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Statement on the Death Penalty: Stories of Violence and Responses to It

 

During the past few weeks the newspapers and television have been filled with articles and stories about the execution of Duncan McKenzie Jr. Editorials, letters to the editor and statements have been the rule of the day. This was obviously a difficult decision because it touched a wide variety of emotions, feelings, hurts, anxieties and even politics.

These are difficult times as society strives to protect itself from violent crimes, murder, rape, torture and kidnapping. At the same time, society seeks to deal with life issues such as abortion, euthanasia, malformed babies, the severely handicapped, the disabled, the elderly when they are not self-sufficient and the terminally ill.

The recent execution offers us an opportunity to reflect on the principle of life, which plays such an important role in the whole structure of our faith tradition. Its importance was captured beautifully in the recent en- t cyclical letter of Pope John Paul Il, c Evangelium Vitae.

As bishop of the diocese, charged with teaching the truths of our faith tradition, I want to share some observations with you. They are not meant to be argumentative or demeaning of anyone else's feelings or opinions. They are observations which flow from recent church documents and from my personal experiences. They have challenged me to commit myself to the principle of life in all I do and all I believe.

Quite simply stated, life is God's sacred gift! It is in his hands. Life comes from him and returns to him in an ongoing flow and flux, ebb and tide of birth and death. We are created in his image, the image of his eternal, redeeming presence. Life has infinite value at every stage. Even when we mar and destroy his image, life still is his gift, his prerogative. In the coming of Jesus Christ, the word of life, the image of God is restored to its highest expression. The resurrection becomes the ultimate sign of life, a life to which all who accept the Lord of life are called. "The life was made manifest, and we saw it" (1 Jn. 1:2) with our gaze fixed on Christ, "the word of life."

In clarifying the principle of life, Christ gave us both his example and his words of power! Among them were love and forgiveness:

"You have heard that it was said, 'an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth' ... 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy' ... But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!"

"Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do!"

"I have come that you may have life, and have it in abundance."

You have often heard it stated that the church is pro-life. This is a basic, fundamental tenet that flows from the principle of life, the conviction that only faith in that life can be the real motivation for the decision-making process. That is the faith we profess in God as Creator, and Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of life.

Pro-life should control the way we relate to every issue. To suspend the principle of life when we get to an issue that challenges us is to be pro-choice, not pro-life. Pro-choice puts the burden of truth on our personal likes and dislikes, our votes and options, our feelings and politics, our measures and norms, our pleasures and conveniences, our hates and violence.

Pro-life, on the other hand, puts the burden of truth on the conviction that life is God's gift. It is sacred. It is always in his hands. You can t pick and choose issues or flip-flop back and forth. To do so puts the whole agenda of pro-life at risk. It destroys its credibility! It opens one to the accusation of hypocrisy. Ultimately it will undermine our faith life and dilute moral leadership. One might say that this pro-life position forms the hard pebble stone on which, sooner or later, any other choice is obliged to break its teeth. Unfortunately there is no magical handkerchief under cover of which at a certain instant there is substituted for one reality another that is totally different.

Forgiveness

The principle of life played out in startlingly different ways during the recent execution.

Let me be clear about one thing: Justice requires that the victims of violent crimes receive the greatest care and compassion possible. The Catholic Church mourns with those who suffer pain or loss from these crimes and offers its full support to victims and their families during their process of grief and healing. Quite honestly, we cannot do enough for them in our efforts to bring peace and reconciliation into their lives. I have been part of this pain of loss on many occasions in my priesthood. Words seem to fail! Hurts go deep! Where can we turn to find a way out of the anguish and bitterness that envelopes us.

Some say by bloodletting. Spill someone else's blood and that will make all things right again in the world! The scales of justice need to be balanced. "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." Who needs a God who can forgive? Undoubtedly, there are many who feel that way!

There are other options that give life. One is forgiveness. That is the option chosen by 1,500 members of Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation, a group of people who have experienced the murder of a loved one.

Bill Pelke, whose family lived through one such brutal murder, was telling a high school class how he had come to forgive the student who killed his grandmother.

The students gasped. "You must have a big heart," one girl said.

Pelke replied, "I have a big God."

"I believe in God, too," the student said, "But I believe nobody has the authority to take anybody else's life."

Pelke's response? "Exactly."

That exactly expresses well the meaning of pro-life.

I also had the privilege of knowing I Marietta Jaeger. She lived in the suburb of Redford, Mich., about three miles from the parish where I was pastor. Many of you recall that a man kidnapped her 7 year-old daughter, Susie, from a tent in the middle of the night during their family vacation here in Montana in June 1973.

