Divinity, duty, death, and Deters

By Dr. Mescher, Associate Professor of Christian Ethics

I’m not here to cancel Joe Deters.

A university should be a place of open and free inquiry. We can learn from Mr. Deters, and I would hope that he could learn from being in dialogue with our campus community as well. But it’s one thing to invite Mr. Deters to campus for civic engagement; it’s another to bestow on him the honor of serving as XU’s inaugural “Justice in Residence.”   

As has been documented in the Newswire and several op-eds in the Enquirer, this appointment raises a number of questions about whether and how Mr. Deters’ track record aligns with our Catholic, Jesuit identity. In light of how Mr. Deters has minimized, ignored or rejected racial bias in the criminal justice system (as you can read here), I am troubled by the kind of message this sends to our students, staff and faculty of color in particular—especially when the university has been inattentive or slow to respond to BIPOC persons who may feel invisible or insignificant, unwelcome or unsafe on our campus.  

How are we to make sense of naming Deters inaugural “Justice in Residence” after he sent more people to death row than any other prosecutor in Ohio, even as we learn about wrongful convictions and wait for necessary reforms to fix what the American Bar Association described in 1997 as a “seriously flawed” system? When Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to state that the death penalty is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and [the church] works with determination for its abolition worldwide” (§ 2267), Mr. Deters said, “the pope is wrong.” But this isn’t just a matter of opinion, like debating the best place to get chili in Cincinnati. This is about what it means to be human as people created in the “image and likeness” of God and the kind of society we’re building.  

Mr. Deters has called defendants “soulless and unsalvageable.” For him, capital punishment is justice. This stands in stark contrast to what we learn from Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ (assigned to many students in THEO 111). For nearly 40 years, Fr. Boyle has ministered to and shared life with current and former gang members in East L.A. He counters, “There are no monsters, villains, or bad guys … There are only folks who carry unspeakable pain. There are among us the profoundly traumatized who deal in the currency of damage. And there are those whose minds are ill, whose sickness chases them every day. But there are no bad guys. Jesus seems to suggest that there are no exceptions to this. Yet it’s hard for us to believe him.” Boyle insists that one of the “signature marks of our God is the lifting of shame” while we, too, often resort to moral outrage. But moral outrage “only divides and separates what God wants for us, which is to be united in kinship. Moral outrage doesn’t lead us to solutions—it keeps us from them. It keeps us from moving forward toward a fuller, more compassionate response to members of our community who belong to us, no matter what they’ve done. And this is the most difficult part for us to grasp: what could be more terrifying than actually believing that such folks belong to us?” 

Boyle is describing a Catholic (and Jesuit) vision of justice. Not vengeance, but fidelity. Not blame and shame, but compassion and kinship. Not lock them up and throw away the key (or death sentence by firing squad), but healing wounds, restoring agency and preventing the social problems that generate the futility and desperation that often lead people to resort to criminal acts. This vision of justice is why Pope Francis called for the abolition of the death penalty, echoing what Pope John Paul II wrote in 1995 and Pope Benedict XVI asserted in 2011, reflecting the very foundation of the Christian moral life: human dignity is innate, which means that it cannot be earned or lost. No one is soulless or unsalvageable. As Sister Helen Prejean puts it, “we are more than the worst thing we have ever done.” She also observes, “The death penalty is fundamentally a poor person’s issue. I have never met a single person with money or resources on death row. Capital punishment means ‘those without the capital get the punishment.’”  

The problem is not that Mr. Deters disagrees with the current or previous pope. The problem is his support for an evil system, one that preys on poor people and people of color. Such a criminal justice system exemplifies what Pope Francis laments as a “throwaway culture” that degrades and discards human beings, driving us further from unity, equality and freedom.  

Earlier this month, I accompanied a group of students to the UCA, the Jesuit university of El Salvador, where we prayed in a garden where six Jesuit priests were murdered by U.S.-trained soldiers in November 1989. One of these priests was the president of the UCA, Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, who was killed because he vocally defended the truth, human dignity and human rights. In his commencement address at Santa Clara, he described a Christian university as a “social force” charged with transforming and enlightening society, doing “everything possible so that liberty is victorious over oppression, justice over injustice, love over hate,” for without this kind of “overall commitment, we would not be a university, and even less so would we be a Catholic university.” These are words Dr. Hanycz quoted in her 2021 Inaugural Address, adding, “So, too, must Xavier discern its role in loving and lifting those who we serve.”  

Whom do we serve? What can we learn from those the criminal justice system has failed to serve? How can our university be a social force for justice that honors the infinite worth of each individual and creates the conditions for all to flourish in solidarity and kinship? Are we deciding, speaking and acting—individually, interpersonally and institutionally—in ways that make it easier to recognize that we belong to each other?