With a distinct drawl and a verbal dexterity worthy of a parliamentarian, Sister Helen Prejean couldn’t be further from the stereotype of the quiet Catholic nun.
The fiery Louisianan, who first joined the convent in 1957, has lived a life entwined with the church and capital punishment, the issue that has become her crusade, and she’s watched Rome’s thinking evolve with her own.
Much as spending time with Patrick Sonnier, a Louisiana man executed in 1984 for his part in a double murder, turned her into an anti-death penalty crusader, Roman Catholicism has gone from backing the practice to advocating its abolition in most cases.
And in the face of declining church attendance in North America and a loosening grip on those who still believe, the way forward for the church is through more such human rights advocacy, argues Sister Helen, who shot to fame with her book Dead Man Walking, based on her experiences with Mr. Sonnier – which was made into an Oscar-winning motion picture.
“I’ll be very, very happy for the day the church officials, for every statement they make about morality, they make a hundred about being on the side of the poor,” she said during a weekend visit to Toronto, in which she took part in Cities for Life, an annual anti-capital punishment event, and delivered a speech at a Sunday morning liturgy at the Anglican Cathedral Church of St. James.
Her own advocacy was on ready display in Toronto, where she warned that Canada’s decades-old rejection of the death penalty was in jeopardy, thanks to the pro-capital punishment views of some within the governing Conservative Party.
“If they gain in ascendency in the next five to 10 years, you’d have a party in power that would put back the death penalty in a heartbeat,” she told The Globe and Mail, citing the Tories’ expressed desire not to request clemency in the case of Ronald Smith, a Canadian death row prisoner in Montana. “Canada is very precarious.”
(Prime Minister Stephen Harper has officially said he doesn’t want to open up a debate on the death penalty; the Federal Court overruled the government’s decision on Ronald Smith last year, compelling it to ask for his sentence to be commuted.)
Sister Helen is more circumspect in discussing contraception, another political hot topic in the church that gained attention with Pope Benedict XVI’s recent assertion that using a condom was the lesser of two evils for male prostitutes faced with the possibility of spreading HIV.
“We have taught people that their conscience is what they should follow,” she said. “That’s what people are doing.”
However, she explains the church’s position as one that seeks to reinforce the notion that there is more to an intimate relationship than sex and counter the cheapening of love by popular culture.
“It trivializes it, everything is made to hang on sex,” she said. “The church is going to something deeper.”
Sister Helen incarnates the political engagement she wants to see in the church. She spends much of her time from September to May every year travelling and drumming up support for the abolitionist cause, while she passes her summers at a Benedictine monastery in Wyoming. She also continues to visit death row inmates.
“By staying with real people on death row, that’s staying close to the fire,” she said.