Thursday, June 19, 2008

Striving to honestly forgive

Greetings fellow Network of Love Lovers!

I just wanted to touch briefly on the gospel reading I heard today in church. It is probably one of the most famous teachings of Jesus Christ, his instruction on how one is to pray. I might as well quote scripture:

“This is how you are to pray: ‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’”

Christian or otherwise, you have probably heard a form of the “Our Father” prayer. It is a staple of most a Christian’s prayer life, one of the first prayers taught to a Christian child and one of the prayers remembered in times of trial, times of praise, and times of simple contemplation. People have devoted months, years, even a lifetime trying to decipher every little crevice of this intricate, thought provoking, challenging prayer. My fall semester last year, I went on an entire weekend retreat along with fellow Milwaukee seminarians that was devoted to analyzing the entire “Our Father” line by line. It was rewarding to dig that deep into a prayer I have known and said for most of my life, but at the same time, the retreat left me with many more questions to ask myself, my neighbor, and, ultimately, God.

Having questions tucked away deep inside is good thing I suppose. If we had the ability to say one prayer and have all the issues in our world solved, then we would ultimately seize praying and essentially seize living. It is our fears, doubts, anxieties, struggles that keep us yearning to cling to something greater than ourselves, just as it is our positive hopes, dreams, aspirations, that keep us longing to step outside of ourselves and into the larger picture. Underneath every sincere ambition, there is a fundamental desire for affection from others, acceptance into a larger community, and love…in time, even eternal love. This deep desire, this craving for something more, might be what Jesus means when we are to ask for a “Kingdom” to “come,” here on earth. When we say “as it is in heaven,” maybe we are expressing a hope for a future in which this desire to step outside ourselves and love a community, the entire world, is a given, is universally accepted. Maybe that is what heaven is…a place where all can sit together at table and share in fellowship as equals, as true sisters and brothers. This is one my dreams for our future on earth and in heaven. It is in faith that this dream can become a reality for each and every one of us.

After teaching us how to pray, the Gospel of Matthew shows Jesus giving us a difficult teaching to swallow. Jesus says:

“If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”

If X then Y. If not X then not Y. It is a simple enough teaching to understand logically, but tough as nails to honestly live out. To forgive a transgression means that you forgive the breaking of any law, command, or moral code. How many times in our society do we forgive someone who breaks a serious law? Here in the United States, some states still have laws that do not even allow citizens the ability to give the transgressions of a person who has committed a crime, as terrible and evil as that crime might be. I am speaking, of course, of the death penalty. And there are other ways in which we find it difficult to forgive transgressors. Take, for instance, a person close to your family, a person who maybe even was part of your family at some point in time. Now, say this person decides, for whatever reason–––moral or immoral–––to leave your family tree. Say this person breaks the heart of someone near and dear to you. Does things to a person you love that even the most dramatic of novelists would flinch upon hearing. You–––we–––are called, are asked by Jesus to forgive that person. He is asking us so that our “father,” or love or the way in which this world spins, can forgive us. That is, to have a truly clean conscience and to be able to love as purely as we would like to love, we have to somehow, someway forgive a person who has deeply wounded us, or someone we love.

I’ll be the first to admit that there are people in my life who make me seriously question whether or not I’ll ever actually be able to really implement this teaching of Christ, to fully forgive anyone who has done harm to the people I love and to this world at large.

Really, it’s something I need to work on every day of my life, every moment of my life. It’s not something I fret about, but it is something that I know is there and real. There are, whether we like it or not, people who we can’t help but hold grudges against. Whether these grudges are held justly or unjustly is really a mute point when reflecting on the advice written in the Gospel of Matthew. These grudges need not–––should not be in our hearts at all. This is, at least, the goal of bringing ourselves towards a more real, intimate, worldly kind of love. So as we can be one with all people and in harmony with all things and our Creator, may we be one with ourselves in that we let all that may bring us trouble, worry, anger, frustration, escape our memory and our being.

As Jaqueline Syrup Bergan and Sister Marie Schwan write in their book Surrender: A Guide for Prayer,

“The way of Christ is the way of love. This way is the yoke of life, the supportive, balancing, enablement of the Spirit that empowered Jesus and, in turn, empowers us. To share that yoke of life releases the unlimited possibilities of creativity, joy, and fulfillment that are at the heart of discipleship.”
Pg. 14, Surrender.

To partake in the yoke of life means that we indeed forgive those who have hurt us in one way or another. This yoke is easy to talk about but hard to actually live by. Maybe if we take small steps, like forgiving someone who unjustly put blame or guilt on us in the last few days, or forgiving ourselves for something we did wrong in the last week, we can begin to attain the yoke of life that captures the essence of God.

