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Three Takes on the Death Penalty


DEBATING THE DEATH PENALTY: Should America Have Capital Punishment?
ORDINARY PEOPLE, EXTRAORDINARY LIVES: The Associate Movement in Religious Communities

DEBATING THE DEATH PENALTY: Should America Have Capital Punishment? edited by Hugo Bedau and Paul Cassell. Oxford University Press. 242 pp. $26.

THE BIBLICAL TRUTH ABOUT AMERICA’S DEATH PENALTY, by Dale S. Recinella. Northeastern University Press. 433 pp. $22.50.

WAITING TO DIE: LIFE ON DEATH ROW, by Richard Michael Rossi. Vision Paperbacks, U.K. 237 pp. $17.95.

Reviewed by DONNA GRAHAM, O.S.F., director of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation office for the O.F.M. Province of St. John the Baptist. She holds master’s degrees in theology and social work.

PEOPLE INTERESTED in the death-penalty debate will find these three books interesting, as they cover various aspects of the discussion around the death penalty. They are especially apropos in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision forbidding execution of minors (see the editorial, "Not Getting Away With Murder").

Debating the Death Penalty delineates the pro and con arguments for capital punishment. It gives the views of judges, attorneys, philosophers and a governor evenly divided in their support for—or opposition to—the death penalty. And it describes the emotional struggles of those responsible for imposing it.

The book ends with the statement of Gov. George Ryan of Illinois when he issued a moratorium on the death penalty in his state on January 31, 2000. He said he could not guarantee that no innocent person would be executed.

The graphic stories of some of the murders Hugo Bedau and Paul Cassell learned of while writing this book do make one pause. But so, too, does the pondering of a pro-death-penalty judge: “I sometimes wonder whether those of us who make life-and-death decisions on a regular basis should not be required to watch as the machinery of death grinds up a human being.”

Another very worthwhile read is The Biblical Truth About America’s Death Penalty, in which Dale S. Recinella examines the biblical passages from the Hebrew Scriptures often used to support the death penalty.

The author was originally a pro-death-penalty lawyer. Eventually, he left the practice of criminal law because of a violent incarcerated client. Working and studying theology in Rome, he encountered a Jewish lawyer who had done research on ancient Hebrew practices regarding the death penalty.

This and his ministry to the prison population on Florida’s death row changed everything. He set about to research the biblical foundations that many Americans cite as support for the death penalty.

Recinella does a very thorough job of analyzing the Scripture passages most often quoted by “Bible-belt Christians”: “an eye for an eye,” the Rule of Blood found in Genesis 9:6, and others. He concludes that the conditions for the death penalty in the Hebrew Scriptures are not met in the United States, supporting this position with actual cases.

Recinella also points out that these biblical arguments exclude the New Testament values of grace and forgiveness, ignoring atonement by Jesus. He also draws an interesting parallel between current support of the death penalty and the rationale used to support slavery in previous generations.

Recinella suggests that people of faith adopt the position of restorative justice, which requires mutual accountability, a covenant relationship. Offenders are accountable to society for their wrongdoing, but society is accountable for its failing with regard to the offender. Restorative justice can include punishment, but must go beyond it by seeking to restore the community, the victims and the offender.

Perhaps the strongest argument for reform of the U.S penal system comes from a man who has spent 20 years on death row. In Waiting to Die, Richard Michael Rossi reveals the injustices of our legal system.

Born to abusive parents, a lonely and overweight child addicted to diet pills, he nonetheless graduated from college and worked successfully for a time. Drug addiction eventually got the better of him, leading him to paranoia, burglary and murder. His story is similar to many others, as he was given inadequate representation, poor advice and no time to discern his choices in the criminal-justice system.

This is the everyday life of a man on death row and the injustice, abuse and inadequacy of our prison system. At the end, Rossi mentions that, in many ways, we have more respect for animals than we do for the inmates on death row.

And he asks a very good question: When will the quest for revenge that fuels our prison system ever come to an end? And when will the “living tomb” of death row cease to exist?



THE TWELVE GIFTS IN MARRIAGE, by Charlene Costanzo. Harper-Resource. 48 pp. $17.95.

Reviewed by MARY JO DANGEL, assistant managing editor of this publication. She and her husband have prisms hanging in a sunny window in their home.

IT TOOK ME LESS THAN half an hour to read this book. Reflecting upon the contents and putting the 12 suggestions (gifts) into practice, however, is a much bigger investment of time.

