Martino: Catholic role on death penalty overlooked because of link to abortion

On Tuesday, the General Assembly of the United Nations approved a resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty by a vote of 104 nations in favor, 54 against, and 29 abstentions. Today, L’Osservatore Romano, the official Vatican newspaper, carried an interview with Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, commenting on the result. The following is an NCR translation of that interview from the Italian.

Your Eminence, the General Assembly of the United Nations has approved a moratorium on the death penalty. Is it time to stop and celebrate?

I’m happy with this result. It’s an important step forward, even if it’s a matter, fortunately, of a result that was fairly preordained since the preliminary commission had already given its approval. Yet, I’m only half-satisfied. I will be fully content only when the death penalty is abolished everywhere and by everyone.

The consensus was broad. There was a majority within the UN, after two failed attempts in the 1990s. Can we speak of a culture of life taking shape in the legal arena?

For now we have a declaration of intent, which is certainly very important, but it’s not automatically destined to be translated into concrete applications. We have to see if those who voted against it will abstain from the practice of capital execution, something about which I have grave concerns. Moreover, 29 countries abstained, for reasons that in my view are more about geopolitics and alliances than the merits of the question. Therefore, not only is there no general consensus, but as often happens, contingent and specific interests threaten to prevail over ideal visions, and short-term results may be imposed upon a “higher” politics, politics in the noble sense of the term.

Certainly, as you say, a majority was finally reached on the moratorium. Those who worked to reach this objective should be encouraged, but they shouldn’t dedicate too much time to complacency, but rather quickly renew efforts to arrive at the final objective, which is complete abolition. The path about which you’re speaking is still a long one.

In this effort, Italy certainly had a leading role. In the Italian press, among other things, the outcome has been attributed to a battle led by the radicals. Is that accurate?

Whoever has been committed in this effort made a contribution, and a round of applause can be directed at the Italian government. The idea of attributing preponderant influence to the radicals, however, strikes me as excessive, to say the least. Certainly the contribution made by the church has not been insignificant, both in terms of papal teaching and its institutional components, above all the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, as well as the immense commitment of Catholic associations inspired by the social doctrine of the church.

In the case of the moratorium on the death penalty, the Community of Sant’Egidio obviously should be recognized, which has carried out efforts to sensitize opinion throughout the world with good international visibility. We also should remember, however, that there are so many other Catholic forces – movements, associations, diocesan organizations, far too numerous to cite them all – constantly engaged in education, assistance and witness, committed to serving the human person and to defending human rights, beginning with the first of these rights, which is the right to life.

This Catholic contribution does not seem to get the recognition that other social actors enjoy. You represented the Holy See for many years at the UN, and now you lead Vatican offices especially committed in the social and political arenas. What theory do you have to explain this lack of recognition?

The reason is exactly what I said before. Catholics, both those active in politics and diplomacy and those involved in various movements, have as their guiding principle the absolute value of human life from conception to natural death, a principle which doesn’t allow them to exult in a positive step forward without considering those objectives that have not yet been reached, or worse, those which have been denied. Catholics don’t consider the right to life as something that can be handled on a case-by-case basis, or split apart. I’m thinking about the indiscriminate use of war, or the lack of security in the workplace.

But the most obvious example is that of millions and millions of killings of human beings who are clearly innocent, meaning unborn children. Facts, not just principles, tell us that abortion is not the much-trumpeted ‘lesser evil’ in defense of women, but a systematic, even selective instrument of turning human beings into commodities. Just consider how numerous reports confirm that in some countries abortion is a means for promoting the birth of males over females, who are considered less ‘remunerative.’

Are you referring simply to alarming practices or also to bodies of law?

Both. There are many countries in the world which define themselves as states of law. Yet in their legislation, they discriminate heavily against the weakest and most defenseless category: the unborn. It’s important to emphasize that there’s a sort of schizophrenia, in that certain rights are recognized for the unborn – for example in terms of property, but there are other examples – and yet they’re denied the principal right, which is the right to life.

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here