Abortion Current Events Ink Slingers Mary P. Pro-Life Issues Respect Life

Love Your Enemies

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.

Misty Respect Life Ten Commandments

The Death Penalty Dilemma–Part 3

In my second article on capital punishment, I explored why death penalty alternatives for the intractably violent do not work. Life sentences do not ensure violent inmates won’t escape to kill again and upgrading prisons still exposes inmates and employees to threats against their own lives. Supermax prisons aren’t a solution, either, since the extreme isolation is a form of psychological torture not in accord with human dignity.

Is it our right to decide that a person’s behavior merits death as an appropriate punishment? Christian tradition would say, “Yes.” The Fathers and Doctors of the Church are almost unanimous in their support for capital punishment.  It has only been in the past 50 years or so that the tide began to turn, with many prominent Catholic clergy declaring the death penalty all but immoral in Western nations. John Paul II was perhaps the most outspoken opponent of capital punishment, even going so far as to add that the need for executing criminals is “practically non-existent” in Western countries in the 1992 revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The longstanding teaching of the Church is that the death penalty can be used morally. Yet we have our leaders working to abolish capital punishment, agreeing with John Paul II that the practice isn’t actually needed. No wonder there is so much confusion among Catholics that some now equate the death penalty with abortion and euthanasia.

The consensus seems to be that for more than 1900 years, the Church supported the death penalty only because it failed to truly penetrate the truth about man’s God-given dignity. Jews and Christians of the past supported execution out of ignorance, but now, modern Catholics have the benefit of appreciating the incomparable dignity and inalienable rights of the human person. Man has spiritually matured, so now we must work to abolish the death penalty, which we now know to be barbaric and wrong.

In an outstanding article tracing the history of Catholic teaching on the death penalty, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles suggests that the moral progress we imagine we’ve made is more likely due, in part, “to the evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to the biblical religion and Catholic faith.” The abolishment of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries probably has more to do with secular humanism than with a deeper understanding of the Gospel, he says.

Dulles pointed out that the “moral progress” banner has been flown over countless alleged rights claimed by modern man, such as contraception, divorce, abortion, homosexual relations, and the ordination of women to the priesthood. If the Church remains bound by Scripture and tradition in these other areas, “it seems inconsistent for Catholics to proclaim a ‘moral revolution’ on the issue of capital punishment.”

In other words, we modern folk aren’t nearly as “enlightened” as we imagine ourselves to be.

The real issue for Catholics, Dulles says (and I agree) is to determine the circumstances under which the death penalty may be morally applied. One of the most important questions that is rarely if ever asked in death penalty cases is, “What is the likelihood that this person will injure or kill another person, either inside or outside of prison?” It is stunning to me that we invest so little energy into determining if the person convicted of a crime poses an ongoing threat. Shouldn’t that question drive our decision to put the person to death or not?

Even if we have spiritually evolved and can now appreciate the inherent dignity of the accused, there is still a need for execution—as a protective measure, not a punitive one. And this change would cut both ways. Not only would death penalty opponents have to admit that some criminals are intractably violent and do pose a continuing threat to human life (and thus, ought to be executed), but many pro-death penalty folks would have to concede that not every murderer deserves to die. Many criminals, after all, do not have a history of predatory, incorrigible behavior. The person who shoots and kills a store employee during an impromptu robbery does not pose the same ongoing threat as a child molester or serial killer. Exercising a moment of egregiously bad judgment that ends a person’s life is not the same as premeditating a person’s murder.

One of the biggest criticisms of the death penalty is that falsely accused people have been put to death. This is an unspeakable tragedy when it happens, which is why there ought to be the most stringent criteria for condemning someone to be executed. At the very least, we ought to have a confession or DNA evidence linking the person to the crimes. Consider this, too: if we did thoroughly assess whether a person poses a persistent threat, the likelihood of him being wrongly executed virtually disappears. Using the death penalty as a protective measure would reserve the practice for criminals with a history or pattern of committing violent crimes.

Finally, few death penalty opponents are willing to admit that a condemned person has a decided spiritual benefit over the rest of us: the person knows exactly when he is going to die. Sometimes I wonder if we remember what the ultimate goal is: repentance and going to heaven. Is it really better for a person to languish in prison for decades, having his heart hardened toward God by violence, loneliness, and despair…or is it better for him to face his mortality and use the time he has left to make amends, repent, and go humbly to God? We see this all the time in life–faced with his impending death, a person with a terminal illness or fatal injury reaches out to his Creator, sometimes for the first and last time. Death has a way of forcing us to face our spiritual destiny. Which is especially important for those who approach death with mortal sin on their souls.

