It was the second night of RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults), and Ted, the amateur catechist in charge of the class, was on a roll. The students were an odd lot of fallen-away Catholics, disgruntled Protestants who wanted to become Catholics, and men and women engaged to Catholics who objected to mixed marriages. Ted began by assuring the class that all religions pretty much worship the same God and teach the same moral code. A hand went up—the wise guy from the week before.
“What about suttee—you know, the Hindu custom that burned a wife alive with her dead husband?”
Ted allowed as how he did not know much about Hinduism and attempted to go on.
“What about Muslims who have four wives and think they go to Heaven if they murder innocent people?”
“I don’t think you understand much about Islam. Of course there are fanatics, but the true Islam is a religion of peace that protects all people of the book, as they call Christians and Jews.”
“You’d better not say that aloud in Iran or Pakistan. But what about Santeria and voodoo or the Aztec religious custom of slaughtering and eating young people?”
That was all the opening Ted needed. “I don’t think we should continue this. Our Lord wants us to respect the diversity of all the peoples of the earth. Besides, we are hardly superior to the Aztecs: Up until not too long ago, most people, even Catholics, thought that it was all right to execute condemned criminals. In fact, the Church has always condemned capital punishment, though only recently, since Vatican II, has the Church spoken out clearly.”
The wise guy thought about quoting the text of the catechism he had brought with him, but he had already said enough to turn the entire group against him. Why couldn’t they go back to discussing Adam’s belly button or the apparition of the Blessed Virgin on the side of a building facing U.S. 19 in Clearwater, Florida?
How had he ever managed to find himself taking instruction in the Catholic Faith from a liberal with a self-inflicted lobotomy? It was a long, strange journey. Brought up in a wholesome atheist home, he had learned from an early age to pity the weaklings who needed a mythical old man in a long beard to tell them what to do. Despite his sense of superiority, however, he had enjoyed none of the peace of mind or freedom from superstitious terrors that atheists (going back to Epicurus) had promised. As he later came to understand, the human mind, at any stage of development, is incapable of atheism, and the powers denied to a benevolent God are usurped by countless lesser deities, many of them malevolent. The great demons of materialism teach their worshipers to kill without mercy, while the lesser breeds of bogeymen—strange sounds in the forest, storm-twisted trees illuminated in a flash of lightening, and the sinister crow whose eyes followed him walking down the street—filled a child’s soul with dread.
His greatest fear was of death. He did not remember when it began, but, even now, he could vividly recall lying awake, afraid to go to sleep for fear of not waking up. He was no older than five. This morbid imagination was stimulated by his sister, also an atheist until she was shipped off to a convent school, where her need to believe in something budded and bloomed. Nearly four years older, she delighted in telling long stories of animals that suffered tragic deaths before being plunged into the blackness of nonexistence. Her best story was of the fly he had just swatted, as they sat in the grass outside their family’s unelectrified cabin on Lake Nabuchodonosor. It was a mother-fly, on her way to her children’s birthday party—she had been out shopping for birthday presents when he so cruelly killed it. Her babies would never see their mother again, and they would die of hunger or be eaten by spiders.
Sometimes, the torture took the form of a litany: Their boxer, Blarney, was doomed to die; so was the neighbor’s cat, Tommy; and all his favorite animal characters in Comic Cavalcade, including Fauntleroy Fox and Crawford Crow—they, too, would die some day, and so would he; and when you are dead there is nothing: No toys, no play, no fun, no ice cream, nothing; but, what made it worse, you would not even be aware that it was nothing, because everything you are or have ever been would be gone, and it would be as if you have never existed.
In her crude way, his sister had touched the wisdom of Homer. “Even as are the generations of leaves such are those likewise of men; the leaves that be the wind scattereth on the earth, and the forest buddeth and putteth forth more again, when the season of spring is at hand; so of the generations of men one putteth forth and another ceaseth.” It is not simply that everyone in a generation will be dead but that they will be utterly gone and forgotten, like dead leaves scattered by the wind.
For the stout-hearted pagan, all that mattered was doing the glorious deeds that kept a name alive, the klea andron that Achilles sang, brooding in his tent. In later years, it was erotic passion that conferred the illusion of immortality in a dying world where the one reality, as Propertius said, was una nox dormienda, the one night that must be slept.
