Friday, May 09, 2008

Salt of the Earth... Working to Make Capital Punishment a Thing of the Past

"Whenever a state anywhere in the world bans or declares a moratorium on capital punishment, Rome’s Colosseum is lit up, and Catholic groups are always in the front row among those rejoicing." - John Allen

Anne and I went to Italy on our honeymoon in 1992. On thing I noticed wherever we went, from Rome to Florence, Assisi, Modena, Venice, Milan... Billboard posters advertising a traveling exhibit going around the country on the history and methods of torture. It was a curious thing. It showed a European sensitivity to an issue I hadn't given much thought to. It all seemed so remote and far in the past. Fast forward to this decade...

As I’ve noted previously, despite being constantly berated by the hierarchy for their supposed lack of faith, their lack of appreciation for their roots, and for their relativism, it seems to me that the nations of Europe, and in some high-profile cases the Latin nations of Europe in particular, are displaying their strong commitment to some of the very finest examples of Catholic social teaching, impervious to the harangues constantly levelled against their societies from the Vatican. I posted about this last year in regard to the Spanish commitment to nonviolence. Two weeks ago, I happened to notice that John Allen had written about Italy and their campaign to end capital punishment worldwide – What abortion is to American Catholics, the death penalty is for Italians.

Whether this commitment and this activism stems from their “latent” Christianity, or whether it comes from more vague forms of post-modern enlightenment values, I can’t really say. I think Europeans are in sort of a unique position among the peoples of the world’s various continents, in that they have tried and tested just about every absolutist type of ideology that has ever existed, and have learned the rough lessons to be learned from each the hard way. All I can point out is that the Community of Sant'Egidio, the lay movement I admire the most out of all of those that arose in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, has been at the forefront on the issue of capital punishment, spearheading the effort.

I think this campaign is crucial because it offers a challenge and a contradiction to:

- The United States, ever-influential worldwide, which if I am not mistaken is the only Western democracy that still has the death penalty.

- The drive to establish strict interpretations of Islamic Sharia across several nations, which is bringing pressure to bear even upon Europe itself.

- China, which is rapidly on its way to becoming the most powerful country in the world, and whose mixture of totalitarian government and cowboy capitalism may become the model for other developing nations. It lists 60 crimes which are capital offenses.

The Community of Sant'Egidio has not only fought to put an end to capital punishment, it has also worked to sponsor peaceful resolutions to conflicts, including a cease-fire they once brokered in Mozambique. Here is the the "Method" of Sant'Egidio explained.

Here are excerpts from John Allen’s article:

I’m in Rome this week, where this morning I took part in an hour-and-a-half radio program on RAI, the Italian state network, along with Cardinal Pio Laghi, the former Apsostolic Nunio in the United States... I agreed to do the program largely because I was interested in how the trip looked to Italians, having spent much of the last couple of weeks absorbing American commentary. This was one of those shows where we took listener phone calls and e-mails, so I figured I might get a good sense of Italian “vox populi” on the experience.

What struck me was how often our host, Massimo Franco, a well-known Italian journalist, as well our listeners raised an issue that barely registered on American radar screens during the pope’s trip: the death penalty. Why, Franco and the listeners wanted to know, didn’t Benedict XVI make more of an issue out of the difference between the United States, particularly the Bush administration, and the Catholic Church on the issue of capital punishment?

It was Burke who put into words something I’ve long sensed, and that became especially clear during the course of our conversation this morning: For many Italian Catholics, and perhaps Catholics in other European countries as well, the death penalty is what abortion is for many Catholics in the United States – the defining moral issue of the time.

That is to say, if the dominant “single issue” temptation for American Catholics is to focus almost exclusively on abortion, the analogous “single issue” tendency within Catholicism in Italy and elsewhere in Europe is the death penalty.

Anti-death penalty campaigns ... are a huge feature of Italian Catholic life, often led by the Community of Sant’Egidio and involving a wide cross-section of dioceses, parishes, and lay movements. Whenever a state anywhere in the world bans or declares a moratorium on capital punishment, Rome’s Colosseum is lit up, and Catholic groups are always in the front row among those rejoicing.

Italy takes great pride in long forming the vanguard of the abolitionist movement with regard to capital punishment. The Grand Duchy of Tuscany was the first sovereign state to ban the death penalty in 1786. It did so under the influence of Italian essayist Cesare Beccaria, whose 1764 anti-death penalty tract “On Crimes and Punishments” is considered an abolitionist classic.