Peace and blessings!

With love,

Your friend bob.


dudleysharp said...

Are we to forgive unconditionally?

Let's say your rapist has no remorse, states that he will continue to rape and does so.

Is there an obligation to forgive? Or is there an obligation to condemn, in that case?

I believe that forgiveness in such a case would be immoral.

In the Christian faith, is God's forgiveness conditional? Of course, in a big way.

dudleysharp said...

You may find this of interest.

by Romano Amerio (†1997), a Vatican insider and scholar, a professor at the Academy of Lugano, consultant to the Preparatory Commission of Vatican II, and a peritus (expert theologian) at the Council.

Certain social institutions derive from the principles of the natural law and as such are perpetual in one form or another; for example the state, the family, a priesthood of some sort; and there are others that arise from a certain level of reflection on those principles and from historical circumstances, and which are abandoned when thought moves on to another level or when circumstances change; for example slavery.

Until recently, the death penalty was philosophically defended, and used in practice by all countries as the ultimate penalty society imposes on evildoers, with the threefold aim of righting the balance of justice, defending society against attack, and dissuading others from wrongdoing.

The legitimacy of capital punishment is usually grounded on two propositions. First: society has a right to defend itself; second: this defense involves using all necessary means. Capital punishment is included in the second proposition on condition that taking the life of one member of the body of society is genuinely necessary for the wellbeing of the whole.

The growing tendency to mitigate punishments of all sorts is in part the product of the Gospel spirit of clemency and mercy, which has always been at odds down the centuries with savage judicial customs. With a certain degree of confusion that we need not go into here, the Church has always drawn back from blood.

It should be remembered that canon law traditionally decreed the “irregularity,” that is the banning from holy orders, not only of executioners, but of judges who condemned people to death in the ordinary course of law, and even of advocates and witnesses in trials that led to someone being put to death.

The controversy does not turn on society’s right to defend itself; that is the undeniable premise of any penal code, but rather on the genuineness of the need to remove the offender altogether in order to effect that defense, which is the minor premise involved.

From St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas to Taperelli d’Azeglio, the traditional teaching is that the decision as to the necessity and legitimacy of capital punishment depends on historical circumstances, that is, on the urgency of the need to hold society together in the face of the disruptive behavior of individuals who attack the common good. From Beccaria onwards, proposals to abolish capital punishment have admitted the major premise, and allowed that the minor one depends on historical circumstances, since they allow the execution of offenders in some emergencies, such as war. During the last war, even Switzerland sentenced and shot seventeen people guilty of high treason.

188. Opposition to the death penalty.

Opposition to the death penalty stems from two diverse and incompatible sets of reasons, and can only be evaluated in the light of the moral assumptions on which it is based. Horror at a crime can coexist with sympathy for human weakness, and with a sense of the human freedom that renders a man capable of rising from any fall as long as his life lasts; hence opposition to the death penalty. But opposition can also stem from the notion that every person is inviolable inasmuch as he is a self-conscious subject living out his life in the world; as if temporal life were an end in itself that could not be suppressed without frustrating the purpose of human existence.

Although often thought of as religiously inspired, this second type of reason for rejecting capital punishment is in fact irreligious. It overlooks the fact that from a Christian point of view earthly life is not an end in itself, but a means to life’s moral goal, a goal that transcends the whole order of subordinate worldly goods. Therefore to take away a man’s life is by no means to take away the transcendent end for which he was born and which guarantees his true dignity. A man can propter vitam Vivendi perdere causas (for the sake of life, loose the causes of life) that is, he can make himself unworthy of life by taking temporal life as being itself the supreme good instead of a means to that good.

There is therefore a mistake implicit in the second sort of objection to capital punishment, inasmuch as it assumes that in putting someone to death, other men or the state are cutting a criminal off from his destined goal, or depriving him of his last human end or taking away the possibility of his fulfilling his role as a human being. Just the opposite in fact. The condemned man is deprived of his earthly existence, but not of his goal. Naturally, a society that denies there is any future life and supposes there is a fundamental right to happiness in this world, must reject the death penalty as an injustice depriving man of his capacity to be happy.

Paradoxically, those who oppose capital punishment on these grounds are assuming the state has a sort of totalitarian capacity which it does not in fact possess, a power to frustrate the whole of one’s existence. Since a death imposed by one man on another can remove neither the latter’s moral goal nor his human worth, it is still more incapable of preventing the operation of God’s justice, which sits in judgment on all our adjudications. The meaning of the motto engraved on the town executioner’s sword in Fribourg in Switzerland: Seigneur Dieu, tu es le juge (Lord God, Thou art the Judge), was not that human and divine justice were identical; it signified a recognition of that highest justice which sits in judgment on us all.