Charlene Costanzo, who also wrote The Twelve Gifts of Birth and The Twelve Gifts for Healing, begins this book with a parable, beautifully illustrated by Paul Janovsky: An elderly couple tell a bride and groom that their love will grow if they use their “gifts” every day. The newlyweds are confused by this advice.

Years later, when the older husband encounters the younger husband again, he gives him a prism as a colorful reminder to use his gifts. This time, the sage explains that the gifts he refers to are strength, beauty, courage, compassion, hope, joy, talent, imagination, reverence, wisdom, love and faith. As someone who has always been fascinated with prisms, I appreciated the repetition of Janovsky’s colorful prisms throughout the book as gentle reminders to the reader.

The fable is followed by a section in which each gift is briefly described and illustrated with David Schmidt’s photos of 12 married couples. The Acknowledgments section is not to be overlooked: It contains inspiring quotes from these diverse couples.

The 12 gifts will seem like no-brainers to couples who have been giving them to each other throughout the ups and downs of their marriage. But the high number of divorces, in addition to the unknown number of unhappily married people, is evidence that these gifts are not given often enough by many husbands and wives to each other.

No doubt this book will be given to many couples as a suitable wedding or anniversary present: A prism to hang in a window would be a perfect companion gift. I wish the book had included a pull-out print, suitable for framing, for those husbands and wives who need a constant reminder.

Hopefully, many recipients will read this book and be inspired by it, instead of just sticking it on a shelf with other gifts where they look pretty and collect dust. In marriages where both spouses mutually give the 12 innate gifts to each other on a daily basis, their journey together through life is likely to be enriched.

You can order THE TWELVE GIFTS IN MARRIAGE from St. Francis Bookshop.


ORDINARY PEOPLE, EXTRAORDINARY LIVES: The Associate Movement in Religious Communities, by Kathleen Wade. OPEL Press (2529 Concordgreen Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45244; 96 pp. $17.95.

Reviewed by CAROL ANN MORROW, an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger who has reported on associates for this publication. She has been an associate of the Oldenburg Franciscan Sisters for 15 years.

ENCOURAGEMENT, INSPIRATION, challenge and information: The 96 pages of this book provided all that to me! I hadn’t expected it to be this good. The cover is generic (dictated by budget, I suspect) and the book’s innards are also unprepossessing in appearance.

Its 13 chapters—each an associate profile—are quite well-written. The author lets each mini-biography flow with great respect for the featured individual. No “formula” turns them into clones.

I had feared to find the book predictable, since I know many associates and have interviewed quite a few. The author preserved the unique qualities of each, while helping the reader sense the attentiveness to call that led each to pursue association with a religious order.

Those interviewed demonstrate the varied paths that lead people to association and the extraordinary contributions made by associates to religious communities, to the Church and to the spiritual vitality of the world at large. It inspired me to deepen my own commitment to association.

The little book also articulated to my satisfaction some questions I’ve had: the difference between “oblates” and associates; the widespread, pre-Vatican notion that a spiritual life practically required the support of vows; the reasons that might draw one to association; the reluctance some religious have had regarding associate membership; and associate attitudes toward renewable versus permanent commitment.

I believe that members of religious orders often take their charism for granted and don’t feel called upon to express it or interpret it for lay friends. Nor do they all appreciate how closely Catholics are watching the ways in which they live the Gospel. That is what draws people to join them.

Author Kathleen Wade provides a venue in which readers can sense what might draw one to be affiliated to the Mercy Order or to some other of a host of possibilities. For instance, Associate Elizabeth Brown says, ”Because the Passionists are so in touch with Christ’s suffering...they have a special sensitivity to human pain.”

I was amused by the memory of Tim Simmons, a young man who became an associate of the very Sisters for whom he caused trouble back in grade school. I was amazed at the courage of Dee Nelson and her ministries to prostitutes.

While this book is slim and leaves out many expressions and adaptations of the associate movement, it does offer a nice range. The author and her collaborators went through a lot of hoops to get this little volume into print. I, for one, am glad they persevered in their vision. Anyone who has ever wondered about the shape, the possibilities or the reasons for associate membership will find answers and encouragement in Kathleen Wade’s book. They will also find e-mail contact information for the communities represented in it.