So strong had Italian aversion to capital punishment become that when an anarchist named Angelo Bresci assassinated King Umberto I in 1900, Italian courts sentenced him to life in prison. It was the first time a man had killed a European king (without toppling his regime) and not been executed.

That legacy is very much alive at the Catholic grassroots in today’s Italy, as our callers this morning reminded us. For them, it was therefore remarkable that the pope did not raise the issue on American soil.

For American Catholics, this focus on the death penalty rather than abortion can often seem terribly imbalanced. According to Amnesty International, there were 1,591 executions worldwide in 2006, while the estimated number of abortions around the world each year is on the order of 45 million. On a purely quantitative basis, some would argue, there’s no comparison in terms of which is the more grave threat to human life. Moreover, many abortion opponents would also argue that while all killing is wrong, with the death penalty we’re usually talking about convicted criminals, while abortion strikes at the most innocent and vulnerable.

For Italian Catholics, on the other hand, the moral gravity of the death penalty often looms larger because in this case the state is not merely tolerating an act of killing, but actually performing it. It’s one thing, they argue, for women in painful circumstances to make a tragic choice; it’s another for a state, which purports to embody the values of civilized society, to put someone to death while espousing the values of justice and due process of law. From that point of view, it’s not so much the numbers involved, as the statement capital punishment makes about the moral fabric of the state itself, that jars the conscience.

Obviously from the point of view of Catholic social teaching, this is not an “either/or” choice, but very much a “both/and.” The social doctrine of the Church regards abortion as an absolute moral wrong, and, following the magisterium of Pope John Paul II, does not exclude the death penalty on principle, but holds that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

A “consistent ethic of life” therefore posits opposition to both abortion and capital punishment.

Nonetheless, within that consistent ethic different cultures at different times will accent one or another issue, and for now it would seem that many American Catholics and many European, especially perhaps Italian, Catholics have a different sensibility in terms of where they make their most emphatic stand.

For Americans, it would no doubt have been huge news had Benedict XVI come to the United States and never mentioned abortion. For Italians, it seems equally shocking that Benedict came to the United States, one of just six nations which account for the bulk of annual executions worldwide, and didn’t bring up capital punishment.

One can draw a variety of different conclusions about all this, but it’s at least a valuable insight into varying Catholic attitudes on the two sides of the Atlantic.

Here are excerpts from an interview with the Community of Sant'Egidio’s Mario Marazziti, who's been leading capital punishment moratorium efforts at the U.N.

NCR: Why is this happening now?

Marazziti: There are different reasons. Some countries have reached the conclusion that they cannot have internal reconciliation with the death penalty. Rwanda and Burundi are examples. Abolition becomes a tool to prevent future violence. Those countries have 800 people on death row, and if they kill them, another cycle of violence could begin. It's the same rationale as South Africa or Cambodia. It's very interesting that the three nations with the greatest genocides of the 20th century, Rwanda, Burundi, and Cambodia, are now without the death penalty. That's a strong argument in international conversation.

NCR: How important has the church been?

Marazziti: Very important. The Catholic church, especially under John Paul II and continuing with what it's doing now, has had a real role in accompanying this change over the last 20 years, and the Philippines is one of the cases where you see that most clearly.

We've worked side-by-side with Cardinal [Renato] Martino [President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace]. He gave me a short interview to be used on Nov. 30, when we had our "Cities Against the Death Penalty" event. He said something to us that has never been said at such a high level before: "The death penalty is homicide." Unfortunately the media didn't pick up on it, but the clear meaning is that you can't answer one crime with another.

NCR: What were the behind-the-scenes tussles like?

Marazziti: After 1999, Amnesty International had consistently advised against going to the General Assembly, out of fear of losing. The problem is that in the General Assembly, it's not enough just to add up the number of countries that are against the death penalty. Politics also enters into it. We were in favor of going to the General Assembly, but in an intelligent way … not out of desperation, but on the basis of serious advance work. Then there were the radicals and groups such as Nessuno Tocchi Caino ("Hands Off Cain," the main anti-death penalty activist group in Italy) that wanted to go to the General Assembly no matter what, because whether they won or lost, they'd be on the front pages. So there were three different logics completely... We wanted to avoid that it would be seen as a project of the European Union, reflecting a neo-colonial vision of human rights. For that reason, we ended up with Brazil and Mexico as the initial supporters, and then in the Third Commission, the resolution was presented by Gabon.

