US Catholic Faith in Real Life

USC Book Club: Where Justice and Mercy Meet

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May 2013:

Where Justice and Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty

Edited by Vicki Schieber, Trudy D. Conway, and David Matzko McCarthy

Review: Some say that if more people knew more about the actual practice of capital punishment, support for the practice would vastly decrease. Where Justice and Mercy Meet educates readers about the reality of the death penalty in the United States—from methods of execution to the influence of racism and poverty. Through well-researched and thought-provoking essays that combine history, statistics, and personal testimony, we learn of the grim reality of state executions.

More crucially, the book examines the arguments against capital punishment that stem from a rich Catholic tradition of forgiveness, love, and discipleship. We discover that, for criminal justice to be truly just, we must take into account the mercy of God’s love. This message is truly one to be spread.

—Liz Lefebvre, Assistant Editor, U.S. Catholic

Liturgical Press says: This book explores the Catholic stance against capital punishment in new and important ways. The broad perspective of this book has been shaped in conversation with the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty, as well as through the witness of family members of murder victims and the spiritual advisors of condemned inmates.

Paperback: $18.95
eBook: $16.95

Available at bookstores or from Liturgical Press: 800-858-5450 or shop online at

Order now from Liturgical Press.

General Book Club guidelines

Questions for Discussion

1. Americans are often proud of the leadership role they envision our nation playing the world, especially in the area of human rights. What was your reaction to learning where the United States stands on the death penalty in relationship to other nations?

2. Retributive justice focuses on righting wrongs through punishment. It emphasizes that wrongs can be righted. Discuss whether restorative justice abandons this focus or reconceives what “righting wrongs” entails.

3. Jean Vanier states, “reality is the first principle of truth. . . Each of us needs to work at searching for truth, not be afraid of it. We need to strive to live in truth. . . . And the truth sets us free only if we let it penetrate our hearts and rend the veil that separates the head and the heart, our attitudes and our way of living” (Becoming Human, 15-15.) Discuss how Vanier’s words speak to Sister Helen Prejean’s way of writing and how they speak to the challenge of your own striving to live in truth.

4. Jesus’ calls for reconciliation and radical solidarity make people anxious. It is comforting when we hear a call to be nice to the people we know and like. It is frightening when we are called to share life with sinners and outcasts. No wonder Jesus was a threat to law and order. Discuss how we would have to live differently in order to see Christ in the prisoner (Matt 25:31-46).

5. Richard Buck draws a contrast between a biblical system of justice and the current secular system. He suggests that severe crimes, like personal injury, require that the offender offer restoration to the victim and ask for forgiveness. Consider how the contemporary system of justice could be reformed in order to include both of these important practices.

6. Read Matthew 5:1-48 (the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount). We often assume that these teachings are difficult, if not impossible, to live by. Discuss why they are considered “hard” sayings. Discuss why and how the family members of murder victims have found that Jesus’ teachings are liberating and healing. How can this be?

7. What might the temptations be to oversimplify the history of capital punishment in the earlier stages of Christian history? What are the dangers of giving way to the temptation?

8. In matters like capital punishment, the development of the church’s teaching requires (a) that the issue is a matter that is “changeable,” and (b) that the development brings greater consistency with and expression to changeless truth. A true development will not reject past teaching, but will offer an explanation of it as well as of the transition through time. Are these two elements present in relation to the death penalty?

9. Discuss how the dialogue of the church with contemporary society, mirrors dialogue on other life issues.

10. Discuss St. Faustina and her witness to divine mercy. Is the witness to divine mercy applicable to capital punishment?

11. Discuss how specific parts of the Lord’s Prayer provide a lens for thinking about the Catholic understanding of economics in relation to crime and punishment.

12. In order to respond to the vulnerabilities and risks of persons with intellectual disabilities, we need to be aware of the risks they continue to face in specific states. Often their situation goes unnoticed. Discuss how we might be better informed, and how we might be able to take action on their behalf.

13. In addition to the racially disparate and discriminatory application of the death penalty, where else do you see racial inequality in contemporary American institutions?

14. For many years, members of the Catholic Worker Movement stood for one night a month outside death row in Baltimore, silently witnessing their opposition to the death penalty. Discuss the value of such witness, in regard to the death penalty, that we might perform as a matter of faith.