The personal advice radio talk show host Dr. Laura recently received a call from a woman who had reported her adult nephew for molesting an adolescent girl but wondered if she, as a Christian believing in forgiveness, should testify at court as a character witness in his defense. Dr. Laura berated the caller for her “blasphemy” against Christianity for suggesting it should entail defending a relative facing multiple criminal counts of sexual abuse.
This caller’s Christian confusions about criminal justice and Christian forgiveness are extremely common. Dr. Laura, who was raised by Catholic and Jewish parents and once but no longer practices Judaism or any religion, was mostly correct though may not have fully understood why. (In fairness, she has noted on air her having enjoyably read the Catholic Church’s Catechism in its entirety, so she is not theologically uninformed.)
Here’re some words from the Catholic Catechism on criminal justice:
The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.
Government’s divinely ordained vocation for justice and order prioritizes public order, safety, and protection for the innocent. The sexual abusers of minors, along with violent thieves, drug dealers, robbers, and rapists, with other dangerous miscreants, are to be vigorously prosecuted and incarcerated. Murderers are to face the possibility of execution. These punishments are firstly for the common good, and secondly for the correction of the offender.
It is not the state’s prerogative to offer forgiveness per se. Victims of crime may offer it, and the church can point malefactors to a God who forgives the truly penitent. Government, as it administers its punitive responsibilities, can only defer to and stay out of the way, to the extent possible, of actors in civil society, like prison ministries, that seek the moral and spiritual reform of criminal inmates.
Nearly 20 years ago there was national debate over Texas death row inmate Karla Faye Tucker, who had murdered two victims with a pick axe during a burglary. Tucker during years in prison had reputedly become a Christian and appealed for commutation of her death sentence, with support from many Christians. But there’s little in historic Christian teaching to suggest that prison spiritual conversions necessarily merit sentence commutations.
A true penitent who genuinely grieves over his or her crime would readily accept the temporal justice of a prison or death sentence. The state has no vocation for judging the authenticity of spiritual conversions. Only God can fully examine the human heart. Government has a legitimate civil purpose, for limiting the prison population, in sometimes reducing sentences for well behaved and seemingly reformed non-violent offenders who do not pose physical risks to society. Child molesters, rapists, murderers and other psychopaths do not merit such consideration, as society cannot incur the risk of their recidivism, and their long-term punishment is instructive to other potential offenders. Their punishment also is more conducive to the inmates’ possible atonement than their release to renewed gross criminality.
The church must offer God’s invitation of forgiveness and eternal life to the grossest criminal offenders, who still bear the divine image even in their unrestrained depravity. Christians should pray both for the victims of crime and for the salvation of criminals, remembering that divine forgiveness of sins doesn’t necessarily mean abrogation of earthly penalties and safeguards. In fact, it may entail the very opposite.
The caller to Dr. Laura confusedly thought Christian forgiveness meant helping her nephew who sexually exploited a girl possibly not face the full judicial consequence of his crime. But divine grace and justice for the girl, her victimizer and society, require long-term imprisonment for such a crime, with prayers for the girl’s recovery and for the offender’s penitence. God’s love does not allow for sloppy superficial forgiveness with momentary emotive gratification but more richly seeks a fuller restoration of fallen creation.Google+