Catholic and Jewish leaders today will jointly launch a national campaign to abolish the death penalty, in an effort to reignite what they see as a largely forgotten but urgent crusade.
By uniting their efforts, the nation's Catholic bishops and Reform and Conservative rabbis hope to turn a sectarian concern of limited public interest into the next abortion cause, as they vow to lobby statehouses, activate local and national protest groups, and teach what they consider irrefutable biblical truth in churches, temples and schools.
At a time when 70 percent to 80 percent of Americans say they support capital punishment--viewing it as just, fair and a deterrent to crime--the new campaign by the National Jewish/Catholic Consultation is meant to remind Americans and their political leaders who support capital punishment of the moral dimension of taking a human life.
"It sends a powerful message," said Mark Pelavin, who represents Reform Judaism for the committee, which includes the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Council of Synagogues.
"Too much discussion of the death penalty is allowed to be about case law and numbers and statistics. As religious communities, we want to remind policymakers that the taking of a human life is a moral issue," Pelavin said.
Jewish and Catholic leaders have opposed the death penalty at least since the 1960s. But the renewed urgency was inspired by Pope John Paul II. During his January visit to St. Louis, the pontiff chastised Americans for selectively ignoring the sanctity of human life, in a moving speech quoted in today's statement.
"The dignity of human life must never be taken away even in the case of someone who has done great evil," the pope said during a Mass attended by more than 100,000 people. "I renew the appeal for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."
It was on that trip that the pope persuaded Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan (D) to commute the death sentence of a triple murderer. Since then, the pope, through his U.S. representative, has been writing to governors of every state before each execution and pleading with them to reconsider.
For both religions, the crusade involves changing the thinking of their faithful, too. Two-thirds of U.S. Catholics support the death penalty, roughly the same percentage of Americans as a whole. Although Jewish support for capital punishment is not that high, it is growing steadily, Pelavin said.
In a joint statement to be issued today, religious leaders of the 12-year-old Jewish/Catholic Consultation attack capital punishment from many angles, moving from policy to theology.
They say the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime, citing studies showing that criminals do not think of the consequences of their actions. They dispute that judicial checks and balances prevent the innocent from being convicted, citing the recent wave of cases in which new DNA evidence overturned what were thought to be solid convictions. And they cite racial disparities, lamenting that "a suspiciously high percentage of those on death row are poor or people of color."
"The strongest argument of all [in favor of capital punishment] is the pain and grief of the families of victims," they say. "Yet it is the clear teaching of our traditions that this pain and suffering cannot be healed simply through the retribution of capital punishment or by vengeance."
"We have to be considerate of the relatives of victims," said Cardinal William Keeler, representative of the bishops on the committee. "But we have to give prisoners an opportunity to change their attitudes and repent."
The freshest arguments are the theological. In the statement, the Catholic and Jewish leaders pick apart common religious myths about capital punishment to demonstrate that Jewish sages and Jesus objected to the practice except in very rare cases.
"An eye for an eye" was never meant literally and never applied, said Eugene Fisher, a specialist on Catholic-Jewish relations at the U.S. Catholic Conference. In the three places where it is cited, the phrase is invoked to limit retribution.
In a story in Exodus, for example, when a man punches a pregnant woman and she loses her child, the judge invokes the concept to urge monetary compensation and prevent a feud.
Much more prominent, said Fisher, are Jesus's pacifist bent and his admonitions to turn the other cheek and not throw the first stone.
"This was no small part of Jesus's message," Fisher said. "It was quite possibly one of the most important topics of his time."
Jewish sages at the time agreed.
"A Sanhedrin that puts one person to death once in seven years is called destructive," reads a second-century Jewish text quoted in the statement. "Rabbi Eliezer ben Azriah says: Or even once in seventy years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba say: Had we been Sanhedrin, none would ever have been put to death."