Within the Third Commission, with 192 countries just like the General Assembly, there was a ferocious debate. The first effort was to say that this is a matter of the internal affairs of nations, and not of human rights. It can't be discussed because it's an internal question. Once they lost on this, the opponents argued that it shouldn't be voted on by the U.N. because it's something that divides nations rather than unites them. Of course, that would mean never doing anything, because everything is divisive in some sense. The third point was that it represents the imposition of a Western vision of human rights on other countries.

There were three principal centers of opposition: Singapore, representing some Asian countries; Egypt, for the Arab and Muslim states; and finally Barbados, for the Caribbean countries. The Caribbean countries were ferocious … they're tiny, but they put up a fight line-by-line, word-for-word.

At one point, the opponents proposed an amendment to add a paragraph saying that in the name of always defending life, it's also necessary to be against abortion. It was presented by Egypt, in the name of the Arab states. The response came from the Philippines, saying that this is a very important theme, and if there's a consensus we should present a new resolution on this subject, and we will be a co-sponsor. It has nothing to do, however, with this resolution... the Vatican doesn't vote at the UN. Nevertheless, they said the defense of life is an important subject, but exactly for that reason it has to be without exceptions. In substance, the point was that the Holy See doesn't support the way some say, 'We have to abolish the death penalty' but don't care about abortion, and meanwhile those who were now proposing something against abortion were doing so to uphold the death penalty. We shouldn't get into deciding which lives are worth defending. It was a very sharp, well-constructed position, and I thought it was quite clear.

NCR: In the end, what does this result mean?

Marazziti: First of all, the death penalty has officially become a question of human rights. From the point of view of the international community, this is new. … It fixes an official standard of justice without death. Even if it's not obligatory, it creates a moral standard. It will become ever more embarrassing for those countries that still use the death penalty.

NCR: The U.N. passes resolutions all the time that have little practical effect. Isn't it easy to see this as hollow symbolism?

Marazziti: My response is that if this is truly meaningless, then why was there such fierce opposition for 15 years? There was strong, at times almost violent, debate in the hall. The best of the UN were involved, first as individual states and then as groups, going over the resolution line-by-line and word-for-word. It was extremely arduous work. It's hard to imagine so many people would have invested this much time and effort on something that doesn't mean anything.

NCR: So far, most global press coverage of the UN vote has not highlighted the Catholic contribution. In Italy especially, the tendency has been to attribute the outcome to the efforts of the Italian government and various secular humanitarian groups, especially those linked to the Radical Party, which has long campaigned against the death penalty.

On Thursday, L'Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, carried an interview with Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in the wake of the General Assembly resolution. In part, the interview focused on a perceived lack of recognition for Catholic efforts. Martino suggested that the church's role may be more difficult to appreciate since, for Catholics, the death penalty is part of a continuum of life issues that also features war, employment, and especially abortion.


crystal said...

That's interesting. I bet one reason abortion is the thing here is that Americans are so "puritanical" ..... fetuses are innocent and criminals are probably not, so fetuses lives are somehow more worthy of being saved.

I saw Thomas Reese write something interesting about the death penalty and Popes ....

The church now teaches that capital punishment is wrong, whereas for centuries it had no problem with it; in fact, popes executed people in the papal states.

Jeff said...


I think it's perfectly natural for people to put a higher premium on the protection of the lives of children than on the lives of adults. That's just instinctual. Every society sees its future in its children. The challenge from a Christian point of view is to go beyond what's merely normal and to extend that same dignity and protection to the criminal, who isn't so innocent, helpless, and dependent.

I'm proud of where we stand with both of these life issues. As far as capital punishment is concerned, it's better to have come around and learned late than to never have learned.

cowboyangel said...

Interesting stuff, Jeff. I didn't know that about the Italians. When in Madrid, I know my Spanish friends or students would ask about the death penalty at times. (Though nowhere nearly as much as about our gun violence. Nothing came close to that.) But I didn't get the sense of any movement per se. And I can't speak for Spanish Catholics. Most of the ones I encountered were on the right. Don't know how concerned they were about the death penalty, except that they were probably sad it couldn't be used on the Anarchists and Communists.

I think it will be hard to combat capital punishment in this country. Though I can't give any evidence, something tells me it's tied in with our gun violence. And I wonder if both aren't ultimately tied in to our wanting to be THE EMPIRE. You can't be the King of the Hill if you aren't willing to kill people.

Jeff said...

Hi William,

That divide between the right and the anarchist/socialist left is still alive and kicking in Spain, eh? I'd like to read more about your experiences with that someday.