Pagans were not cowards, but post-Christian neopagans, as he and his sister were, fear death because it is the negation of everything—no toys, no fun, no candy, or, as a man might say today, no fast cars, no thrills, no women. While ancient pagan poets concluded from our mortality that it is best to live well and intensely, post-Christians flee from the one truth they have grasped and barricade their homes and even their bodies with the costly junk they live to buy, and their minds with dope, TV, and, best of all, the computers that keep them from hearing their heart beat out the tattoo of their mortality. The hours of unconsciousness spent on e-mail and the internet—or pornography or political ideology or pseudoreligious ecstasy—are stolen from the timor mortis that might otherwise sink them into a depression that Prozac cannot tranquilize nor Cialis rejuvenate.
For as long as he was an atheist, he opposed capital punishment—not just as a general principle, as he was opposed, for example, to Broadway musicals, New England boiled dinner, and telephone wires: He was seriously and passionately committed to the elimination of the death penalty. He became a great reader of Thoreau and Marcus Aurelius, and the teaching of the Stoics, combined with an acute fear of death, taught him that it was always wrong, for any reason, to take a human life. His adolescence was framed by the executions of Caryl Chessman (1960) and of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock (1965). Yes, he knew from the newspapers that Chessman was a serial rapist-murderer, while the crimes of Smith and Hickock, who had wiped out an entire Kansas family, were brought to life by Truman Capote in his novel In Cold Blood, published in the year of their execution.
He took little interest either in the details of the crimes or in the character of the killers, nor did he make the mistake of thinking that innocent men routinely land on death row, though he did spend a lot of time imagining how he would feel as an innocent man awaiting execution. What troubled him was the conviction that each convicted killer was a unique human being who would die before his time as surely as Fauntleroy Fox or Crawford Crow. Whatever they had done could not alter this reality. In every discussion of capital punishment—and there were many, mostly with adults—he was generally able to annihilate the usual arguments based on public safety. Chessman might have been kept in jail forever, and, if he represented a danger to prison guards or other prisoners, they could keep him in solitary. This line of thinking usually led the defenders of the death penalty into one of two traps. They either argued that life in solitary confinement was inhuman or complained about the cost. But, if solitary confinement was unendurable, why not give the condemned man a choice? He would not, to take a later example celebrated by Norman Mailer, have turned down Gary Gilmore’s petition for a speedy execution.
Shock and outrage were his stock response to anyone who suggested that a price could be set on the value of a human life. What would he have said to the argument that executions are the only just response to certain crimes? He did not know, because, by the 1960’s, defenders of capital punishment rarely talked about justice.
Two rather opposite events changed his mind. The first was a mugging he experienced in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco. He was on his way with a friend, a former LSU lineman, to a Velvet Underground concert at a club called The Matrix. A crosstown bus broke down, and the driver told them to get off the bus and wait for another. About a dozen black “youths,” hearing the change jingling in their pockets (the meager tips they earned as waiters in a pensioners’ hotel), were drawn like sharks to a bleeding wound. They surrounded the young men and demanded their money. He started throwing change onto the street, in a vain attempt to distract them. Out of stubbornness, he had no intention of giving them the money he had worked so hard to earn. Besides, he was not about to give up the evening’s entertainment.
One of the youths shoved a snub-nosed revolver into his side and said, “Look at my eyes, man. No pupils.” Heroin, as Lou Reed would be singing in an hour or so, “It’s my wife, and it’s my life.” A jab of the revolver: “You want to die for ten dollars?” Indeed, he did not. He was convinced he had only a minute or two more to live, because his friend the ex-lineman, a tough guy, was showing signs of discontentment. He could probably take out half of them with his fists. If he had not been stoned, he would certainly have made a move, and they would both be killed.
When a strange man approached them and quietly asked what was going on, the youth with the pistol told the stranger to go away, because it was none of his business. Opening his coat wide enough to reveal a badge and a holstered gun, the stranger asked them again.
“We just talking to our friend. Right, friend?” (Nudge with the gun.) “Right?” (Another nudge.)
Having nothing to lose, he said (and he still recalled, sitting in his chair in the church basement, every word): “I don’t know. You don’t usually ask a friend if he wants to die for ten dollars.”
