Wednesday, September 28, 2011

U.S. Catholic Theologians Speak Out vs. Death Penalty

Important news to note this week: a group of Catholic theologians (the initial number was around 150, but the list of signatories is said to be growing daily) have issued a call for the eradication of the death penalty in the U.S.  The theologians' statement is at the Catholic Moral Theology blog.

It notes the probability that innocent people have been executed by capital punishment in the U.S., and it points to the racial skewing of the death penalty: the document indicates that in many states which have the death penalty, people of color are three to five times more likely to receive capital sentences than are whites.  District attorneys in these same states are overwhelmingly white, with only a tiny proportion of African-American D.A.'s.  And so, as the theologians' statement stresses, "The horrific legacy of lynching in the US casts its evil shadow over current application of the death penalty."

The statement also offers a set of theological reasons for opposing capital punishment.  As it points out, Pope John Paul II called for the eradication of the death penalty, noting that followers of Christ are called to be "unconditionally pro-life."  Jesus was himself an innocent victim of capital punishment, and as the great Protestant theologian of the last century Karl Barth asks, "Now that Jesus Christ has been nailed to the cross for the sins of the world, how can we still use the thought of expiation to establish the death penalty?"

In the theological rationale for opposing the death penalty, I'm struck, in particular, by an assertion that mirrors something I said in a posting several days ago about our eucharistic obligation to remember Jesus as a victim and not a victor, and, therefore, our obligation as followers of Jesus to stand in solidarity with the victims of history even (and particularly) as we ritually commemorate Jesus in the eucharistic breaking of the bread.  The theologians state, 

The Eucharistic celebration calls Catholics to remember all crucified people, including the legacy of lynching, in light of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His Gospel message of forgiveness and love of enemies presents a difficult challenge, especially to those who have lost loved ones at the hands of a murderer. Yet, the Gospel teaches us how to become fully human: love, not hatred and revenge, liberates us.

As Michael Nagler suggests at Common Dreams today with a bow to René Girard, there is a ritual, deeply irrational substratum embedded at the base of the thinking of societies that continue to use capital punishment, which points to the most primitive and barbaric instincts of human societies.  To engage the death penalty, we have to engage the illogic--but also the ritually powerful (while utterly illogical) presuppositions that, in the thinking of many people, justify capital punishment.

In the Catholic context, this will mean engaging, at a popular (and not theological or scholarly) level, the mantra of many "pro-life" Catholics that no taking of human life counts as fundamentally or as seriously as that which occurs through abortion, and that true pro-lifers are resolutely anti-abortion, but may be actually be pro-death penalty.  In response to Joshua McElwee's report about the theologians' statement at National Catholic Reporter, a respondent named Vance has already voiced that mantra of many "pro-life" Catholics by writing, 

Troy Davis received his just punishment while his victim received justice. I would like to see these phoney Pro-Murderer champions come and protest in front of a Planned Parenthood baby killing machine in the same manner. I doubt that will ever happen.

The pro-life movement in the U.S. is, in key respects, not an ally of those working to eradicate capital punishment, but an obstacle to the movement to abolish the death penalty.  It has ritualized the pro-life chant in a way that refuses to engage careful, critical distinctions about both the issue of abortion itself and about the many other serious threats to the value of life present in cultures around the world in addition to abortion--and this irrational, unthinking ritualization of the phrase "pro-life," as if it's a self-evident mantra that automatically places those chanting it unambiguously on the side of life, is part of the problem, when it comes to fashioning a consistent ethic of life in American culture.

Nor has the decision of the U.S. Catholic bishops for some years now to ally the Catholic church in the U.S., at an official level, with the religious right helped matters at all in this regard, since many evangelical Christians of the religious right are both resolutely anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment (and pro-war).

Further discussions of the theologians' statement are to be found right now at the America "In All Things" blog, with a statement by James Martin, S.J., and at Commonweal's blog site, with a posting by Grant Gallicho.

The graphic is British artist Paul Fryer's 2006 sculpture, "Pieta," which is in the private collection of François Pinault in France.

No comments: