Interview: Sister Helen Prejean

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“They killed a man with fire one day. They strapped him into a chair and pumped electricity into his body until he was dead”. Sister Helen Prejean opened Oxford’s Newman Society’s annual St Thomas More lecture with these hard-hitting words two weeks ago. She took them from the prelude to her bestselling book, Dead Man Walking – which has since been transformed into an Academy Award winning film and generated over $80 million at the box office.

Sister Helen is no ordinary nun. The cloistered quiet life was not for her. Now aged 74 she has all the spirituality of her vocation but the straight talking and no nonsense charm of her Louisiana roots. Born into an affluent suburban family she told us how she started a piece of work about poverty at her first school: “the butler was poor, the chauffer was poor…”. It was though, for Prejean, venturing out of the insulation of this upbringing and the security that often defines sisterly consecration that she was able to gain a real understanding of social justice and particularly the immorality of the death penalty.

It is on this point that we started our discussion. We put to her the classic argument: ‘if no man is born evil then why do people do such evil things?’. For Sister Helen “this is probably one of the most asked questions [to her]” by the American media. They say to her “come on sister, you’ve been with all these people on death row, some of these people must be evil?”. 

Her retort is that though “people do evil things, no person is born evil” and that 90% of people on death row were abused as children is in that respect no accident. To really understand why people do such “horrendous things” you have to “go and look at the story”.

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She believes that the moral of this tale is that “violence doesn’t come out of societies where you’ve had a job, an education, a family”. Rather than trying to prove that they are tough on crime by saying that they are for the ‘ultimate penalty’ politicians need to place an increased emphasis on “correction”. Prisons should become correctional centres in practice, not just in name: “we are learning how to recycle coca-cola plans yet many people have not been habilitated, let alone rehabilitated”.  

But where is the Church of which Sister Helen is a member on all of this? Sister Helen believes that the Church has “come around” on the death penalty, citing John Paul II’s declaration in the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae that “not even a murderer loses his personal dignity”. The Church now teaches that the death penalty is only allowable in cases of absolute necessity, and that in modern society those cases are virtually nonexistent.

“Even those among us who have done a terrible crime have a dignity that must not be taken”, Sister Helen argued, explaining that that dignity must be protected not only by Church teaching but also by Catholics living the Gospel every day. For while the hierarchy is important, Sister Helen emphasized that “it is the people who live the Gospel, the people who make it happen… sometimes you have amazing leaders, but the people are the Church.”

Fighting the death penalty therefore should stem from fighting poverty: “The closer people are to the poor, the quicker they get it about the death penalty”, she explained. For this should be the Church’s central mission: “we have to deal with poverty, we have to resist poverty”. The overwhelming majority of death row inmates are poor – a contributory factor to both their conviction and their crime. The election of Pope Francis, whose zealous approach to combating poverty, provides “real hope” for Sister Helen.

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Indeed, awareness of the issues surrounding capital punishment is rising. “Social justice is being taught in religion classes in school, and you can really see the effects of it”, Sister Helen commented. Molly can testify to the truth of this observation; my introduction to the ethics of capital punishment began in my Catholic Social Justice class in my high school in Washington, D.C, where Dead Man Walking formed a part of the course.

As we walked Sister Helen back to Merton, where she was staying during her visit to Oxford, she asked us and Roberto Weeden-Sanz, the Newman Society President: “how many people are on board with us here [in Oxford]?” – “How many people are Catholics do you mean?” we responded, “no, no, how many people are prepared to deal with these issues?”. For the significance of Sister Helen’s work is not just the resolute bedrock of its Catholic faith but its acknowledgment of our common humanity and the threats that are still posed to it in 2013, of which the death penalty is one.

This significance became all the more apparent as we left Sister Helen and she shouted out to us “see ya’ later guys”. The warmth of her nature was matched only by the profundity of her cause. John-Henry Newman’s dictum “heart reaches out to heart” could apply to no-one better.