At that point, the youths fled, and the off-duty cop, who had been on the bus, chided the two of them for obeying the driver’s instructions, adding, “I hope you don’t expect me to go after them. They are probably all better armed than I am.”
He and his friend proceeded to The Matrix, where they listened to Lou Reed celebrate drugs and narcissism, but, before the end of the evening, he realized something: He would have killed the muggers, if he’d had a gun. Not only that, but he now grasped the reason why, in the good old days, armed robbery—along with murder, arson, kidnapping, and rape—was a capital crime. In threatening his life, the youths had given him two options: Be their slave or die. He felt dirty, on the outside and on the inside, and for years had nightmares. Then, he went back to shooting and hunting, and the nightmares vanished.
The mugging taught him what a wise guy, as he thought of himself, should have known all along. Descended from a long line of violent men on both sides, he was anything but a pacifist. Nietzsche says somewhere in Also sprach Zarathustra that the son of a whoremaster should not try to become a monk. At the same time, he also became aware that a propensity to violence might be easily made a tool of evil. In a flash of anger, he had found himself willing to kill his attackers. What was there to keep him from killing those who merely insulted him or got in his way? He began to have violent dreams, and when he awoke, he knew the images that entered his mind were alien and evil. He had never believed in God, but now he thought he had heard the voice of the Tempter and seen his face. Reading the New Testament for the first time, he did not exactly believe. It was more that he wanted to believe in a world where beauty and virtue, even if they were only fictions, make sense. Perhaps it is not enough, but it is all he had.
In the long process of becoming a Christian, he underwent profound changes. His habitual melancholy faded, and, without noticing the loss, his chronic fear of death went away. It did not vanish because he suddenly believed he was going to a better place when he died. His faith was weak; he could never say with any confidence that he knew what happens to anyone after death. It is a great mystery that neither Peter nor Paul could entirely clear up. From the first, however, he had believed that, even if Christianity were a myth, it was a myth that made better sense of human life than any other myth, and that, in professing the Faith, he was joining the side of truth and justice, the only side that really mattered. Ironically, his belief in truth and justice came straight from his father, who, in rejecting the Church, had not rejected Her teachings.
Even more ironically, he now found himself listening to misinformation about capital punishment from a layman claiming to represent the Church of Augustine, Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, and Alphonsus Liguori. Arguing with Ted and his ilk was pointless, because they acknowledged neither logic nor historical fact. Their moral criteria derived from a nonjudgmental humanitarianism that is more a reflection of liberal sentimentalism than of Christian compassion. All the trite and jejune arguments he had used in his atheist youth—arguments, as he well knew, that had been spawned by the fear of death—were now trotted out as Catholic dogma. Even when he thought it was in retreat, the timor mortis had invaded the Church and taken hostages.
There was, after all, some glimmer of truth in the fear of death, in the reluctance to extinguish any human person, but for Christians (and, one might add, for Stoics and Platonists, Hindus and Muslims), the human person is not limited to an earthly dimension. For the Christian, this is not and cannot be “all there is.” The Christian may not even bracket, for the sake of argument, Heaven, Hell, and eternity to focus attention on the here and now, because the here and now only has its true meaning when viewed sub specie aeternitatis. Better for the condemned man to face his guilt, accept his punishment, and confess his sins in the hope of forgiveness than to live out his life as a lie, carrying the burden of sins crying out for justice.
Of necessity, the Church has always called for mercy, sometimes for the worst of criminals; and of equal necessity, the Church has criticized criminal-justice systems whose punishments are cruel and unjust. Even in seeking to protect the innocent, however, the Church cannot repudiate the death penalty in principle without repudiating the God Who said, “Vengeance is mine,” and handed the sword of His vengeance to the often flawed and corrupt rulers who wage wars and execute murderers.
Then who, he asked himself, was he to judge? If, in his youth, he had been a fool and a coward, how could he reproach others with folly and cowardice, and if he was wiser than he had once been, surely he would be a fool not to acknowledge that wiser men than he would justifiably lump him together with Ted. In the end, we are all, at our best, some version of Ted: sincere in our folly, cowardly and dishonest in maintaining the half-truths we have stumbled upon—or, to be more precise, which have stumbled upon us. And, in the endless procession of Teds—some knaves, some fools, some saints, and some popes—that is the Church, the truth will always win out.