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Catholics and the Magisterium in Dialogue

THE TRUE ROAD TO JUSTICE

Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver

June 6, 1997

On the heels of the  Timothy McVeigh verdict, a local radio station set up a kind of drive-by jury near Denver's federal court house. The idea, literally, was to honk if you wanted to execute (or "fry") the killer. By the end of Wednesday,  June 4, more than 24,000 Coloradans had done so.

Let's overlook, for a moment, the circus-like indignity this brought to a moment of almost unbearable remembering for those who lost family and friends in the Oklahoma City bombing.

Instead, let's acknowledge a fact: A large majority of Americans support the death penalty. And so do most Catholics. Decent people are understandably tired of the violence in society. They need to defend their children  and themselves. They want a deterrent. And even when the deterrent might fail, goes the reasoning, at least it can bring justice and emotional closure for the relatives of murder victims.

These are powerful arguments, especially today, as we grapple with vivid and terrible memories of the bombing. But they are wrong. As a brother, I ask the people of this archdiocese and all people of good will to turn away from the death penalty, not only for the sake of  the convicted person, but to protect our own God-given human dignity. Let me tell you why.

Most arguments against capital punishment demonstrate that it doesn't work as a deterrent -- but let's say it does.

Most arguments against capital punishment demonstrate that innocent people are sometimes convicted and executed; that the legal system discriminates against minorities and the poor; that defendants in many states get disastrous legal counsel unless they can afford otherwise. All these things seem to be true -- but let's ignore them.

Instead, let's assume that a person is guilty of premeditated murder; that he or she gets good legal counsel, with correct legal process, and is convicted by a fair jury after careful and intelligent deliberation. Killing the guilty is still wrong. It does not honor the dead. It does not ennoble the living. And while it may satisfy society's anger for awhile, it cannot even release the murder victim's loved ones from their sorrow, because only forgiveness can do that.

What the death penalty does accomplish is closure through blood-letting, violence against violence -- which  is not really closure at all, because murder will continue as long as humans sin, and capital punishment can never, by its nature, strike at murder's root. Only love can do that.

As we consider the McVeigh verdict, and as we  pray for and support the families of the victims, we need to put aside our anger for the sake of our children. And we need to reflect very carefully on the choices we make about the death penalty. Executions in Texas could soon reach 50 a month, nearly two a day. Ponder that through the eyes of a young person reading the newspaper -- or driving by a fry-the-killer radio survey on the street. Is this how we define ourselves as a civilized people? Is this really a fitting monument to those who died?

I am aware, as I write these words, that the reality of capital crime is heart-breaking beyond words. I do not presume to understand the deep and bitter personal wounds suffered by  those who lose their loved ones through murder. I would gladly give away whatever I have in life to bring back just one of the children lost in the Oklahoma City bombing. As a people, we must never allow ourselves the luxury of  forgetting the injustice done to victims of murder and terrorism who cannot speak for themselves -- or our obligation to bring the guilty to full accounting.

But as Jesus showed again and again by His words and in His actions, the only true road to justice passes through mercy. Justice cannot be served by more violence. "Frying the killer" may sound funny to some, righteous to others. But make no mistake: Capital punishment is just another drug  we take to ease other, much deeper anxieties about the direction of our culture. Executions may take away some of the symptoms for a time (symptoms who have names and their own stories before God), but the underlying illness --  today's contempt for human life -- remains and grows worse.

We may find some wisdom in the coming days by praying over Genesis 4:10-16. Humanity's first murderer, the man who brought blood-letting into the world, was spared by  the God of justice. May that same God, our Father, guide both the judge and the jury during the McVeigh penalty phase. And may He keep all of us in His mercy.

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