Pro-Death Catholics and the Racist Death Penalty

by Suzanne Belote Shanley

Today is the second day of Advent, and I have just completed reading two women friends’ mystical writing, one a poet, Denise Levertov, another a mystic, environmentalist woman priest of the Episcopal Church, Margaret Bullit-Jonas. Denise’s poetry matches the 6 a.m amazement as I look out the kitchen window in Brigid House, to see, after a night of sky-splitting rain, a full moon amidst the trees and hovering over the writer’s hut, which we have just named “Levertov.” Denise’s mystic’s heart was once wedded to ours in friendship and peacemaking. Agape Community Servant Song Winter 2021. Artwork by D Roberts KirkAlthough I am comforted by these women-mentor soul mates’ reflections I am simultaneously disturbed by the reality of women who, in my mind are “anti-mystics” and even, sadly, supporters of “a culture of death.” For the past four years, I watched the evolution of Women for Trump, especially among white women, who by large percentages have embraced Trumpism with all its murderous intent. I am compelled to move from the moonscape outside my window to thoughts about the death penalty, more Lenten in their heaviness, than Advent’s patient waiting for a miracle birth. I recall the journey Brayton, Bob Wegener and I took to Death Row, Jackson, Georgia over 30 years ago, as the eerie cycle of state-sanctioned murder has begun again with the resurgence of federal executions in recent months, all slated and championed by Trump and his anointed “agent of death,” William Barr, both of them executioners in absentia. Brayton and my Agape legacy book, Loving Life on the Margins: The Story of the Agape Community, and the chapter, “Death Row Calls Us,” offers the reader our Christ-life in friendship with Billy Neal Moore, death row inmate for 17 years with whom we began a correspondence after his first execution date in 1984. In 1990 we drove a second time to death row, to be present for Billy’s execution, with all stays of execution exhausted. Bob Wegener, our seven-month old daughter, Teresa, Brayton and I drove from Massachusetts in a cramped car for our first death row visit with Billy. We were granted a six-hour visit, baby bottles and all. We experienced first-hand the chilling walk down the gleaming corridors leading to the electric chair, a medieval torture machine to be geared up on a date designated by the state. Billy’s holiness intact and evident to all, combined with the advocacy of the victim’s family to spare his life, led to his commutation, the miracle for which we were present in the courtroom to hear and to weep over. Never repeated in the history of the death penalty, Billy was eventually released, and his parole lifted. Mother Teresa, another feminine mystic, intervened to save him: “Do what Jesus would do,” she advised the Georgia board of Pardon and Parole.

Agents of Death: Trump and His Star Chamber

Trump has revived the federal death penalty after a 17-year moratorium, with three more executions scheduled before he leaves office, including that of the first woman, Lisa Montgomery on December 8th. This dark and dangerous man and his minions are steeped in an anti-mystic, anti-feminine dark world, that of “Catholics for Death”, a fitting trope for the partnership of William Barr and, (God help us), a woman, Amy Coney Barrett, who together are engaged in spiritual warfare with Pope Francis and Jesus. Pope Francis, in his new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” calls the death penalty “inadmissible” urging Catholics to work for its abolition worldwide. The Pope centers his objection to capital punishment on revenge: “Fear and resentment can easily lead to viewing punishment in a vindictive and even cruel way, rather than as part of a process of healing and reintegration into society.” In other contexts, Francis has spoken of the “inalienable dignity of every human being and to accept that he or she has a place in the universe.” (General Audience, Apostolic Library, March 25, 2020). As we center our liturgical life here at Agape on the birth of Jesus, we do so in the shadow of His execution and of the great American death machine. Two prominent Catholics are not volunteering to witness or facilitate the murder of the murderers, yet are willing scholarly and detached white participants in a racist barbarity, sanitized by the myth of a “clean” execution, with lethal drugs coursing through the execution victims’ bodies, stifling breath, paralyzing the heart. This gruesome, “silent” killing, unlike the prolonged public agony of Jesus, is no less hideous and barbaric.

