On Monday, late-term abortionist Kermit Gosnell was found guilty of three counts of First Degree Murder for killing babies born alive when they were supposed to have been killed in utero (isn’t it absurd that the physical location of the victim makes the difference between a capital offense and a legally-protected “choice”?). On Tuesday, he was sentenced to life in prison, with no possibility of parole. After following the case and reading all the disturbing details of the trial it’s easy to be very, very angry at a man like Gosnell. It’s also easy to wish for terrible things to happen to him. It’s easy to see him as nothing but a monster. But, the perhaps-difficult truth is that Gosnell, like all others who commit grave evil, is still loved by God, and that he still retains his dignity as a human being. This doesn’t mean we can’t be angry; but our anger must be tempered by charity, and respect for that dignity.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, our human dignity comes from God’s love for us and his invitation to us to share in that love. We are the only creatures that he made in his image, for our own sake, to know him, love him, and share in his life. Even the worst criminal still bears that image of God in his being, though he may be cut off from God’s grace through his choices. And he still retains the invitation extended by God to love him and serve him, until he takes his last breath. It is because of these truths that the Catechism says that, while the State does have the right to execute some criminals, the Death Penalty should be used only as a last resort.
Most Catholics today enthusiastically support the position that the Death Penalty should be abolished in this country. However, many of us fail to carry this concern for the dignity of criminals beyond the question of whether they should live or die. While we want them to have their lives spared, some of us desire that prisoners be treated poorly or even inhumanely while they live out their sentences. We say we are glad that they are not getting the “easy way out” by being put to death, and hope that they live many agonizing years behind bars. We make jokes about prisoners being violated or otherwise harmed by the other prisoners. We celebrate when we hear of a prison where inmates are humiliated purposefully, just for the sake of humiliation. We spew hatred and vitriol against them in internet comboxes. We complain that they have any access to television or that our precious tax dollars are paying to feed them anything more appetizing (or healthy) than bologna sandwiches.
I’m not suggesting that prisoners need to be given access to cable TV or certain kinds of food in order to be treated in accord with their dignity. Rather, it is our annoyance with any comfort they may have in prison coupled with our glee at any discomfort they may have—in short, our desire to see them suffer— that is an offense against their dignity. We have to ask ourselves what our reasons are for wanting prisoners to be humiliated and treated as harshly as possible, and then compare those reasons to what the Church says about the purpose of punishment.
The Church holds that punishment has a basically fourfold purpose – rehabilitation, defense of society against the criminal, deterrence, and retribution. (Take note that retribution is not the same as vengeance). We may legitimately believe it wrong for prisoners to be treated to overly comfortable conditions in prison, because we do not think that justice is satisfied or rehabilitation is facilitated by such a scenario. We may even legitimately support the death penalty in limited cases. But a virtuous and detached concern for justice is a far cry from the vengefulness that often is the real cause of us wanting prisoners to be as miserable in prison as possible, or to be put to death.
Church teaching indicates that when the aim of punishment (especially protection of society) can be fulfilled in ways more in keeping with human dignity, the Death Penalty should not be used. The logical extension of that is that we should always be trying to balance the aims of punishment with the protection of the dignity of the human person – not just when it comes to the question of the Death Penalty. We must always balance our concern for justice with our duty to love. My husband is a law enforcement officer and I see him trying to do just that. He has to fight against the strong temptation in his career to see criminals as less-than-human, as irredeemable. But he also has to keep the common good – the safety of society – at the forefront of his mind. He supports longer sentences for criminals than what they typically receive through our local court system, but he does so because society is not being protected adequately through the “slaps on the wrists” that are handed out far too often for serious crimes. It is acceptable and even laudable to support tough penalties for those who commit serious crimes, as long as we do not do so out of malice toward them.
As the wife of a police officer, I have to fight against the same temptations as my husband. I truly understand and sympathize with people who have a difficult time extending mercy toward those who harm others with their evil choices. I understand wanting them to know nothing but pure misery while they serve their sentences. My emotions don’t always align with what I know intellectually to be the truth. The truth is that criminals are people too. And it’s not enough simply to support their right to life; we have to love them, too. It’s possible to satisfy all the aims of punishment, including retribution and protection of society, without trying to strip them of their dignity. In fact, I think the aim of rehabilitation is more likely to be achieved when prisoners are shown basic human decency and treated like they still have worth even though they have done great evil.
We have great examples of how we should treat prisoners in recent popes. Several have visited the imprisoned, as Jesus told us we should. But some have gone even further in their extension of charity to prisoners. Pope Francis gave a strong witness to the dignity of the imprisoned when he washed the feet of juvenile prisoners on Holy Thursday. Pope John Paul II forgave his own would-be assassin, in addition to visiting with him in prison. Most Catholics celebrate these examples, but many of us do not ask ourselves enough whether we are living in light of them.
I said above that it might be a difficult truth that Gosnell is loved by God. But at the same time, it is a very comforting truth. If someone like him—who mercilessly killed thousands of innocent babies and showed great indifference to the lives and health of the women who were his patients – is still loved by God and still has a chance at salvation, that means that there is always hope for me, too, no matter what sins I may commit. It is only by God’s grace that I or any one of you reading this is not in Gosnell’s place. None of us is above grave sin. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that I could someday find myself with a large chasm between God’s grace and me. It is comforting to know that even then, God’s image would still be imprinted on my being and he would thus still be reaching out to me across the chasm.