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Columnist Jim Cahillane: Musings on the death penalty, MGM casino 

  • A view inside the casino at MGM Springfield during a media preview on Monday. The complex is set to open on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING



Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Earlier this month, Pope Francis changed the catechism of the Catholic Church to declare: “The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” 

I looked up inviolable to find it a synonym for chaste, divine and holy — to name just three. In other words each one of us deserves respect from birth to death. This was a departure from the traditional church teaching that did not exclude the death penalty in cases where the “guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined.” 

Our minds are flooded by a Niagara Falls of upsetting news bulletins, on all screens, allowing little time to ponder life’s greater questions. Among them: why am I here, and can the Red Sox keep their winning season going?

It’s only when reality bites and there’s a sudden death in a family or a hometown, calling us to halt our lives for a few days as we gather in support. It then hits home — we’re all on temporary assignment or as the military has it: TDY. 

Pope Francis’ books are replete with “joy,” not judgment.

By participating in what the church calls a celebration of life, we are giving respect for the individual that Pope Francis champions in changing the catechism, which guides the faithful and nonbelievers as well. Morality is a universal good for humankind. We know it in our bones because fairness lives in the Golden Rule wherein we treat others as we wish to be treated.

God knows we humans have trouble living up to that simple standard. We regret it almost immediately. Why is it so hard to apologize?     

Because it is!

Our grandson’s Stonehill College graduation speaker was Sister Helen Prejean. In her summation, Sister Helen joyfully compared the 2016 class to birds ready to fly, which they soon did.

You may remember her 1993 book, “Dead Man Walking,”  later made into a movie starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Prejean, and Sean Penn as the murderer on Louisiana’s Death Row, Matthew Poncelet. 

Roger Ebert reviewed the 1996 movie of the same name and was moved.  In summary, he said, “The movie comes down to a drama of an entirely unexpected kind: a spiritual drama, involving Matthew’s soul. Christianity teaches that all sin can be forgiven, and that no sinner is too low for God’s love. Sister Helen believes that.” Prejean became world famous by advocating against the death penalty in all cases. 

It’s no surprise to those of us well taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph that Sister Helen, a woman religious, was 25 years ahead of the pope in calling for an end to the death penalty. In a new interview she hails Pope Francis’ revision: “Change happens when society grows and evolves, and we have different ways of keeping people safe.”

American society has evolved in the past 25 years. Laws and customs have changed on gay marriage, premarital sex, marijuana, marriage in general and churches in particular. But love, thank God, is here to stay.

This column’s January 2000 headline: “Execution about revenge, not justice,” had statistics: “17,000 murders a year with roughly 2,000 inmates eligible for the death penalty, about 250 actually receive a death sentence.” In 2018, 31 states still have the death penalty. Massachusetts and 18 others do not. 

Helen Prejean has done her homework: “Ten states that were part of the Confederacy and practiced slavery are responsible for most executions.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor sharply dissented from her Supreme Court peers on Tennessee’s latest execution by lethal injection as “accepting barbarism.”

Thomas Jefferson was America’s minister to France during its 1789 revolution. He witnessed so many beheadings on the terror’s guillotine that, upon awakening in Paris, was moved to feel his neck in assurance — proving that bulk executions could unnerve even hardened slaveholders.

Friday marks the grand opening of MGM’s Springfield casino. My November 1995 column opened with this question: What do you think of a gambling casino in Hampden County?  I quoted then-Attorney General Scott Harshbarger: “The advent of casino gambling is an important quality of life issue for Massachusetts: It will unalterably change our communities and the legacy that we leave to our children.”

Well, Scott, that ship has sailed. Our elected representatives evolved. The billion-dollar MGM golden lion is at the door. Twenty-three years ago I expressed a litany of worries from white-collar theft, to lost productivity, to gambling addiction, crime rates and restaurant job losses. 

Today, we can but hope for a happier ending in western Massachusetts.

So, how am I doing? My anti-death penalty rant came out a winner when Pope Francis spoke on Aug. 2. The jury is still out on my 1995 casino jeremiad. Even batting .500 would put me in league with Mookie Betts and Ted Williams, which would be like hitting the jackpot!

Good luck to our Springfield neighbors: Live long and prosper.

Jim Cahillane writes his monthly column in Williamsburg. He is blessed with a long memory,  periodically aided by a hard-copy file. He can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.