Another argument advanced is that capital punishment is useless as a deterrent; as witnessed by Caesar’s famous remark during the trial of the Cataline conspirators, to the effect that a death which put an end to the shame and misery of the criminals would be a lesser punishment than their remaining alive to bear them. This argument flies in the face of the juridical practice of pardoning people under sentence of death, as a favor, and is also refuted by the fact that even infamous criminals sometimes make pacts between themselves with death as the penalty for breaking the agreement. They thereby give a very apposite witness to the fact that capital punishment is an effective deterrent.

189. Doctrinal change in the Church.

An important change has occurred in the Church regarding the theology of punishment. We could cite the French bishops’ document that asserted in 1979 that the death penalty ought to be abolished in France as it was incompatible with the Gospel, the Canadian and American bishop’s statements on the matter, and the articles in the Ossevatore Romano calling for the abolition of the death penalty, as injurious to human dignity and contrary to the Gospel.

As to the biblical argument; even without accepting Baudelaire’s celebration of capital punishment as a supremely sacred and religious proceeding, once cannot cancel out the Old Testament’s decrees regarding the death penalty, by a mere stroke of the pen. Nor can canon law, still less the teaching of the New Testament, be can canceled out at a stroke. I am well aware that the famous passage in Romans (Rm 13:4) giving princes the ius gladii (the right use of the sword), and calling them the ministers of God to punish the wicked, has been emptied of meaning by the canons of the new hermeneutic, on the grounds that it is the product of a past set of historical circumstances.

Pius XII however explicitly rejected that view, in a speech to Catholic jurists on 5 February 1955, and said that the passage of St. Paul was of permanent and universal value, because it refers to the essential foundation of penal authority and to its inherent purpose. In the Gospel, Christ indirectly sanctions capital punishment when he says it would be better for a man to be condemned to death by drowning than to commit the sin of scandal (Mt 18:6). From the Book of Acts (Acts 5:1-11) it seems the primitive Christian community had no objection to the death penalty, as Ananias and Sapphira are struck down when they appear before St. Peter guilty of fraud and lying at the expense of the brethren. Biblical commentaries tell us that the early Christians’ enemies though this sentence was harsh at the time.

The change in teaching is obvious on two points. In the new theology of punishment, justice is not considered, and the whole matter is made to turn on the usefulness of the penalty and its aptitude for bringing the guilty person back into society, as the saying goes. On this point, as on others, the new fangled view coincides with the utilitarianism preached by the Jacobins. The individual is held to be essentially independent; the state defends itself against a miscreant, but cannot punish him for breaking a moral law, that is, for being morally guilty.

This guiltlessness of the guilty goes on to manifest itself in a reduced consideration for the victim and even in giving preference to the guilty over the innocent. In Sweden people who have been imprisoned are given preferential treatment in examinations for public employment, as compared with other, unconvicted, members of the public. Consideration for the victim is eclipsed by mercy for the wrongdoer. Mounting the steps to the guillotine, the borderer Buffet shouted his hope that he would “be the last man guillotined in France.” He should have shouted he hoped he would be the last murderer.

The penalty for the offense seems more objectionable than the crime, and the victim is forgotten. The restoration of a moral order that has been violated by wrongdoing is rejected as if it were an act of vendetta. In fact it is something that justice demands and which must be pursued even if the harm done cannot be reversed and if the rehabilitation of the guilty party is impossible. The modern view also attacks even the validity of divine justice, which punishes the damned without there being any hope or possibility of amendment. The very idea of the redemption of the guilty is reduced to a piece of social engineering. According to the Osservatore Romano (6 Sept 1978), redemption consists in the awareness of a return to being useful to one’s fellows” and not, as the Catholic system would have it, in the detestation of one’s fault and a redirecting of the will back into conformity with the absolutes of the moral law.

To go on to assert that a life should not be ended because that would remove the possibility of making expiation, is to ignore the great truth that capital punishment is itself expiatory. In a humanistic religion expiation would of course be primarily the converting of a man to other men. On that view, time is needed to effect a reformation, and the time available should not be shortened. In God’s religion, on the other hand, expiation is primarily a recognition of the divine majesty and lordship, which can be and should be recognized at every moment, in accordance with the principle of the concentration of one’s moral life.

