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The Ethic of Death

Abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia and 'political correctness'

This is the text of Cardinal O'Connor's Sunday Mass homily delivered in St. Patrick's Cathedral Jan. 22, 1995.

The young Marine corporal who probably saved my life many years ago in Vietnam, perhaps to the consternation of some people who know me today, went on to become the Chief of State Police in a state here in the United States. His work was so effective that in due time the governor of the state asked him to serve on an advisory board which addressed the disposition of cases involving capital offenses after trial by jury, most especially if a defendant was sentenced to death.

About two years ago, this once young Marine corporal called me and said, "You know I am a Southern Baptist but I am deeply troubled in conscience. I have to know what the Catholic Church teaches and I have to know what you personally would advise me. I know that for many years you have been involved in the prolife cause and I support that completely. But, despite all of my police work and all my familiarity with horrible, violent crime, I have become very sensitive to the question of capital punishment. There has been sentenced to death in this state a man unquestionably guilty. There is no doubt in my mind that he is guilty of the most brutal murders, preceded by the most brutal torture. Now it will be for me to advise the governor. I know the governor well enough. I know his dependence on me. It will be my advice that will mean the difference between carrying out the death sentence or having it commuted to life imprisonment. I am tortured in conscience and need your help."

I explained to him the teaching of the Church about capital punishment, a teaching that has not changed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very specific. The state has the right, it has the duty to defend its people against unjust aggressors, and if this defense, in the judgment of the state, requires the use of capital punishment the state has that right "if bloodless means," says the Catechism, have been exhausted, if there is no other way to defend the people. I explained this and he asked me what I thought. I said, "This is our teaching. You have your conscience. You are familiar with the circumstances. I am not. You make your judgment before God and be at peace." Just about a year ago, he himself died of cancer. He died at peace. He had decided that he had to recommend to the governor commutation of the death sentence to life imprisonment. That was his judgment. We are all free to judge.

Today is the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that many of us consider the most infamous decision in the long history of the Supreme Court, the decision that occurred on this date, the 22nd of January in 1973, known as Roe vs. Wade. This decision completely disenfranchised the unborn and made them vulnerable to be put to death, to be destroyed in their mother's womb at any point from the first moment of pregnancy until seconds before a normal delivery at nine months. That is what the law allows.

We must reflect on this today, on this anniversary, unpleasant as it is. That is my duty. It is also my duty to reflect on the growing call for capital punishment which has reached almost a crescendo now in our land, particularly in view of the fact that the Legislature of the State of New York may very possibly pass legislation in support of capital punishment. The new governor, following his conscience, may very possibly sign that into law.

There is a very special reason for treating these two issues together. These issues are radically different in substance, but have certain characteristics in common. Understanding the question of the death penalty helps us to see more clearly how unjust abortion is, the legitimized destruction of completely innocent human life.

In 1984 I presided at the funeral of the first woman police officer killed in New York in the line of duty. Many of you of the press would recall her; her name was Irma Lozada. As I stood out in the street after the Mass, blessing the casket as it was being placed into the hearse, I could hear the murmurs around me. I could understand the deep feeling that there should be "an eye for an eye" and that the killer of this policewoman should perhaps be put to death.

That is very easy to understand, particularly when we are speaking of a police officer because by its nature the police force exists to defend society, to maintain order. If the police are as vulnerable as anyone else to being killed, then all of society can be thrown into chaos. This is readily understandable. It is readily understandable that there has been enough of this to justify a call for the death penalty. But can this be the end of the discussion? I don't think so.

Permit me to read something that I wrote a few years ago in conjunction with that particular event. I asked, "What is beneath this call for a return to the death penalty?"

"...Frustration-furious, driving, bitter, bitter, understandable, frustration born of so many wild and maddening forces. My loved one is dead, dead at the hands of a murderer. No one can bring back my love, fill the terrible emptiness in my soul. I am a mother, a father; they have killed my son, my daughter. I am a husband, a wife. They have taken my life. I am a widow. Who will support me? Who will help me rear my children?