The death penalty has been called a “necessary evil.” It’s not evil, but it is necessary at times. May God gives us the grace to use this tool with prudence, compassion, and justice, in a way that upholds our condemned brothers’ and sisters’ dignity, as well as our own.

Ink Slingers Kerri Respect Life Saints

Saints for Life

The Communion of Saints

During this Respect Life month I started thinking about the saints and which ones I would most identify with the life issues today.  Thus I came up with “Saints for Life.”  There are many saints that could fit all of these categories, but I’ve kept my list to four.  I hope you find this little journey interesting and that it gives you some food for thought.

Respect for the Unborn

Abortion is, without a doubt, the top life issue.  And I couldn’t think of a better saint who would be working hard in defense of life if she were alive today than St. Gianna Beretta Molla.  As a doctor and a mother she knew when life started and she knew how precious it was.  So much so that she risked her own life, and eventually lost it, to save the life of her unborn baby.  Abortion is such a horrific tragedy in our world today.  We must work in every way we can to stop it and to demonstrate the importance of life at all stages.  St. Gianna knew that her child was a life just as important as her own.  Her unborn child deserved to live and it ultimately cost this great saint her own life.  What an incredible gift she gave to her daughter.   According to the Guttmacher Institute (the research arm of Planned Parenthood) 1,212,350 women obtained abortions in the U.S. in 2008 (latest available numbers).  That is over 3300 abortions each day in this country!  Lives destroyed before they are given the chance to live.  Can you imagine how different our world would be if every mother gave the gift of life to her unborn child.

Please pray for an end to abortion.  St. Gianna, pray for us.

Respect for the Disabled

Bl. Margaret of Castello was born in 1287, blind, lame, dwarf, and hunchbacked.  Yet she persevered in life and with the help of many in her community lived an amazing life before her death at age 33.  She has become an inspiration in the pro-life movement.  The respect for people with disabilities is strongly connected to the abortion issue.  More and more in our society we see people aborting children because they learn that the child has Down Syndrome or some other physical disability.  Bl. Margaret’s parents abandoned her when their prayers that she be healed were not answered.  What do you think they would have done if they had the ability to see some of her disabilities before she was born?  And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  Once abortion becomes mainstream in society, the loss of respect for lives that are not so-called “perfect” in society diminishes quickly.

There have been some amazing and miraculous healings attributed to the intercession of Bl. Margaret of Castello.  But I think it is also important to take away from her life that everyone, no matter who you are, has gifts and talents to share.  Some are small, some are big.  Not everyone is going to find a cure for cancer or write the next great American novel or whatever; most of us will have ordinary jobs, raise ordinary kids, and live ordinary lives.  But they are lives that are important because God created them.

Please pray for a greater respect for all life, especially the disabled.  Bl. Margaret of Castello, pray for us.

Respect for the End of Life

I once read an article about a British orchestral conductor who went with his wife to some other country (Switzerland, maybe?) in order for them to be euthanized together.  She was dying from cancer or something (sorry that I don’t remember all the details) and he decided that he couldn’t live without her so he’d rather die with her.  Britain would not allow them to do what they wanted, thus they traveled somewhere that would.  I was horrified when I read this article.  This was a perfectly healthy man who wanted to die with his wife, and so he did.  This was suicide.  And his wife?  Sick or not, this was also wrong for her.  No one wants to suffer greatly at the end of their lives, but sometimes that is the cross God gives us.

We can look to the example of Bl. John Paul II for how we should really bear this cross.  “Getting old is for the birds,” is what my grandmother used to tell me when she was suffering from dementia.  True, it isn’t always fun, but it still has purpose.  Bl. John Paul II suffered with Parkinson’s Disease for several years.  Through it all he remained true to his calling as the Holy Father.  He set an example of what redemptive suffering truly is.  It is not easy and certainly not anything any of us would ask to go through.  But sometimes God calls us to things we don’t expect.  Do we run away from what God places before us or do we accept it and offer our sufferings up in union with Christ’s sufferings on the cross?

In a similar way as respect for the disabled, discussed above, respect for the end of life becomes easier for society to forget as abortion becomes more acceptable.  This is illustrated best by the death of Terri Schindler Schiavo and all the controversy that surrounded her life and death.  This was a woman that was not dying but was in need of assistance in order to receive food and water, the basic necessities of life.  She was not in need of any extraordinary means to sustain life, only the basics which we should never deny to anyone.  Follow the link above to the foundation set up in her name to learn more.

