NEW YORK — One decade ago the Catholic Church still allowed for the death penalty under certain conditions, and 35 states across the country permitted the practice.
As the Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN) celebrates their ten-year anniversary this week, that number is down to 29 states, and just over a year ago Pope Francis updated the catechism to declare the death penalty to be “inadmissible.”
Executive director Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy believes such developments to be a sign of “incredible momentum” and proof that the work of Catholics who have spent years lobbying their legislators, visiting with death row inmates and their families, and making their case against capital punishment in the public square is paying off.
“It’s really wonderful to see just how far we’ve come. We have work to do, but ending the death penalty in our time is possible,” says Vaillancourt Murphy of the occasion.
Formed in 2009, Catholic Mobilizing Network was launched in an effort to aid the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty, which began in 2005 and aimed to help educate American Catholics on the realities of the death penalty.
CMN built on the efforts of Catholics Against Capital Punishment (CACP), a group founded by Frank and Ellen McNeirney, who from their home in Maryland would send out letters and e-mails and make phone calls to mobilize Catholics to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.
Under the leadership of its founding executive director, Karen Clifton, who was inspired by Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun from Louisiana who after getting to know a death row inmate and accompanying him to his execution became one of the world’s leading opponents of the death penalty, the organization has worked both with the Church hierarchy and in the trenches of the criminal justice system toward the very explicit goal of ending the practice of the death penalty.
Clifton brought Vaillancourt Murphy on board to take over the reins of the organization in 2018 and believes that her entire career has been devoted to fighting injustices and bringing about structural change to broken systems.
“For many years, I was working on global poverty and hunger. Well, probably a decade into it, the organization I was working with started taking a really deep look at the effects of mass incarceration and hunger in our communities, and started making those linkages,” said Vaillancourt Murphy. “So for many years, to work on an important issue like ending hunger, and then to begin to see this intersectionality, with other sorts of epidemics of our time. So that made me begin looking at this anew.”
“I have a sense of the impacts and the fallout, the shame, so many aspects of incarceration that affect lives. And that, none of us is very removed from the effects of mass incarceration,” she continued.
As she leads a team of six other staffers, she’s more convinced than ever that “ending the death penalty is possible,” — and she’s excited to lead the way forward with a team primarily made up of young people, who she believes represent a generation that is already highly suspect of the death penalty — Catholic or not.
“I think young people have this clarity about the value of life, and they can spot out inconsistencies very quickly. The death penalty isn’t something that needs to be overly convincing for them. They kind of get it right away,” she observes.
“It doesn’t escape them that, over half the states in the United States are not even practicing the death penalty. Like, why would we even need it? They get that. Today, 166 people have been exonerated from death row in the modern era of the death penalty,” she notes.
On Thursday evening, Vaillancourt Murphy and her crew of young people will gather with long time supporters of CMN to mark their ten-year anniversary with a celebration at the Vatican’s embassy in D.C. — all timed to coincide with the World Day Against the Death Penalty. That same day, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is planning to urge the federal government to rescind execution orders set for later this year and to call on Congress to remove the death penalty from federal law.
The evening celebration, titled “Hope over Death,” will honor Clifton and Prejean, along with Archbishop emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, who launched the U.S. Bishops’ Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty.
Although the event will pay tribute to the heroes of the past, ultimately the event will be future-oriented, looking toward the day when the death penalty is permanently abolished — a goal that Vaillancourt Murphy believes is very much in sight, with repeal efforts in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming on the horizon.
“There’s no turning back. The death penalty is dying a death in the United States,” she states. “We have to get it over the finish line, but there’s no turning back.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
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