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SIDIC Periodical XXXIII - 2000/1
Transformation. Through. Dialogue. (Pages 22-25)

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December 6, 1999. The National Jewish-Catholic Consultation, USA*

“ A Sanhedrin that puts one person to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: Or even once in 70 years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba say: Had we been the Sanhedrin, none would ever have been put to death.” – Mishnah Makkot, 1:10 (2nd century, C.E.)

“A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.” – Pope John Paul II, Jan. 27, 1999, St. Louis, MO.

Almost two millennia separate these two statements, which together embody the collective wisdom and moral insights of our two ancient religious traditions, rabbinic Judaism and Roman Catholicism, on a burning issue of our time, capital punishment. At our meeting of Mar. 23, 1999, we religious leaders, Catholic and Jewish, probed and shared our own traditions with each other.1 The result was a remarkable confluence of witness on how best in our time to interpret the eternal word of God.

Both traditions begin with an affirmation of the sanctity of human life. Both, as the above statements imply, acknowledge the theoretical possibility of a justifiable death sentence, since the Scriptures mandate it for certain offenses.2 Yet both have over the centuries narrowed those grounds until today we would say together that it is time to cease the practice altogether. To achieve this consensus we analyzed the statements of our respective bodies going back to the late 1970s and we agree that in them we found a growing conviction that the arguments offered in defense of the death penalty are less than persuasive in the face of the overwhelming mandate in both Jewish and Catholic traditions to respect the sanctity of human life.

Some would argue that the death penalty is needed as a means of retributive justice to balance out the crime with the punishment. This reflects a natural concern of society and especially of victims and their families. Yet we believe that we are called to seek a higher road even while punishing the guilty, for example, through long and in some cases lifelong incarceration, so that the healing of all can ultimately take place.

Some would argue that the death penalty is needed as a deterrent to crime. Yet the studies that lie behind our statements over the years have yet to reveal any objective evidence to justify this conclusion. Criminals tend to believe they will escape any consequences for their behavior or simply do not think of consequences at all, so an escalation of consequences is usually irrelevant to their state of mind at the time of the crime.

Some would argue that the death penalty will teach society at large the seriousness of crime. Yet we say that teaching people to respond to violence with violence will, again, only breed more violence.
Some would argue that our system of justice, trial by jury, can ensure that capital punishment will be meted out equitably to various groups in society and that the innocent will never be convicted. This is the least persuasive argument of all. Statistics, however weighted, indicate that errors are made in judgment and convictions. Recent scientific advances such as DNA testing may reveal that persons on death row, despite seemingly ‘overwhelming’ circumstantial evidence, may in fact be innocent of the charges against them. Likewise, suspiciously high percentages of those on death row are poor or people of color.3 Our legal system is a very good one, but it is a human institution. Even a small percentage of irreversible errors is increasingly seen as intolerable. God alone is the author of life.

The strongest argument of all is the deep pain and grief of the families of victims and their quite natural desire to see punishment meted out to those who have plunged them into such agony. 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. It is a difficult and long process of healing, which comes about through personal growth and God’s grace.

We agree that much more must be done by the religious community and by society at large to solace and care for the grieving families of the victims of violent crime.

Recent statements of the Reform and Conservative movements in Judaism and of the U.S. Catholic Conference sum up well the increasingly strong convictions shared by Jews and Catholics on the evil that is capital punishment:
In biblical times, capital punishment was a search for justice when justice seemed impossible to reach. As the rabbis did years ago when they considered the use of the death penalty, let us take the time to ask ourselves some relevant questions. Is justice reached when we are taking the chance of killing an innocent person? Is justice reached when we are discriminating against minorities in our death sentences? “See that justice is done,” the prophet Zechariah proclaims. If justice is not done by legalizing the death penalty – and it is not – human decency and biblical values that stress the sanctity of life require that we put an end to this grisly march of legalized death.4
Respect for all human life and opposition to the violence in our society are at the root of our longstanding opposition (as bishops) to the death penalty. We see the death penalty as perpetuating a cycle of violence and promoting a sense of vengeance in our culture. As we said in Confronting the Culture of Violence: “We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing.” We oppose capital punishment not just for what it does to those guilty of horrible crimes, but for what it does to all of us as a society. Increasing reliance on the death penalty diminishes all of us and is a sign of growing disrespect for human life. We cannot overcome crime by simply executing criminals, nor can we restore the lives of the innocent by ending the lives of those convicted of their murders. The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life.5
We affirm that we came to these conclusions because of our shared understanding of the sanctity of human life. We have committed ourselves to work together, and each within our own communities, toward ending the death penalty.

A Conference on Education, Remembrance and Research
January 26 – 28, 2000

On Jan. 26-28, 2000 an intergovernmental conference on the Holocaust was hosted in Stockholm, Sweden by Prime Minister Gören Persson. Intended to contribute to international cooperation on Holocaust education, remembrance and research, the conference followed the May 1998 agreement by the Swedish, British and USA Governments to establish a Task Force for this purpose. They were joined subsequently by Germany, Israel, Poland, the Netherlands, France and Italy. In a joint December 1998 declaration, the Task Force members stated: “Holocaust education, remembrance and research strengthen humanity’s ability to absorb and learn from the dark lessons of the past, so that we can ensure that similar horrors are never again repeated.” They declared: “We are committing our countries to encourage parents, teachers, and civic, political and religious leaders to undertake with renewed vigor and attention Holocaust education, remembrance and research, with a special focus on our countries’ histories.”