Please pray for a greater respect for the end of life for all individuals.  Bl. John Paul II, pray for us.

The Death Penalty

In contemplating this issue, St. Dismas comes to mind for me.  St. Dismas was the good thief crucified alongside Jesus in the Gospels.  He committed crimes, we can presume, that were serious enough to receive the ultimate punishment.  He was probably a hard core criminal and considered a threat to society.  And yet, at the very end he asked for forgiveness from Jesus and received it.  He was redeemed of his sins so that he could enter Paradise on that very day.

Would he have felt the need to receive forgiveness for his sins had he not been facing death?  We have no way of knowing.  But we do have the example of the bad thief also crucified that day.  He did not ask for forgiveness, instead he demanded that Jesus save himself and them.  The bad thief was not a man who was sorry for his sins.

Please pray for those on death row.  St. Dismas, pray for us.

These are just a very small group of saints from the Communion of Saints that I have associated strongly with these different life issues.  What saints would you add to this group and why?


Faith Formation Ink Slingers Misty

The Death Penalty Dilemma

One prison's lethal injection room.

For nearly 15 years, I’ve been married to a police officer. So I’ve grappled with the concept of capital punishment more than most, because my husband’s death at work could lead to his murderer being charged with a capital crime.

I’ve found most Catholics hold one of two perspectives on the death penalty:

  1. The death penalty is state-sanctioned murder and it’s always wrong, or
  2. Some people deserve to die for the terrible crimes they commit.

You can find good, faithful Catholics on both sides of the issue. In my opinion, however, neither of these positions provides a balanced and authentically Catholic response to the thorny issue of capital punishment. Why? Because ironically, both neglect a foundational principle: that every human being has an inherent dignity that must be recognized and protected.

Is capital punishment ever justified? How should society handle intractably violent predators? What is the proper balance of mercy and justice in our treatment of those who commit the most heinous crimes? What does the Church say about the death penalty? Whether you would happily flip the switch on the electric chair yourself or work tirelessly to abolish the death penalty, I invite you to join us in a series of articles that will explore many of these issues.

To give our discussion the right foundation, we need confirm one vital truth: Every human person has an inherent dignity because he was created in the image and likeness of God (CCC, 1700). What does that mean, exactly? It simply means that you are incomparably valuable because for the simple reason that God made you. And all those other things like whether you’re a man or woman, Catholic or atheist, American or African, rich or poor, illiterate or have a PhD, an embryo or 90 years old, Republican or Democrat…NONE of these factors have one iota of bearing on your value as a person. Your dignity is inalienable—you have it because you are human. And because of this, no one can give it to you and no one can take it away, either.

In short, the most valuable thing on this planet is not a thing at all—it is a person: you.

Oh, it’s easy to pay lip service to this truth: “Well, sure, we’re all God’s children.” But deep down it can be an uncomfortable truth to truly internalize because it forces us to confront our lack of humility. Admit it: don’t most of us balk a little at the idea that Kermit Gosnell, Ted Bundy, and Osama Bin Laden are just as important and loved by God as we are? If we really believe the truth about human dignity, we must accept that even abortionists, serial killers, and terrorists possess the same God-given dignity we do. They don’t forfeit their dignity because they committed heinous evil. I know, I know: “This is a hard saying, who can accept it?” (John 6:60). But nothing—not even mortal sin—can take away our dignity.

We live with the reality of capital punishment in this country. And regardless of our perspective, does our response to those who are executed reflect the loving heart of God? Do we rejoice in the destruction of our condemned brothers and sisters or do we mourn the tragic loss of their goodness and gift of life? We need to check ourselves when we’re tempted to join in with the “Fry ‘em!” jokes and “Good riddance!” comments when someone is executed. As Catholics, we must never give the impression that human dignity can be dismissed, even and especially for society’s most “unwanted” persons. We can’t fight the Culture of Death if we join the secular world in dehumanizing a subset of human beings.

I know viewing the most violent criminals through God’s eyes can be excruciatingly difficult, especially for families whose loved ones were murdered. Yet so often, even those of us who are not affected by their crimes can’t extend compassion to those on death row. Our Lord loved his murderers even as they tortured him to death. And if Jesus himself maintained the value of even the most depraved among us, can we do any less?

In our next article, we’ll explore what the Church teaches about capital punishment and how this teaching evolved under the pontificate of John Paul II. We’ll also look at arguments for abolishing the practice, as well as death penalty opponents’ insistence that capital punishment must be viewed through the same pro-life lens as abortion.