On Wednesday of this past week, Lisa Montgomery became the first woman to be executed by the federal government in approximately sixty-seven years. Ms. Montgomery was sentenced to death for the brutal murder of a young, pregnant woman. Ms. Montgomery’s crime was so heinous that there were unrelenting demands for the death penalty throughout the sixteen years of her incarceration.
I understand fully the desire for vengeance on the part of the victim’s family. The twenty-three-year-old murder victim died a horrible death, and her family has suffered greatly. Anyone with a scrap of empathy would feel indignation over the young mother’s death, sympathy for the family, and deep concern for the state of our society. At the same time, however, retributive justice (such as capital punishment), always leaves incurable wounds.
It is a natural tendency to want “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Following through on such desires, however, leads inevitably to an unending cycle of violence. The obvious contradiction inherent in government sanctioned capital punishment is that it permits the State to commit the same act that the State previously judged to be criminal behavior by a citizen. St. Paul wasn’t being idealistic when he wrote in today’s second readings, “The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body.” (1 Cor. 6:13) One can be for immorality by acting destructively or one can be for God by acting with mercy. Every human act has moral weight, and the moral weight of an act is not determined by the excuses used to justify it. Retaliation demands more retaliation, and violence always leads to more violence. Violence and injustice will never end as long as excuses for committing violence and injustice are considered acceptable.
This week marks the U.S. Catholic Church’s commemoration of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that allowed federal funding for abortion. Each year, there are frenzied protests against and for abortion rights. Each side of the debate considers itself to be the only righteous voice. I am unmoved by the impassioned pleas from the two opposed sides.
Making moral judgments on the basis of the passions enflamed by an issue has the same possibility for success as trying to have a conversation without using language. The issues that precipitate strong emotional responses are almost always issues of great moral import, but they can never be resolved responsibly by appealing to their emotional content alone. Capital punishment and abortion are perfect illustrations of this point. Babies are cute; they elicit our nurturing attention. Criminals are ugly; they elicit our revulsion. Saving babies while killing criminals cannot be justified on the basis of a morality that values human life. If, as Catholicism asserts, human life has an unconditional value, then every individual human life has an unconditional value. In this usage, the word “unconditional” does not refer to a utopian ideal; rather, it says that the value of a person’s life does not depend on the person’s age, background, or actions.
Our society condones killing (both of criminals and unborn children), not on the basis of any moral conviction, but as the result of an innate psychological dynamic: victims always victimize.
Those who are the victims of crime feel that they are entitled to retribution because they have been wronged by someone’s criminal action. The natural response is to victimize the criminal, making the victim the victimizer. Those who consider themselves to be the victims of economic or political injustice feel that they are entitled to seize what society has withheld from them; they victimize their victimizers, thereby creating a society of victims. Those who feel betrayed or injured or coerced lash out in an attempt to even the scales in their favor; they leave behind themselves a trail of betrayals, injuries, and threats. Those who feel unjustly deprived of their liberties by the government-required precautions to stop the pandemic victimize all of society by refusing to avoid spreading infection.
I remain unmoved by the raw emotionality of the abortion debate in this county. I have little sympathy for those who take by force what they feel they’ve been denied. I am not convinced that risk-taking behavior, anti-social acts, and lawlessness preserve freedom. Retributive justice and crime differ, but not in their effects. Capital punishment and abortion are treated as unrelated issues in this country, but they are identical. Americans decry terrorism, but only when it is employed by someone who disagrees with our opinions. No public or private cause can be called just when it is the expression of the experience of victimization because all victims victimize, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of injustice.
Paul wrote, “The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body.” (1 Cor. 6:13) He was addressing a specific moral issue facing the church congregation at Corinth, but he was enunciating a general moral principle. In Catholicism, we consider ourselves to be members of the People-by-adoption; that is, we belong to God through baptism and through baptism are made one with one another. In the United States, we say we are one people guided by the rule of law. Regardless of confessional, racial, economic, political, and other differences, we are at our best when we are a community, and we are at our worst when we see ourselves as unaccountable to one another. Morality based on private sentiment will always degenerate into moral evil. The way to avoid perpetuating violence and injustice is to see clearly that our moral indignation can have negative effects on others.
Our visceral reactions to injustice should never be ignored, but these are insufficient bases for a response to injustice. Feelings of victimization are probably unavoidable; acting on those feelings, however, is avoidable. Being a victim of injustice leads unavoidably to victimizing others unless one grieves one’s loss and finds the empathy for others that leads one to stop the cycle of injustice. In Pauline terms, either one’s body (life) is for immorality or it is for the Lord; there is no middle ground.