Abstract for “No Dignity in Death”

The following is an abstract for my final essay:


During the decade of the 1980s, the death penalty debate was silenced as public support soared for the practice in tandem with rising crime rates. Sr. Helen Prejean, of the Congregation of St. Joseph in Louisiana, resuscitated the debate through her activism and most notably with the release of Dead Man Walking in 1993. Prejean reinvigorated the abolitionist cause by sharing with the public her experiences with death row inmates during their final months and years alive, and in witnessing their deaths. In theological terms, Prejean advanced a new conception of human dignity, which previously seemed to apply to all but the most egregious of criminals. Her argument rested on the principle that, with effective prisons in place as they were, the state never merits the right to kill its prisoners because dignity is truly inviolable. Prejean’s activism contended against millennia of Catholic teachings that upheld retributive justice; such teachings were maintained by influential traditionalists during the 1980s and 1990s including Justice Antonin Scalia and author Solange Hertz. Prejean’s outlook actually shared more in common with the worldviews of philosophers and legal experts from outside of the Church, including Albert Camus and Justice William Brennan. Prejean’s redefining of human dignity factored into reform during the mid- and late-1990s with Pope John Paul’s release of Evangelium Vitae and with changes made to the official Catechism. Her ministry has continued to this day.

This will be my final blog post of the year. The semester involved much hard work but was also very rewarding. I became involved in research that I held genuine interest in, and because of the Seminar I had educational experiences that I could not have possibly had otherwise. For now, I am looking forward to graduation and to a break from the rigors of school– but I hope to draw from my Ramonat experiences during any further schooling in the coming years.


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