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A Tookie Trade: Let’s end both Abortion and Capital Punishment

12/18/2005 - 11:00 AM PST

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By Deacon Keith A. Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
Catholic Online

Last week, this headline appeared in my local newspaper: “DNA testing clears 2 more; Governor orders full review.”

Just the day before, I drove home from Washington D.C. fatigued. Needing to stay awake, I listened to talk radio to fill the four hour drive. The airwaves were filled with heated discussions concerning the death of Stanley “Tookie” Willams by lethal injection. Most striking to me were the words of one reporter who had witnessed the poisoning and used the opportunity to pontificate concerning his experience. He spoke of how “antiseptic” and “sterile” it all was, “almost serene” he said. I could not help but think that this poor man was emotionally numb and would be recovering from the trauma soon. I hoped that he would realize that he had actually watched a man being killed by an intravenous injection of poison. Nothing serene about that!

Laura Ingram, a national hostess of one of the more interesting “conservative” talk alternatives to the increasingly predictable “big two” male hosts, adeptly noted that some who opposed the execution of Tookie Williams sounded, in some of their rhetoric, much like the opponents of abortion. They spoke of the dignity of every human life. She noted the irony that is so evident in their opposition to capital punishment and, at least in most cases, their vocal support of legal abortion on demand; an irony I have often opined about in my own writings.

Then, she made the following comment: “We will trade you abortion for the death penalty” or words to that effect.

“Hmmm…” I thought, “…an interesting proposal”; a “Tookie Trade”?

Oh, I know that “Tookie” Williams is a difficult case. He appears to have ruthlessly killed four people and failed to show any remorse, even in his last moments. However, it was really difficult to hear so many callers to these radio programs insist that people cannot change. If that is true, then God help us all! Moses killed an Egyptian (Exodus 2). Saul of Tarsus stood by in what was arguably complicity at the death of Stephen the Deacon. (Acts 8) Also, from the regular stream of news articles such as the one that I read last week, we know that errors are made in prosecutions. But there is more at issue.

Let me state very clearly, I oppose the death penalty—always have and always will. It is a part of my deep abiding commitment to holding a consistent ethic of life. However, I understand that some Christians do not share my conviction. In fact, during all the years that I have fought on the front lines of the pro-life cause, I have been uncomfortable with being labeled a "conservative." I have never even officially registered "Republican"—though the other major party’s love affair with the autonomous self and the so-called abortion right, forced me to leave the ranks of "Democrats" long ago. Some of my "conservative" friends don't think I am one of "them," either. What I am is pro-life, pro-family, pro-freedom, pro-peace and pro-poor.

Most importantly, I am a Catholic. I embrace what my Church teaches because I believe that it is true. However, let’s be clear; Catholic teaching opposing the death penalty is predicated upon a very different moral ground than the Churches absolute opposition to abortion. Abortion is intrinsically evil, always and everywhere wrong because it is the taking of innocent defenseless life. Catholic teaching opposes the death penalty for other reasons; it can no longer be justified. In considering this life issue we are not dealing, at least presumably, with the death of the innocent. The Church opposes this lethal punishment inflicted by the State because bloodless means of punishment are readily available and the common good does not require its use for the protection of the public. In a civilized Nation such as our own, mercy should trump justice. In other times in history, and in other circumstances, the Church did not formally oppose the death penalty, even though there has always been a tradition against its use within a stream of Catholic thought.

This contemporary opposition to Capital punishment by the Church, this merciful approach, is clearly affirmed in the Catholic Catechism: "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 with the dignity of the human person" (CCC, n. 2267).In fact, the Catechism was amended to emphasize that the continued contemporary use of "capital punishment" adds to the growth of what John Paul II has rightly labeled the "Culture of Death."

In his prophetic encyclical letter, "The Gospel of Life," John Paul vividly exposed contemporary ...

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