Attacking capital punishment, the Osservatore Romano (22 Jan 1977) asserts that where the wrongdoer is concerned “the community must allow him the possibility of purifying himself, of expiating his guilt, or freeing himself from evil; and capital punishment does not allow for this.” In so saying, the paper denies the expiatory value of death; death which has the highest expiatory value possible among natural things, precisely because life is the highest good among the relative goods of this world; and it is by consenting to sacrifice that life, that the fullest expiation can be made.

And again, the expiation that the innocent Christ made for the sins of mankind was itself effected through his being condemned to death. Remember too the conversion of condemned men at the hands of St. Joseph Carfasso; remember some of the letters of people condemned to death in the Resistance. Thanks to the ministry of the priest, stepping in between the judge and the executioner, the death penalty has often brought about wonderful moral changes, such as those of Niccolo de Tuldo, comforted by St. Catherine of Sienna who left an account of what happened in a famous letter of hers; or Felice Robol, assisted on the scaffold by Antonio Rosmini; or Martin Merino who tried to kill the Queen of Spain in 1852; or Jacques Fesch guillotined in 1957, whose letters from prison are a moving testimony to the spiritual perfection of one of God’s elect.

The most irreligious aspect of this argument against capital punishment is that it denies its expiatory value which, from a religious point of view, is of the highest importance because it can include a final consent to give up the greatest of all worldly goods. This fits exactly with St. Thomas’s opinion that as well as canceling out any debt that the criminal owes to civil society, capital punishment can cancel all punishment due in the life to come.

His thought is Mors illata etiam pro criminibus aufert totam poenam pro criminibus debitam in alia vita, vel partem poenae secundum quantitatem culpae, patientiae et contritionis, non autem mors naturalis. (Summa, “Even death inflicted as a punishment for crimes takes away the whole punishment due for those crimes in the next life, or a least part of that punishment, according to the quantities of guilt, resignation and contrition; but a natural death does not.”).

The moral importance of wanting to make expiation also explains the indefatigable efforts of the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist Beheaded, the members of which used to accompany men to their deaths, all the while suggesting, begging and providing help to get them to repent and accept their deaths, so ensuring that they would die in the grace of God, as the saying went.

190. Inviolability of life. Essence of human dignity. Pius XII.

The leading argument in the new theology of punishment is however the one that asserts an inviolable and imprescriptible right to life, that is alleged allegedly infringed when the state imposes capital punishment. The article we have cited says: “To the modern conscience, which is open, and aware of human values and man’s centrality and primacy in the universe, and of his dignity and his inalienable and inviolable rights, the death penalty is repugnant as being an anti-human and barbarous measure”

Some facts might be helpful in replying to this article, which sums up in itself all the abolitionists’ arguments. The prominence the Osservatore Romano gives to the “modern conscience” is similar to the position accorded it by the French bishops’ document, which says le refus de la peine de mort correspond chez nos contemporains à un progrès accompli dans le respect de la vie humaine (“the rejection of the death penalty is an indication that our contemporaries have an increased respect for human life”).

A remark of that sort is born of the bad mental habit of going along with fashionable ideas and of letting the wish become father to the thought; a crude rebuttal of such unrealistic assertions is provided by the atrocious slaughter of innocents perpetrated in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, the widespread use of physical violence by despotic regimes as an ordinary means of government, the legitimation and imposition of abortion by changes to the law, and the increasing cruelty of delinquents and terrorists, who are only feebly resisted by governments. The axiological centrality of man in the universe will be discussed later.

In discussions on the death penalty, the difference between the rights of an innocent and a guilty man are generally ignored. The right to life is considered as if it were inherent in man’s mere existence when, in fact, it derives from his ordination to values that transcend temporal life, and this goal is built into his spirit inasmuch as it is an image of God.

Although the goal is absolute and the image indelible, man’s freedom means that by a fault he can descend from that dignity and turn aside from his goal. The philosophical justification for penal law is precisely an axiological diminution, or shrinking in worth, on the part of a person who violates the moral order and who, by his fault, arouses society to some coercive action designed to repair the disorder. Those who base the imposition of penalties merely on the damage done to society, deprive penal law of any ethical character and turn it into a set of precautions against those who harm society, irrespective of whether they are acting freely or compulsively, rationally or irrationally.

In the Catholic view, the penal system exists to ensure that the crime by which the delinquent sought some satisfaction or other in defiance of the moral law, is punished by some corresponding diminution of well-being, enjoyment or satisfaction. Without this moral retaliation, a punishment is merely a utilitarian reaction which indeed neglects the dignity of man and reduces justice to a purely materialistic level; such was the case in Greece when recourse was had to the Prytaneum, or city council, to pass sentence against rocks, trees or animals that had caused some damage.

