Thursday, December 01, 2005



Last night was an exciting for Franklin, TN.

OK, It's possible that it was just an exciting night for me in Franklin, but you get the idea. You see, last night the parish council of St. Matthew Church passed a moratorium resolution! This wasn't a church that we'd done a lot of work with, in fact we'd done almost no previous work there, so I was fairly nervous going into speak to the council.

For one thing, it's a fairly large council (about 20 people), and for another Franklin is not noted for its progressive leanings. But we started out by talking about the recent statement against the death penalty by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and there was almost no argument against it. We discussed the death penalty's lack of deterrent power and the fact that it does not bring healing to victims. And, who'da thunk it? The vote was unanimous.

Now I'd like to attribute this to my oratorical prowess, but I'm afraid that that would not be fair or honest. I would like to share, however, what I've found to be the proper "frame" for the issue of the death penalty for Catholic communities.

OK! So Imagine a frame with four sides (top, left, right, and bottom) consisting of Innocence, Protection of Society, Targeting the Poor, and the Teaching of the Pope and the USCCB. The issue of innocence is a resounding one and one that is probably the most effective issue with people across the board; even if you support the death penalty, you probably don't want to kill innocent people (there are some rare exceptions here).

The Catholic teaching on the death penalty has been a slowly evolving one. The death penalty is permitted in cases where there is no other way to protect society. In America today, the prison system, and long prison terms, are perfectly capable of protecting society from violent people, and thus the Church now calls for abolition in America. Non-Catholics are likewise concerned with public safety, so addressing the issue of protection is critical to any discussion of capital punishment.

One of the central tenants of Catholic Social Doctrine is a preferential option for the poor. Put simply, any decision we make as a society must prioritize the good of the poor. Throughout the Gospels, Christ refers to the poor continually. The arbitrariness and economic bias of the death penalty clearly fails this test.

Finally, Church teachings are central to speaking to religious groups. Grounding your discussion in faith immediately places abolition on the moral high ground where it belongs. This is true also with the United Methodist, Presbyterian, or any other of the many denominations that have taken positions against the death penalty.

Hopefully we'll be able to apply this frame with many more successes in the common weeks and months!
Comments :
There is at least one other consideration/question in approaching the abolition of the death penalty. That is "From where did the authority for establishing the death penalty come?"
The Tennessee Constitution states " That all power is inherent in the People, and all fee govenments are founded on their authority . . ." By logical extention then the govenment has no more authority than what the people have given it, to act as their agent. And, the people can only give the government the power of action to the extent of that authority.

What then is the people's authority for the death penalty, i.e., deliberatly killing someone who is not an immediate threat? I suggest there is no authority for such a killing. Such a killing is considered murder by statute. If no one is lawfully permitted to commit such an act, where does a community of people obtain the authority to give such a power to the State? Or is it just an assumption of power and or authority base on "what has always been done".

The death penalty is imposed by the State requesting that a jury authorize the state to use the power to execute an individual based on certain criteria. I believe that the criteria are not relevant to this discussion. What is important is that the State recognizes that neither the State, judge nor prosecutor have the authority to execute an individual absent the consent of the people, as represented by the jury. Which brings us to the question of where did the people's representatives (jury) get the authority to authorize such a course of action? No individual has such authority. No group of people has such authority. If there is no authority to be given to the State, then any legislation to the contrary (e.g., the death penalty) must be fatally flawed from lack of authority to enact such legislation.

What majic then occurs when a group of people are assembled in a jury to provide the State with the authority to execute an individual; authority that no individual or group has?
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