Resistance to The Culture of Death

With the onset of a Covid winter, we at Agape were called to stand in opposition to torture in the name of justice, the execution of Orlando Cordia Hall, whose Muslim name is Shakib Wali, age 49. On federal death row at Terre Haute, Indiana since 1992, Hall participated in a gruesome murder of a 16-year-old named Lisa Rene in a botched drug deal. In his last words about his “Redemption Journey” Hall, wrote:
I know that redemption is possible because I’m living proof and have witnessed so many others turn their lives around for the greater good; not because they were getting something out of it, but because something in them wanted more. We know that our government doesn’t care if we have changed but I know it’s possible because Allah tells us so.
The racism of the death penalty is solid, impenetrable, intact. Statistics are readily available, but they are irrelevant numbers by comparison to the heinous reality of what Hall’s last testament underscores: “How did I feel as a black man when I saw my all-white jury?” How would Amy Coney Barrett, William Barr, people of white privilege, educated, Catholics, trotting out their perceived moral superiority and their explicit and implicit bias feel, standing before an all-Black jury, on trial for their racist murder of Black men in egregious disproportion to the rest of the population? As Hall observes: “The system is set up to punish people of color, especially poor people of color. I was an uneducated man, functioning illiterate at best. Hall cites the “systemic institutional racism that is designed to subjugate people of color and the poor.” As with the thousands of lynchings that occur presently in forms other than hanging and burning, Hall states: “the death penalty has always been used as a tool to terrorize the black community.” The current chief proponent of this tool of terror, William Barr, was honored (amid tepid protest) by receiving the “Chritifideelis Laici award, which is named for Pope John Paul II’s post-synodal exhortation…given in gratitude for fidelity to the church, exemplary selfless and steadfast service to the Lord’s vineyard.” (Catholic News Service, Sept. 17, 2020, Julie Asher). You can read all the twisted justifications for Catholics, including a Bishop, participating in this immoral ceremony. Can we hear Jesus shout: “Get behind me Satan.” “The Catholic Mobilizing Network” and “The Association of US Catholic Priests” opposed the execution, but unlike the recent massive outcries over the choking and other torturous killing of Black men by white police, no mass protests occurred on November 19th, no civil disobedience. In the town of Ware four of us protested and fasted, but, for the most part, the seeming silence around this grotesque ritual focused our attention on fate of the Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the so-called, Marathon Bomber in Boston, who now resides in super-max and slated for federal execution and around whose trial in Boston five years earlier, we stood in opposition with a coalition of peace groups.