Human dignity is something built into the natural structure of rational creatures but which is elicited and mace conscious by the activity of a good or bad will, and which increases or decreases within that order of being. No right thinking person would want to equate the human worth of the Jew in Auschwitz with that of his killer Eichmann, or St. Catherine of Alexandria with Thias the Alexandrian courtesan.

A person’s worth can only be reduced by actions within the moral realm; and therefore, contrary to popular opinion, it cannot be measured by some level of participation in the benefits of technological progress: by a quote of economic welfare, by a level of literacy, by a better health service, by an abundance of the pleasures that life provided or by the stamping out of diseases. Let there be no confusion between an increase in a person’s dignity or worth, which is a moral quality, and an increase in the possessions of those utilitarian benefits which unworthy men also enjoy.

The death penalty, and any other form of punishment, if they are not to descend to the level of pure defense and a sort of selective slaughter, always presuppose a moral diminution in the person punished: there is therefore no infringement of an inviolable or imprescriptible right involved. Society is not depriving the guilty person of his rights; rather, as Pius XII taught in his speech of 14 Sept 1952:

même quand I s’agit de l’exécution d’un condamné à mort, l’Etat ne dispose pas du droit de l’individu à la vie. Il est reserve alors au pouvoir public de priver le condamné du bien de la vie en expiation de sa faute après que par son crime il s’est déjà dépossedé de son droit à la vie (A.A.S., 1952, pp.779ff. “Even when it is a question of someone condemned to death, the state does not dispose of an individual’s right to life. It is then the task of public authority to deprive the condemned man of the good of life, in expiation of his fault, after he has already deprived himself of the right to life by his crime.”).

If one considers the parallel with one’s right to freedom, it becomes obvious that an innocent man’s right to life is indeed inviolable, whereas a guilty person has diminished his rights by the actions of his depraved will: the right to freedom is innate, inviolable and imprescriptible, but penal codes nonetheless recognize the legitimacy of depriving people of their liberty, even for life, as a punishment for crime, and all nations in fact adopt this practice. There is in fact no unconditional right to any of the goods of earthly life; the only truly inviolable right is the right to seek one’s ultimate goal, that is truth, virtue and eternal happiness, and the means necessary to acquire these. This right remains untouched even by the death penalty.

In conclusion, the death penalty, and indeed any kind of punishment, is illegitimate if one posits that the individual is independent of the moral law and ultimately of the civil law as well, thanks to the protection afforded by his own subjective moral code. Capital punishment comes to be regarded as barbarous in an irreligious society, that is shut within earthly horizons and which feels it has no right to deprive a man of the only good there is.

(1) Chapter XXVI, THE DEATH PENALTY, 187. The death penalty, from Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the Twentieth Century, Angelus Press (March 1996)

Robert said...

Respect Life:
The Bible and the Death Penalty Today
by Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J.

The headline in the newspaper attracts readers' attention: "Pro-killer crowd strikes again." The first sentence immediately sets the tone for the whole article: "The bleeding hearts are at it again." Another headline declares a very different message: "A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty." These two examples dramatically describe a deep division in our country. Debate about the death penalty stirs strong emotions, impacts people's lives, and so demands careful moral reasoning.

This issue ofScripture from Scratchoffers an invitation to move beyond divisions by providing the opportunity for thoughtful and prayerful reflection. We will first review some key facts about capital punishment in our world. Then we will turn to our Scriptures for guidance on this issue. Finally we will pay close attention both to Church teaching and to frequently raised questions about the death penalty.

Current Context

Polls consistently show that a majority of U.S. citizens, about 70 percent, approve of capital punishment. What grounds are there for such a widespread conviction? Generally people point to two reasons: retribution and deterrence. Some people judge that some crimes are so horrible that the only appropriate punishment is death. Some are convinced that the threat of the death penalty will prevent people from committing crime.

People who oppose the death penalty challenge both reasons. They claim that capital punishment is much closer to revenge than retribution. There are other means, they hold, of balancing the scales of justice than more killing. Similarly, death-penalty opponents point out that most studies indicate that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent. Decreasing rates of violent crime are found in countries that have eliminated the death penalty.

The Supreme Court has also been very involved in the discussion. In 1967, it suspended all executions while trying to resolve constitutional problems related to capital punishment. This decision marked the beginning of a ten-year moratorium of executions in the United States.

Two important Supreme Court decisions followed. In 1972 the Court overturned all death-penalty statutes, judging that the poor and minorities were executed far more often than others. In 1976 the Supreme Court upheld death sentences imposed under new statutes. Executions began again in 1977.

