Karen Clifton is the Executive Director of Catholic Mobilizing Network. She began her work against the death penalty in 1996 in Houston, Texas, when her social-justice and advocacy projects intersected with those of Sr. Helen Prejean, who became a national figure after the release of the film Dead Man Walking. In 2008, Clifton spearheaded the formation of the Catholic Mobilizing Network. Based in Washington, D.C., the network seeks to apply the church’s teaching on the dignity of human life in the areas of capital punishment and restorative justice. Commonweal contributing editor John Gehring interviewed her by email.
John Gehring: When Pope Francis addressed Congress in 2015, he called for the abolition of the death penalty because, in his words, “every life is sacred.” Just last week, the pope said the “death penalty is inadmissible” no matter how serious the crime and that executions are “contrary to the Gospel.” How has the pope’s strong voice on this issue helped the Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN) in your outreach and advocacy?
Karen Clifton: The pope’s message lifts the ambiguity. Our last three popes have been very outspoken against the use of the death penalty in the United States. We hear many Catholics state the pope’s teachings as “his opinion.” This definitive statement makes it clear that the work to end the death penalty is a vital part of the church’s consistent prolife ethic. All Catholics and people of goodwill are now challenged to join this work to build a culture of life. Lifting up the Gospel message of mercy and reconciliation, the Pope has reminded us that the death penalty is contrary to our understanding of human dignity. As Catholics we are to be consistently pro-all-life.
JG: How do you engage with Catholic dioceses and parishes to educate clergy and lay Catholics about the death penalty?
KC: There are people in every diocese across the country working in prisons, jails, re-entry programs, and walking alongside victims’ family members in their grieving and healing. There is a hunger for more resources and tools that address the brokenness of the criminal-justice system—especially the death penalty. CMN works alongside Catholic Conference directors, diocesan Social Justice and Respect Life coordinators, and in hundreds of parishes to disseminate educational resources, advocacy opportunities as well as prayer tools to mobilize Catholics around this important prolife issue. Lifting up the Gospel message of mercy and reconciliation, we emphasize the church’s consistent ethic of life to transform hearts and minds around the need to end the death penalty.
JG: What motivates you to do this work? Do you have a personal story or connection to the issue?
KC: I’ve been involved in this work for over a decade. I’ve heard countless stories of those affected by the death penalty. Murder victims’ family members, perpetrators’ family members, criminal-justice personnel, and the wider community continually reinforce the message that the criminal-justice system is broken. Then in hearing the stories of the 160 people who have been exonerated from death row since 1973, I’m convinced this system has to stop. We have the means to protect society and taking life perpetrates violence.
I personally believe in the dignity of all life. We are all broken people. I am so grateful for a merciful God who like the Father of the prodigal son shows mercy even to the guilty. The least among us, those lacking love and opportunity in life, are the most likely to find themselves in our criminal-justice system. The Gospel calls us to care for the least among us. It is through encountering the other that we are transformed. Our models of faith are the victims’ family members who spend their lives working to end the death penalty. They do not want another person to experience the excruciating pain of losing a loved one. They are being present to the dignity of another, even at great cost to themselves.