Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, May 13, 2013

My Meh For Mercy

In a First Things post which has been circulating endlessly on Facebook over the last month, Robert P George makes an impassioned plea that Kermit Gosnell, who today was convicted on three counts of first degree murder and literally hundreds of lesser charges, and thus potentially faces the death penalty in Pennsylvania, be spared execution.
Kermit Gosnell, like every human being, no matter how self-degraded, depraved, and sunk in wickedness, is our brother—a precious human being made in the very image and likeness of God. Our objective should not be his destruction, but the conversion of his heart. Is that impossible for a man who has corrupted his character so thoroughly by his unspeakably evil actions? If there is a God in heaven, then the answer to that question is “no.” There is no one who is beyond repentance and reform; there is no one beyond hope. We should give up on no one.

If our plea for mercy moves the heart of a man who cruelly murdered innocent babies, the angels in heaven will rejoice. But whether it produces that effect or not, we will have shown all who have eyes to see and ears to hear that our pro-life witness is truly a witness of love—love even of our enemies, even of those whose appalling crimes against innocent human beings we must oppose with all our hearts, minds, and strength. In a profoundly compelling way, we will have given testimony to our belief in the sanctity of all human life.

I do not myself believe that the death penalty is ever required or justified as a matter of retributive justice. Many reasonable people of goodwill, including many who are strongly pro-life (and whose pro-life credentials I in no way question), disagree with me about that. But even if the death penalty is justified in a case like Gosnell’s, mercy is nevertheless a legitimate option, especially where our plea for mercy would itself advance the cause of respect for human life by testifying to the power of mercy and love.
I have to say, it seems to me that in a civilized society, it would be clearly understood that someone who for twenty years made a career out of murdering infants would be executed. But the fact is, we don't live in a civilized society. Nor, even if Gosnell got the death penalty, would he be likely to ever be executed. Pleas would go back and forth. Politics would play out. Appeals would be filed. Circumstances would be appealed to. And Gosnell (already age seventy-two) would die of old age before ever seeing an executioner.

So I'll say this much in favor of mercy in Gosnell's case: Assigning him the death penalty would have little deterrent force, and would achieve nothing in making people safer from him. It would be unlikely to result in his actual execution, and it would cost far more money and time and drama and public angst than he is worth. While a just society would doubtless execute Gosnell, and facing the prospect of immanent execution might indeed be the only thing likely to bring him to something like repentance for his crimes, we are not such a society and we do not have such a justice system. So we should not sentence him to death.


Gen X Revert said...

Think of what a huge victory it would for this murderer to become truly repentent in jail. Think about Gosnell becoming the latest to join the pro-life movement and how loud his voice would be from behind bars. All things are possible in Christ.

bearing said...

Yeah, sorry, I can't get behind the death penalty in any situation where secure imprisonment for life is assured.

But I am one of those weirdos who, as a young adult only freshly entered into the Church, opposed the death penalty before I realized that in order to be consistent, I had to oppose abortion too.

Lauren said...

I do agree that the death penalty in this case is more trouble than it's worth. I think that is true for most situations in this country with its secure prisons. There are some murders who are a danger to other inmates and guards while in custody. Perhaps they can't be adequately secured in prison, but Gosnell is not one of these. We should pray ardently for him. He's a very lost soul.

bearing said...

I know some people argue that soul-saving conversion and repentance is more likely with the threat of execution than with the threat of natural death in prison hanging over a convict.

But I've never seen any studies published about it.

Imagine being the one to push the button to begin execution of an unrepentant murderer.

If I don't do this... yet... he will have more time to repent. If I do it now, his time to repent will be past.

Should you give him another five minutes? There's a priest standing next to you ready to hear his confession, if only he will accept it.

How many times ought you give him just a few more minutes to change his mind? Seventy times seven?

Are you just doing your job? Is it okay if, in the end, you make the call to cut his time short?

Jenny said...

Meh pretty much sums up my attitude on the death penalty. I am officially against the death penalty, but honestly I don't care that much. I mean it takes time and effort and money to carry out an execution and I don't see it worth expending the effort just to execute. Let them rot in jail. If they repent and convert all the better, but my anti-death penalty stance doesn't really hinge on that hope.

Darwin said...


I think that assessing the death penalty in terms of whether it cuts off someone's time to repent probably implies that we (society) have more agency in the choices of individual persons to accept or reject God than we actually do. Clearly, if someone killed another person specifically with the object of preventing that person from repenting (as Hamlet talks about in regards to Claudius) that in itself is several kinds of sin, among them presumption (that one has control over another's salvation.) But in the end, the decision to repent or not repent is a person's own, and we may not even have any idea whether or not it is made. It is between the person and God (though potentially through the intermediary of a confessor.)

I don't think that the possibility that a criminal will or will not repent should really come into the state's decision of how to punish him -- though I do think that sincere repentance on the criminal's part would be a good reason for a judge or ruler to consider a pardon at some later date.

As a side point: Given that a lot of Catholic thinkers seem to have basically abandoned any idea that civil penalties should be actual punishments, which assign a punishment out of some sense of righting a wrong through retributive justice, I expect that although currently there's a lot of support for sentences of life in prison without parole, that support will probably vanish in the not too distant future. The current emphasis seems to be that punishment is only acceptable as a means of preventing further crimes (protecting society) not as a means of actually dealing out punishment. Obviously, past a certain point it's impossible to imagine that a criminal could be a future threat to society, so I think that support for life imprisonment as a punishment will soon diminish. That may, actually, be a good thing. While I have no moral problem with the use of the death penalty as a punishment (and I think I'm on solid ground with historical Catholic teaching in that regard), it does strike me as significantly more problematic to insist that people who are clearly old and not threat to society die in prison perhaps as much as fifty or sixty years after their crimes.

I could be wrong, of course. Obviously, even those who say they are against retributive justice are in favor of it to an extent, since I a case like that of Gosnel (a seventy two year old doctor who was only able to commit murder because he had a clinic and a medical license) the only thing necessary to protect society from future crimes by him would be to revoke his license and take away his clinic. No prison time is necessary to protect society. So the fact that there's not a big "Don't imprison Gosnel!" plea coming out of those who are against the death penalty suggests people are actually okay with retributive justice to an extent, even though they may formally reject it.

bearing said...

The current emphasis seems to be that punishment is only acceptable as a means of preventing further crimes (protecting society) not as a means of actually dealing out punishment.

I think it's worth pointing out that there are two mechanisms by which punishment plausibly prevents further crimes: (1) keeping a criminal locked up and (2) deterrence.

I'm cool with retributive justice, actually. How could we deny the value of what is, essentially, penance? But I like to bring it back to the question of who pushes the button, so to speak, because ultimately some one person has to bear that responsibility. It isn't, in the end, "society" who executes, but an executioner. I won't volunteer for that job, and I wouldn't wish it on anyone else. And I'd be creeped out by anyone who thought they would enjoy it.

No. I think the Gospel calls us to leave room for mercy. I think only God can take a life in a cage.

Art Deco said...

You see things such as George's article or things such as this

and you figure there is some sort of 10th planet driving the Church intelligentsia.