The death penalty movement recently rolled through Massachusetts with the momentum of a high-speed freight train.
Fueled by three gruesome and callous murders, the death penalty had a full head of steam as it roared through the legislature, passing both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Since each had passed different versions, the bill went to compromise committee. There it failed to pass when it returned to the House, ending in a tie and derailing ten feet in front of the station.
Massachusetts is considered one of the most liberal states in America. The struggle over the death penalty, and its continual refusal to disappear from American politics, underscores the complex currents that form the composite of American culture. In this particular chapter, the media and the Catholic Church occupy uncomfortable and undue roles, though each for different reasons.
In the case of the media, the struggle over the death penalty highlights not only the media's influence in social-political events, but their fundamental inability to grasp that influence. With the Catholic Church, the opposite has become true: despite clear Church teaching on capital punishment, Catholics at all levels choose vengeance over faith, outrage over evangelization.
A Crusade for Death
Ten-year-old Jeffrey Curley was walking home from a friend's house when he was lured into a car with promises of recovering the young boy's stolen bicycle. He was sexually abused, murdered, weighted and thrown into a river. His parents grieved day after agonizing day as first one river and then another was dredged to recover the body. (His confessed abductors could not remember accurately.)
The Curleys’ incomprehensible loss gripped parents across the state, and before long, the Curleys themselves became the rallying point for reinstating the death penalty in Massachusetts. Jeffrey's mother appeared on TV and in the newspapers to tell everyone that her lobbying for the death penalty was due to what Jeffrey would have wanted. Victimized and traumatized she was not only inconsolable, she was also untouchable: nobody bothered asking why a ten-year-old Catholic boy should wish for the death penalty.
The Curleys’ pastor, caught in a bind between administering to the grief-stricken parents, and upholding Church teaching, tried valiantly to assert the Church's position on capital punishment in a manner that would not seem to confront the Curleys. He was a fleeting glimpse in a media frenzy, a side-bar on a slow day, and a voice in the wilderness.
The Curleys’ private hell was willingly turned into a public pulpit by a sensation-seeking media which knows that tragedies ultimately increase profits by expanding the audience. When the Curleys began lobbying for the death penalty, the media was there to follow, seeing an opportunity to keep the Curley story in the headlines, and generating new headlines under the death penalty banner.
The Media: Follower or Leader?
What the media so fundamentally fails to comprehend (willingly or otherwise) is that they create the very venue for public opinion and pressure that they supposedly report. Ultimately, the Curleys speaking to this representative or that politician is of very little social scope—it is a meeting between a few individuals, conducted in an office behind a closed door. Under the guise of reporting such meetings, and opening those doors, the media becomes the means by which the scope of the event is broadened on a mass scale.
The pages of the press, and the images and sound-bites on the screen, generate, galvanize, and exert the public pressure that is supposedly only being reported. The media claim they are only reflecting the sentiments of the larger public, and thereby fail to acknowledge their role in creating a public out of basically isolated individuals who, without the media, would be so disconnected from each other, and so lacking in information as to be unable to create such a social entity as “public pressure.”
This is not to say that the media intentionally influence society. Indeed, the Boston Globe's coverage showed how little intentionality has to do with the manner in which the media exercise their influence.
A more or less liberal paper, the Globe's opposition to the death penalty was not difficult to see, despite sound efforts at “balance” and “objectivity”—the operative buzzwords of the secular press. In the end, however, the Globe did not so much persuade against the death penalty as it convinced people of its inevitability.
Day after day the Globe reported on the crushing momentum of the death penalty movement and the galvanizing effects of recent murders. The implied narrative that the Globe imposed on events insisted that no opposition could stop the public outcry for the death penalty and that nothing could get in the way of what Jeffrey Curley would have wanted. The narrative almost became social reality. The first house bill saw representative Donna FournierCuomo—personally opposed to the death penalty on moral grounds—bow to the “will of the people” and vote for its passage.
Indeed, in an ironic twist on media influence, the compromise bill failed when one law-maker changed his mind and voted against the death penalty. The reason he cited: the impact of another media event, the Louise Woodward au pair trial.
The Catholic Church, conversely, wishes it could have exercised more influence in the process. As the death penalty bill went forward, Boston's Cardinal Law wrote a letter explaining the Church's teaching on capital punishment, and had it read at every parish in the archdiocese.
For several, the Church's teaching went unheeded as the Catholic acting-governor Paul Cellucci sought nothing more than to be seen as the man who delivered on restoring the death penalty to a state made famous for Sacco and Vanzetti, the Italian immigrants who were executed in 1927.
The death penalty cuts across American Catholicism like no other issue, exposing the harmful ideological divisions that prevent dialogue and threaten unity. Liberal social-justice-oriented Catholics are staunch opponents of the death penalty. But they have been slow to embrace, for example, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who has been busy ensuring that the Pope's position on the death penalty—a de facto opposition in modern societies—will be loud and clear. Likewise, the passionate energy that conservative lay Catholics usually express in living and defending Church teaching is strikingly silent in the Massachusetts struggle.
The Pope's teaching on capital punishment, however, is clear, despite the difficulty many have accepting it, and despite our unwillingness as a society to act on it. Like much of the Pope's teaching, it is sophisticated, subtle, and global. Aless practiced thinker could have simply concluded that capital punishment is always wrong, but that too easily assumes the social structures of modern cultures. The Pope also takes into consideration the existence, vitality, and viability of non-modern, tribal cultures and their social structures. In such cultures the ability of society to permanently remove harmful members from the community is severely compromised or completely nonexistent.
The Pope's teaching, therefore, prevents us from negatively judging those societies, more than it proscribes capital punishment for them. Further, it reaffirms the gospel value of protecting the weakest in the community, which is threatened when a society is fundamentally unable to remove violent individuals.
Capital Punishment & Faith
The absence of ardent lay support for Church teaching on the death penalty provides a fundamental opportunity to learn about faith and faith experiences. As individuals it is easy to succumb to the temptation of vengeance, or to believe that heinous murderers are animals not deserving of forgiveness. The Church, however, teaches us that it is precisely in the midst of such temptations that we must have faith in the message of the Gospels, the example of Jesus, and the teachings of the Church. An “eye for an eye” may make sense, but the Bible repeatedly asserts that the ways of man are not the ways of God. Further, the Church teaches us that following Christ does not allow us to deny the humanity of murderers, even though murderers themselves have denied the humanity of their victims.
The death penalty makes clear how difficult living an adult faith can be. There may well be no tangible, visible reward for following Church teaching with respect to capital punishment: crime may not go down, callous and perverted disregard for human life may continue, or even increase. Living an adult faith, however, is not about being compensated for doing the right thing or for making sacrifices. Living an adult faith is about acting on the message of the Gospels in the hope that doing so creates a ripple in the pond that may one day contribute to building the kingdom.
Capital punishment is the ultimate litmus test of our belief in the Church's consistent pro-life ethic. It is not so difficult to stand up for the unborn and the dying—each are so vulnerable. Standing up for the guilty, however, challenges the limits of our faith. Looking into the eyes of some killers it is easy to see an animal who deserves to be destroyed.
Church teaching, however, is aimed at getting us to see that this impulse is wrong: that no one forfeits their humanity completely, that none are beyond God's forgiveness and mercy. Moreover, the message of the Gospels is that we will never build the kingdom by giving into the temptation to take life. Precisely what we must have faith in is the transforming potential of offering the possibility of forgiveness to the most heinous.
Vincent Rocchio PhD, is assistant professor of communications at Bradford College in Bradford, Mass.