"And in the meanwhile, hundreds of millions of dollars--billions--change hands in drug traffic. Guns pour off the assembly lines in incredible numbers, millions unlicensed, uncontrolled [here and elsewhere] ... [D]rug pushers allegedly have arsenals far more powerful than those of the police, so that [often] the police [are unable to break up drug dealing].

"In other words, I can be killed, my daughter raped, my children mutilated, and I have no defense. The system doesn't work. It simply doesn't work. Whether it's corrupt, or indifferent, or incompetent, it doesn't work. I can't stand it. I can't, I won't accept it. Someone must be punished. I must have justice for what has been done to my family, to my life. I can accept nothing less than a life for a life."

Who could argue against that frustration? It is perfectly understandable, in my judgment. Yet, sympathetic as I am with such feelings, I have to tell you honestly as a teaching bishop that I stand with the bishops of the United States who plead that the death penalty not be used. The bishops of the United States, contrary to some confusion about this, do not deny the right of the state to exercise capital punishment. They simply plead that, given the circumstances of our day, that right not be exercised. The Catechism is quite clear in underlining the right that the state has, however, the Catechism also tells us that bloodless means must have been exhausted. It is not unlike going to war: every effort to maintain the peace against unjust aggression must be exhausted before a country may legitimately go to war.

Why do the bishops hold this position? Why does the Catechism hold this position? I think there are two categories of reasons. The practical or the pragmatic, if you will, on the one hand, and the philosophical or theological on the other. You have heard the arguments. There is no requirement that you agree with the bishops. This is a judgment call on the part of the bishops. But the bishops are not simply being naive or soft-headed about crime.

There are practical reasons for their position. Despite extensive studies, one can still argue that the death penalty has not been effective in deterring capital offenses. I have read the arguments and, if anything, the arguments lean a little bit toward the notion that the death penalty is effective and that must be admitted. But there is enough argument to the contrary, that one can take the side that the bishops do.

The questions about effectiveness arise for a variety of reasons. Many, many murders are committed out of sheer madness. How anyone can go into a subway train or the Long Island Rail Road, as occurred a year or so ago, and kill so many people without being mad. That is for a judge and jury to decide, not for me. But I ask the question, how could someone push an unknown lady into an onrushing subway train to her death? It is difficult for me to believe that madness is not at work. Capital punishment can hardly be expected to deter madness.

Clearly there are so many capital offenses attributable to drugs today. How many people do what they do under the influence of drugs? Would capital punishment deter this? It might. The bishops have come to believe that it would not.

Then there are many who are callous. Anyone who deals frequently with crime--I think virtually any police officer who deals with serious crime--can tell you about the number of people who become callous to the very nature of life, including their own lives. They do not care whether they live or die. They laugh at the thought of capital punishment. That is what St. Paul is talking about in the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, that the mind becomes so dark and the heart becomes so hardened by circumstances and the environment in which we live, that cynicism develops. People engage in the most perverse sexual activities. All sorts of things occur when the conscience is callous.

There does not seem to be any doubt statistically that the majority of those sentenced to death are either minorities or are very poor. Of course it is immediately noted that the greater number of capital offenses are committed by minorities. This may be so, but the statistics indicate that even if one accepts that equation there is a disproportionate number of minorities guilty of capital offenses who are sentenced to death than of those who are not minorities. Clearly, as has been brought out in a number of very widely publicized murder cases recently, those who can afford extraordinarily skillful defenses are in a much better position to avoid the death penalty or other kinds of serious punishment than those who are very poor. Prosecutors themselves admit this.

Then there is the fact that mistakes can be made. There can be mistakes in identification. A mistake is irreversible when a person has been put be death.

For these and various other pragmatic reasons the bishops have urged that we go very slowly, that we think this through more carefully and prayerfully and that our response not be dictated by understandable passions and emotions.

