The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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September 29, 2000 Issue
Eye on the Capitol

Debate over slavery parallels debate on death penalty

There are some interesting connections and one significant contrast in them

By John Huebscher

In The Emergence of Lincoln, historian Allan Nevins recounts the breakup of the Union and the extent to which slavery contributed to it. The story he tells offers some interesting parallels - and one significant contrast - to our current debate over the morality of the death penalty.

As is the case today with the death penalty, slavery was being abandoned by most advanced nations of the world. Just as today the U.S. stands virtually alone among industrialized nations in its practice of killing criminals, by 1860, only the U.S. and Brazil tolerated slave holding. Even Czarist Russia was well on the way to freeing its serfs before Lincoln became President.

Then as now, America's claim as a moral leader of the world was undermined by its determination to cling to and justify a practice viewed by most others as barbaric.

In the late 1850s, Americans traveling abroad were confronted with denunciations of slavery and challenged to explain why a nation that called itself freedom loving could deny freedom to human beings within its borders.

Today, Americans visiting Europe and other modern nations encounter similar challenges regarding the death penalty and its impact on our nation's claim to be the moral conscience of the globe.

For Catholics, the historical record cited by Nevins offers its own lesson and reveals a striking difference from the death penalty debate.

Nevins notes that in the U.S., the clamor to end slavery was primarily a cause for Protestant churches in the North while the Catholic voice was seldom heard. Elsewhere, however, the Catholic Church was a strong opponent of slavery.

In the 40 years prior to the Civil War, slavery was eliminated in virtually all of South America. On that heavily Catholic continent, the church, as Nevins writes "threw itself on the side of forces that labored for manumission, social equality, emancipation, and intermarriage."

Nevins does not speak much as to why Catholics were in the vanguard of the anti-slavery movement south of the border and mostly silent in the United States. One may suggest that as the dominant religion in South America, the church felt more capable of challenging the social and economic forces that dominated the culture whereas in the U.S., the smaller, immigrant church was less comfortable doing so.

That is certainly not the case with the death penalty.

Today, Catholics, who now represent American's largest single religious denomination, are in the front lines in the anti-death penalty debate.

Bishops openly confront politicians who support the death penalty. It was here in the U.S. that the Holy Father openly intervened with the governor of Missouri to save the life of a condemned criminal.

Just as the church in Latin America linked the effort to end slavery to the value that people of Spanish and Native American backgrounds should regard each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, so does the church today link the effort to end the death penalty to the larger cause of affirming the value of all human life.

Unlike the effort to end slavery, the cause of ending the inhumanity of the death penalty has yet to be successful. But this time no one will have trouble discerning where the Catholic voice is in the debate.

(Huebscher is executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the civil arm of the state's five diocesan bishops.)

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