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Supporting the Eminently correct stance on capital punishment



Cardinal Pell says capital publishment is always wrong. As Schappele Corby awaits her verdict this Friday, Australian Catholics have a duty speak up.


by Tony Smith

It is almost a matter of definition that 'intellectual' Catholics are in constant disagreement with the hierarchy. Those Catholics who do not abdicate the responsibility for thinking and so accept all theological decisions that are passed down from on high are bound to be critical of policies and statements they regard as ill considered. Perhaps because these well educated and confident Catholics always seem to be complaining, we tend to keep quiet if only to give others a break from our carping when nothing is wrong. This is an unfortunate tendency because it can mean we neglect to express support for those statements and actions that really deserve applause.

We all deal in generalisations. It is much simpler if we have our heroes to worship and villains to condemn, and insensitive statements and actions by political and religious leaders tend to reinforce our prejudices. This polarisation was evident during discussions about the papacy of John Paul II and the process of choosing a successor. Those of us who consider ourselves to be more rational Catholics tended to dismiss the conservatives as incurable and - based on experience - we showed a deal of scepticism about the role his eminence Cardinal Pell might have played in the succession.

It is, however, always good to have our preconceptions challenged, and Cardinal Pell showed on his return to Australia that most of us are more complex than the caricatures drawn of us by our critics. Cardinal Pell had no sooner landed than he was asked about the fate of the so-called Bali 9, accused of drug trafficking in Indonesia. The news report had the Cardinal stating unequivocally that he would appeal for clemency to be shown the accused, and unless I misunderstand the Cardinal, his appeal would be based not on any particulars of the alleged crimes but because of one specific circumstance. That is, capital punishment is wrong in principle. It is wrong when applied to any human being because the right to live is an unalienable human right of any citizen of any state. As the international protocols accepted by most countries show, the state does not have the power to kill.

Capital punishment is wrong in principle, inhumane in performance and negative in effect. The arguments for executing criminals are hypocritical and absurd. The debate should have moved on and the only reason that this unjust punishment survives is because of the timidity of political and religious leaders. Australia has abandoned executions for over a generation now and none but the most rabid 'shock jocks' risk inflaming the barbarians in our midst by raising the issue locally. However, in recent times, our foreign policy subservience to the USA and our addiction to fighting terrorism have led political leaders into some very weak positions. Leaders on both sides of parliament have taken a relativist attitude to a number of possible executions. So while stressing that they personally did not support capital punishment, the Prime Minister and Opposition Leaders have condoned the possibility for the leader of the terrorists who struck in the USA on 9/11, the leader of the terrorists who arranged the Bali bombing and of course, Saddam Hussein.

Perhaps Government officials have to be circumspect about interfering in the affairs of other countries. However, capital punishment is either wrong in principle or it is not. If you believe it is wrong, then no human being anywhere must be killed by the state, regardless of the supposed justifications offered. And if freedom from state execution is a human right, then it arises prior to membership of any particular society or country. Therefore, it does not matter where you happen to be born, reside, or be arrested and tried. Our common humanity demands that we not be executed. While it is understandable that agents of the Australian state want to respect the sovereignty and integrity of other states, to abrogate one's responsibility for human rights is too high a cost to pay.

While Cardinal Pell has a generally conservative reputation, it ought not be forgotten that the Church leadership has severely criticised Australian Government policy in some areas that intellectual Catholics should appreciate. In particular, by condemning refugee policy and participation in the Iraq War, the hierarchy should have encouraged even greater Catholic dissent from the Government line. Of course, Pell has been criticised for his apparently partisan attitude to education funding, and his mental block regarding Rainbow Sashes drives us almost to despair. But while we cannot forget these and other aspects of leadership that we find unfortunate, we should be prepared to fall in behind him and offer support on those occasions where our consciences permit.

The Australian Justice Minister has welcomed Cardinal Pell's appeal for any Australians facing the death sentence, as in the cases of a man in Singapore and a woman in Indonesia. However, the Government needs to go further and to appeal for states to abandon the penalty everywhere against their own citizens too. The Cardinal has shown leadership on this issue and we should applaud him for it and take the opportunity to press the Australian Government now to forget any qualms it may have about interfering in the affairs of other nation states. It is time for leaders of Government and Opposition to condemn capital punishment as wrong in principle and to call for every country to abandon it immediately and completely. And who knows? Such a victory for common sense, ethics and compassion could be infectious.

Tony Smith is a journalist.






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