There are also what I would call the philosophical or theological reasons for opposing capital punishment. One of them is given in today's second reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians about the Mystical Body of Christ, which is one of the most beautiful teachings of the Church. St. Paul says:

"The body is one and has many members, but all the members, many though they are, are one body; and so it is with Christ. …[A]ll of us, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, were baptized into one body. All of us have been given to drink of the one Spirit. Now the body is not one member, it is many. If the foot should say 'Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,' would it then no longer belong to the body? If the ear should say, 'Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,' would it then no longer belong to the body? ... The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I do not need you,' any more than the head can say to the feet, 'I do not need you.'...God has so constructed the body ... that all the members may be concerned for one another. If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members share its joy." [1 Cor. 12:12-30]

We are all members of the Body of Christ, whether we are drug pushers, murderers, whatever be the nature of our crimes, whether we are lying in the street, dying literally of drunkenness, whether we are living in the wealthiest estates--we are all members of the Body of Christ. We can not simply cut a member off. We can not say, "This person has sinned against the body so put this person to death," without tremendous thought and validation of our reasoning.

There has been brought about, I think, a desensitization of a sense of the sacredness of human life in our culture in so very, very, many ways. One could argue that if I permit an innocent person to be killed and do not severely punish the killer then I have ignored the sacredness of the human life of the innocent person. We are not talking about ignoring severe punishment. We are talking about the death penalty. That is something quite different.

We have developed in the United States an ethic of death. We seem to be poised on the legalizing of euthanasia, of assisted suicide. Death becomes the quick fix. Death becomes the easy answer, the answer to every problem. This person is terminally ill with cancer so put her to death, put her out of her "misery." This person wants to die for whatever reasons, so let him die, that is his "right." Death becomes the easy answer to everything. That is the way it has become with abortion. This woman is pregnant and does not want to be pregnant for many understandable reasons. This girl who is a teenager has her life ahead of her, has her schooling ahead of her, her parents do not want her to bear the child she has conceived without benefit of marriage. That is very understandable. So what is the quick fix? Put the baby to death. How easily we fall into this ethic of death!

Perhaps as important a philosophical reason as any other is that it lulls us into believing that we are solving the crucial problems of our society by putting to death its seemingly worst offenders, murderers and rapists, for example. But what do we really solve? Are we facing the critical problems of our society?

I turn again to a piece of my own writing of a few years ago. I was writing about gun control and the many, many murders that are committed through unlicensed guns.

"I can understand a government's listening to the plea of law enforcement officers who call for capital punishment. I can not understand a government's turning a deaf ear to the plea of the same law enforcement officers for [serious] gun control. The chief of police of San Jose, Calif., as quoted by The New York Times has called it incredible that 'to drive a car we require lessons, a written test, a practical test, an eye test, a license. To buy an assault rifle we require only money…they check your credit card closer than your background.' The same chief of police was a New York City cop in Harlem for 10 years."

That is only one example. We have generally accepted violence as a way of life. We accept it on television. We accept child abuse which borders on the lethal. We accept television programs which psychiatrists tell us can turn school playgrounds into killing fields. We accept all that. Sometimes we even revel in it, in our movies, in our television programs. Do we desensitize ourselves to violence?

I read what the Catechism says so there can be no question.

"Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty..." [2266]

The Catechism goes on to say:

"If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person." [22671

This is what the bishops are arguing -- it's a question of the dignity of the human person.

Having, said all of this, I would like to return to this twin question of abortion. I have deliberately spent this amount of time on capital punishment because it seems to me that when we address capital punishment in its fullness we get a much clearer picture of the gross injustice that we call abortion. Many who argue against capital punishment will say to people in the pro-life movement, "How can you claim to be pro-life, how can you protest against abortion, but still favor capital punishment?" I think there are valid answers to that. This is a matter of judgment. But there is no valid answer to the question pro-life people ask of those who oppose capital punishment: "How can you oppose capital punishment when we are talking about someone who is at least presumed to be guilty of a heinous crime and yet you support abortion when we are talking about the putting to death of the innocent?"

