By Rachel Forbes Kaufman
Jesus taught the two most important commandments were to love God and our neighbor. He did not instruct us to limit our love to our “tribe” (e.g., friends, loved ones, those who have our same skin tone or ethnic background, or those who might vote like us). Jesus asked us to love our neighbors, and that includes people some might consider “unlovable” or “ugly.”
Our Catholic faith holds that all life is precious, “from conception until natural death.” The Catechism affirms this inherent dignity of the human person (cf. CCC #2267). Accordingly, Pope Francis and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have condemned the use of the death penalty. This is a life issue, but only a small minority of American Catholics work for death-penalty repeal.
The sole federal execution chamber in the United States is 25 miles north of our diocese in Terre Haute. In 2020, there were 10 human beings executed at the United States Penitentiary in Terre Haute. All were men and disproportionately individuals of color. The median age at the time of death was 51 years, well below life expectancy in the United States. This does not constitute “natural death.”
Catholic teaching is clear: all humans bear the imprint of God, and all need the healing love of Jesus.
To be sure, the men and women on Death Row have been convicted of ugly, heinous crimes. But like us, they bear the sacred imprint of God, and they need the healing compassion of Jesus. Is it possible we do not want to look into the face of this perceived “ugliness” and work for this life issue?
For decades, the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods near Terre Haute have ministered – almost in obscurity – to the individuals on Death Row at USP Terre Haute. The ministry includes providing spiritual formation and support to individuals inside the maximum-security facility. This past September, one of the men scheduled to die requested that his Sister of Providence spiritual director sit inside the death chamber with him, as he made his final earthly journey.
Even with the enhanced risk of contracting COVID-19, the nun, who is also a physician assistant, honored his request. I can only imagine the sights, sounds, smells and feelings this nun experienced. Although the virus is rampant within the prison, this nun did not contract the virus; but other spiritual companions have. Outside the walls of the prison, the Sisters share lodging, food and spiritual support with the families of the victims and the families of the condemned. The love of Jesus and the cup of compassion are extended equally to all. This ministry-of-life is not easy, but the Sisters serve, on our behalf, without judgement or malice. This is the radical love that is asked of us: to see our neighbor through the loving, compassionate eyes of Jesus.
There are now 52 individuals awaiting execution on federal Death Row in Terre Haute. Nineteen are scheduled to die in 2021: 18 men and one woman. The individuals on Death Row are disproportionately people of color. They may not appear to be our “tribe,” but we must not avert our eyes from any perceived “ugliness.” They each have value because they bear the imprint of God.
Where is the Catholic outrage concerning taxpayer-supported killings at USP Terre Haute? Where is the robust Catholic support for the Sisters of Providence who have bravely answered God’s call to this life ministry?
Catholics have a strong history of supporting life. We can shine the light of Christ on the culture of death within our prison system and work to repeal the death penalty. We can intensify our investment of time and treasure to support the life-affirming ministry of the Sisters of Providence at USP Terre Haute. And once the COVID-19 pandemic is safely behind us, Catholics can take the lead to organize an annual March for Life at USP Terre Haute, one that is on par with those we support in Washington, D.C.
We must not avert our eyes. We are called to see our neighbor through the eyes of Jesus.
Kaufman is a member of the Southwest Indiana Guild of the Catholic Medical Association and a regular contributor to the CMA’s “Catholic Healthcare” column in The Message.