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Inner peace restored for victims’ families when murderer is executed


Recently, Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, the most influential of all U.S. Roman Catholic churchmen, suggested that it was a sin to support capital punishment.

That is a real attention-getter, of course, especially as it followed by only a few weeks Pope John Paul II’s impassioned condemnation of taking a life for a life during his visit to St. Louis. So moved by the plea was Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan that he commuted the death sentence of a particularly vicious murderer.

Everything moves our conscience to an examination of the question. The vigils kept outside prisons by ecumenical crowds as quiet candlelight protests against capital punishment stir us to search our own faith, wondering if its depth equals that of the convinced protesters. Perhaps it has been some failure of concentration on our part, that we are not more vigorously enlisted in the crusade to end this practice.

Still, one may feel uneasy despite the impressive arguments made against the practice. The Catholic church accepts deaths, even of the innocent, in what the magisterium -- the teaching authority -- sees as a “just war,” that is, one whose purpose is to overcome an evil such as Nazism that threatens to overwhelm the world with its hate.

That point has been debated vigorously and put aside as irrelevant in the capital punishment debate. Nonetheless, the acceptance of death in war introduces an anomaly into this increasingly absolutist discussion.

There remains one argument, or, rather, uncontested testimony of human experience, that is not easy to track but is surely not easy to dismiss, either.

That is the impact on and reaction of the victims’ families -- the spouses, children and siblings of those whose lives have been taken by the prisoners on death row. These human beings are often obscured by the shadows of the event that falls now this way and now that. There is so much else to see, and the focus on the prisoner and his moral rights is so intense, that those who have suffered losses that never fully heal are seldom interviewed, possess no lobbying group for their violated souls and are seldom if ever included as players in this high-stakes moral game.

Yet there is a moral issue here as well. A family craters when a father or husband is violently killed. So much is torn away that, as in trying to climb out of a pit of shifting slag, more pain is dislodged with each frustrating effort to get to the top. The relatives of victims are witnesses to the destruction of their lives and bearers within themselves of spiritual wounds that weeping will not close.

They are seldom at peace, for what happens when a family member is murdered is, in fact, not a temporal experience. One does not “get over” it with time because such damage to our innermost beings is outside the framework of time, does not follow its rules and throbs continually as if it had just been inflicted.

These are the family members that we, who have suffered no loss at all, intellectually urge to forgive murderers who have killed something in them, too. How confident must we be to tell these victims how to manage their incalculable loss.

One thing does help them. Their inner peace is restored and some ending comes for their horrific experience when the murderer is executed. They get something of their lives back in that instant in which, it might be argued, a moral issue is also resolved. Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.

Yes, but their inner comfort -- some restitution of wholeness -- is delivered only when the killer surrenders his life.

What takes place in this real human exchange? It is not the revenge of an eye for an eye because it issues into peace restored and life recovered. There is a palpable moral tension associated with the experience of having a relative slain that is absorbed and diffused when the full term of the capital punishment process is carried out.

There is plenty of sympathy for victims, but there has been little moral analysis of this transaction that is integral to the question of capital punishment. This is an invisible reality, as is every moral transaction, from love to hate, and the peace that replaces intractable suffering after a killer is executed remains a potent but largely unexamined element in this discussion.

There is at least evidence here of spiritual mystery, close to the bone of life itself, that can be better understood only if we factor this wound of death and its healing by another death into this complex moral judgment.

Eugene Kennedy, a longtime observer of the Roman Catholic church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author most recently of My Brother Joseph, published by St. Martin’s Press.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 1999