Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mercy and Justice

I have been thinking a lot about the meaning of mercy. I am working some of it out here, and I'd really like to hear what others think and have to say about it.

In light of the Gosnell trial many of my friends have been posting on Facebook about mercy, saying that to hope he receives the death penalty is vengeful, and that the pro-life movement needs to take the higher ground.

This is good. Mercy is good, the higher ground is good, speaking against hatefulness is good. 

But it has also been bothering me. Because mercy is not the opposite of vengeance; justice is the opposite of vengeance. And mercy cannot be defined in relationship to vengeance, but only in relationship to justice. To say someone should be shown mercy implies that they have done something wrong, and thus that they stand in debt to justice.

So. What is mercy not? Mercy is not simply an aversion to violence. It does not absolve a person of the responsibility to look their sin in the face and acknowledge what they've done, because that is the opposite of justice.

What is mercy? I am perhaps incapable of answering that question very thoroughly, but I have come to two conclusions. 1) Again, we can only understand mercy in relationship to justice, and 2) we must understand that mercy has a specific goal. If a "merciful" action denies what is just or goes against what should be it's ultimate goal, it is a false mercy and harmful to all parties involved. 

If you ask that Gosnell be shown mercy by not receiving the death penalty, the implication is that it would be just for him to die for his crimes. Because again, the opposite of mercy is not vengeance. If Gosnell's death sentence was motivated purely by vengeance, arguing for his life would be an act of justice, not mercy. To be up front: I am not arguing for Gosnell's death, but I do believe that it would be just, considering that magnitude of evil he has committed. I also believe many people desire his death out of vengeance. That is wrong, although it isn't hard to understand; it's something we have to guard against in ourselves. But if Gosnell is sentenced to death, I don't think we can simply label that "vengeance" or "hatefulness." Would that it were so simple.

The reason that this is so important is because I think mercy is in danger of being misunderstood. This is very dangerous for many reasons, but primarily because mercy has a very definite purpose. It is meant to accomplish what is truly and actually best for the person who is being shown mercy. Acting as though someone hasn't committed horrible and hateful crimes is not good for that person; it is the worst thing you can do for them. In other words, Gosnell must be punished and his punishment must matter, for his own sake

Even if you don't believe in heaven and hell, I think you can agree that if Gosnell cannot see the evil of his actions he is either extremely ill or simply a depraved man. Both of these things are harmful to his personhood. True mercy aims to heal the illness--and/or to correct the evil in his soul. 

Personally, if I imagine myself in such a position, I can see myself being much more motivated to repent of my actions if I knew I was going to die and face eternity in a matter of weeks or months. And perhaps being sentenced to death is the only tangible way that some people will be brought face to face with the enormity of what they've done. 

But, I can also imagine this:

An act of pardon that demonstrates, in a real and tangible way, that the door of forgiveness is always open. And perhaps, knowing that, something takes root in the heart of a criminal and can grow into repentance.

Looking at mercy from a theological standpoint, I think of how each of us deserves Hell for our sins. And yet when we are sorry for them, when we repent, we are forgiven. 


Even more so: Christ died for us before we even had the desire or ability to repent. It is His Mercy which even puts such a thought into our hearts, long before we are worthy of it. Mercy precedes repentance, but repentance is its goal. And repentance can only come from a recognition of what we have done, and what we deserve--of justice! 

We are called to be witness for Life in a society that disrespects it. This may indeed mean arguing for Gosnell's life, but just as importantly it means fighting to be sure that his actions are recognized as evil. Perhaps others are more open to grace than I am, but I personally find these two strands very difficult to hold together and find it requires continual struggle.

In case it's unclear, I am NOT arguing that Gosnell should receive the death penalty. Thankfully that choice does not rest on my shoulders. But I believe it is more important to pray for his soul than anything, anything else, even his life. And that it is vitally important we understand what mercy really means.


  1. Indeed. It would be just and licit for him to be put to death after being convicted of his crimes.

    The distinction must be made, as you say, between justice and vengeance. If we are thirsting after this man's blood then that is wrong, but the death penalty is entirely permissible as the Fathers and Doctors of the Church have taught.

    Still if Gosnell were to repent of his sins he would have an incredible amount of temporal punishment to make up for because of his many sins. He would have to do incredible penances for the rest of his life to even put a dent in it.

    However, if he were to be subject to the death penalty and accept it as a just punishment for his sins and offer himself into the hands of God in His mercy his purgatory time would be greatly diminished if not entirely wiped out. Just something to consider.

    But ultimately what is most important is the salvation of ones soul and so we must, again as you said, pray for his conversion. Let us entrust his soul to our Lady, Saint Joseph, and Saint Therese (who prayed for and obtained the conversion of a notorious murder in her own day).

  2. My opinion is that if Gosnell is convicted but is not sentenced to death, that would be a sign that his victims' lives are not as important as those of other murder victims. We do have the death penalty in this country, and I see nothing in this case that merits special treatment. If the death penalty is ever just, it certainly is here. I think the only way we can argue for Gosnell's life is if we argue against the death penalty all together. Jesus died for all. We can't pick and choose to whom we show mercy relative to what the political implications of the sentence might be. If we do that it's not mercy at all, just posturing.

  3. I second Mary's thoughts that any arguments about the death penalty in this case should be a more general stance against it in general. Arguing so strongly for mercy to Gosnell in particular just seems too political and makes me feel weird.

  4. Thank you for this post, Rosemary. I too was bothered by those Facebook posts, but couldn't exactly put my finger on why, because I consider(ed) myself against the death penalty in general. I think you've said it perfectly here.

  5. Rosemary, your post was very thought-provoking--thanks for posting! It spurred my memory of something I learned in class a couple weeks ago about the medieval period. I propose it here as a way to further illuminate the question about justice, mercy, and vengeance.

    I think one of the things that's interesting is the medieval attitude towards executions. These were held in public, and many people would show up for them--not because they wanted to see revenge against the criminal, but because they wanted to witness his conversion. There was a priest available waiting to give absolution to the criminal if he should want it. If he repented and asked for forgiveness, everyone rejoiced--the mercy of God had won him over for heaven! But he still was executed, because that was the proscribed justice for the crime that he had committed. That's what's most striking (and seemingly counter-intuitive to a modern person)--how much the people desired his conversion, but once the conversion was made, the execution was still carried out according to justice.

    My point is just to try to illuminate this question by looking at it in terms of history, in terms of a culture that was more steeped in the supernatural than ours is. I am very thankful as well that I do not have to make the decision as to whether he will receive the death penalty or not. (I tend to take JPII's line of thought re: the death penalty--what was necessary for the safety of society in one culture is not always what's necessary in the next. However, Mary has a point about consistency--if we employ it at all, in justice it definitely seems that it would apply here as well.) But as others have said above, we should most definitely be praying for his conversion, whether he's sentenced to death or not.

    Also of note, just this weekend, I saw a play about Jacques Fesch, a criminal who converted while awaiting his murder trial--his cause of canonization has recently been opened because of how radical a conversion he experienced before his execution. Pretty timely message about the graces God can bestow upon even a hardened criminal.