I'll never quite understand the fascination with firearms in this country. I suppose a lot of that goes back to a long frontier/woodsman tradition that gets proudly handed on from generation to generation. In my typically northeast fashion, I'm tempted to think, as it it with sportscars, that it has something to do with sexual inadequacy.

shera10 said...

I'm a catholic italian woman. John Allen is right, all my catholic friends and I are pro-choice and all we are against death penalty.

BTW also BXVI in Italy isn't so much against abortion: on 17 June 2007 in Assisi and 21 October 2007 in Naples BXVI himself gave Communion to Prodi, prime minister and pro-choice.

Jeff said...

Hi Shera,

Welcome, and thank you very much for visiting. I'm pro-life and against the death penalty, but I venture to guess that most of my friends here feel the same as you do. What is the basis for the European Catholic view towards abortion? Is it as John Allen describes?

...the moral gravity of the death penalty often looms larger because in this case the state is not merely tolerating an act of killing, but actually performing it. It’s one thing, they argue, for women in painful circumstances to make a tragic choice; it’s another for a state, which purports to embody the values of civilized society, to put someone to death while espousing the values of justice and due process of law.

shera10 said...

Hi Jeff,

I enjoy reading your blog since last year.

I’m pro-choice but I’m obviously against abortion. I hope there will be fewer abortions, or not abortions at all, but, as a Country, we need an abortion law, abortion is a woman choice, always painful.
I think this is the view toward abortion of the huge majority of the European Catholics.

I write this story to explain to you better the Italian attitude:
In Genova a catholic Foundation owns an hospital, the Galliera, and its President is the Archbishop of Genova.
This hospital every year receives 100 millions euro by the Italian State and must practice all public healthcare services, including abortion.
So, Bertone , now Vatican number 2, when was archbishop of Genova was also Galliera’s President and under his tenure several abortions were made there every year.
In this 2005 interview:
Bertone says “ as Galliera's President I’d like to save a life, but I must respect the Italian laws” and the medical manager says that there are 200 abortions every year in the hospital.

And you can read this:

Ciao Cristina

Mike McG... said...


I welcome the opportunity to discuss Catholic moral teachings on violence with a Italian Catholic and salute your fight against capital punishment. Thanks for entering into conversation with us!

I wonder if I might pose some questions:

1. In the United States, there is virtually no protection of fetal life at any stage of gestation. Although abortions are generally performed in the early stages of pregnancy, third trimester abortions are numerically more common than are executions here. Is that the case in Italy?

2. While "anti-capital punishment/prochoice" and "pro-capital punishment/prolife" are the most widely publicized statistical profiles in the United States, there are two other groups. One, numerically large but under-reported, is "pro-capital punishment/prochoice." The other, much smaller but not insignificant in the Catholic community, is "anti-capital punishment/prolife." Does this final position, which we call the "consistent ethic of life" or "seamless garment," have any significant following in Italy? Would this be the position, for example, of the Community of San Egidio?

3. Although there were certainly clandestine abortion in the U.S. prior to its legalization here, there is no doubt that the incidence of abortion has increased dramatically since legalization. What was once regarded as a tragic decision appears to have morphed into a lifestyle choice for many Americans. Increasingly, not only secular but religious Americans have difficulty understanding why abortion opponents find abortion disturbing and fetal protection critically important. Has the legalization of abortion in Italy resulted in the more sanguine public attitudes about its practice?

Santiago Chiva de Agustín said...

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See it:

Santiago (Granada, Spain)

shera10 said...

Hi Mike,

to questions 3:

Abortions have dropped in Italy.
One year after legalization(1982)there were 234,801 abortions, last years 127,038.
The number of abortions is falling every year after legalization.

Mike McG... said...


Thanks for the helpful info.

I believe that Italy's experience is consistent with that of the US. The number of abortions in both countries immediately *after* legalization was much higher than the current number.

My question, however, is how the *current* number of abortions in Italy compares to the estimate of the number of illegal abortions *before* legalization.

I wonder also what your reactions are to the other two questions: how Italy handles access to abortion in the second and third trimesters, and whether there is any "consistent ethic of life" sentiment in Italy that objects to the taking of life at any stage.

Thanks again, Mike

Garpu the Fork said...

This has been an interesting discussion to follow. I really, really don't understand how someone can be anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment. Either life is sacred, or it isn't. In this country there's no reason why we can't house people for their lives (humanely, even), so that they aren't a danger to society.

Liam said...

Good discussion, Jeff and everybody else.

Having lived in both Italy and Spain, I would say that the anti-death penalty thing is a particularly Italian thing -- that is to say, it is generally opposed in both countries, but the Italians see is as a kind of mission.

