“Soul Searching”

François-Joseph Navez: Massacre of the Innocents, 1824

“Soul searching” is a phrase that has received great attention in recent days in blogs, radio talk shows, media commentaries and political discourse.  This introspection grows out of the killing of 20 first-grade children as they attended school in Newtown, Connecticut.  With them were their principal and five staff members of the school, some of whom are hailed as heroes for their self-sacrificing efforts to protect the children.

Among the elements in the talk of “soul searching” is the question, “Why so much violence in our land?”  For some it is a matter of better gun control.  This is increasingly more difficult to argue against, especially when contrasted with those who support an almost absolute and unconditioned freedom of choice when it comes to weapons.

For others, the question of the prevalence of violence in our culture goes to something far more deep:  Have we created a culture in which human life is seriously and gravely devalued?  Have we created a mindset that says you can readily take human life if you feel you have good cause?

Years ago, I attended a hearing that involved city officials, law enforcement officers and leaders in the business, education, philanthropic, social service and religious communities.  Among those who interacted with this panel were a group of “at-risk” young people.  One 14-year-old youngster was asked why he felt no remorse when resorting to violence, even lethal violence.  His reply has stayed with me for years.  “How come you get to draw the line?” he retorted.  When asked by the mayor, “What do you mean?” he simply repeated his position, “How come you get to say when it is alright to kill somebody and I don’t?  How come you get to draw the line when it’s acceptable for you and grownups?  I’m doing what you do.  I just draw the line in a different place.”

The Church has spoken out for 2,000 years on the sacredness of all human life.  The Feast of the Holy Innocents that we commemorate in these days is lifted up for us precisely because those infant children, not much younger than the ones shot at Newtown, were killed because someone determined that it was alright, that it was legal, that it was permissible, that it enjoyed the support of one who put his own desire before even the lives of others.  The fact that the Holy Innocents were innocent, had committed no crime, had violated no one’s rights, never entered the picture.

The Church teaches the sacredness, the dignity, the value, and the transcendent worth of all human life.  It is for this reason that we pray for the protection of all human life from the moment of conception through to a natural death.  At no point, beginning, middle or end, can we claim a right simply to take innocent human life and expect that we are not sending a very loud message to the generation who looks to government, law, society, Church, political figures for some moral guidance, some sense of right and wrong.

Recently I was asked why the Church opposes the death penalty since it is imposed on those who are judged to be no longer innocent.  My response is that the fundamental respect owed to all human life should prevent the taking of the lives of even the guilty if non-lethal measures are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety. “Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm . . . the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare if not practically non-existent.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267 (quoting Blessed John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56)).

Those calling for soul searching across our nation do us all a service.  The commemoration of the Holy Innocents, those children who died violently and needlessly, should become, if it has not already, the national day of soul searching on how it has come to be that we value so lightly and treat so cavalierly the dignity, sacredness and worth of every single human life.