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On the Death Penalty


A caption of a photograph I saw today said, "The Catholic Chapel was among the buildings severely damaged by rioting inmates." It struck me as an expression of moral outrage on the part of the captives, seeking to shock the moral compass, calling out against the complicity of the Church in the punishment paradigm. I was reading in response to my pastor's column about why he had signed
The National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty.
It includes the following:
"I will educate myself and my community about the injustices of the death penalty, including the ways it risks innocent life, fails victims' families, and contradicts the Catholic Church's pro-life teaching."

 The most extreme form of corporal punishment, the death penalty has gone by other names. Charles Justice is one of them. The authors of Inside the Ohio Penitentiary account for the attribution of the invention of the modern electric chair to Charles Justice. He had been in and out of prison at a time of the chair's use of electric-shock enhanced killing, and was accredited with improving on the device then causing horrific burns with the novel addition of steal clamps. (Meyers et al 66-70).
  Another name of state-sanctioned corporal punishment, an extension of the sterilization program spawned in the 1920s, were Cold War radiation experiments only revealed in 1994, when hundreds of cases were reported across the country (D'Antonio 253). Previously, thirty states officially adopted the practice of sterilizations and would perform nearly 66,000 castrations and tubal ligations on the feebleminded and insane in America (D'Antonio 14). These condoned practices of state violence deeply denigrate the human dignity of the person and while individual stories shock the conscience it is the state's institutionalization of such practice that merits outrage.
    State-sanctioned murder is a condoned practice of value to the security state as an enforcement mechanism, a so-called deterrent, a measure of justice in the mold of vengeance. While a short course would be necessary to examine the moral bankruptcy to claims the state makes in upholding the right to kill, one scholar points to the Reformation as a genesis for the modern economy of death row.
"The concept of 'firm discipline', understood in the metaphors of constraint, led to a bureaucratic reorganization and the birth of the Discipline Lords, a body with discretionary power to administer corporal punishment--the Discipline Court outlived the Reformation."(Roper 61)

1) The ways it risks innocent life
     Once upon a time I had an attorney. He was formerly involved with the Innocence Project, helping men on death row. More locally, the New England branch is proving the innocence of men wrongfully on death row. See here.
     The moral hazard of the executioner is one aspect, with two dimensions. Consider first, the state of mind of the executioner of New York who after 140 executions, killed himself. See here.
     Second, how are we implicated in state-sanctioned killing has bearing in the question as to what are the conditions of men on death row? Out of the long haul to improve the conditions of the prison industrial complex, consider for example, Judge Arthur Recht presiding Crain v. Bordenkircher concluded that the penitentiary violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against "cruel and unusual" punishment as well as the West Virginia constitution and statues. ( Dilulio 229-230).          Twenty years later, we (MCAN communities) are vigiling to decry inhumane conditions of ICE detention, mourning treatment of  black and brown bodies from the privilege and the fiction of whiteness as the innocent race. Are we really surprised, or are we fascinated? Dwayne Betts accounts the indignity of squatting while fifteen people stare "with indifference and fascination" at his nakedness:
"It wasn't that they told me to strip naked, that I stood before a group of white officers with nothing on and a video camera running...the woman holding the camera and the grinning white faces who said, 'Strip'." (Betts 176).
    Moreover, as tax-paying members of the state of execution, we owe restitution to the innocent who have been wrongfully held on death row. Legal battles warn that the lack of public funds will not be accepted as an excuse for denying inmates their constitutional and statutory rights. We can not afford not to care about the conditions of men on death row.

2) The ways it fails victims' families
    Documentary story-telling, "The Exonerated" a play, later adapted into a film, left a lasting impression for me. The playwrights were interviewed about their inspiration. They explained, "George W. Bush was taking office and the death penalty was frequently a subject of news stories because, during his time as Governor, he put to death more individuals than all of the Governors of all the states combined." The New York Times article confirms how the death penalty defined his tenure in office.