It is politically correct to oppose capital punishment, which is not the reason that the bishops do it, but it is equally politically correct to support abortion. How can one be consistent in this regard? The unborn are potential members of the Body of Christ just as all of those whom we spoke about in reading this passage of St. Paul to the people of Corinth. Yet thoughtlessly we excise them from the rest of the body; we cut them off.

Twenty-two years ago today that Supreme Court decision legitimized something like 33 million deaths of unborn babies. That's how many are estimated to have been killed since 22 January 1973. How can our society ignore this brutality? How can our society be callous to this destruction of purely innocent human life? How did the Supreme Court do this? It arbitrarily declared that the unborn are non-persons and, therefore, they are not entitled to any defense under our Constitution. They are eligible and vulnerable to be put to death from the first instant of conception until moments before they are born.

What a horror was that decision! That is what I think introduced the ethic of death into our society. Death became ethical. It is part and parcel of "polite society." We are not supposed to talk about this. Big ads are taken out in The New York Times telling us how horrible we are for pointing this out.

Capital punishment at least requires that guilt be proved. Yes, there can be a mistake, but the government demands extensive trial by jury. Any defense that the accused can bring to bear, any defense, no matter how long it delays a trial, must be heard. If it means that a guilty murderer, for instance, goes free, that is the law and, in my judgment, it should be the law. We are entitled to defend ourselves.

You may not agree with all of the hoopla surrounding a famous murder case right now. In my judgment all the enormous costs of time, energy, and money are worth it if such enable an individual to properly defend himself. We are talking about defense of a human life no matter what has happened. It is for the judge and the jury. That is not my protest. My protest is that an innocent human being in its mother's womb is denied all defense. Not only does the government not require that this innocent, helpless human being be defended, but the government pays that it be put to death! What kind of sense is that? What kind of madness is that?

We try to defend the unborn. You of the Knights of Columbus, and the overwhelming number of those others of you here, try to defend the unborn and in doing so try to defend the mother from a life of potential grief. We try to provide that defense, unaided by government, as best we can. As citizens we try to bring about a change in the laws so that the unborn will be defended. We are brought to task for that. We are not allowed to try to bring about a change in the laws peacefully and nonviolently.

As that police chief said, you can get an assault weapon as easily as almost anything in the world. A youngster can not have her ears pierced but she can get an abortion. "We have all sorts of laws for driving cars," said the police officer. We have no laws protective of the unborn.

The state has constantly resisted laws that would require at least parental knowledge if not parental consent when a young girl wants to have an abortion. So we protest these laws. That is our way of trying to help. We try to raise consciousness through education and preaching in every way we can. We try to help pregnant women. I never tire of repeating what I first announced on the 15th of October in 1984: that any woman, of any color, of any religion, of any race, from anywhere who is pregnant and in need can come to us and we will take care of her: free hospitalization, free medical care will be given; if she wants to have her child adopted, assistance for that will be given; if she wants to keep the baby, assistance with that will be given. All of this at no cost. We have spent a fortune in doing this.

We try to protect human life through prayer and fasting, and through nonviolent, peaceful protests. These nonviolent, peaceful protests have been tremendously effective. I disagree completely with those who say that we have lost the battle or that all of our efforts, prayer and everything else, have been fruitless. We can count the number put to death. We can never count adequately the number who have decided to keep their babies. We can never count the number of children alive today because of these prayers, because of Rosaries, because of peaceful, nonviolent marches.

I think the marches have been tremendously successful and will continue to be. This is why, after my second Mass today I will go to Washington for a third Mass, a pro-life Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception this evening. Tomorrow morning after another Mass I will march peacefully, nonviolently, prayerfully in this fashion. Polite society may consider this an offense. If so, I plead guilty.

I thank all of you who have given so much to the cause of human life. I can not adequately express my gratitude to you but certainly God will. I am personally more grateful than I can say. I love you. I thank you. God bless you.

Statements of Other Bishops on Abortion

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