Nationally, 38 states have death-penalty statutes. In 1994 the U.S. government enacted an anti-crime law that increased the number of crimes subject to the federal death penalty from two to more than sixty.

Globally, the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights opposes capital punishment. More than 100 countries have abandoned capital punishment in law or practice. The United States stands in contrast to all these countries, but stands with such countries as China, Iran and Libya.

Biblical Vision

How can the Bible enlighten this profound dilemma? Often we hear the Bible quoted as a justification for capital punishment: "Eye for eye, tooth for tooth" (from Leviticus 24:20; also Exodus 21:24). This follows a more direct passage: "Whoever takes the life of any human being shall be put to death" (Leviticus 24:17).

Numerous problems, however, arise from such an appeal to Scripture. Those who emphasize these passages conveniently ignore other similar passages in which death is decreed for one who works on the sabbath (Exodus 31:15) or for one who curses one's parent (Exodus 21:17) or even for a rebellious teenager (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).

More significant problems exist, including the proper understanding and interpretation of both texts and contexts. The well-known "eye for eye" passage was originally intended to limit violence by reducing the escalation of violence. In Matthew 5:38-42, Jesus disallows even that limited violence. This example reminds us that culture and historical setting influenced the biblical texts and that some biblical passages reflect an earlier moral perspective no longer acceptable.

Vatican II'sChurch in the Modern World, the pope's recent social teachings and the statements of the U.S. bishops (for example,Economic Justice for All) not only exemplify the methodology needed for using Scripture in the death-penalty debate but also provide essential content. These documents listen to the Bible contextually, paying attention to major themes, and also scrutinize the signs of the times. Using these and other wisdom sources, the documents then develop responses to contemporary ethical questions.

Some of the foundational biblical themes are creation, covenant, incarnation, discipleship, death and resurrection. These lead to a profound and special emphasis on the value and dignity of every person and to insight into the kind of community needed to promote human flourishing. Recent Church teaching has evaluated the death penalty in this light.

Competing Stories

A still deeper problem remains. Supporters of the death penalty are accepting, perhaps unknowingly, the very ancient religious belief that violence saves. This belief is older than the Bible itself. The ancient Babylonian creation story (theEnuma Elish) describes a rebellion among the gods, in which Marduk kills the mother god, Tiamat, and then stretches out her corpse to create the cosmos.

The heart of this ancient story—that our origin is violence, that war brings peace—remains the central belief, the dominant religion, of our modern world. Throughout our lives, from cartoons and movies and TV to public policy—including the death penalty—we are taught that might makes right, that violence saves.

Our Jewish and Christian Scriptures and religions both contradict and reinforce the belief in violence. The first creation story in the Bible is diametrically opposed to the Babylonian view. In Genesis, a good God creates a good world. Good is prior to evil; violence has no part in creation. However, belief in violence, though often challenged by the prophets, gradually infected Jewish convictions. Hundreds of biblical passages describe God's own violent actions and commands to kill.

In the prophetic tradition Jesus rejected violence, oppression and alienation. His life and teachings invited people into a new style of living: the reign of God. Intimacy and trust, compassion and forgiveness, concern for justice and nonviolence were key aspects of this new life. (See "Talking about Scripture" for some of the texts that provide the basis for this description.)

The early followers of Jesus were not able to sustain this good news of God's love. In their attempts to make sense of Jesus' horrible death, some of the followers returned to the belief that violence saves. They changed the God of mercy revealed by Jesus into a wrathful God who demands the only Son's death on behalf of us all.

Christianity's tradition, both in its theology and the application to social and political issues, embodies this ancient tension between the unconditionally loving God revealed by Jesus and a god with traces of Marduk.

The Christian Tradition

The Church's teaching about the death penalty, reflecting this ambiguity, has changed several times. The early Church generally found taking human life to be incompatible with the life and teachings of Jesus. Later, after Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, opposition to the death penalty declined. Augustine recognized the death penalty as a means of deterring the wicked and protecting the innocent. In the Middle Ages, Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed this position.

There can be no doubt that for a long period the Christian tradition supported the death penalty. In recent years, however, there has been another change. The newCatechism of the Catholic Churchexpressed the long tradition, stating that the death penalty is possible in cases of extreme gravity. TheCatechismadded that means other than killing should be preferred when these would be sufficient to protect public order (#2267).