Some members of her family and friends maintained a vindictive mind set. They remained bitter and tormented, filled with hatred and unhappiness. She wrestled with God and finally found peace in the principle of life.

Let her tell you as she has told me and many others:

"Believe me, there are no amount of retaliatory acts that will compensate for the loss of my little girl or restore her to my arms. Even to say that the death of one malfunctioning person is going to be just retribution is an insult to her immeasurable worth to me. My little girl was a gift of beauty and sweetness and goodness in my life. To kill somebody in her name is really to violate her and profane her. I'd rather honor her life by saying that all of life is sacred and all of life is worthy of preservation from the very beginning of conception till the end when we die!"

That expounds for me in most vivid and emotional terms what it means to be pro-life! Forgiveness is part of that process.

I often wonder what people mean when they say, I can't forgive," "I won't forgive," "I refuse to forgive." Each time I say the Lord's Prayer—"Our Father ... forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us"—I wonder what people are praying for. That is an important part of the prayer. If forgiveness is not part of our option for life, aren't we really praying that God "can't forgive us," "won't forgive us," "refuses to forgive us?" Aren't we really asking for personal condemnation if we condemn others?

Need for Punishment

To accept the option of forgiveness does not mean to coddle criminals. Let it be stated clearly that justice demands that the perpetrators of violent crimes receive prompt and effective punishment. As the pope stated in his encyclical, "The Gospel of Life," society needs to protect itself from such violent criminals by terms of incarceration and institutionalization. Their debt to society can be paid morally and physically by having them during their incarceration become productive workers, using the fruits of their labors to ease the cost to society or in those special cases to support the families of their victims. Penal reform would prevent this time of punishment from being a time of leisure and indulgence. There are pro-life options in our penal system, and many states have discovered this.

Principle of Death

Behind the whole question of execution lies a chilling reality. There is growing concern that capital punishment is not an effective deterrent to crime and violence. I'm sure people will debate this issue for a long time. I don't know whose statistics to believe. I do know that the very principles used to justify capital punishment are the same principles used by many to justify violence toward others. From apostolic times the accusation of "deicide" against the Jews has led to persecution, pogroms, the Holocaust and every form of anti-Semitism flourishing even in our own time.

I've experienced this principle of death several times in my priestly ministry.

When I was a young priest, newly ordained, my first emergency call was from a young man who was threatening suicide. I jumped in my car and hurried to his home. I arrived before the police or his family. What I found was a sight that still makes my heart sick. Hanging from the rafters of a self-made gallows was the limp, lifeless body of a young man. He left a note stating that he had been victimized by society and "raped" by the system in which he was raised. He was choosing the option of death as a way to balance the scales of his personal quest for justice. He was both judge and executioner. Violence to himself was an act of violence toward family and loved ones. I was only 24 years old at the time and this was my first real experience of death! Its memory has never left me.

Several years later I was invited to spend some time in Lebanon during the summer recess from the seminary where I taught. It was a time when Lebanon was a thriving tourist mecca, the Paris of the Middle East. There was, however, an eerie feeling that pervaded the society. An uneasy truce had been worked out between the Islamic majority and the Maronite Catholic minority.

I visited village after village and was welcomed into many Catholic homes. They all showed me arsenals of weapons, including handguns, rifles, submachine guns and hand grenades. I was appalled. Why such a collection of articles for destruction? I quickly got a lesson in history. These were weapons of execution. Anger, hatred and resentment had been festering for centuries. It would only be a matter of time before the stage was set for the principle of death to operate.

We have lived through the blood letting of Lebanon in our own generation. Many of the friends I knew there were killed in the conflict. Two great religious traditions, Islam and Christianity, both claiming to be judge and executioner. Someone had to die for past transgressions. Nothing was solved or improved. The quality of life degenerated in this beautiful country, and both sides are probably preparing for the next encounter. Genocide is a terrible reality of our modern world. Like every application of the principle of death, we make it sound good by calling it "ethnic cleansing."

I'm sure the pope will be called a loose cannon because he had the courage to say just last Sunday in Olomouc,Czech Republic:

"Today, the pope of the church of Rome, in the name of all Catholics, asks forgiveness for the wrongs inflicted on non-Catholics during the turbulent hisstory of these peoples. At the same time I pledge the Catholic Church's forgiveness for whatever harm her sons and daughters suffered."

Here the principle of life confronts the principle of death. Many will turn their backs on these pro-life words because they will not want to give up their long-held animosities and the desire to get even.

Before I came here as bishop of Helena, I was pastor of a large suburban parish in Royal Oak, Michigan. Two of the most significant examples of the principle of death happened while I was there.

One day, as I was finishing the morning school Mass for our 800 children, several people ran up to me with the news that there was a shooting at the Royal Oak post office. The city was quickly mobilized, including clergy from all the major churches.

The crime scene was horrendous! It would make the crime scene from the O.J. Simpson trial look like a nosebleed. Five people were dead and 11 injured, some quite severely. The shooter, Thomas McIlvane, was a young man who had problems with the authorities at the post office. Like so many who had been exposed to the violence and destruction of war, he felt he was "raped" by the system. He felt the pressures of life were 'killing" him. His response was to turn to the principle of death. Get even, destroy the enemy! He became the judge and executioner. Somehow, killing the person he held responsible for his labor problems would even the score, level the balance of justice and make everything right in his world again. He could live knowing that his anger and hate were vindicated!

The weeks and months following this mass murder episode were difficult. The huge memorial service at the Shrine of the Little Flower was packed with postal employees and families, but also FBI agents, police and undercover agents. We were warned that the situation could be dangerous. According to the authorities, one act of public violence breeds others and surfaces those who are inspired by the principle of death to settle their own scores with life, to vent their anger, to vindicate their hurts. The fallout from that event has been felt in other parts of our country. It is only an application of the principle of death: to right a wrong or balance the scales of justice by killing someone.

The other significant application of the principle of death in the community I served was the emergence of the notorious Jack Kevorkian, whom we called "Dr. Death." He rented an apartment from one of my parishioners. According to those who knew him well, he was always fascinated with death. He enjoyed watching people die and became so enamored with death he decided to dedicate himself to the principle of death. Life was no longer in the hands of God; it was not his gift. Life was now in the hands of Jack Kevorkian, who gave the gift of death.

Kevorkian is a macabre figure. I once saw a display of his personal artwork, which I found portrayed grotesque, deformed and anguished faces of people.

In the community, "Dr. Death" was seen as the grim reaper, prowling the streets in his old van equipped with his suicide machine, ready to share his "lethal injections" with anyone who met his criteria of pro-choice.

One could be their own judge and executioner, and Jack was there to help turn the lever! His lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, tried to put a human spin on Jack's activity, but it all reduced itself to the level of a "how-to" kit for self-destruction.

We lived with the fear that someday Kevorkian's van would be parked outside the rectory with another slab of lifeless human flesh, so often his trademark. In fact, he did just that last week, when the body of one of his patients was found in his rusty Volkswagen outside a medical examiner's office.

Kevorkian has perfected the application of the principle of death!

I am often intrigued by the many ways the principle of death rears its ugly head in the church. When difficulties arise in local communities, the response of some people is so hurtful: "Destroy that priest," "get rid of him from the face of the earth." Where is the principle of life—to heal, forgive, find hope, confront problems and work toward a solution? God will bless these efforts and open doors to find answers that give life both to the community and those who serve it.

This is not an effort to embarrass anyone or argue with anyone. I am sure everyone will defend their views as best they can.

As bishop, I am only trying to raise the principle of life, for with it is our only hope to be pro-life and to discover God's image in others. Often it is scarred and not perfect. That is no reason to destroy it, for it is still his gift, his prerogative.

The alternative is the principle of death, and once we have opened the vial and released that plague, no one can stop the virus from spreading. Like the deadly Ebola virus, it claims victim after victim because there is no way to stop the bleeding.

I turn again to the words of Pope John Paul II in his monumental letter, "The Gospel of Life":

"Through the words, the actions and the very person of Jesus, man is given the possibility of 'knowing' the complete truth concerning the value of human life. From this 'source' he receives, in particular, the capacity to "accomplish' this truth perfectly (cf. Jn. 3:21), that is, to accept and fulfill completely the responsibility of loving and serving, of defending and promoting human life. In Christ, the Gospel of Life is definitively proclaimed and fully given."

These difficult and challenging times of decision could have been a prophetic moment in our history. From my perspective, I am amazed that so many people seemed to relish death and confessed how they slept so peacefully knowing that someone had been killed. I must confess that I didn't sleep for two nights because, being pro-life, I anguish over every death or life that God has put into our hands.

Perhaps my discomfort comes from the fact that so many Catholics chose for their model Jack Kevorkian, "Dr. Death,' rather than Jesus Christ, "who came that we might have life and have it in abundance."

Peace be with you!

 


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