Monday, August 21, 2006

Culture of Death, part 2

Having some time to kill--no pun intended--before rousing a child for the first day of school, I drafted the following epistle to the governor of South Dakota in re some comments he had made in yesterday's edition of the Sioux Falls (SD) Argus Leader:

Dear Governor Rounds,

A portion of your interview with the Argus Leader, as published in yesterday's edition, surprised me greatly:

"Q: And the church has taken a position against the death penalty?

"A: I don't think that's quite correct. ... The death penalty is there for a reason in order that under selective and unique circumstances and based on individual review, it may be something in limited circumstances that is appropriate, when an individual does great damage to society. The church recognizes the responsibility of government leaders to carry out the law of the land."

Surely you must know that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has waged a 25-year campaign to eliminate the death penalty. I would encourage you to visit the Conference's web site,, which includes much helpful information about not only the Church's teachings on the subject but also why the death penalty is an ineffective and evil punishment.

I would refer you also to the comments made in a 1999 homily by Pope John Paul II in St. Louis, Missouri:

"The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of Life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."

Undoubtedly, the Church does recognize "the responsibility of government leaders to carry out the law of the land," as you say. However, the law of the land empowers you to commute a death sentence. To sentence Elijah Page, or any other death-row inmate, to life in prison without parole provides the good (removing him as a threat to society) without compounding the evil (meeting violence with more violence).

As you may know from my previous communications with you, in which I encouraged you to veto HB 1215, I am a pro-choice Catholic. But I am also pro-life (the two are not mutually exclusive). As such, I strongly and respectfully encourage you to reject what has been termed the culture of death, and show that, contrary to our recent image, the state of South Dakota is home to compassionate and merciful people.


William J Reynolds

Of course, the odds of my well-reasoned (and, you must admit, oh-so-polite) missive actually changing the man's mind are about the same as were the odds of my previous message to him, urging him to not sign our now-infamous abortion bill into law, viz., nil. Which are precisely the same chances of my voting for him in the future. To be fair, I haven't voted for him in the past, so he's not really losing anything. Except some of my respect.

Elsewhere in the same interview excerpted above, Rounds makes the tired old argument, in "defense" of his being pro-life when it comes to fetuses but not when it comes to actual breathing human beings, that somehow the life of the living is worth less than the life of the unborn:

Q: You have consistently said that you oppose abortion, and you signed House Bill 1215 that would ban most abortions. Is it consistent to be pro-life on abortion and also to favor the death penalty?

"A: There's a real difference between an innocent human being and someone who has been convicted in a court of law of murdering another human being and may do it again."

Yikes. Where to begin? Well, first off, were the governor to commute Elijah Page's sentence (Page being the death-row inmate on whom the current furor is centered) to life in prison without parole, that would pretty much take care of the "he may do it again" argument. I suppose there is a chance that he might murder one of his fellow inmates, but it seems the prison system could take steps to protect against that, if it is indeed a real threat.

That leaves us, then, with the "innocent human being" angle. This is not something that the governor invented; indeed, I have heard Catholic priests make the same unsettling argument in opposition to abortion. The problem for me is this: Which of us gets to decide whose life is worth more? And by what criteria? Okay, let's say for the sake of argument that a convicted murderer's life is worth less than an "innocent human being." What about a convicted car thief? A convicted check forger? What if we are weighing the life of the car thief against that of the check forger? Whose life is "worth" more. And how much more?

Setting aside for the moment the idea of original sin, which I think the Catholic Church still holds and which calls the whole notion of an "innocent human being" into some question in the first place, the very idea that we would, as a society, head into the rocky terrain of "whose life is worth more" is quite reprehensible and morally indefensible. Is the life of an incurably ill person on life support "worth less"? If so, why are we as a society (and, quite vocally, the Catholic Church) opposed to euthanasia? Simply because of the long-held belief that life, all life, has worth.

I have been informed more than once that I "can't be pro-life and pro-choice." Of course, that's just silly--the mere fact that I
am both proves that I can be both--but I maintain that one cannot logically profess to being pro-life as well as pro-death penalty. If life is life, then simple honesty requires such an individual to identify himself not as pro-life but anti-abortion.

There is, obviously, a difference.