Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Everything I know about the death penalty I learned from Pope John Paul II

I am against capital punishment and I feel it should be abolished. But that hasn't always been the case. Until a few years ago, I believed the state reserved the right to impose the death penalty on offenders who commit the most henious types of crimes. It wasn't until about three years ago when I heard a speech made by the late Pontiff John Paul II, that I began to re-evaluate my own position on this compicated matter. At the time the Pope weighed in, I was skeptical that there would be much common ground between a liberal queer activist like me and the leader of the Catholic Church. I should note that I was raised Catholic and I always took a dim view of their rigid dogma, particularly concerning issues of sexuality. But when I heard Pope John Paul II discuss the death penalty in the context of forgiveness and vengance, I was moved to revisit the issue (and my own ideas of forgiveness.)

The Pope mentioned that support for the death penalty is generally rooted in desire for revenge. He acknowlegded the legitimate urge for justice, but suggested that justice can never be achieved through vengance. He admonished those who cite Biblical scripture to justify a pro-death penalty stance. According the the Pope, the oft-repeated proverb "an eye for an eye...." (Lev. 24:20) was not a recipe for vengance, rather to meant to serve as a cautionary tale against the escalation of violence in general. The Pope also pointed out that Jesus' position on the death penalty was clear: rather that reltaliation, we should "turn the other cheek" and extend our hand in healing, blessing, and forgiveness. (Matthew 5:38-55)

Rather that relying on a second-hand account of stuff I heard John Paul II say three years ago, I wanted to find some actual quotes from the Pope which support the values I've just described. It wasn't difficult. A Google search on the words "Pope John Paul + death penalty" turns up 641,ooo hits. The Vatican has its own website complete with an archive of transcripts from many Papal speeches and masses. (Who knew?) From paragraph 56 of Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life) Pope John Paul II states:
It's clear that for punishment to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought to not go to the extreme of executing the offender except when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, such cases are practically non-existent.
The Pope advanced the argument that when a prisoner (who poses no threat to society) is executed, it sends the message that life is worthless, thus we can view the death penalty as an injustice to the sanctity of life. I share the Pope's belief that execution does not end with the death of the criminal, but affects each and every one of us living in a society which justifies capital punishment.

I admit it's instinctively pleasing to jugde those who commit henoius crimes as worthless or "less-than" but we should resist this temptation. If we convince ourselves that some among us deserve death, then we forget that all of us deserve forgiveness and the grace to ammend our lives. Fighting violence with violence for the sake of vengance does not serve a useful role in this country. Nor does it allow society to cultivate less vengeful methods of dealing with violent crime.

A 1994 piece entitled Confronting a Culture of Corruption: A Catholic Framework for Action the American Conference of Catholic Bishops states:
Increasingly, our society looks to violent measures to deal with some of our most difficult social problems...including increased reliance on the death penalty to deal with crime. Violence is not the solution; is it the most clear sign of our failures. We can not teach that killing is wrong by killing.
As I mentioned, I spent a long time believing that capital punishment is justified in some cases. My change of heart occured when I heard the Pope issue a pretty bold and compelling statement condeming the death penalty. He basically suggested that those who take a pro-death penalty stance are generally folks who suffer from issues related to forgiveness. The fact is, at the time I was an angry young man with no ability to forgive others (or myself) for anything. Not that there were all these things to forgive, but I tended to err on the side of vengance whenever I felt threatened or slighted. In my case, the Pope was right: when I addressed my inablitiy to forgive, my feelings regarding the death penalty simply changed. I believe there is a strong correlation there.

Thinking back, I'm surprised I didn't respond defensively to the Pope's assertion, instead somehow managed to take his words to heart. I said earlier that my relationship with the Catholic Church is hardly a cozy one. That might have made it easy to dismiss the Pope out of hand. Instead, I had a "teachable moment" which has led me to a greater understanding of my own values.


Schadenfreude said...

Interesting take...and interesting takeaway. Personally it's very difficult for me to accept the doctrines of the Catholic Church especially with respect to killing, considering the number of people killed in the name of the church through history is staggering. Still, anyone and any entity can be a teacher and I admire the light and learning you've found here.

LBseahag said...

I m a liberal from CA...but you are friends with Phats,so I am reading your post with an open mind.

thank you for that...its rare..

Granny said...

I've been against capital punishment ever since I can remember but sometimes, with an especially gruesome case, it's hard to hold onto the principle when my first impulse is to castrate someone with a dirty knife and then leave him out for the ants.

I always return quickly to my basic belief. It's morally indefensible. We can keep society safe without it. Most civilized countries abolished it years ago. Why do we cling to it?

California had no executions for several years. Now it seems like we're trying to compete with Florida and Texas.

It's disheartening.

Elsa said...

I've always been against capital punishment, but I don't think I've ever heard a better argument that the one that you and Pope John Paul II present here. Thank you for this post - it definitely belongs in "Lassiter's Best".

Rob said...

I always admired Mario Cuomo's opposition to the death penalty. Like the Pope he also referred to it as vengeance. Cuomo acknowledged that if someone close to him had been murdered he would desire revenge but that justice could not be administered with such a standard.

There is too great a risk of executing an innocent person. We continue to learn of miscarriages of justice through via DNA testing or learn about mishandlign of "discovery" during trials. Also, far more black men are on death row than whites who commit the same crimes. I have a problem with that.

Granny said...

When I'm arguing about the death penalty, I can tick off the reasons against it without even thinking very hard. I've done it for a long time.

Bottom line still for me, however, is that to me it's morally repugnant.

konagod said...

This may be the only position on which I agree with the Pope.

As a nation with a death penalty, we are in some pretty sorry company worldwide.

konagod said...

I blogged and linked this morning to the news that more states are passing laws aiming the death penalty at those convicted of sex crimes against children. Oklahoma just passed such a law.

Godwhacker said...

There was a time when I believed in the death penalty. Life is a human right and I believe that "humanity" is a condition of our actions, not our biology. Was Ted Bundy a human being or an animal? I believe that latter. My belief was not founded in vengeance, but in the right of society to protect itself.

I have grown to distrust our systems of justice too much to allow the ultimate punishment to remain in their corrupt hands, and have grown to appreciate the fundamental aspect of humanity known as mercy. The death penalty is the one sanction that can not be taken back if a mistake is found. There is also an inherent contradiction found in using an act of violence to punish an act of violence.

So you, I, and the church all agree... Still, I would be cautious with their teachings. It was a couple of summers ago when I listened to a press release by the Catholic Church condemning gay marriage. The argument given was “that if gay marriage was allowed, then that meant the sexes were equal”. Yes, I thought ~ that is just the point.

jay lassiter said...

intresting points, all.
the more dialogue about this the better.

Orchidmaniac said...

I have not read any of the late Pope's writings/speeches. I am amazed how much love and compassion he shows towards life and criminals. It's a shame that he can't or won't share this with homosexuals. Aren't we all God's children?