By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published January 10, 2019 | En Español
The space where I celebrate Mass for the death row inmates at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson was once designated as the barber shop for these prisoners. It may still serve that purpose when not being used as a chapel. It’s a long and narrow room with places for about eight to 10 people. I went there again on Dec. 27.
The inmates are dressed in white jumpsuits and they must enter one by one, initially wearing handcuffs until they are released as they cross the threshold of the little room. I then celebrate Mass with men who have been convicted of horrible crimes. I begin each visit, even before arriving, by thinking of and praying for the families who have suffered the loss of a loved one—perhaps murdered in a brutal act of violence. The sorrow that these families continue to endure is more than I can even imagine.
The inmates represent the races and cultures of this local church. They are mostly white, Hispanic and African-American. Some have been on death row for many years and through many different appellate delays. These few choose to come to Mass, though there are many others on death row who decline not only my visit, but all other visitors who make the trip to Jackson. I have no illusions that these inmates do not represent serious offenders of the laws of our society. Still, they are human beings and some of them have come from incredibly harsh and highly dysfunctional personal backgrounds.
Catholic social teaching regarding the death penalty has evolved during the past generation, culminating in the most recent declaration of Pope Francis that the imposition of capital punishment is never justified since as a society we currently have less severe yet more secure means of protecting ourselves from violent criminals. Obviously, this change in the Church’s position on the death penalty has angered, confused and repulsed some Catholics. This teaching does not suggest that these inmates should be released back into society. It simply acknowledges the fact that we can protect ourselves without resorting to the same brutality that brought these individuals to this state in their lives. The teaching also acknowledges that the imposition of the death penalty is not always immune from bias and judicial errors. Not infrequently we have heard of convictions being overturned with newly discovered evidence, recantation by witnesses and errors in procedures. Innocent people have been put to death. And the death penalty allows no room for error.
There is significant ecumenical and interfaith agreement that the death penalty needs a much more restricted application. The pope has cautioned us that its employment is never validated. What is most difficult for some people to admit is that these inmates, in spite of the horrendous acts of violence of which they may be guilty, are still human beings. The violence that they may well have inflicted on others does not rob them of their human dignity.
This is the very same truth that underpins the dignity of nascent life within the womb. Infants waiting to be born are also worthy of the reverence that all human life enjoys. Just as there are people who do not see how violent people can still have their humanity acknowledged, there are those who fail to accept the human dignity of those just waiting to be born. The people who reject the humanity of the violent criminal assert that they are not worthy of human dignity because they forfeited innocence by committing crimes—unlike those innocently awaiting birth. But our human dignity does not rest in our innocence, but on the fact that we all have been created by God himself. Human dignity is never dependent upon race, age, social class, legal immigration status, criminal background or health. When we begin to disallow the humanity of persons for any of those classifications, we are all in danger, as is our society. We will underscore that truth in all our pro-life observances this month.