Religion Journal: Standing Against Death Penalty

Next month, the United States will resume executing federal prisoners, ending a four-decade hiatus, putting to death Timothy J. McVeigh, the man convicted of mass murder in bombing the Oklahoma City Federal Building six years ago.

News organizations have booked hotel rooms for miles around Terre Haute, Ind., where the execution will take place. Victims' families will be allowed, if they choose, to watch the execution on closed-circuit television. To speak out against the execution means going against the current, taking a minority position.

But some, like the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Indianapolis, Daniel M. Buechlein, whose jurisdiction includes Terre Haute, have. The archbishop's statement, posted on the archdiocese's Internet site (www .htm), minces no words about the enormity of Mr. McVeigh's crime, declaring it difficult to conceive of a more heinous act or to imagine the impact on the families of the 168 people who were killed.

"Rational analysis is difficult in the face of the emotion that this man's crime evokes," he writes. "Yet, in matters such as this, the good of society requires that we rise to the challenge of a measured and larger vision."

Thus, Archbishop Buechlein wrote, the church opposes the death penalty, even in this case, because it can cause society more harm than good by feeding a demand for revenge.

In an interview, the archbishop said he had "seen no evidence that capital punishment" worked as a deterrent to vicious crimes. Moreover, he said, "to kill people who have killed people, whether that's government-sponsored or otherwise, is feeding a cycle of violence that I think is alarming."

Archbishop Buechlein said he had emphasized to people that the church was "deeply concerned for the victims and their loved ones."

"The way I come at it is, `Do you want to continue the cycle of revenge?' " he added. "Timothy McVeigh in a very real way took revenge on the federal government for Waco and Ruby Ridge with a very heinous crime."

In recent years, Pope John Paul II has become increasingly outspoken against the death penalty. Improvements in society's ability to keep people incarcerated have made the need for capital punishment "practically non-existent," the pope has written, and the archbishop quotes in his statement.

The church does not deny government a right in principle to take a convict's life. But Catholic teaching on the circumstances in which capital punishment may be used has changed in recent years.

That was discussed last fall by Cardinal Avery Dulles, the Jesuit theologian, in a lecture from which Archbishop Buechlein drew heavily for his statement. Cardinal Dulles, who teaches at Fordham University, said that church teaching held that punishment of criminals should have four purposes: rehabilitation, society's defense against the criminal, deterrence to crime and retribution.

He analyzed each in relation to the death penalty, paying particular attention to the idea of retribution. He said that in earlier eras, government could be seen to act symbolically on behalf of God, as the protector of "a transcendent order of justice."

That idea, he wrote, no longer holds, as government is instead seen to represent the popular will.

"In this modern perspective, the death penalty expresses not the divine judgment on objective evil but rather the collective anger of the group," he wrote.

In an interview, Cardinal Dulles said that in a democracy, "the state is not seen as a superior institution over against the people, but rather as an instrument of the people."

That, he added, "changes the rules of the game" where capital punishment is concerned.

A New Sermon by Dr. King

Thirty-six years ago, the Rev. James J. Reeb was mortally wounded by attackers in a civil rights' demonstration in Selma, Ala. Now, the Unitarian Universalist Association, the denomination to which he belonged, has brought to light a previously unpublished sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Mr. Reeb's memorial service.

The sermon, transcribed from a tape-recording, appears in the May/ June issue of UU World, the denomination's magazine, and on its Internet site,

The March 1965 sermon shows Dr. King in all his prophetic power, declaring that despite the uncertainties of the day, "something profoundly meaningful" was occurring in the civil rights movement.

"Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away," he said. "Out of the wombs of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born."

At some future point, Dr. King said, the nation would recognize its "real heroes" — men and women who in "agonizing loneliness" withstood the furies of the mob. Mr. Reeb, he said, would be numbered among them.

John Hurley, a spokesman for the association, said, "As far as we know, the text has never been published." He said the association would make the audio version of the sermon available on its Internet site.