The Stockholm International Forum was attended by more than 400 invited delegates representing 48 nations. In addition to its official representatives, each country was able to include delegates representing research and educational communities, museum and archive staffs, and NGOs. Some multilateral organizations took part, and Holocaust survivors played a prominent role. Delegates representing the Holy See were present as observers. Professor Yehuda Bauer from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Center in Israel was the conference academic adviser, and Nobel Peace Laureate Elie Wiesel served as Honorary Chairman.

The Forum attempted to address the following fundamental issues:
• What can we learn from the Holocaust and how can the study of these events alert contemporary society to the dangers of racism, anti-semitism, ethnic conflict and other expressions of hatred and discrimination? Can we foresee the circumstances that give rise to persecution and genocide in order to prevent their recurrence?
• What can politicians and other forces in the community do to support education, remembrance and research about the Holocaust? And what should they do?
A selected group of international experts moderated and spoke in the context of 3 panel discussions and 13 workshops which focused on Education, Remembrance and Representation, and Research.

The Forum issued the following Declaration in the form of a message for the future, highlighting mutual understanding as one of the most important lessons to be learned from the Holocaust:


We, High Representatives of Governments at the Stockholm International Forum
on the Holocaust, declare that:

1. The Holocaust (Shoah) fundamentally challenged the foundations of civilization. The unprecedented character of the Holocaust will always hold universal meaning. After half a century, it remains an event close enough in time that survivors can still bear witness to the horrors that engulfed the Jewish people. The terrible suffering of the many millions of other victims of the Nazis has left an indelible scar across Europe as well.

2. The magnitude of the Holocaust, planned and carried out by the Nazis, must be forever seared in our collective memory. The selfless sacrifices of those who defied the Nazis, and sometimes gave their own lives to protect or rescue the Holocaust’s victims, must also be inscribed in our hearts. The depths of that horror, and the heights of their heroism, can be touchstones in our understanding of the human capacity for evil and for good.

3. With humanity still scarred by genocide, ethnic cleansing, racism, anti-semitism and xenophobia, the international community shares a solemn responsibility to fight those evils. Together we must uphold the terrible truth of the Holocaust against those who deny it. We must strengthen the moral commitment of our peoples, and the political commitment of our governments, to ensure that future generations can understand the causes of the Holocaust and reflect upon its consequences.

4. We pledge to strengthen our efforts to promote education, remembrance and research about the Holocaust, both in those of our countries that have already done much and those that choose to join this effort.

5. We share a commitment to encourage the study of the Holocaust in all its dimensions. We will promote education about the Holocaust in our schools and universities, in our communities and encourage it in other institutions.

6. We share a commitment to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust and to honor those who stood against it. We will encourage appropriate forms of Holocaust remembrance, including an annual Day of Holocaust Remembrance, in our countries.

7. We share a commitment to throw light on the still obscured shadows of the Holocaust. We will take all necessary steps to facilitate the opening of archives in order to ensure that all documents bearing on the Holocaust are available to researchers.

8. It is appropriate that this, the first major international conference of the new millennium, declares its commitment to plant the seeds of a better future amidst the soil of a bitter past. We empathize with the victims’ suffering and draw inspiration from their struggle. Our commitment must be to remember the victims who perished, respect the survivors still with us, and reaffirm humanity’s common aspiration for mutual understanding and justice.


* The National Jewish-Catholic Consultation is cosponsored by the National Council of Synagogues and the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
1 Jewish statements discussed by the Jewish-Catholic Consultation included the resolutions on capital punishment of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1958, 1960 and 1979); the 1959 social action resolution of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Opposing Capital Punishment; the 1960 report of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards on capital punishment (proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, vol. 24, 289-91); the 1978 statement of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism; the Rabbinical Assembly resolution on capital punishment of May, 1996 and that of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations of March 22, 1999.
Catholic documents included several by Pope John Paul II such as the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (Nos. 53-57); the 1998 Christmas Day message To End the Death Penalty; the January 1999 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America (No. 63); and his homily in St. Louis of Jan. 27, 1999. Reviewed also were the statements of the U.S. Catholic Conference on March 24, 1999; the Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty issued by the Administrative Board of the U.S. Catholic Conference on April 2, 1999; and statements issued from 1997 to 1999 by Presidents of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the chairmen of the bishops’ Domestic Policy and Pro-Life committees. Archbishop Renato Martino, the Holy See’s nuncio to the United Nations, summarized Developments in Church Teaching on the death penalty, including those reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in an address published in Origins (March 18, 1999, pp. 682-684)
2 The Encyclopedia Judaica (Vol. 5, 142-147) notes that stoning, which involved “the active participation of the whole populace (Lv 24:16; Num 15:35; Dt 17:17)” was “the standard form of execution of judicial execution in biblical times (Lv 24:23; Num 15:36; 1 Kgs 21:13).” Many scholars presume that this is because serious crimes (blasphemy, murder, etc.) could threaten the covenant relationship and so were not seen simply as individual infractions.
3 Since 1976, when the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, about 80 persons on death row have had their convictions overturned, approximately 1 percent of the total sentenced to death in that period. For further information and ongoing, updated statistics, see the Web site of the Death Penalty Information Center: www.essential.org/dpic .
4 Statement to the Massachusetts Legislature by Jerome Somers, chairman, board of trustees, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, March 22, 1999.
5 Statement of the Administrative Committee of the U.S. Catholic Conference, March 24, 1999


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