By BISHOP ROBERT J. BAKER
Two 20th century abolition movements — the movements to abolish capital punishment and abortion as government-fostered and societially sponsored institutions reflect the 19th century movement to abolish the government-fostered and societally supported institution of slavery.
There are parallels to these 19th and 20th century abolition movements.
Each of these efforts have been slow in gaining momentum and widespread support of the body politic.
Hillaire Belloc, writing on slavery in the 19th century in his book The Servile State, observed that “we find, from two thousand years ago upwards, one fundamental institution whereupon the whole of society reposes; that fundamental institution is slavery.” He proceeds to note that across the sweep of 20 centuries “we find no organized effort, nor (what is still more significant) do we find any complaint of conscience against the institution which condemned the bulk of human beings to forced labor.”
William Grigg, in his article “The Great Emancipation,” (The New American, Aug. 28, 2000) suggests that “by the time of the founding of the American nation, Christian concepts of individual worth and liberty had permeated Western society to such an extent that the continued existence of slavery became untenable.” Grigg adds, “significantly, the movement to abolish slavery was a distinctly Christian undertaking; there was no non-Christian equivalent.”
The emancipation movement was underway by the time of the founding of this country, but the abolition of slavery did not gain full momentum in America until the middle of the 19th century. “Though the Chief Justice of the King’s Bench had ruled in 1772 that any slave who set foot in Britain became free, slavery was not touched in the colonies, where nearly all the slaves in the empire lived. … Alone in a world of shareholders, Americans brought on themselves the charge of hypocrisy, because of their principles and their rhetoric” (Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father, a biography of George Washington).
Thomas Jefferson had expressed the hope that America was preparing “under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation” of the slaves, and James Madison had expressed confidence that the Constitution would succeed in “palliating slavery as a deep-rooted abuse.” But it took President Abraham Lincoln to finally put the institution of slavery to rest at great cost to himself personally and to his leadership of a nation.
Few people today criticize Lincoln for his bold moral stance on this issue as president of the United States.
In his letter In Plurimis, on the subject of slavery, of May 5, 1888, written to the bishops of Brazil, Pope Leo XIII details the Church’s position historically vis-a-vis the slavery issue. He rejoices that large numbers of slaves had been liberated in Brazil and acknowledges that slavery was never a natural condition, but rather a condition of sin.
From the first sin came all evils, and especially this perversity, that there were men who, forgetful of the original brotherhood of the race, instead of seeking, as they should naturally have done, to promote mutual kindness and mutual respect, following their evil desires began to think of other men as their inferiors, and to hold them as cattle born for the yoke. In this way, through an absolute forgetfulness of our common nature, and of human dignity, and the likeness of God stamped upon us all, it came to pass that in the contentions and wars which then broke out, those who were stronger reduced the conquered into slavery; so that mankind, though of the same race, became divided into two sections, the conquered slaves and the victorious masters.
While the institution of slavery existed unchecked in society for many centuries, Christian concepts of individual worth and human dignity helped bring the institution down. People of good will inside and outside the Church came to the same conclusion. Slavery is an untenable institution. It is an affront to moral decency.
The same is being said by people inside and outside the Church today about capital punishment and abortion.
Regarding capital punishment, the Justice Project, an anti-death penalty advocacy group, released a study in mid-September which indicated that 80 percent of 802 registered voters surveyed would support reforming or abolishing the death penalty, and 64 percent support suspending all executions until a study can be made of its fairness.
Such alternatives to the death penalty as a mandatory sentence of 25 years imprisonment or life in prison without parole have been considered.
The Sept. 28 issue of The New Catholic Miscellany (p. 11) recorded Msgr. Thomas Duffy’s initiative at the September Pee Dee Deanery meeting to make available a petition for a moratorium on the death penalty. Msgr. Duffy, pastor of St. Michael Church in Garden City and dean of the Pee Dee Deanery, made that petition available to his Church on Sunday, Oct. 1, Respect Life Sunday. He has my personal support in this effort, and I encourage all pastors in the diocese to join this initiative.
The official teaching of the Catholic Church on capital punishment is that recourse to the death penalty is not excluded “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition, No. 2267).
However if non-lethal means suffice to protect society, public authority would limit itself to such methods, “as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.”
“Today,” the Catechism states, “… as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare if not practically nonexistent” (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 56).
Pope John Paul II has reiterated the need for society to look to nonviolent means as solutions to violent crimes. As a great promoter of the dignity of the human person, he has challenged society to help the criminal, even the murderer, live out his years to the point of natural death, with the hope of conversion of heart, through the redemptive grace of Jesus Christ.
This outlook reflects a growth in the Church’s reflective response to issues of crime and punishment and has helped support efforts to abolish capital punishment as a common method of punishment in American society.
The Sept. 28 issue of The New Catholic Miscellany contained an article on Prison Ministry in the Diocese of Charleston which chronicled some of the efforts underway to bring the Gospel message and the sacraments to the prisons of the state of South Carolina.
In that article I observed that people involved in prison ministry have an attitude of hope. They believe the Gospel message is meant for everyone and that it is the Lord who is the final judge. Where there is life, there is hope.
The Catholic Church, in bringing Christ and his message to our prisons on a regular basis, helps to stem the cycle of violence by bringing the only viable and lasting solution to violence and crime in our society.
Our prison ministry efforts help provide an alternative to capital punishment.