Recognizing human dignity

By Isabella Rinaldi
Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, ‘24

Students welcomed Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco to speak about the Church and Catholic perspective surrounding the death penalty as part of Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory juniors’ preparation for the most intensive research project in ethics class all year. The death penalty was one of many social justice issues juniors pondered in the weeks prior to the event. SHC’s Brother Victor Kenneth, FSC, facilitated the conversation with the Archbishop in SHC’s theater on the De Paul campus. Students were given the opportunity to ask questions about the Archbishop’s perspective and engage in an open conversation with him on the importance of this topic.

Archbishop Cordileone has previously spoken out against the death penalty. As an archbishop of the Catholic Church, he considers the death penalty to be unnecessary and ineffective as a tool for enforcing justice. The Church holds that every human life is sacred, and that the government has a responsibility to protect it, but it also believes that the methods employed to do so must respect human dignity. The possibility of executing innocent people, the disproportionate application of the death penalty to the poor and people of color, and the potential for the death penalty to be used as a tool of political oppression are just a few of the serious moral and ethical issues the Archbishop raised in his discussion with SHC students.

In this conversation with Brother Kenneth, the Archbishop shared his personal experience in familiarizing himself with the death penalty during his college years, honestly admitting to having not given it much thought throughout high school. It did not seem like a pressing issue to him then. Through his relationship with God and his faith journey in becoming an archbishop, he shared the story of his first time at San Quentin visiting prisoners on death row. A common theme expressed throughout this discussion was the idea of recognizing every person’s inherent human dignity. Archbishop Cordileone reflected that after looking in the eyes of each prisoner, it became clear that the human dignity they possessed was being stripped from them. He proceeded to pray for each prisoner. He said many prisoners on death row still had faith and practiced that faith by reciting prayers and carrying a crucifix. From this experience, he urged everyone to remember the value of human life, which is a gift from God.

When asked about inequalities in society that may lead to a disproportionate number of certain groups of people being on death row, such as African Americans, Archbishop Cordileone agreed and said it is a complex issue. Racist attitudes are still around in our country, he said, and that is part of the problem. But it is much deeper, more subtle and more insidious than that. He sees it as a long and lingering effect from slavery, which separated families. This left the African American family structure in a weakened state at a time when other social revolutions were taking place related to sexual activity, childbearing, child rearing and marriage. As a result, a disproportionate number of African American families continued to splinter. Today, he said, the out-of-wedlock birthrate for African American families is 75%. The Archbishop quoted several studies that indicate the harmful social consequences of fatherlessness. This doesn’t mean, he said, that those growing up in single-parent households are not going to do well in life. Many are blessed with single parents making great sacrifices for their families. But when the problem grows dramatically, it begins to impact circumstances that we see today.

Sociologists, he said, speak about the success sequence: graduate from school, get a stable job, get married and then have children. If people follow this order, less than 3% end up in poverty. Too many African Americans are in situations where that success sequence is not available to them. In order to address this issue, he said, we must advocate for healthy family environments, better schools and whatever social assistance is needed to fight the cycle of crime and violence. It also requires educating the whole person, including moral and spiritual development that people need to follow that success sequence.

Through his discussion, Archbishop Cordileone urged society and SHC to concentrate not only on eliminating the death penalty, but on tackling the underlying causes of crime and violence, such as poverty, inequality and lack of access to education and employment opportunities.

SHC thanks Archbishop Cordileone for coming to present his thoughts and beliefs on the death penalty, offering a strong and faithful explanation of how justice may be served outside of the death penalty. He reminds us to recognize the dignity in each person, even if it is our worst enemy, so we may build a world full of peace and justice rather than one of violence and inequality. SHC’s juniors are using the Archbishop’s words and opinions to help them in their social justice projects as guidance and a resource as they present their topics to the class.

This article appeared in Catholic San Francisco magazine’s April issue as part of a series of perspectives from Catholic school students on topics of faith.