Catholic priest and theologian Father Dorian Llewelyn weighs in on an issue that has found its way to the Supreme Court:
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on Nov. 9, 2021, in a case regarding a death row inmate’s plea that his Baptist pastor be allowed to lay hands on him in the execution chamber. The Supreme Court blocked John Henry Ramirez’s execution in September, about three hours after he could have been executed. Ramirez was convicted and sentenced to death for a 2004 robbery and the killing of a convenience store clerk in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Texas policy allows an approved spiritual adviser to be present in the execution chamber, but there cannot be any physical contact or vocal prayers during the execution. Ramirez has pleaded that this represents an infringement upon his religious liberty.
As a Catholic priest, ministering to the dying is at the core of my job. I have ministered to well over 150 people, from children to centenarians, in their final moments. At these times, I administer a set of ancient prayers and rituals that includes laying my hands on the dying person, anointing them with oil, reciting prayers for the dying and those they are leaving behind, reading Scripture and, if the person is conscious, giving them Holy Communion, which Catholics believe is truly the body and blood of Christ.
But central to caring for the dying is touch.
The laying of hands and, more specifically, physical touch at the end of life, holds special significance for many cultures because to touch is to reassure. In my ministry with the dying, I have often witnessed how, when death is looming, the warmth and contact of a held hand can communicate deeply where words fail.
Touch is a primal instinct – a gesture of love and comfort that’s instilled in each of us since birth. Touch is a prime way in which mothers communicate with their babies. Universally, people greet others with words but also touch, including handshakes, hugs, kisses or high-fives.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, people have found opportunities for physical connection – tapping elbows or giving fist bumps. And a natural way to console is to not only say comforting words, but also to gently touch or hug.
Faith leaders often believe they have power that can be transferred to others through physical contact. The pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim deployed the Polynesian term “mana” to describe a kind of spiritual energy that, for many cultures, can be transmitted to others.
Durkheim was describing a belief also found in other cultures, including the Chinese “qi” and Hindu “prana.”
When Catholic deacons and priests are ordained, the bishop places his hands on the top of their bowed heads. The “laying of hands” is a sacred and symbolic transfer of power that transmits the power to administer sacraments and celebrate the Eucharist, the ritual reenactment of Jesus’ Last Supper.
Physical contact is associated with not only communicating love and divinity, but also with healing – the practical expression of divine love.