ROCHESTER — When Angela Payne discussed the consistent life ethic with fellow teens earlier this year, she brought much more than a hastily formed opinion to the table.
Angela, 15, views one of the ethic’s principles — opposition to the death penalty — from a tragic real-life situation: the murder of her mother.
Ellie Payne was shot in the back at her Rochester home and died there Dec. 26, 2003. The man who was her live-in boyfriend at the time was convicted of murder. Angela recalled that when she addressed the court during his trial, as he stood only 10 feet away, she declined to request a punishment as severe as the death penalty.
“I was always that way. I’ve always believed in God, always believed it was wrong,” said Angela, a sophomore Our Lady of Mercy High School.
She explained that despite her anger toward the killer, she believes a person is capable of change if given a second chance. She noted that the murderer ultimately received a plea deal, being sentenced to 18 years to life in prison including four years without parole.
Angela’s stance impressed other youth-group members from the St. Andrew/Church of the Annunciation cluster. Kim Sick, 18, admitted that “I don’t know if I’d be able to do the same thing.”
Amy Dorscheid, youth minister, said denunciation of the death penalty “is an example of a hard teaching.” Even Dorscheid, who has a long history of activism in consistent-life-ethic causes, is impressed by the compassion Angela has displayed.
“Angela is an example of what it means to be a Christian. I don’t know if I could do what she does,” Dorscheid said.
Ian Scheil, 14, pointed out that Angela’s position is the essence of why Catholics are taught that, as part of the ethic, no criminal should be condemned to die.
“You look at this person and you’re going to kill them for what they’ve already done. Everyone is an image of Christ and when you do that, you drive another nail into his cross,” Ian said.
Angela’s family tragedy was raised during a January youth-group meeting devoted to the consistent life ethic. It was held in conjunction with the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade —the Jan. 22, 1973, U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in this country. Additionally, the St. Andrew/Annunciation teens took on the subject of abortion in honor of Respect Life Month last October.
“It’s an important teaching of the church. Teenagers are certainly among those who are at risk of abortion and have friends experiencing abortion,” Dorscheid said.
The consistent life ethic affirms life in all human forms. In addition to opposing abortion and the death penalty, the ethic — also known as the “seamless garment” — opposes war, euthanasia, violence and economic injustice. The January meeting presented some challenging scenarios, such as a woman in her early 40s with older children who finds out she is pregnant again, and must choose between her career and having an abortion; how to decide whether a sick and elderly person should be kept on life support; and what a person whose brother was killed by a gang member would request of the prosecution in regard to the death penalty.
Teens voiced a range of opinions, which is fine by Dorscheid.
“This was not to change anyone’s mind, but to bring the church teaching out in the open,” she said.
The elderly person’s situation hit home for Paul Civiletti, 17: “I’ve seen this situation a couple of times before.” He said he knows of a friend’s family member who died after being removed from life support. This was in keeping with the person’s living will, which is a patient’s written instruction about specific health-care wishes. In this case, the patient wished to have life support discontinued and, therefore, it did not constitute intentional death by that person’s doctors.
“It was kind of disappointing. I kind of got choked up,” said Paul, explaining that he would have preferred to see the person live. By the same token, Paul acknowledged that he can’t comment from a fully informed perspective without enduring what that patient did: “I couldn’t put myself in that position.”
Such weighty conversations are typical among the St. Andrew/Annunciation teens. Dorscheid, who oversees the LIFE TEEN program that meets on Sunday evenings and is preceded by a LIFE TEEN Mass at Annunciation, said members often come up with excellent viewpoints.
“We talk at LIFE TEEN about serious things, not light, fluffy kind of stuff,” Dorscheid said, adding that to consider youths incapable of handling such material is selling them short. “The teens surprise me all the time with the depth of their faith. They are intelligent, and can wrestle with these issues just like adults can.”