    What about the sense of righteous punishment of the wrong-doer? Sr. Helen Prejean writes of her interview with Vernon and Elizabeth who lost their daughter Faith , killed in a stabbing. "The coroner's report said her vagina was all tore up. The electric chair is too good for Robert Willie and Joseph Vaccaro." He can't stop crying. He says a couple of sentences and cries, says some more and cries again."(Prejean 136). She returns to see them, "The SOB, Vaccaro, got a life sentence," Vernon says, and he is crying again, "and it's been four years and they haven't fried Willie's ass yet We've been waiting and waiting for justice to be done. I can't rest until justice is done. All you hear about these days is the rights of the criminal. What about our rights? Don't we have a right to see this chapter closed?" (Prejean 137).

3) The ways it contradicts the Catholic Church's pro-life teaching
       The image of power is at the heart of the death penalty. What I would call contradictory, first of all, is deep misunderstanding of the person and the nature of God's love, in the corrupt--tyrannical--discretionary power to administer corporal punishment.
       The image and likeness of God is the starting point for reflecting in virtue the expression of our lives. What is most sensitive of all? The heart sensing the right. Recognizing our truest self in the image of the power of God to transform our hearts, for instance.
       A great peace maker, Art Laffin, tragically lost his brother. His brother worked at a Homeless shelter and was killed one night. The family recognized that mental illness was key to understanding the death of their loved one. They dropped all charges and instead campaigned in memoriam for better care provision given to those suffering from mental illness.
     Here, O God, how we mourn the loss of lives through the death penalty. Move us now, and prepare us against the worst, so that we may always respond to chaos with patient hearts, to confusion with steadfastness. Be with us even if it comes to that worst nightmare, while deeply aggrieved the loss of a loved one, turning us from wrath and revenge, so that we may become instruments of peace.
       Having said that, could that we be assigned the mission of a 007 with a "license to kill", not as a rogue-state seeking vengeance on an Imperialist Occupying Global power, but in some small way be an agent of God, like the Archangel Michael, or the Devil of Hell's Kitchen?  or Dietrich Bonhoeffer? The Catholic Church admits the possibility of a just execution in the rarest occasion, for instance, the murder of tyrants. In William Barclay's Jesus of Nazareth:
      "In a certain city while the disciples were present, an attempt was made on Herod's life. He was being carried through the streets, lolling back contemptuously on the silken cusions of his litter, when Joel the Zealot rushed out from the crowd with a knife in his hand. Joel's eyes were wild for he was in ecstasy. "Kill the tyrant!" he cried, slashing at Herod through the curtains of the litter."
      Our biblical imagination of Jesus tells us that as a new Moses he further defined God's commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill, with a ministry of radical mercy and final witness of self-surrender.  He was not one who sought revenge for Herod's execution of John the Baptist. Fixed on his mission of embodying the nearness of a loving God, Jesus did not interest Himself with the  zealots but we can imagine a zealot in the crowd who missed the meaning of the beatitude, Blessed are those who Mourn for they shall be Comforted.

In closing, my pastor recommends action. The National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty. I have yet to open my copy of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, but I can tell you off hand that paragraph #2267 on the death penalty was in 2018 revised by Pope Francis "in the direction of inadmissability." (See coverage in America Magazine here and here). This continues the vision of Pope John Paul II to narrowly define admissability:  (“…the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent’.”). 

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Works Cited
Michael D' Antonio, The State Boys Rebellion: The Inspiring True Story of American Eugenics and the Men Who Overcame It. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.

Dwayne Betts, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison. New York: Avery, 2010.

John J. Dilulio, Jr., Courts, Corrections, and the Constitution: The Impact of Judicial Intervention on Prisons and Jails. New York: Oxford University, 1990.

David Meyers, Elise Meyers Walker and James Dailey II, Inside the Ohio Penitentiary. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2013.

Sr. Helen Prejean, C.S.J. Dead Man Walking: An Eye-Witness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Lyndal Roper, The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg. Oxford: Clarendon, 1991.

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