Defend Life by Taking Life?

It’s time for a new ethic—justice without vengeance.

I am a pastor who has witnessed the irreparable pain and sorrow caused by violence in our communities. I have presided at the funerals of police officers killed in the line of duty. I have sought to console and comfort families who have lost children to drive-by shootings. I have heard the concerns and fears of parents who live—day in and day out—surrounded by the violence that haunts their neighborhoods.

As a priest, I have seen the pain of those whose lives have been forever altered by the loss of a loved one to senseless murder. Their own struggles have tested not only their faith but the faith of those who walk with them. As their own quest for healing has brought them closer to God, their witness has been a light of hope to those who accompany them.

I believe that the reality of sin demands that those who injure others must make reparation. But I do not believe that society is made safer, that our communities are made whole, or that our social fabric is strengthened by killing those who kill others. Instead, the death penalty perpetuates an insidious cycle of violence that, in the end, diminishes all of us.

For centuries, the Catholic Church accepted the right of the state to take a life in order to protect society. But over time and in the light of new realities, Catholic teaching now recognizes that there are nonviolent means to protect society and to hold offenders accountable. Church teaching now clearly argues for the abolition of capital punishment.

Now even some death penalty supporters are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the status quo. The arbitrary manner in which the death penalty is sometimes applied; the disproportionate number of racial and ethnic minorities and low-income persons on death row; the fiscal burdens borne by penal institutions; and, most disturbingly, the mounting evidence that innocent people have been convicted and sentenced to death—all these factors have sown considerable doubt in the minds of elected officials and the public at-large.

A wide range of voices is calling for an end to the death penalty or a moratorium on executions. Gov. George Ryan of Illinois, a supporter of the death penalty, suspended executions in his state until its capital punishment apparatus could be thoroughly examined.

In New Hampshire, the legislature passed a measure to ban capital punishment only to have it vetoed by Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. And in the Supreme Court, questions about the circumstances under which death row inmates have been tried and sentenced have been raised again.

ALL THESE INITIATIVES, taken together, are signs of growing skepticism about the system under which the death penalty is currently applied. While I support these efforts, the long-term goal is not simply to make the application of the death penalty free from bias, inequity, or human error. Instead, these efforts should be steps toward a public dialogue that ultimately brings a permanent end to state executions.

In the end, we are deceiving ourselves if we believe we can fix the current death penalty system to make it more humane and just. What is needed is a moral revolution that results in genuine respect for every human life—especially the unborn and the poor, the crime victims, and even the violent offender.

This is a time for a new ethic—justice without vengeance. Let us come together to hold people accountable for their actions, to resist and condemn violence, to stand with victims of crime, and to insist that those who destroy community, answer to the community. But let us also remember that we cannot restore life by taking life, that vengeance cannot heal, and that all of us must find new ways to defend human life and dignity in a far too violent society.

This will be a long struggle. It begins by raising new doubts about the death penalty. It will require new and more serious efforts to address crime and reform prisons. But in the end, we cannot practice what we condemn. We cannot defend life by taking life. We cannot contain violence by using state violence.

In this new century, we join with others in taking a prophetic stand to end the death penalty. In doing so, we hope to share a new vision of society that is unambiguous and consistent in its defense of life. It will demand the courage and faith of many to see us through a long and challenging process of dialogue and conversion. It is a challenge, however, that is worth our best efforts. —Cardinal Roger Mahony

CARDINAL ROGER MAHONY is archbishop of Los Angeles. This is excerpted from his address at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on May 25, 2000.

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