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Ballot propositions: Social justice dimensions to support life

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Cardinal Joseph Bernadin was a powerful exponent for Catholic social justice throughout his life. In a 1984 address to Amnesty International, Cardinal Bernadin said that the “common element which links the many concerns of the church’s social ministry is its conviction about the unique dignity of each human person.” “Every social system,” he added, “east or west, north or south, communist or capitalist … should be judged by the way in which it reverences, or fails to reverence the unique and equal dignity of every person.” The cardinal believed that each life is a gift. He firmly believed in the seamless garment of the consistent ethic of life. It prompted him to address the issues of abortion, euthanasia, poverty, nuclear war and capital punishment with equal passion and conviction as fully fitting within the context of supporting life.The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, in agreement with Cardinal Bernadin’s underlying premise on the seamless garment of life, have made a critical moral discernment that while the state has the right to use capital punishment, that right should not be used in the United States. In November 2005, they issued “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death,” calling for an end to the use of the death penalty, and have stated since then that there are more appropriate and effective ways to defend and protect people.In “A Culture of Life,” the bishops stress that “Catholic teaching on the common good commits each of us to pursue the good of everyone and of society as a whole. When the state, in our names and with our taxes ends a human life despite having non-lethal alternatives, it suggests that society can overcome violence with violence. The use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned not only for what it does to those who are executed, but for what it does to all of society.” Individual states’ bishops’ conferences have done likewise. For example, in 2004 the Bishops of Kentucky, in their pastoral letter “A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice,” stated, unequivocally, “Kentucky should abolish the death penalty. Kentucky's governor should commute to life imprisonment without parole those sentenced to death.”Some suggest that death seems more humane than life in prison. Such a position approves of killing and also ignores the possibility of grace and conversion, as well as possible innocence. The staff at the Jesuit Initiative for Restorative Justice spends time with lifers teaching them how to pray, and helping them develop a spiritual life. They believe God’s love offers grace at every turn and that the human person, whatever guilt they bear, is worthy of God’s forgiveness and grace. Cardinal Bernadin described the same view when he addressed a committee of lawyers at Cook County Criminal Court:“It is when we stand in this perspective of a ‘higher court’ — that of God’s judgment seat — and a more noble view of the human person that we seriously question the appropriateness of capital punishment. We ask ourselves: Is the human family made more complete — is human personhood made more loving — in a society which demands life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth?”Some suggest that death seems more humane than life in prison. Such a position approves of killing and also ignores the possibility of grace and conversion, as well as possible innocence.In “A Culture of Life,” the bishops say the U.S. must forgo the use of the death penalty for the following reasons:—The sanction of death, when it is not necessary to protect society, violates respect for human life and dignity.—State-sanctioned killing in our names diminishes all of us.—Its application is deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors and is biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation, and where the crime was committed.At the same time, the bishops acknowledge that “those who work in the criminal justice system also deserve our concern, prayers and attention. Governors, wardens, correction officers, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and especially those involved directly in executions face difficult choices of life and death, crime and punishment, justice and mercy, rehabilitation and redemption. In addition, some may find themselves required to participate in a process they find morally objectionable.”On November 6, Catholics will go to the polls to vote on several propositions. The people of California will have a unique opportunity to change the course of policies in the state that are antithetical to the Church’s position on the primacy of life. Proposition 34 is one of those opportunities. A “yes” vote will eliminate the death penalty and change the sentence to life without parole. The list of supporters is impressive: Jeanne Woodford, former warden of San Quentin, who oversaw four executions; Don Heller and Ron Riggs, who helped write and pass California’s death penalty law in 1978; several victims’ rights groups, and a former California attorney general. The list also includes judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and several leadership bodies of civic and religious organizations. Also on the November state ballot are Proposition 35, which will create a stronger law against human trafficking, and Proposition 36, which will abrogate the “three strikes” law which many in the legal profession recognize as a bad law. All of these propositions demonstrate a direction and a change in the consciousness of people in California to a more humane and restorative sense of the common good and the sacredness of life. California has been a leader in the past; hopefully, it will again speak to the nation a new direction. St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister Patricia Krommer is a committee member of L.A. Catholics Against the Death Penalty, under the Office of Social Justice. This article is the second of a series.{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0921/prop34/{/gallery}

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