On this day in 1977, after a ten year hiatus, capital punishment resumed again in the United States, with the execution by firing squad of convicted killer Gary Gilmore, who had murdered two men he had robbed, even though they acquiesced with his demands, leaving two widows with small children.
When asked if he had any last words, he stated laconically, and penultimately, ‘just do it’, which, according to legend, Nike adopted as their motto. Make of that what you will, but the phrase is one of the ways of overcoming the vice of acedia, or sloth: When a difficult duty looms large, the best advice is just get to it, or, as others have put it, get ‘er done.
I wrote penultimately, for Gilmore said one final phrase, to Father Thomas Meersman, the Catholic prison chaplain: Dominus vobiscum, said Gilmore, as the hood was placed over his head; to which the priest replied, et cum spiritu tuo. We may presume the condemned man had made his confession, and, well, may even one day join his two victims to ask their forgiveness in heaven. One never knows, and God’s mercy is infinite and mysterious, but we must avail ourselves thereof.
The current pope has tried to abolish capital punishment. His rephrasing of this teaching in the current Catechism is certainly problematical, for the Church has always permitted the death penatly, usually as a last resort and for the most grave crimes, even if Pope John Paul did limit its application to situations when there was no other way to defend society. For Pope Francis now declares it ‘inadmissible’, which is more a legal term than a moral one, as in, yes, it can be done, but not now, in these circumstances. Just as evidence may exist in a trial, but be ‘inadmissible’ for technical reasons. Future pontiffs – and we may presume there will be such – may have to get ‘er done to clarify this pontifical porridge.
Six decades earlier, on this day in 1920, prohibition came into effect in America, with the Volstead Act, enforced for about thirteen turbulent years. In accord with the fateful law of unintended consequences, this had the effect of increasing consumption of alcohol, and enriching innumerable gangsters and grifters along the way. The government was so insistent on making the nation dry, they would poison random bottles of illegal booze, which gives a whole new meaning to the colloquial question of which drink one prefers.
According to Saint Thomas, law cannot overcome custom, which he says has the force of a law abolishes law, and is the interpreter of law.
And custom is the fruit of culture, which is in turn is based on the religion of a society, whose manifestation is embodied most of all in families. As the family goes, so goes society, said Pope John Paul. If families were what they were meant to be, we’d have no need of prohibition, or firing squads.
I just returned from the joyful wedding of a young couple, boldly going forth where many have gone before, and would that there were more. If you are called to marriage, or indeed to any holy vocational path, sage advice would be, well, just do it. +