January 30, 2015

Rejoice in the Lord

God’s justice is always tempered with mercy

Archbishop Joseph W. TobinIn his encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”), St. John Paul II recalls the story of humanity’s first act of violence, Cain’s murder of his brother Abel (Gn 4:2-16).

“Cain said to Abel his brother, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground’ ” (Gn 4:8-10).

As the story continues, the Lord declares that Cain is cursed—unable to till the soil, a fugitive and wanderer on the Earth. Cain protests: “My punishment is greater than I can bear” (Gn 4:13). He fears for his life: “Behold you have driven me this day away from the ground; and from your face I shall be hidden … and whoever finds me will slay me” (Gn 4:14).

“Not so!” says the Lord. “If anyone slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who came upon him should kill him” (Gn 4:15).

This is a strange and tragic story. With it begins all the horrors of man’s inhumanity to man throughout the ages. As St. John Paul observes, “Cain’s killing of his brother at the very dawn of history is thus a sad witness of how evil spreads with amazing speed: man’s revolt against God in the earthly paradise is followed by the deadly combat of man against man” (“Evangelium Vitae,” #8).

Abel’s foul murder must be avenged, so God punishes Cain. He excommunicates him—making him an outcast and a fugitive from his homeland. The sentence is a just one. Cain has forfeited his right to be a productive, contributing member of society. He is therefore condemned to loneliness and frustration—hidden from the face of God.

But Cain fears an even worse punishment. He expects to be slain by those who would avenge his brother’s death. He knows that vengeance is the natural instinct of women and men, a powerful motivation for those who have been unjustly deprived of someone they love.

But God has a different idea. His justice is tempered by mercy. He does not want one tragic death to be followed by another. So the Lord forbids anyone from taking Cain’s life. He threatens a severe—sevenfold!—punishment for anyone who dares to take Cain’s life. “And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who came upon him should kill him.”

St. John Paul II uses this powerful biblical account of Cain and Abel to remind us that God’s ways are not our ways. His justice is swift and severe, but it has nothing to do with the desire for vengeance.

In fact, the Holy Father tells us that God’s justice is paradoxically combined with his mercy. “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity,” the Holy Father writes (“Evangelium Vitae,” #9). The sacredness of human life transcends all earthly categories. It is an absolute truth that God himself pledges to guarantee.

The truth about the incomparable worth of every human being compelled St. John Paul (himself the victim of a near-fatal assassination attempt) to propose that, while it is true that civil authority has the right to impose the death penalty in cases of absolute necessity (when no other means is available), “such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (“Evangelium Vitae,” #56).

He believed that today there is no compelling moral or public policy argument for the death penalty as a legitimate means of punishment even for the most heinous crimes. No mass murderer or terrorist or purveyor of evil must be executed in order to protect our society. Other ways are available to defend public order and ensure people’s safety.

As a result, the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states the Church’s view on this controversial issue: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person” (#2267).

Unlike abortion and euthanasia, which are intrinsically evil and never permissible, legitimate civil authority may have to resort to capital punishment in an extreme (“very rare, practically non-existent”) case.

But as our Church teaches, in nearly every case imaginable, the Lord’s way—justice tempered with mercy—is the right way. †

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