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Issue Date:  January 28, 2005

An audacious proposition

In her haunting poem, “The Mother Writes to the Murderer: A Letter,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes, in part:

What can I wish you in return?
I was thinking knives and pistols
High voltages searing off your nerves
I was wishing you could lose your own life
bit by bit finger by toe
and know what my house is like

The lines begin to get at the inconsolable ache of a mother whose little girl was murdered.

And anyone who ponders the willful harm of a child, much less the murder of a child, can only begin at a point that screams for vengeance, that wishes commensurate violence.

That is why it is an unusual act of courage for the bishops of Connecticut to come out so strongly opposed to the execution of Michael Ross, who raped and murdered eight times. “Eight young women who left behind families that still grieve, families whose hearts are broken anew every time Michael Ross’ name is uttered and his crimes are revisited,” as it was put by Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell (see story).

By the time you read this, Michael Ross likely will have been executed. There is little sympathy for someone guilty of the crimes he admits committing.

The request that his life be spared cannot be assessed in the normal understanding of justice, of a balance of punishment that fits the crime. Logic would suggest that the scales don’t balance if the killer is not killed.

No, the request to spare the killer’s life originates, for Christians, in the understanding of extravagant forgiveness and the absolute worth of human beings.

As Deacon David Reynolds, legislative liaison for the Connecticut Catholic Conference, explained: “Some people don’t want to hear this, but the church teaches that Michael Ross is still a human being. He still has human dignity.”

Reynolds’ comment is appropriate for those who belong to the Catholic church as well as members of the wider culture. For what has become clear as the debate over the death penalty emerges in different places and guises around the country is that Catholics have hardly been persuaded of the teaching.

As with the teaching on abortion, the bishops might aim their statements at governors and legislators, but those officials know they have small price to pay if they ignore the statements because the bishops haven’t persuaded their own.

So what to do?

We think the witness provided by the bishops in Connecticut and by the religious leaders in New York is what we’re called to do. And considering both issues points up the futility of tagging individual legislators with the “doctrinally unacceptable” label. If that were the practice in defining the Catholic position on both issues -- abortion and capital punishment -- there’d be no one left in state or federal legislatures for Catholics to speak to.

No, the lesson to be taken from the debate over capital punishment -- which, unlike abortion, is state-performed killing done in our names and with our assent and money -- demonstrates the need to concentrate more on public persuasion and compelling teaching than on political strategies.

As Mercy Sr. Camille D’Arienzo so compellingly argues in New York: “Our opposition to the death penalty is rooted in the certainty that our Empire State is too wise, too noble, too creative to define justice as vengeance and, consequently, to succumb to brute force in its effort to determine a fitting punishment for one who has taken another’s life. It is undeniably necessary to protect society from one who has killed and who may kill again. It is undeniably foolish for the state itself to continue the killing.”

It is an audacious proposition, fitting of our scriptures, that the killer be spared because he has dignity.

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2005

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