In the weeks since the death of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed a nonbinding resolution condemning his killing, which it described as “unacceptable and outrageous.” For any life to be taken in such a brutal and untimely fashion raises many questions and leads us to look for solutions. President Clinton has urged Congress to pass tough hate crimes legislation.
But is this really the best solution? Can there truly be a Richter scale when it comes to murder? Will it go toward the common good to have more and more crimes classed as hate crimes? It's worth considering the underlying implications. Hate crimes are very real, but if we begin to compartmentalize murder — as proposed hate crime legalization would have us do — aren't we saying that some lives are more worthy of protection than others? Murder by its very definition is the unjust taking of innocent human life.
The point about Matthew Shepard being killed should not have us focusing on his homosexuality, but that his was a life cut short by people who believed they had the power to decide whether he should live or die. If Shepard had been needlessly killed under different circumstances it should be seen as equally tragic. Regardless of who or what he was, his life was valuable and a gift.
I grew up in a country where Catholics and Protestants killed one another for their sectarian beliefs. Terrorists justified taking the lives of young soldiers or policemen in the name of freedom. And when the lives of innocent bystanders were cut short, like the young nieces and nephews of Mairead Corrigan who were killed in Northern Ireland at an army checkpoint, it was justified in the name of a country at war. In truth, it was simply murder. To the families and friends of those killed, it mattered little why they had been killed.
The point is that murder is never permissible, whether homosexual, heterosexual, Catholic, Protestant, black, white, etc. Every murder is a hate crime because every life is precious. Every person made in the image and likeness of God must be protected. Period. With this in mind, it follows that special legislation purporting to protect some lives more than others serves a counterpurpose.
Another point worth addressing in the wake of the Shepard case is the macabre triumphalism of a small group of so-called Christians gathered outside his funeral. In carrying placards with such messages as “God Hates Fags,” they implied that our Lord had taken some pleasure in the cruel murder of one of his creatures. But as Christians and Catholics we know such expressions of hate against homosexuals are reprehensible and far from Christian belief.
In fact, The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2358) has this to say: “The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. They do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross with the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.”
Perhaps we can all take a lesson from the way Mother Teresa ministered to homosexuals (and others) suffering from AIDS. She established homes for those with the disease. She didn't ask how they contracted it or who or what they were. As a true follower of Christ, she was motivated by love. It seems safe to say that the demonstrators at Shepard's funeral had other motivations.
We can also learn from the compassion of John Cardinal O‘Connor of New York who leads an archdiocesan effort to minister to AIDS patients, many of whom are homosexual.
The cardinal told Sursum Corda magazine about the many AIDS sufferers who convert. “I discussed these experiences with the Holy Father when he called an international conference on AIDS in Rome,” he said. “It was largely composed of research scientists, medical people in general, the discoverer of the AIDS virus…. Yet they were fascinated when I talked to them about the spiritual dimension of this problem, how they should not hesitate to talk to patients about the potential of suffering.
“That it doesn't matter why they have AIDS, it doesn't matter what their behavior has been; now they have it. Now they have this potential to unite their suffering with the sufferings of Christ and make it meaningful, and give it some power for the world. That God still loves them….”
As Catholics and Christians, that is the message we should carry to others.
Register Assistant Editor Geraldine Hemmings is a native of Donegal, Ireland.