Catholic Women and The Death Penalty: Portrait in Contrasts

Sister Helen Prejean, the legendary prophet against the Death Penalty, stands in stark contrast to Amy Coney Barrett, who participated in and more than likely wrote, the majority decision of the Supreme Court not to not stay the execution of Orlando Hall in its final moments. As I watched Barrett, testifying with a smooth and confident exterior at her confirmation hearings as a Supreme Court Justice, and observed her mask-less as she stood with her husband and her seven children, I wondered: How could this devoted mother write a majority opinion that would ensure killing of another mother’s son, especially a Black son, as she has an adopted Black son from Haiti? Do we detect a moral depravity, spiritual disconnect and alliance with the forces of darkness here? As a graduate of The University of Notre Dame, Coney Barrett was joined at the White House for the announcement of her nomination by Notre Dame’s president, Fr. John Jenkins, who like Barrett, celebrated at the Blight House (Phil Berrigan gets credit for that title) without a mask. Jenkins, who later tested positive for Covid, was harshly criticized, not for attending a ceremony of a future Chief Justice by a president in egregious opposition to Christ’s teachings on revenge, but for his “moral” failure to wear a mask. Robert Barnes, in an article in The Washington Post on November 20, 2020, reported that Barrett, “did not recuse herself from the case as she has for others earlier in her tenure.” He notes further, “she did not note her dissent from the court’s action. …” This despite a University of Notre Dame Law Review article in which she suggested, says Barnes, that “judges who felt they could not be impartial because of their faith should recuse.” Catholic New Service reports that Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, Chairman of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development and Archbishop Joseph Nauman of Kansas City “called on the administration yet again to stop the execution” of Hall, and to “stop these executions.” Yet, the Bishops offered no criticism of Catholic Barrett’s involvement in writing the main brief on the lifting of Hall’s stay, but instead, many in the Catholic world heralded Barrett’s so-called pro-life stand. No mention of the seamless garment anywhere, the sacredness of life at all stages, inclusive of abortion, capital punishment, war and ecocide. Contrast Coney Barrett with Sr. Helen Prejean, who vociferously opposed the state-sanctioned killing of Lezmond Mitchell, a member of the Navajo Nation, which Sr. Helen described as “’federal overreach’… noting that the crime happened in the Navajo Nation where there is no death penalty.” Sister Helen further remarked that “capital punishment violates tribal custom and culture. …” and “If a tribal government says NO to the death penalty, that should be the last word.” Once again, we witness blatant racism, following the long history of American Indian genocide, as in Abraham Lincoln’s ordering the largest mass execution in the US—that of Native Americans, the killing of the Dakota 38 in Minnesota. Statistics from The Death Penalty Information Center support the ongoing racist bias against native people:
Since 1976, 16 Native Americans have been executed in a total of eight states. … As of January 2020, 27 individuals identified as Native Americans were on death row across the country.” In addition, The New York Times reported that Mitchell’s “execution would be the first time in modern history of the federal death penalty that a Native American man has been put to death by the federal government for a crime committed against another Native American on a reservation.” (Aug. 25, 2020)
We are all death-weary—due to Covid-deaths, the demise of democracy, the police killing of black sisters and brothers, calls for the beheading of Dr. Fauci and the call for shooting of Trump’s former cyber-security chief, Chris Krebs.

The Voice of the Feminine: Mercy at the Trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Into this dark tragedy, rises the hopeful chorus, the voice of the feminine. We who were present at the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev heard this singular song in the summation of his trial by the chief defense attorney Judy Clarke. An excerpt from Agape’s Loving Life on the Margins, entitled, “Judy and Dzhokhar” contains my thoughts at the time:
As I follow her sparring with the implacable Judge O’Toole…I sense the unfolding of a classic gender battle: a strong, imposing woman of almost austere bearing vs. an intransigent ideologue, a pronouncedly pro-death penalty judge, who seemed to want a death-penalty conviction in Massachusetts at any cost.
In an astonishing moment we learned that Judy Clarke had invited Sr. Helen Prejean to testify on Dzhokhar’s behalf and that Sr. Helen had been meeting secretly with Dzhokhar for months and would testify to his remorse and depression. I wrote: “Women were out front in the case…Judy and Sister Helen pitted against” a woman prosecutor, Carmen Oriz. About Judy Clarke’s final summation for the death penalty trial, I wrote: “Not unlike Jesus, Judy referred to those who committed the most heinous crimes as ‘the least of the least.’ About Dzhokhar, Judy said, ‘He is one of us.’” Finally, in contrast to the two Catholic appointees of Trump, Judy called, as Jesus did, for mercy. I observed:
According to press reports, she gestured and articulated like a preacher, reminding judge and jury: ‘Mercy’s never earned. It is bestowed. And the day allows you to choose justice and mercy. I ask you to make a decision of strength, a choice that demonstrates the resilience of community. We ask you to choose life.’


The U.S. Department of Justice has rescheduled the execution of Lisa Montgomery, a convicted murderer and the only woman on federal death row, to take place on Jan. 12, a few days before Joe Biden is due to be inaugurated as president of the United States. Where do we go from here?