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 CNS Story:

WASHINGTON LETTER May-13-2005 (1,030 words) With photos. xxxn

One Catholic voice on death penalty takes on another

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- For years, the two most prominent voices among U.S. Catholics on the subject of the death penalty have been those of a nun who is a former schoolteacher and a Georgetown- and Harvard-educated Supreme Court justice.

Sister Helen Prejean, author of two books that draw on her experiences as a spiritual adviser to men on death row, and Justice Antonin Scalia, the fourth most senior member of the Supreme Court, have come to represent the extremes of Catholic thought about capital punishment.

In her newest book, the nun takes on the jurist over their theological and constitutional differences on the issue.

With a movie, an opera and a stage play all recounting the story she told in a best-selling book, "Dead Man Walking," Sister Prejean, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, has become the most recognizable figure working to abolish the death penalty in the United States.

Scalia, meanwhile, anchors the diminishing segment of the court that consistently votes to uphold the constitutionality of the death penalty. His disagreement with the court majority was vehement as those justices recently overturned death sentences for mentally retarded people and juveniles convicted of murder.

He was particularly critical of an amicus, or friend-of-the-court, brief filed by the U.S. bishops and other religious groups in Atkins vs. Virginia, the case about a retarded defendant sentenced to death. Scalia ridiculed the brief as the "court's most feeble effort to fabricate 'national consensus'" against capital punishment.

In public appearances Scalia not only has defended the death penalty as constitutionally solid, but he has argued that the church doctrine approving of capital punishment dating to St. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century and St. Augustine in the fourth century still prevails. He has said that more recent teachings of Pope John Paul II are not obligatory because they were not spoken ex cathedra, Latin for from the chair, meaning the pope intended them to be accepted as infallible teachings of the church.

Three years ago, the abolitionist nun and the strict constitutionalist ran into each other in the New Orleans airport. She recounts the story in her new book, "The Death of Innocents," as well as in speeches on her recent book tour.

Although they had never met, Sister Prejean told Catholic News Service she knew Scalia was aware of her work because the justice and her brother, Louie, are hunting buddies. That's why he was in New Orleans; he'd just been duck hunting with Louie Prejean.

Sister Prejean was returning home from Washington, where she had given a speech at Georgetown University. Two weeks earlier, Scalia gave his own speech there. He said that because no pope had spoken ex cathedra in denouncing the death penalty, he, as a Catholic, had no reason not to approve of it, even to consider it a duty of the state, in keeping with what Aquinas and Augustine taught. He had made similar comments during a death penalty symposium at the University of Chicago days earlier.

With that fresh on her mind, Sister Prejean walked up to Scalia in the airport and introduced herself.

After some small talk about what a fine man her brother is and how poor the duck hunting had been, she said in the book, she got to the point: "I'm writing a book about two innocent men I've accompanied to execution, and I know what you said at Georgetown and in Chicago, and I want you to know that I'm taking you on in this book."

"He responds in a friendly way, jabbing his hand in the air: 'And I'll be coming right back at you,'" she said.

In a 50-page chapter of "The Death of Innocents," Sister Prejean makes good on her word to Scalia.

The first half of the book focuses on the cases of two executed men she believes were innocent. It details their legal cases and efforts to overturn their convictions. In the second half of the book, she talks about the legal environment for capital punishment, describes the evolution of Catholic teaching on the death penalty and rebuts Scalia's interpretations of the Constitution and of church doctrine.

At Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Potomac, Md., Sister Prejean said May 4 she was shocked by Scalia's theology, saying it seems to be based in the idea that God is a god of wrath.

Her book cites Scalia's comments at the Chicago forum in 2002, in which he says secularist societies are losing the notion that governments act with God's favor, including when they mete out capital punishment.

The Scalia quote also says that "the more Christian a country is, the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral," and that efforts to abolish the death penalty have the least support in "the churchgoing United States ... (because) for the believing Christian, death is no big deal."

Sister Prejean writes in response: "Forgive me, but I'm flabbergasted at the arrogance of a man who says 'death is no big deal,' when it's not his child who's being put to death, or his father or his wife, or himself."

At the Maryland church, she said she had no illusion that her arguments would sway the justice's thinking.

Nor does she expect to hear from him directly about her lengthy written debate with his speeches and legal opinions, she said.

Midway through her chapter about Scalia she summarizes the different directions from which they approach life.

He sees the death penalty from his bench in a marble courtroom, while she sits in visitor stalls on death row. She still gets shouted down periodically by people in the audience, while in his courtroom, "Everyone stands ... everyone listens."

"When Scalia sends people to their deaths, he never sees their faces," she wrote. "But I see their faces as they turn to me when they are being killed."

"Scalia quotes the Bible to justify government's 'divine authority' to kill 'evildoers,'" she said, "and I summon the words and example of Jesus, who transformed the mandate of 'an eye for an eye' by urging forgiveness, even of enemies."


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