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Cardinal O’Brien is right: there is a vengeance culture in the US

The American way with criminals is at times barbaric. Take the case of Ronnie Lee Gardner, executed by firing squad after 25 years of near-solitary confinement

By on Monday, 9 August 2010

Cardinal O'Brien, one of the most outspoken prelates in the United Kingdom, is what you might call a pro-life all-rounder (Photo: CNS)

Cardinal O'Brien, one of the most outspoken prelates in the United Kingdom, is what you might call a pro-life all-rounder (Photo: CNS)

Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh and leader of the Church in Scotland, is one of the most outspoken prelates in the United Kingdom. He fights for social justice and teaches an uncompromising but compassionate Catholicism. He has been especially frank in his attacks on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research

Now he has stirred things up again. Good. Over the weekend the cardinal “intervened”, as they say, in the dispute over the release last year on compassionate grounds of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi, who was jailed in 2001 for the Lockerbie bombing. In an article in Scotland on Sunday the cardinal defended the release of Megrahi in the strongest terms and spoke of America’s “culture of vengeance”.

“At the core of this dispute,” he wrote, “there seems to be what might be termed a ‘clash of cultures’. In Scotland over many years we have cultivated through our justice system what I hope can be described as a ‘culture of compassion’. On the other hand, there still exists in many parts of the US, if not nationally, an attitude towards the concept of justice which can only be described as a ‘culture of vengeance’ “.

There is of course a lot more to America than the culture of vengeance, as Cardinal O’Brien indicated, but the American way with criminals is at times barbaric. The cardinal cited the case of a murderer, Ronnie Lee Gardner, who was executed by firing squad in Utah in June this year after spending 25 years in jail in near-solitary confinement.

Gardner was first picked up by the authorities at the age of two, abandoned, wandering the streets in a nappy. He was sniffing glue by the time he was six, taking heroin at 10 and sent to a mental home at 11 where he was sexually abused. “His descent into violence was as predictable as it was piteous,” said Cardinal O’Brien.

The culture of vengeance is perhaps understandable in the case of some relatives of the victims, as the cardinal acknowledged, but not all the relatives are thirsting for revenge. Dr Jim Swire, from Windsor, whose daughter Flora was one of those who died over Lockerbie, welcomed the cardinal’s intervention. He told the Scotsman: “We should look for justice rather than vengeance. I agree with him [the cardinal] in criticising that culture.”

Meanwhile, the redoubtable John Smeaton, director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, has taken the cardinal’s latest intervention as an opportunity to congratulate him both on his silver jubilee as a bishop and his courageous battle against abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.

The cardinal is what you might call a pro-life all-rounder. Only a year ago, in an article in the Times, he said that the decision to retain Trident was “immoral”. And it gets better. The cardinal is also a defender of liturgical tradition. Some rather stern traditionalist might regard him as a modernist, but I don’t think you would find mainstream traditionalist priests among them. In June this year he at any rate preached at Mass in the Extraordinary Form in St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh. It was the first Mass to be said in his home town by Fr Simon Harkins of the FSSP. Go here.

It’s surprising the cardinal hasn’t got a Facebook fan club. Oh, wait. He has, here.

  • GFFM

    Speaking as an American, Scottish Cardinal O'Brien could not be more wrong. In the case of the Lockerbie, bomber it is quite possible, and even probable,that the Scottish and English governments allowed freedom to a man who murdered many through an act of terror because of an oil deal. His continued imprisonment would have been just, despite his illness, given his crimes, given his sins. Punishment is not simply literal, but also symbolic. Human justice is never perfect; divine justice is perfect. Ultimately the Lockerbie bomber will receive God's justice. But what is truly offensive is the broad brush used by Cardinal O'Brien to paint the sensibility of Americans. In this country the pro-life movement, protecting unborn children, the elderly, those on death row is a force to be reckoned with. In the UK, one cannot say this. I live in the UK several months out of the year and what I see is a docile, fatalistic people. I have heard little from Catholics and many of their shepherds about the defense of the defenseless. It's unfortunate and somewhat unseemly for a Cardinal of the Church, O'Brien, to choose the Lockerbie situation or an individual state's use of the death penalty to generalize about an entire nation–especially when he has said and done little for the most marginalized in his own society. In response to the thesis of this piece, I would call UK culture a culture of fatalism, a culture which has rejected its Christian past. I would far prefer to live here where Catholics speak out than live in Scotland or England, where there is such passivity and acceptance of the intrusion of government into the rights and prerogatives of its citizens.

