Rendering unto Caesar: Life and death at St. Patrick's in New York

By Frederick Peterson
Thursday, January 23, 2003

Right to Life Sunday. St. Patrick's of New York was stuffed to overflowing with Knights, Nuns, old, young, and faithful of every color and perhaps of many religious persuasions. All gathered in the solemnity of Mass to hear His Eminence, Edward Cardinal Egan impart wisdom and faith, to instruct on the reverence for life. Not Catholic life. Not Christian life; not viable life, but for human life.

The good Archbishop was better than good. He was brilliant. Erudite. Humorous. Poignant. He was Catholic, at his best. And then, without warning, he exceeded himself. Like a big, red balloon; bright, inflating, full, ... overfull ... then, 'POP!' In doing so, he lost much of the moral ground he had gained.

With such excess of goodness is much good lost.

The sermon drew intentionally not on Catholic dogma, doctrine, or morality. It drank not from the deep wellsprings of Christian nor biblical scholarship or tradition. Rather, the hushed throng was held captive in the intense rush of personal reminiscence. The personal mission of the Cardinal to ground zero, sallying from a his cathedral castle, which had itself suffered personal loss of many parishioners, and those left who had felt the heat, heard the groan of steel, whose nostrils burned with the acrid immolation of flesh and remembrance.

The message was one of human hope and heroic drive to dig, dig, dig, day and night, beyond pain and tears and tiredness, to save even the merest possibility of life. Miracles happened. Lives were miraculously saved. The balloon was fully inflated when the lyrical archbishop related the lesson to innocent life of the unborn, which needs not religious, let alone Catholic, justification for extraordinary measures to protect the merest possibility of human life.

Then, in a logical over reach and moral non-sequitur, this good point popped when he stretched his argument to include not just innocent life of the pre-born, but the hundreds of prisoners on America's death row, all of whom are far from innocent, many of whom have been most vilely atrocious in their slaughter of life. It was a moral 'bridge too far.' The rapt attention was lost in the 'pop,' and the vivid moral lesson was dimmed by the dubious one.

The critical point overlooked by the good Cardinal was this: Innocent Life is seldom found in prison, even more rarely on death row. It is always found in the womb. If I may be so bold as to suggest, 'rendering unto Caesar' is what the death penalty does. The capital sentence is quite proper and proportionate for some offenses. Caesar never sentences the soul; his province is the finite. Caesar sentences the body. God judges the soul, and assigns rewards or punishment accordingly within His providential realm.

Jesus on the cross was flanked by thieves. One darkened heart chose to curse him and lost his soul to God as well as his body to Caesar. The other asked forgiveness and acknowledged the justice of his sentence while recognizing the innocence of Jesus. His reward was Heaven. Jesus did not say, your body is also forgiven; climb down from your cross and walk through the crowd to your freedom. Jesus addressed and freed the soul, not the just sentence of Caesar.

For me, the actual 'popping point' was when His Eminence gave reverence to the corrupt retiring governor of Illinois without even mentioning his corruption. Governor Ryan commuted the sentence of more than a hundred murderers, rapists and cruel torturers of women even murders of the pre-born, savagely attacked and extracted from the womb and butchered with the mother.

Ryan acted hastily, on a highly problematic 'student study,' without examination and discussion of the implications and authenticity of that work, nor for the actual guilt of the murderers and rapists, nor consultation with and sensitivity for the 'rights' of the victims, families, and loved ones.

This was not the act of a brave governor acting on conscience, as the archbishop seemed to suggest. Neither were the sentenced 'innocent,' though some may have been convicted on procedurally flawed or pressured confessions. Actual guilt was not in question. Commutation was the act of a moral coward seeking to cover his own offenses and moral failures with a spectacular smokescreen of sympathy. He 'changed the channel' on his own legacy. Some heroism. Some perception by the Cardinal. The deeply feeling but seldom deeply thinking protestors of capitol punishment may applaud this venal and cynical abuse of power and travesty of Justice. But Caesar does not. Victims do not. Perhaps even God does not.

Not all sentences of death are 'just'. Is this surprising? I have visited many countries where a sentence of 'life' is far more morally egregious than death, and where death is both extraordinarily cruel and unusual. Yet, there are certainly cases where death is not only justifiable, but anything less than death would be non-proportional and inappropriate. Humans and Caesar can get it wrong; they can also get it right.

The principle of respect for Innocent life is pure. If kept pure it will help save innocent life and persuade against the moral atrocity that is abortion. When that principle is extended to carry the guilty as well as the innocent, it is misapplied. The damage to the greater cause in misapplication is illustrated by the reaction of several parishioners at St. Patrick's: initial solidarity and community for the right to life and birth while the good Cardinal was inflating his argument; and damage to that community when the argument is unreasonably and illogically extended to include those guilty of heinous crime.

The movement for life should protect itself from the movement against capital punishment. The two are only tangentially related and separated by more than important moral and practical differences. The force of argument for innocent life is diminished; the support for change is mitigated by misapplication. The Archbishop should know better; and he should not represent a factually flawed or morally imprecise case for either. To do so jeopardizes his credibility on both, and beyond.

Let the Cardinal render us unto God, as we render unto Caesar. Let both the Cardinal and Caesar acknowledge the sanctity and sacrosanctity of innocent life.

Frederick Peterson is a former Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel, Military Editor for and a frequent commentator on Fox News Channel. He is a Senior Vice President at Xybernaut Corporation.

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