Allen's point, I think, is important. I can never get my head around the fact that we as a society actually kill people (even really nasty people). There's something sick about how we try to make it nice and clean with things like lethal injection.

There is a nasty bloodlust in this country, and you can see it in the death penalty, capital punishment, and the ease of conscience with which we perform military strikes against other countries. Yet, we all know we are a "Christian nation."

Mike -- I was under the impression that third-trimester abortions were rare (I could be completely wrong about this). Aren't the usually medically necessary?

If I would have to define myself, I would say I was pro-choice and anti-death penalty. But though the latter definition is easy for me (because as I said, I just don't think the state should kill people, period), the former is more difficult. It's as if we could force a range of social, legal, and judicial options into two words: pro-choice, pro-life. There are people on either side that would not compromise on anything. There are pro-life people who would be open to a number of situations in which abortion would be permitted and pro-choice people who would be open to a number of situations in which it would be illegal. There are people who believe that a fetus is not a person until the moment of birth, and those who believe that birth control that prevents an embryo from attaching itself to the uterus is the moral equivalent of shooting a two-year old, and then there is the infinite range of opinions between, in which the great majority of people on either side of the issue find themselves.

I have to admit that as someone who's returned to the Catholic Church (albeit as a "liberal" Catholic)fairly recently after twenty years of being an atheist, I'm still working out how I feel about the issue. I certainly feel that I hate abortion -- but I'll never be in the position in which I have to decide, will I? I wonder if there's any way to decide when life begins that is not theological, and having grown-up non-Mormon in Utah, I know what it's like to have other people push their theology into your life.

Such a tough question. If you're pro-life, at the very least we're talking about a tragic loss of innocent life, and at the most, murder on a mass scale. On the other hand, we live in a society that values personal autonomy (and I think we all value it to a great extent -- that's the basis of a number of our civil rights), and having the state tell you what you can or can not do with your body reduces that autonomy to a great deal. It doesn't help that the only members of society who face that reduction of autonomy are the ones who have been dominated and violated throughout our history.

Sorry for running on at the mouth. I need to blog about this myself, once I figure out how to approach it. Most of what I said above is me just talking to myself.

crystal said...

My feelings about the death penalty and abortion are pretty much exactly what Liam's are, but he expressed it better than I would be able to, so just read his comment twice :)

shera10 said...

Abortions before legalization were estimated 100,000 every year.
For me and fo many italian catholic there is difference between a fetus and a baby, and so we Italian don't understand the American catholic obsession with abortion issue.

Jeff said...

Hi Guys,

Thanks very much for the thoughtful and the respectful comments.

I’ve heard some people try to make an argument about why they’d be anti-abortion, but not anti-capital punishment, but I don’t find the arguments compelling. I tend to buy into the principle that human life is not something the state should have the right to take from anyone. In addition, from a Christian perspective, I’ve come to feel more and more strongly that one of the messages we should have taken from the crucifixion and resurrection was that Jesus should have been the last man ever executed.

Liam, by no means were you just talking to yourself. That is just the kind of discourse I am looking for here. I think your candid and honest assessment is reflective of the inner struggle a lot of people go through on this. This is THE thorniest and most difficult of issues to discuss dispassionately, at least in this country. It’s very hard to have a conversation about it that doesn’t devolve into acrimony.

I think that statistics between Italy and the US would be very hard to compare. The demographics are very different. The average age in Italy today is somewhere in the mid-forties, and attitudes about sex education and the availabilty of birth control for young people are miles away from what they are here. I think that makes a valid comparison based upon metrics alone, hard to come by.

People can, and have, argued ad nauseum about when human life begins; when a fetus becomes a viable baby, etc… Augustine and Aquinas, as far as I know, had differing opinions about when ensoulment occurs, etc… Not knowing for sure, I suppose the Church has gone with the safest and most cautious logical option of going back to the moment of conception. My purpose here isn’t to hammer out a consensus on when life begins. I’m not trying to recreate 35 years of culture wars here. I think Mike would agree with me, whether we want to say fetus or baby, that a fetus is still a human “being”, and deserves more protection than what we are seeing now. We’ve seen plenty of emphasis on “safe”, and we’ve seen plenty on “legal”. I just wish people of good will could come together and find a way to put an equal and honest emphasis on “rare”. I wish there were more Democrats who could get behind the 95-10 initiative, for example.


It probably wasn’t your intention to walk into an abortion discussion here, but I thank you for your patience. I hope that you still free to comment here in the future if you like.