Thursday, April 22, 2010

Death Row and the Catholic Church

The State of Ohio put to death Darryl Durr just this past Tuesday. Attempts were made to stop this process, citing that Durr was allergic to the anesthesia. The circus continues in Ohio's saga of executions. Another execution is scheduled every month in Ohio through November (it was originally September when this post was written).

Some argue that justice was done. Yet a crime creates obligations, according to Howard Zehr. Victims and their families may need pastoral care. They may need financial support or help managing daily life. Society may need education to prevent further crimes. Yet, our justice system focuses almost exclusively on inflicting a penalty to the offender while leaving the rest wholly unaddressed.

Where is the Catholic Church on the death penalty?

The US Bishops have been working against the death penalty for decades, along with bishops from numerous other nations as well as the Vatican.

Pope John Paul II led the way by clarifying 2,000 years of magisterial tradition. He put strong limits on any Church support for the death penalty.

A key document is his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the famed "Gospel of Life. It issues some of the strongest and most definitive statements on capital punishment to ever come out of the magisterium.

It speaks of the absolute respect for life and the indispensable nature of the fifth commandment. The Gospel of Life includes all life: Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity. In several places, the pope affirms that it is only God who is the absolute Lord of the life of man.

Evangelium Vitae was released to the world on the Feast of the Annunciation, fifteen years ago. This Feast Day announces the Good News of the Incarnation of Christ on earth. The very real, and not merely symbolic presence of Christ, is in everyone.

In the introductory paragraph, John Paul II writes that Christmas also reveals the full meaning of every human birth, and the joy which accompanies the Birth of the Messiah is thus seen to be the foundation and fulfilment of joy at every child born into the world.

Christ of the Breadline, by Fritz Eichenberg

Jesus was not speaking metaphorically when he said in the Gospel Matthew, For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35), as theologian Thomas R. Rourke points out. This presence of Christ is in each human person, and all humans share this common solidarity. As a result, John Paul II states that all killing, like the story of Cain and Abel, is fratricide--bother against brother.

Not only were all humans created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), but the Mystery of the Incarnation of Christ brings that to fulfillment.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has adopted much of John Paul II's language and reads: The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

Adding: such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

The Catholic Church's position is nuanced, and as a result it has been the source of a lot of confusion. The rather liberal way the Church has supported the death penalty in previous centuries has not helped in this matter, either.

The bottom line is this: The Catholic Church is basically saying it is not absolutely pacifist. The Church has not, and probably will not, ever 100% rule out the possibility of support for the death penalty. However, this is the furthest thing from a blank check of endorsement.

The overall moral obligation to value and protect all life--including the guilty--must be held alongside not just the right but the duty to protect oneself and the common good of society. If there is an immediate threat, the Church has declared that it will not rule out the death penalty as a possible response.

However, instances of this in the modern world are more in the realm of theoretical possibility rather than something that actually happens. Let's not forget the important clause that shows the scope of Church teaching: Such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

When describing the "consistent ethic of life," Cardinal Bernardin summarized Church teaching by stating that there should always be a presumption against taking human life.

So then what can justify taking a life? Only a clear and present threat to other lives.

The focus of Catholic morality is living in the mercy of Jesus, taking Gospel risks to "be not afraid" and fostering not just life but well-being. Those should take preeminence over an emergency, last-ditch effort to treat violence with violence. That should only happen after all else has been tried and tried again and there is simply no other option.

In other words, the death penalty is not an acceptable means of punishment in a purely retributive sense. It is only considered a possibility when collective defense is factored in. When you consider modern prisons and research showing the ineffectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent, it is an extremely unlikely possibility.

Perhaps it would be easier if the Catholic Church could just say it was against the death penalty in an absolute sense and be done with it. That would be simpler. There are many who would like to see the Church embrace a wholly pacifist stance. Some say the Church is already saying that, since the death penalty is not a punishment per se but only a self defense of last resort.

To the average Catholic on the street, the intense theological debates over specific vocabulary do not change the reality that the Church is, for all practical purposes, thoroughly against the death penalty. The gap between absolute pacifism and where the Church stands is extremely narrow if not practically non-existent, to borrow a quote.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

In Short: Wow!

It is hard to believe how many projects were begun and completed at the community garden this morning. People brought a lot of skills and enthusiasm, and there were many hands to do the work. What a great way to spend a Saturday morning!

The best is to let the pictures tell the story:

A team installed the rainwater catchment system off of the old baseball backstop. Last year's system was taken down for the winter, and a modified version was put up today. Frank H. and Brian (above), with Perry looking on from below, are hard at work attaching the panels and gutters.

Perry & son are working to connect the downspouts to the large, 250-gallon drums that were donated by Coca-Cola.

Erin S. is posing next to a thorn less blackberry she just planted.

Earlier this week, Fr. John dropped off a box of thorn less blackberries that he dug up from his family's farm. Erin S., Erin W. and I planted them this morning in a rich mixture of last year's compost. Orchlene brought some stakes and a mighty sledgehammer to mark the location of the little shoots.

