SANCTITY OF LIFE
Concluding our Lenten series, Mgr Richard Atherton, Principal Catholic Prison Chaplain at the Home Office, argues against a return to the death penalty
A CHAPLAIN friend of mine once told me that whenever he says Mass in one of our older prisons he prays specially "for the men and women who in former times were executed and whose remains lay buried within the prison's walls". I could not help but reflect that the "former times" were not so long ago it is a mere 20 years since the death penalty was finally abolished in this country and, more chillingly, whether those "former times" would ever return.
We are often told that a majority of people favour the restoration of capital punishment. I do not find that too surprising; murder is the ultimate in crime; it arouses hostility and fear and the instinctive desire for revenge. Indeed, so the argument goes, it deserves the ultimate and unique punishment of death.
It is at this point that I begin to wonder; unlike other penalties, capital punishment is uniquely irreparable, not only because it makes no allowance for mistakes innocent people can, and have been, executed but also because it destroys a human being's most basic right, his right to life.
Throughout this series we have been reminded of the sanctity of human life and of the respect and reverence owed to it. But these noble sentiments are put to the test at the extremes of the spectrum; the unborn child utterly innocent and yet so tiny as to seem scarcely to qualify as a human person; and the murderer not only guilty, but guilty of a deed so foul that he (or she) seems to have lost all semblance of humanity. (I notice how readily the tabloid press tries to de-humanise him; he becomes a "beast", an "animal", a "monster", and so there seems no good reason why he should not be put down.) And I begin to understand what Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago meant when he described the web of rights that protect human life as a "seamless garment", and why the Irish Bishops' Commission for Justice and Peace called for opposition to the death penalty as "part of our overall witness to the sacredness of human life".
And when I look at the purposes traditionally given as a justification for punishment of any kind reform, retribution and deterrent I find that in the case of capital punishment all are either absent or of doubtful validity. The death penalty is the very antithesis of reform; it is an empty gesture of despair. It is certainly retribution, but to what purpose? The rope or the injection or the bullet does nothing to make good the loss endured by the victim's family; it succeeds only in adding one more death to the tally, involving one more innocent family in the anguish of bereavement, deepening by one more notch the spiral of violence that threatens our society and this time it is violence with state approval.
The death penalty's most powerful-looking justification is that it is a unique deterrent. It does of course, ensure, by way of elimination, that the murderer will not re-offend, but does it deter others? Those who believe they will not be caught? Those who act first and think later? Those who, through a strange psychological quirk, thirst for public attention, even that of the gallows? Research itself affords little comfort to those who regard the death penalty as a uniquely effective deterrent. But even if it were, might not this terrible punishment encourage sinister emotions and pander to dangerous passions in our society that would outweigh any advantages it might secure?
I was not alone in being horrified to read, just two months ago, of the macabre events surrounding the execution of Theodore Bundy in Florida prison -the "Burn, Bundy, Burn T-shirts, the neon signs flashing "Bundy fry in hell" the cheers greeting the announcement of his death and the appearance of the hearse.
You may dismiss this as untypical of what would happen here, I am not so sure. However, I was happy to try and exorcise the memory of what I had read by recalling a meeting which took place several years ago. A woman came to see me, her only son the victim of an apparently motiveless murder. "Father," she pleaded, "as christians, my husband and I know what we ought to do; we must forgive, and yet it's so hard not to want to see the villain who killed our son with the rope round his neck".
Her words left me feeling chastened, yet encouraged. Chastened, because I wondered if I would be able to rise to Christ's standards ("judge not, forgive and you will be forgiven, love those who hate you, do good to those who persecute you, be children of your Father in heaven") if I had a child who was cruelly done to death. Encouraged, because the heart-. broken woman was prepared to. recognise the demands of the Gospel.
Mgr Atherton is the author of Summons to Serve (Geoffrey Chapman).