You can order ORDINARY PEOPLE, EXTRAORDINARY LIVES: The Associate Movement in Religious Communities from St. Francis Bookshop.


THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE: What On Earth Am I Here For? by Rick Warren. Zondervan. 334 pp. $19.99.

LIVING YOUR LIFE WITH PURPOSE AND PASSION, by Kevin J. Wright. Alba House. 127 pp. $14.95.

Reviewed by JAMES VAN VURST, O.F.M., a Franciscan priest who is on the staff of this Web site.

THE MARCH 13 NEWS STORY of Ashley Smith calming down the suspect in the Atlanta courthouse shootings, gaining his trust and convincing him to turn himself in after reading to him from Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life was nothing short of astounding. For five hours, Smith and Brian Nichols talked about what he had done and how, unless he gave himself up, there would only be more deaths, including his own. Smith spoke of herself as “his sister in Christ” and him as her “brother.” He seemed genuinely touched by what she was reading.

In the end, Nichols put his guns under the bed, saying, “I don’t want to mess with them anymore.” He let Smith go pick up her daughter and then surrendered. There is no question that this book was a significant factor in preventing what could have been another terrible tragedy.

The Purpose-Driven Life has sold extraordinarily well during the past two years. Last January it had been on The New York Times Best-Seller List for 99 weeks. The book also comes in cassette and CD formats, along with The Purpose-Driven Life Journal.

Warren is the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. He and his wife, Kay, began the church in their home in January 1980, with one family. Now, with 16,000 in attendance each weekend and over 50,000 names on the church roll, Saddleback is the fastest-growing Baptist church in history and the largest church in the Southern Baptist Convention.

The Purpose-Driven Life is a manifesto for Christian living in the 21st century. The author describes his book as a guide “to a 40-day spiritual journey which will enable you to discover the answer to life’s most important question: What on earth am I here for?”

Further, he promises that “by the end of this journey you will know God’s purpose for you and will understand the big picture—how all the pieces of your life fit together.”

The 40-chapter book is divided into five sections or purposes: Each person God has created has been planned, formed, created, shaped and made—all for a reason.

Chapters average four or five pages and conclude with a “Point to Ponder,” a reflection and a discussion question. Warren strongly recommends reading the chapters consecutively, one chapter a day.

The message of the book is exactly as described: You have a purpose in life; that purpose was given by God by his creation of you; it is up to you to respond to God’s purpose and, in fact, unless you do, you will be incomplete—or worse. Some of the saddest people in the world are those who live in ignorance of God’s purpose for them.

Warren’s book is easy to read. Unfortunately, the hundreds of Scripture references are placed in the back of the book rather than after the quote. Checking references is frustrating. Warren uses 15 different Bible translations and, thus, the Scriptures read unevenly.

Nevertheless, I think Warren accomplishes his purpose. I found the book very direct, though a bit repetitious. The Purpose-Driven Life’s strength is its simplicity. It’s also its weak point.

Also, I sensed that I was being told, “This is the answer.” Catholic spirituality allows much more mystery in our relationship with God.

A book that better expresses a Catholic viewpoint is Kevin J. Wright’s Living Your Life With Purpose and Passion. Wright is the manager of the world’s largest tour company and has co-managed a Catholic-based reality TV show.

This book “presents a way to experience the joy and excitement of striving with enthusiasm toward the end goal of human existence: happiness with God forever.”

The Introduction points out that most people never ask the most important questions: “What’s my purpose in life and what am I living and dying for?” Those who never become conscious of those questions are bound to miss pieces in the mosaic of their lives.

Wright tries to supply the missing pieces. He states a basic truth: Life is God’s gift to us; what we do with that life is our gift to God.

This book is a layman’s “how-to” book. A diagram illustrates a four-level journey toward the goal of human existence. Level 1, happiness based on pleasure and material goods, is intense yet short-lived. Level 2 seeks happiness based on growth in self-esteem and personal achievement. Level 3’s happiness includes the welfare and good of others. Level 4 is faith and participation in the unconditional love of God.

Chapter Three takes eight key areas in a person’s life (spiritual, physical, family, social, career, financial, contribution and intellectual) and shows how each one relates with what God has revealed in Scripture.

Chapter Four briefly treats theological, cardinal and human virtues; they are touchstones for living the gospel life in a practical way. Later chapters offer ideas for simplifying one’s life (Chapter 6), setting goals (8), developing an action plan (9) and even writing a very personal mission statement (7).