Paul and Jim (above) along with Kirk spent the morning sawing and hammering to fashion the new bulletin board. This will be a great way to post announcements, so that gardeners and visitors alike will have a sense of what is going on at the garden.

Suzanne "Queen of the Compost" and Jeff took the lead on building a sophisticated compost management system, using pallets donated by Lars.

Fresh compost will be placed in the bin on the left. As it breaks down, it will be moved to the middle bin. Ready-to-use compost will be in the final bin on the right.

Tim is busy above moving last year's stalks and vines into the new compost bins.

Erin K. and some neighborhood kids painted this colorful community garden sign last year. Joan is busy weather-sealing it, and it will soon be on display!

Zulma, Kirk and Erin K. are in the forefront above, with the bulletin board crew in the back.

The amazing thing is that this is truly a community effort, and no one person made this all happen. Contributions came from all over, and people made their presence felt.

That being said, a special shout out goes to Kirk, for doing so much of the coordinating and behind-the-scenes work to make sure people and supplies were ready this morning!

And the best part of all: There is always plenty of time for neighbors and friends to talk, eat donuts, and just have a good time!

In short: Wow!

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Greening the CCW

The Great Catholic Worker Light Bulb Swap is underway! Believe it or not, there are around 200 light bulbs in the Catholic Worker house! So far, we have replaced about 75 with fluorescent bulbs. We've strategically targeted high-traffic areas and high-wattage bulbs, and we'll get around to the rest eventually. The good news is that the kitchen and most of the basement (where the food pantry is located) is already outfitted with long, tubular fluorescent lights, but that has still left quite a few more to swap out.

Used light bulbs can go to the Free Store and to a friend who donated dozens of fluorescent bulbs to us but who himself prefers incandescents (some people are very sensitive to the glare). At first, we waited for them to burn out before replacing, but now we have a way to make sure they won't get wasted, so we decided to swap them out now.

A new Energy-Star refrigerator also graces the kitchen, replacing a model from 1985. Funds were low, but there were some tremendous savings and rebates this past weekend, part of them through the federal government. Even though we didn't have time to properly raise funds, we decided to seize the moment and ended up saving 35% off the price of a new fridge. A generous donor took the risk and purchased it, hoping to split the cost with someone else if anyone out there feels called to help.

Our clothes dryer and washing machine are also at the end of their usable life, and we hope to raise money to replace those, soon. Not only does the live-in community use those items, but we also offer them to some struggling neighbors. While I prefer to air-dry as much as possible, a dryer is useful for bedding and for guests.

We can't wait to replace the 4 gallons-per-flush toilets with newer, 1.5 gallon units. Just do the math: Imagine a workshop with about 40 participants, each flushing 3-4 times over the course of a 2-day retreat. That's around 650 gallons for a single weekend, and that might be a conservative estimate! We already bought 3 new units, now we just have to raise money to get them installed and then move on to the other units (there are a total of 10 plus another in the food pantry).

Like a lot of poor families, it is hard to allocate meager funds in order to be environmentally efficient. It is heartbreaking to scrape together $700 for a new refrigerator only to see about $8-10 in monthly savings. It does add up and it does pay for itself over the course of about 5 years, but when you're broke it is hard to make long-term plans like that. However, the environmental savings makes the decision a lot easier.

There are also plans to research how the boiler system works in this building, as most of our energy costs go to heat the place. It can be expensive to bring in a boiler expert to do this research, but there is quite a bit of potential savings. The boiler itself may be fine, but the complicated valve and pipe system can dramatically affect efficiency if it is not set properly, we have recently learned.

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Our core group member Erin just made some improvements on her house, and it is worth pointing those out as it can be useful for others to know about these things.

First off, she qualified for a free comprehensive home weatherization program! She did this by meeting certain income requirements. There was a team that came over to stuff the walls full of insulation, seal the duct work, and perform numerous other weatherization tasks. She also got a new furnace.

Check out this link for more information on this federally-funded program, and pass this information on to others. A local group called IMPACT did the work. The best way to start the process is to call IMPACT directly.

Replacing appliances and light bulbs are wonderful things, but the real hippopotamus in the living room is the energy savings that comes from a properly insulated home.

Last but most certainly not least, long-time Catholic Worker friend Jonathan through his company Rainbrothers will be out today installing two new rain barrels at Erin's house. The fresh water that runs off her roof will now be used to water her vegetable garden and flowers.

It took me a while to understand how rain barrels could be an environmental benefit, but it works like this: Instead of pumping city water that has been treated with chlorine and other chemicals, she can instead harvest the fresh rainwater from her roof. Significant amounts of water are overflowing the city sewers as they run off rooftops, roads and sidewalks. That water would normally be used to build up the local water table, but instead it is being flushed out in the drains. It makes no sense to drain away the water that is naturally falling onto her property only to pump it back up again, treated with chemicals.

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There is still nothing better than plain old fashioned conservation. Despite all the advances in energy efficiency, nothing save quite as much energy as simply not using it in the first place!