Pope John Paul II expressed a stronger position against the death penalty in his encyclicalThe Gospel of Life. He stressed that situations where its use is necessary to protect society have become "very rare, if not practically nonexistent." When visiting the United States in 1999, Pope John Paul called the death penalty "cruel and unnecessary" and affirmed that the "dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil."

The U.S. bishops have been speaking out against the death penalty since the time of the moratorium. A longer 1980 statement,Capital Punishment, explained their position in more detail. Four related values express the heart of their position.

First, ending capital punishment is a way to break the cycle of violence. There are more humane and more effective responses to the growth of violent crime, including paying attention to the root causes such as poverty and injustice.

Second, abolition of the death penalty affirms the belief in the "unique worth and dignity" of every person.

Third, abolition expresses the fundamental conviction that God is Lord of life and that human beings are to exercise good stewardship but not absolute control of life.

Fourth, ending the death penalty "is most consonant with the example of Jesus." The God revealed in the life of Jesus is a God of forgiveness and redemption, of love and compassion.

Since 1980 many individual bishops and state conferences of bishops have expressed their opposition to the death penalty, frequently appealing to the consistent ethic of life as the basis of their position. On Good Friday, 1999, the administrative board of the U.S. Catholic Conference remembered Jesus' own execution with a bold call to all people of good will to work to end capital punishment. "The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life."

Questions and Concerns

What about the victims and their families? Following the life and teachings of Jesus certainly leads to compassion and care for these people. In a special way the Church can and must stand with those who have experienced violence. Opposing the death penalty in no way undermines this support. Nor does it imply a willingness to let crime go unpunished.

What about justice and closure? Justice can be achieved and the common good protected without more killing. The testimonies of many victims' families affirm that authentic closure comes through forgiveness and reconciliation, not more violence.

Are there other reasons for opposing the death penalty? Mistakes can and have been made; recently a number of prisoners on death row have been found innocent. The death penalty is still applied in a discriminatory way: the poor and minorities are more likely to be sentenced to death. Capital punishment further contributes to our culture's conviction that violence is a way to solve problems, as in abortion and euthanasia. Executions also undermine our society by promoting hatred and revenge.

What to Do

The death penalty evokes strong emotions and profound questions. What, then, can we do? Pray, read, and act.

Pray.Fears and gut-level reactions may cry out for vengeance, but Jesus' example in the Gospels invites us to develop a new and different attitude toward violence. So we need to pray, even asking God explicitly for a change of heart. Old habits and pre-judgments may be hard to remove.

Read.Despite our prayer and consultation and attending to Church teaching, we may also need to hear contemporary stories of ordinary people. Pick up a copy ofNot in Our Name, published by Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. See the faces and listen to the stories, stories of people who have been there, stories of pain, grief, faith, healing and forgiveness.

Act.Contact your diocesan office of justice and peace to ask about local groups committed to working for an end to capital punishment. Investigate the movement promoting "restorative justice." Invite a representative from a group like Amnesty International to speak to a civic group. Write letters to your state and federal legislators.

Some people say that those who defend the sanctity of life by opposing the death penalty are "pro-killer bleeding hearts." A proper understanding of the richness of our Scriptures and recent Church teachings point to a different description: faithful disciples of Jesus.

Kenneth R. Overberg, S.J., is professor of theology at Xavier University, Cincinnati.

dudleysharp said...

Prof. Overbery presnts some of the common anti death penalty falsehoods. He probably does so unknowingly and, hopefully, will correct them.

Amerio's essay does a good job of showing the obvious errors made by Pope John Paul II in his Evangelium Vitae and, therefore, the improper inclusion of those writings in the the amendment of the Catechism.

Innocence Issues
Death Penalty opponents have proclaimed that 129 inmates have been "released from death row with evidence of their innocence", in the US, since the modern death penalty era began, post Furman v Georgia (1972).
That number is a fraud.
Those opponents have intentionally included both the factually innocent (the "I truly had nothing to do with the murder" cases) and the legally innocent (the "I got off because of legal errors" cases), thereby fraudulently raising the "innocent" numbers. This is easily confirmed by fact checking.
Death penalty opponents claim that 24 such innocence cases are in Florida. The Florida Commission on Capital Cases found that 4 of those 24 MIGHT be innocent -- an 83% error rate in for the claims of death penalty opponents. Other studies show their error rate to be about 70%.
Therefore, 20-25 of the alleged 127 innocents MIGHT be actually innocent -- a 0.3% actual guilt error rate for the over 8000 sentenced to death since 1973.  The actual innocents were all freed,
It is often claimed that 23 innocents have been executed in the US since 1900.  Nonsense.  Even the authors of that "23 innocents executed" study proclaimed "We agree with our critics, we never proved those (23) executed to be innocent; we never claimed that we had."  While no one would claim that an innocent has never been executed, there is no proof of an innocent executed in the US, at least since 1900.
No one disputes that innocents are found guilty, within all countries.  However, when scrutinizing death penalty opponents claims, we find that when reviewing the accuracy of verdicts and the post conviction thoroughness of discovering those actually innocent incarcerated, that the US death penalty process may be one of the most accurate criminal justice sanctions in the world. 
Under real world scenarios, not executing murderers will always put many more innocents at risk, than will ever be put at risk of execution.