This book can definitely help someone begin to make life changes based on sound Catholic principles of spirituality. Examples from Scripture and the lives of the saints illustrate his program.

I believe this book will appeal much more to Catholics than The Purpose-Driven Life.

You can order THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE: What On Earth Am I Here For? and LIVING YOUR LIFE WITH PURPOSE AND PASSION from St. Francis Bookshop.


SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI: A Life of Joy, by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Illustrated by Dennis Nolan. Hyperion Books for Children. 32 pp. $18.99.

Reviewed by JACK WINTZ, O.F.M., writer and editor at St. Anthony Messenger for over 30 years, and also author of the children’s book St. Francis in San Francisco (Paulist Press).

IN HIS INTRODUCTORY NOTES, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., explains that both he and his father, former Attorney General and New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy, were named after St. Francis of Assisi. As a child, his bedroom walls were covered with dozens of pictures from the life of St. Francis, and statues of the saint have always decorated the family’s gardens. Kennedy, who describes himself as a “born animal lover,” calls Francis his patron saint.

Although Kennedy’s St. Francis is a book for youth, it’s a good read for adults as well. Written in a fluent, energetic style, the book covers the key events of Francis’ life. It moves from his carefree days as the “King of Youth” and dreams of knighthood through his dramatic conversion to the God of love to his joyful service of lepers and the poorest of the poor.

“Happiness does not come from comfort or material possessions,” Kennedy’s Francis says, “but from serving others.” His story also includes Francis’ call to rebuild the broken-down Church of San Damiano, his founding of a fast-growing brotherhood of friars, as well as the receiving of his friend, the noblewoman Clare, into the Franciscan movement.

As a public figure with strong environmental concerns, Kennedy appropriately focuses on Francis as a man with great admiration for the natural world and who is the patron saint of ecology. “Francis loved animals and plants, the sea and the stars, and the beauty of the world that God gave us,” Kennedy writes. “Francis believed that destroying any living creature was a sin against God and humanity....He called his fellow creatures ‘sister’ and ‘brother.’”

Other signs of environmental care and respect shown by Francis, according to Kennedy, were the saint’s forbidding his friars “to chop down living trees” and Francis’ habit of picking “worms off the firewood to keep them from being burned.” Kennedy also told of Francis’ preaching to “our sisters the birds,” as well as Francis’ role as peacemaker between the wolf of Gubbio and the people and animals of that town, whom the wolf had been attacking.

The jacket of the children’s book describes Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., as “a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council and president of Waterkeeper Alliance,” an organization protecting U.S. rivers, lakes and coastal waterways. Kennedy is also described as “a devout Roman Catholic, a crusader for clean air and water, and a member of a family famous for its dedication to public service.”

In the book’s Author’s Note, Kennedy writes: “Every night my wife and I kneel with our children around the bed to recite the [Peace Prayer of] St. Francis....I hope this book will lead children to learn more about St. Francis and to be inspired by the lessons of his life.”

The book successfully accomplishes this goal!

You can order SAINT FRANCIS OF ASSISI: A Life of Joy from St. Francis Bookshop.


Book Briefs

During this Year of the Eucharist, let’s look at some books that might deepen our participation at Mass.

THE MYSTERY OF FAITH: A Study of the Structural Elements of the Order of the Mass, by Lawrence J. Johnson/Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions, revised edition (Oregon Catholic Press, 142 pp., $13.95), is a workbook that thoroughly updates the 1981-2 original. Incorporating the new General Instruction on the Roman Missal and other new liturgical documents, this book examines each of the parts and rituals of the Mass.

PRIMARY SYMBOLS OF WORSHIP: And the Call to Participation, by Mary Amore (Resource Publications, 40 pp., $7.95), examines the role of such familiar Church symbols as the baptismal font, the ambo, the altar and the assembly. With discussion questions, meditations and rituals, this resource is intended to spark more participation.

THE MINISTRY OF COMMUNION, by Michael Kwatera (Liturgical Press, 40 pp., $3.95), is an invaluable resource for eucharistic ministers. Updated with the latest liturgical laws and norms, it includes an expanded section on leading Communion services. This is part of Liturgical Press’s wonderful series of booklets on Church ministries: music, lectors, cantors, servers, hospitality, consolers and liturgical environment. They are priced so that the parish can afford to give one to each person involved in these vital roles.

Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6493, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 7.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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