Catholics, capital punishment and Cities for Life
Letter to the Editor | Thursday, November 30, 2006
In the week leading up to this month’s national elections, as you might recall, Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death by hanging. While President George Bush smirked, declared victory and spoke about “healing justice,” nearly every European leader, including Bush’s closest allies, wore long faces on the news and condemned the sentence for its inhumanity. This article is an invitation to the Notre Dame community to think about these different reactions. On a campus regularly dotted with right to life campaigns calling for an end to abortion, Notre Dame students have an opportunity this week to reflect on another dimension of the right to life and, if so moved, symbolically challenge the death penalty in the United States.
On Thursday, Nov. 30, students from the campus’ Sant’Egidio community and Notre Dame Against Killing (ND ASK) will be celebrating the worldwide Cities for Life day. Sponsored by the community of Sant’Egidio in over 400 cities on Thursday, groups around the world will be lighting up big-city monuments – like the Coliseum in Rome and La Moneda in Santiago – to commemorate the first abolition of the death penalty by law, in the Great Duchy of Tuscany, 1786. On campus we will be lighting candles at the Grotto with Dale Recinella, a Notre Dame law grad who gave up his life as hot-shot international finance lawyer to minister spiritually to inmates on death row in Florida. Following a series of speakers on campus by ND ASK to mobilize support and collect signatures to end the death penalty, Dale will talk afterwards about his experience making and losing friends on death row. In his recent book, Dale notes that most Americans who believe in the death penalty, like George Bush, defend it on religious grounds, believing that God demands this justice in death, that in some way the death penalty can bring healing vengeance.
While the Biblical commitment to justice by God is great, it is always underscored by a more powerful call towards compassion, forgiveness and love. As the last few popes and the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops have all emphasized, it is only through these fundamental exigencies in which true healing can occur, not through the violence of the executioner’s switch, noose or needle. If we can defend society bloodlessly, why should Catholics continue to support the violence of society and the destruction of human dignity by allowing our government to kill our criminals? Who are we to allow the legitimized violence of the state to mobilize so completely against one person when their very crimes mirror our own collective inability to have reached out and helped them in the first place? As Gandalf tells Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.”