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A contemporary essay in the Catholic Worker tradition

Death Penalty Moratorium

Michael Ross

Reprinted from the March-April, 2002, The Catholic Worker, newspaper of the New York Catholic Worker.

"It is time to abandon the death penalty, not just because of what it does to those executed, but because of how it diminishes all of us.... We, ask all Catholics--pastors, catechists, educators and parishioners to join us in rethinking this difficult issue and committing ourselves to pursuing justice without vengeance. With our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, we seek to build a society so committed to human life that it will not sanction the killing of any human person" (US Catholic Bishops, November 2000). In recent years, the Catholic Church has become more and more vocal and forceful in its position against capital punishment. And no one has spoken louder or clearer on this issue than the Holy Father himself. In his homily at the January 23, 1999 Papal Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, he stated quite unequivocally, "Dear brothers and sisters, the time has come to banish once and for all from the continent every attack against life.... There must be an end to the unnecessary recourse to the death penalty!"

Four days later at the Papal Mass in the TransWorld Dome in St. Louis, he further explained his views: "The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life, who will proclaim, celebrate. and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitely denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently for consensus to end the death penalty, which is cruel and unnecessary.

The death penalty diminishes us all. It is an ineffective punishment that only serves to continue the cycle of violence. Most people who are opposed, to capital punishment are not opposed because of some misplaced sympathy, for the murderer; indeed, most of us feel a great deal of anger and revulsion toward murderers and their actions. Our objection is that the death penalty is a complete renunciation of all, that is embodied in our concept of humanity. As followers of Christ, we are called to a much higher standard.

It is telling to note that there are no longer public executions as in days past. In today's society, the execution process far removed from most individual citizens. We may, or likely may not, be aware of the criminal acts that put an individual on death row--and if we are, it is usually only through sensationalized press accounts. But, very few of us know of the human being whom society has condemned to death. Even fewer of us have witnessed, or will ever witness, an actual execution. They are carried out in the middle of the night, in the dark, away from all, to hide what they really are-a cruel punishment. The public is kept away from the whole process to keep them from seeing that human beings-real flesh and blood-real people, are being put to death.

This deliberate dehumanization makes it easier for us to distance ourselves from capital punishment and to accept it as "something government does." This, in turn, conveniently allows us to avoid accepting individual responsibility for the consequences of such actions. But we are, in fact, responsible, for our state and federal governments are killing people in our names. As the late Cardinal O'Connor so eloquently wrote, "Capital punishment is a particularly egregious violation of our dignity as citizens because it is our government, acting on behalf of each of us in this representative democracy, involved in the business of killing."

In recent years, there has been a groundswell of public opinion raising fundamental questions as to the fairness of our capital punishment system, and an increasing number of people are calling for an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty in this country. Leading the charge in this area is the Catholic community. I call upon you to act on your feelings against the death penalty. For more information. on moratorium campaigns, please contact Equal Justice USA, The Quixote Center, PO Box 5206, Hyattsville, MD 20782.

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