally. 18 states have abolished the death penalty and others such as New Hampshire and Delaware appear close to abolition. These realities, which seemed far-fetched 30 years give me great hope abolition will become universal in the United States.

The understandable anxiety persons experience in the age of Terrorism presents new challenges to death penalty opponents. However, I’m confident the tide has turned, and I will continue to write and speak about abolition. And one October 24 I hope I won’t commemorate another anniversary as an abolitionist.