Deterrence Issues
16 recent US studies, inclusive of their defenses,  find a deterrent effect of the death penalty.
All the studies which have not found a deterrent effect of the death penalty have refused to say that it does not deter some.  The studies finding for deterrence state such.  Confusion arises when people think that a simple comparison of murder rates and executions, or the lack thereof, can tell the tale of deterrence.  It cannot. 
Both high and low murder rates are found within death penalty and non death penalty jurisdictions, be it Singapore, South Africa, Sweden or Japan, or the US states of Michigan and Delaware.  Many factors are involved in such evaluations.  Reason and common sense tell us that it would be remarkable to find that the most severe criminal sanction -- execution -- deterred none.  No one is foolish enough to suggest that the potential for negative consequences does not deter the behavior of some.  Therefore, regardless of jurisdiction, having the death penalty will always be an added deterrent to murders, over and above any lesser punishments.

Racial issues
White murderers are twice as likely to be executed in the US as are black murderers and are executed, on average, 12 months more quickly than are black death row inmates.
It is often stated that it is the race of the victim which decides who is prosecuted in death penalty cases.  Although blacks and whites make up about an equal number of murder victims, capital cases are 6 times more likely to involve white victim murders than black victim murders.  This, so the logic goes, is proof that the US only cares about white victims.
Hardly.  Only capital murders, not all murders, are subject to a capital indictment.  Generally, a capital murder is limited to murders plus secondary aggravating factors, such as murders involving burglary, carjacking, rape, and additional murders, such as police murders, serial and multiple murders.  White victims are, overwhelmingly, the victims under those circumstances, in ratios nearly identical to the cases found on death row.
Any other racial combinations of defendants and/or their victims in death penalty cases, is a reflection of the crimes committed and not any racial bias within the system, as confirmed by studies from the Rand Corporation (1991), Smith College (1994), U of Maryland (2002), New Jersey Supreme Court (2003) and by a view of criminal justice statistics, within a framework of the secondary aggravating factors necessary for capital indictments.

Class issues
No one disputes that wealthier defendants can hire better lawyers and, therefore, should have a legal advantage over their poorer counterparts.  The US has executed about 0.15% of all murderers since new death penalty statutes were enacted in 1973.  Is there evidence that wealthier capital murderers are less likely to be executed than their poorer ilk, based upon the proportion of capital murders committed by different those different economic groups? Not to my knowledge.

dudleysharp said...

Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty
Dudley Sharp
Religious positions in favor of capital punishment are neither necessary not needed to justify that sanction. However, the biblical and theological record is very supportive of the death penalty.
Many of the current religious campaigns against the death penalty reflect a fairly standard anti death penalty message, routed in secular arguments. When they do address  religious issues, they often neglect solid theological foundations, choosing, instead, select biblical sound bites which do not impact the solid basis of death penalty support.

The strength of the biblical, theological and traditional support for the death penalty is, partially, revealed, below.
Some references:
(1)"The Death Penalty", Chapter XXVI, 187. The death penalty, from the book Iota Unum, by Romano Amerio, 
Thoughtful deconstruction of current Roman Catholic teaching on capital punishment by a faithful Catholic Vatican insider.
in a blog
titled "Amerio on capital punishment "Friday, May 25, 2007 
 (2)  "Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty", at

 (3)  "Capital Punishment: A Catholic Perspective", by Emmanuel Valenza (Br. Augustine) at
(4) "The Purpose of Punishment (in the Catholic tradition)", by R. Michael Dunningan, J.D., J.C.L., CHRISTIFIDELIS, Vol.21,No.4, sept 14, 200


(7) "God’s Justice and Ours" by Antonin Scalia, First Things, 5/2002

(8)  "A Seamless Garment In a Sinful World" by John R. Connery, S. J., America, 7/14/84, p 5-8).

(9) "The Death Penalty", by Solange Strong Hertz at

(10) "Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says", Dr. Lloyd R. Bailey, Abingdon Press, 1987. The definitive biblical review of the death penalty.