  • Lydia Reid

    The Cardinal is right
    Our Government showed the world what forgiveness and compassion are we Scots are rightly proud of them as a government
    We are proud of our Cardinal, His Eminence has the knowledge, ability and the capacity to forgive I wish I had his ability
    He is the one person in our country who undoubtedly has the right to speak on this subject
    His record on pro- life is more than we could have hoped for even in our cardinal
    We thank God for his guidance over the last 25 years as our Cardinal and pray he may guide us for many more years

  • Lydia Reid


    We in Scotland stand quietly at the side of roads to show our objection to abortion
    We do say the rosary outside of hospitals
    No, we do not want abortion in our country
    Cardinal O'Brien is famous for stating that a classroom of children dies daily in our country through abortion
    No we do not kill there doctors who carry out abortion.
    We do not carry out any violent act to try to stop abortion we would see that as a conflict of gods laws
    We do feel just as passionate but perhaps we deal with this in a different way we do not see that using violence would in any way help against the people who are so violent that they would kill a child

    Our government took the decision to free this man on compassionate grounds, some of the people who welcomed his decision were the relatives of the victims
    Many relatives do not believe he is guilty the evidence points to his innocence
    The Cardinal did generalise but when so many states have the death penalty it is hardly surprising
    We do not have the death penalty because we do not believe we have the right to take a life
    How can you tell a person it is wrong to take a life and then decide it is OK for you to take his life in vengance

  • GFFM

    If the “compassionate” motives of Scottish and British government were at work here, many other prisoners should be freed because of alleged illness. And if it was truly compassion, Scottish governmental officials who enabled the decision to testify to that fact before our Congress. Isn't it something to be proud of to allow a terrorist to go free based on forgiveness. Give us all a break. As you know, Scottish officials have refused to discuss their motives in front of the American Congress This is not a surprise. But this really isn't the issue. The issue is a Scottish Cardinal, who clearly knows very little about America from the comments he's made, calling out an entire people when he cannot even take care of his own flock. He would have more credibility if he had said a few rosaries in front of hospitals, spoken out against the death culture, same sex marriage, embryonic stem cell research and a host of other inhumanities. This is not his track record. I expect it will never be.

    As for American Catholic activism against the death culture, no other country objects to it as we do; no other country gives to charity as we do relative to our population. In fact we could do much more and we should. If in fact we are a culture of vengeance, our work in Haiti makes no sense. The rest of the world has forgotten the plight of the Haitians. Again, O'Brien needs to do basic homework about American culture as do most Europeans.

  • Jameskrich

    Go ahead Brits, enjoy Yank-bashing, your favorite (albeit less than charitable) passtime. From the nation which gave us hanging, drawing and quartering for the crime of Catholicism, your words ring just a bit hollow. As for your Lockerbie bomber, obviously your medical experts are either grossly incompetent, or grotesquely compassionate when they told all who would listen that the slime had but three months to live. No problem, when the truth is finally known (here or in eternity), you will have even more egg on your faces. The bottom line is this; you released on compassionate grounds an unrepentent mass-murderer jihadi who was welcomed back to Libya as a national hero. There he survives to this day- doing pretty well for a man who was supposed to have died eight months ago. If there is any reason to believe that he is closer to an eternity in the Presence of the Most Holy Trinity than he would have been had he remained in prison, I would like to know it.

  • Mike

    Couldn't agree more with Jameskrich and GFFM. As a British Catholic I was very disappointed to hear the cardinal's words on this. He is confusing genuine compassion with pseudo-compassion, the former based on faith and reason, the latter founded on a secular view of human suffering that appeals almost exclusively to emotion and feeling at the expense of justice. He's also confusing vengeance with justice. If we're talking about doubts about al-Megrahi's guilt, then that's another matter for which I have some sympathy. But the fact is he was found guilty in a court of law and that we must accept as a matter of justice until such evidence comes to light that acquits him of the court's verdict.

