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
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
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
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.)