When we receive guests in Florida, deference to certain local proclivities is expected: trips to honor the Mouse (Disney World), to rub
the coquina walls of Fort Marion (St. Augustine), and to ride the glass bottom boats through the alligator pitted river (Wakulla Springs,
where the Tarzan movies of my youth were filmed). So I consented to the touristy regimens of my local experts, including the Buffalo Bill
Cody Museum and the Plains Indians Museum. I begged off on the Wild Sheep Museum.
Aside from those few tourist mandatories, all pursued in snow flurries and chill breezes of less than 25 degrees, the trip was deadly
serious: the annual statewide meeting of the Wyoming Catholics United for Life. Usually, this once-per-year gathering hosted speakers
and topics more typical of religious Right to Life Conferences. This year the subject was all about capital punishment and the concept
of God’s mercy.
In the course of an intense day, the statewide audience heard the riveting testimony of a mother whose son at college had been brutally
abducted, tortured and murdered in a gang thrill-kill. As she wrapped up the description of her journey to forgiveness, it seemed
impossible for there to be any oxygen left in the hotel, let alone the room.
Then, Fr. Augustine Judd, a Dominican priest and theologian, delivered two one-hour presentations on the Catholic Church’s history with
and theology of capital punishment, culminating with the Church’s modern day application of that tradition: moral exercise of the state’s
power to execute only obtains when bloodless means are not sufficient to protect innocent life in society.
I was there to share the story of our family’s journey from my first career (as a Wall Street finance lawyer) to our death row ministry
of the last fifteen years. Then, in a second talk, to bring the audience up close to death row and the death house. Finally, in the
evening keynote at dinner, they asked me to share my personal journey and change of heart on the death penalty—a change that took place
in the late 1980s, at least a decade before we came into death row ministry.
The participants were incredible. Fully engaged. Brimming over with questions and encouragement. I marveled at their stamina in the
face of such a deluge of difficult talks. As the dinner ended and a closing benediction was given, many lined up to share their
appreciation and last questions with the speakers. That is when a very serious and concerned lady approached me.
“Thank you for your stories. It was all quite incredible, this whole day. But I have a concern. Don’t we need the death penalty for the
ones who are sociopaths, who have no remorse, the ones who are …”
“I think the term you are looking for is ‘intrinsically evil.’”
“Yes,” she takes my hand in a gesture that is clearly more forceful than she meant it to be. “Yes, the ones who are intrinsically evil,
who have no remorse. Who are cocky and brazen about the horror they have done. Don’t we need the death penalty for those ones?”
“Are you Catholic?” I ask gently.
“Yes, but why should that matter?”
“Because as Catholics we do not believe that anyone is intrinsically evil, no matter how sociopathic they are. We believe that everyone
is susceptible to the power of the Cross and Resurrection and can be redeemed.”
“The notion of predestination to Hell, which is what it means to be intrinsically evil, is from John Calvin. It is part of a theory
of double predestination: that some people are predestined by God for Heaven, and others are predestined by God for Hell. As Catholics
we do not believe that.”
“What do we believe?”
“We believe that God creates and predestines everyone for Heaven, but we get to choose whether or not we accept the gift.”
“So, these people get off Scott-free without eternal punishment?”
“Only if they repent.”
“But what if they just repent to avoid Hell?”
"We as Catholics call that imperfect contrition, repentance out of fear of the loss of Heaven and of the pains and punishments of Hell.
And, yes, we believe that can be a sufficient route to salvation. It is not as good or as pure as perfect contrition, repentance out of
the horror of the harm we’ve done to others and the offense of our crimes to a pure and perfectly loving God. But, we believe that
imperfect contrition can result in salvation. And that everyone, no matter how perverse his or her sins are, is capable of repentance.”
“Well, let me tell you, brother, if that is true, God and the Church are a lot more merciful than I am!”