When an American faces execution, it is now standard for the local bishop to write to the governor asking for clemency. In his 1999 visit to St. Louis, St. John Paul II asked Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to grant clemency to Darrell Mease, guilty of a triple murder of grandparents and their grandson. Carnahan did — a gesture of goodwill to the papal request — and now the routine is familiar. A scheduled execution is accompanied by a clemency plea from the bishop.
This time, it wasn’t routine. After a voluntary moratorium of 17 years, the federal government resumed executions in July. Dustin Lee Honken was executed on July 17, found guilty of killing a family of four, including two children.
Ahead of his execution, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, wrote to President Donald Trump, asking for clemency. The letter draws attention to two important aspects of the Church’s consideration of the death penalty: pastoral care for the condemned and a heightening rhetoric of condemnation of the death penalty.
Visiting prisoners has been part of the Christian life since the beginning, as reflected by the very clear mandate of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 25. And since the 1995 film Dead Man Walking highlighted the work of Sister Helen Prejean, the work of visiting prisoners on death row has become better known.
Cardinal Tobin’s letter was singular in that he could offer his personal experience. Cardinal Tobin had visited the convicted killer in person.
“I have known Mr. Honken for seven years,” Cardinal Tobin wrote to the president. When Cardinal Tobin was archbishop of Indianapolis (2012-2017), he visited Honken several times a year at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
“His present spiritual guide, Father Mark O’Keefe, OSB, confirms that the spiritual growth in faith and compassion, which I had witnessed in our meetings some years ago, continues to this day,” Cardinal Tobin continued in his letter.
Honken’s conversion was genuine. His final words before the lethal injection was administered was a prayer to Mary. He also recited Gerald Manley Hopkins’ short poem Heaven-Haven.
It should be emphasized that Tobin did not appeal for clemency for Honken because he had converted. The spiritual state of the condemned is not advanced as an argument against the death penalty; otherwise, the unrepentant would not get appeals for clemency.
It’s an interesting point in the history of moral reflection on the death penalty that St. Thomas Aquinas, in arguing for its legitimate use, spoke about the proximity of death prompting a conversion of heart as a (secondary) reason in favor. That argument is not employed today.
The fact of Honken’s conversion does testify to the reality that Catholic concern about the death penalty is not a matter of moral principles alone, but of care for souls. That Honken had a conversion testifies that the Church does not only advocate for those on death row, but accompanies them, encouraging them to accept the mercy of God, available to all who repent.
The other noteworthy aspect of Cardinal Tobin’s letter was the claim that Honken’s “execution will reduce the government of the United States to the level of a murderer and serve to perpetuate a climate of violence which brutalizes our society in so many ways.”
It is a ratcheting up of Catholic rhetoric for a cardinal to say an execution reduces the government to the level of a murderer.
The Catholic bishops of Iowa, Honken’s home state, also wrote to President Trump, but employed different language, speaking of “state-sanctioned killing” and “perpetuat[ing] a cycle of violence.”
Tobin’s letter is thus a good example of how Catholic language about the death penalty has changed over the 25 years since St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae. There, the Holy Father spoke of capital punishment as something that ought not be employed if there were other means to ensure public safety, noting that such situations were extremely rare.
In his 2018 amendment to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis described the death penalty as “inadmissible” in light of changing cultural views on the sanctity of life. In neither case was capital punishment considered equivalent to murder.
Not all killing is murder, as both civil law and moral theology make many distinctions. Thus Cardinal Tobin’s characterization of the death penalty as making the government equivalent to a “murderer” is a noteworthy indication of how Catholic rhetoric on the death penalty has heightened, even if the formal theology is more restrained.
Cardinal Tobin’s letter also noted that the United States was an “outlier” in employing the death penalty, given that relatively few countries maintain it. It’s also true that the alternative to the death penalty — life imprisonment, as advocated by the Iowa bishops for Honken — also makes the United States an outlier, where American incarceration rates far exceed that of any other democratic country.
Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.