Sullivan, who also sits on the advisory council of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, told CNA ahead of the event that he has been protesting the death penalty by holding peaceful prayer vigils on the night of executions since the 1980s with the message: “Don’t kill in our name.”
He said that experiencing his sister’s death — and seeing her body in the morgue — helped him to understand that he and his family “don’t want to put another family through the pain that we experienced” of having to bury a family member, even if that person is a murderer.
“We don’t believe that killing to show that killing is wrong is morally right,” he explained. “And we also believe in the potential for human transformation as enacted by God in people’s lives.”
“Executions are really more along the lines of vengeance and retaliation and retribution than they are justice … they don’t bring about any sense of healing or wholeness to murder victim families,” Sullivan said.
The death penalty, he said, “creates a cycle of violence that never seems to end.”
“If anybody has any reason to support the death penalty, it would be us,” he continued, referring to the families of murder victims.
“And yet here we are as people who have been impacted forever by the murder of our loved ones…saying together, ‘We don’t believe in revenge, we don’t believe in retaliation. We believe in accountability, but not through lethal means,’” Sullivan said.
He said he also has studied and believes the arguments that the death penalty is unequally applied in the U.S., with people of minority races and the poor suffering the most from its effects.
“We want to make sure that the right people are arrested and tried and convicted, not the most convenient,” he added.
Sullivan said despite not being a Catholic himself, he knows that many Protestants who oppose the death penalty were gratified by the change that Pope Francis made to the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 2018 in which he described the death penalty as “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
“When Pope Francis said the death penalty was inadmissible, many of us Protestants, we cheered, and we applauded Pope Francis for coming out with that understanding,” Sullivan said.
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“In a sense, he became our pope when he made that declaration.”
Sullivan also said he has been privileged to work together with many Catholic laypeople, priests, religious sisters, and others who work for an end to the death penalty.
“I see them and I salute them, and it’s a pleasure and honor to work alongside [them],” he said.