  • Bob

    The Cardinal is wrong. There is a whole range of compassion that can be shown to Al Megrahi short of release. Nowhere in Christian doctrine does it mandate that we must release a cold blooded mass murderer. The Cardinal's arrogant broad brush of Americans is unbecoming of a representative of the church. Americans want justice done for the families that Al Megrahi destroyed. Yet, the Scottish Government in its decision has shown that it cares more about the life of a mass murderer than ensuring justice is carried out for the families that Al Megrahi destroyed.

  • Miriam

    Millions Americans (including growing numbers of Catholics) are opposed to the death penalty, abortion and all of the “culture of death” issues…yet also feel that justice was not fairly applied in this case. Nationalistic pride or even bigotry does not excuse individuals from painting the American population with a broad brush, in an insulting and divisive manner. It is especially hurtful coming from a leader of our church. His compassion could be more expansive.
    Shalom…from America.

  • Jeff

    This is vapid sentimentality, not compassion. How will returning him to an Islamic country, where he is being celebrated and flattered for his gross immoralities, help him find Christianity and redemption? In fact, putting him in a place where he will be pleased in his sin is the exact opposite of compassion.

  • Jerry

    Yes, there is a vengeance culture in the U.S. As a resident of the States, I agree. However, your Eminence, there was also a vengeance culture in your Holy Mother Catholic Church when it authorized the torture of heretics from the 1200's to the 1800's and when it approved of the State's right to burn heretics.

  • Ignatius

    Mr. Reid, have you gone mad?
    Speaking as a mainstream English Catholic, I disagree with you greatly. The Cardinal exhibited a very poor understanding of Capital punishment in his Telegraph article- as if the sole motive for capital punishment was deterrent. In fact- for Catholics, this is the last reason! It is a utilitarian reason that is only suppliamentary in the Catholic defense of the death penalty. First and foremost is the requirement of justice, that a man receives his due. Every sin is an offence against God, self and society. Every sin deserves and demands punishment. Grave sins against God, self and society ought to receive grave punishments from each.

    Its all in St. Thomas.

    Only a false conception of “charity” refuses to do what is in someone's best interest. In terms of the man's eternal good it is better for him to receive the summum supplicium in this life. Charity should always look to the eternal good of the other, not some temporal one.

  • OTGMcCarthy1979

    Perhaps he got confused and thought they meant Tridentine!

  • USA Irish

    You are saying that this Cardinal is right about America being vengeful. Where is your evidence? What is so vengeful for putting a serial killer to death? I would call that justice. We're talking about the embodiments of pure evil. The fact that only 1200 people have been put to death over 45 years in a country of 300 million points to the fact that we are extremely selective in our executions. Only the worst of the worst are executed. You can blather on all you want about their rights, but these are not people you want on this planet. The fact that you get so worked up about the rights of child-killers must mean that Scotland has solved all its problems.

    I love Scotland, but let's be honest. The U.N. says you have three times the violent crime rate as New York City. You may have the compassion thing down pat, but we can take care of ourselves on the justice front.

  • paul

    Finally I find an article in the Herald I agree with! Compassionate, and rational Catholicism is what Jesus taught us. Vengeance is certainly the word, in the case of the Lockerbie bomber – firstly the case was controversial and disputed by some and secondly all medical advice said that Megrahi would likely die in 3 months, and yet members of the US congress (in order to aid their re-election campaigns no doubt) requested that Alex Salmond would sit and testify before the Senate over the issue as if they had the authority to question and hold to account the decision of a foreign government.

  • Lydiareid

    1. This man is very likely to be innocent

    2. Even if a person is guilty, we have no right to kill

    3. God will and should decide who lives and dies not humans we are neither that clever nor do we have the clear view that our father does

    4. We as humans only have the right to present evidence decide whether that evidence proves guilt and punish the person by taking away their liberty if they are guilty

    5 We have faith in our Cardinal and our Justice Minister because first our Cardinal is a man who speaks out in defence of justice and our faith and our Justice Minister because he wants justice

    6. When you have lived your life as has our Cardinal in the service of god and people with no other remuneration than the knowledge that you have tried your best in life then come back to me and criticise him

  • Ftrcc

    “He fights for social justice and teaches an uncompromising but compassionate Catholicism”

    Are you f u c k i n g kidding? O’Brien is a bigot and an idiot.