The discussion over whether Kermit Gosnell deserves the death penalty for his heinous crimes – as paradigmatic a capital punishment question as one could imagine – has been brewing for two years. Gosnell will not receive the death penalty, but his arrest and trial has entrenched this discussion in the forefront of a national and religious consciousness.
Recently, John Zmirak brought the question to a head, arguing that Gosnell deserved a death sentence as a matter of justice. A month earlier, Princeton’s Robert George had published a piece calling for a merciful response to Gosnell’s horrendous deeds. Here at Ethika Politika, Andrew M. Haines and Aaron Taylor have added their reasonable voices to the discussion, one about which many Catholics faithful to the Magisterium disagree.
There is room for such disagreement because capital punishment is not, and never has been (contrary to what you may hear during presidential election seasons), considered an intrinsic evil morally equivalent to other life issues such as abortion or euthanasia. The Church allows that capital punishment is permissible and necessary in certain instances; hence the pertinent questions of whether or when such conditions obtain in the developed countries today.
I was thinking about the Gosnell debate as I walked to Mass yesterday morning at the beautiful Basilica of the Sacred Heart at Notre Dame, where I cracked open the Liturgy of the Hours to pray morning prayer. The opening stanza of Psalm 51 struck me in an Augustine-esque way (if that’s not presumptuous):
“Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness.
In your compassion blot out my offenses.
O wash me more and more from my guilt
And cleanse me from my sin.”
Such beautiful lines from the psalmist, a sinner who knows that he is entirely dependent upon God’s mercy and kindness for redemption. As I read these words, a number of other passages flooded my mind, and together imprinted in me a quiet if forceful impression of how I felt about Gosnell’s fate.
The first passage that came to mind was the story of the woman caught in adultery – a crime that merited capital punishment under Mosaic law – from the beginning of Chapter 8 of John’s Gospel:
Early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him.
It’s anyone’s guess what Christ was writing in the ground. Some scripture scholars have suggested that he was enumerating the sins of the members of the crowd, the oldest (and therefore most self-aware of their sinfulness?) of whom were the first to depart and let He who was spotless remain the Lord and giver of life.
Nobody seriously invested in the Gosnell/capital punishment debate needs to be patronized with platitudes about removing the beam from our eyes first. Still, the story of the adulterous woman makes you wonder what Christ would have done if John Zmirak had thrown Gosnell on the ground before Him.
The second scriptural passage that came to mind was the “choose life” passage from Chapter 30 of Deuteronomy:
I call heaven and earth today to witness against you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.
How often, when this reading is read at Mass or cited on pro-life websites or at pro-life rallies, have pro-lifers thrilled, if only internally, at hearing what seems like such an obvious pro-life message proclaimed even in the Old Testament! Yet how often do we associate this passage with anything other than the anti-abortion cause, comprising only one (albeit the most important) facet of the pro-life movement?
It seems to me that perhaps pregnant mothers are not the only ones who could benefit from reflecting on this passage.
Finally, an exchange from CS Lewis’s beautiful reworking of the classical myth of Cupid and Psyche, Till We Have Faces, came to my mind (where it enjoys many extended stays and visits; I think it one of the more simply delivered profound theological truths available in popular literature).
In Till We Have Faces, the protagonist, a willful and troubled (and homely, to be charitable) woman named Orual, has waged a war against the gods since an experience in her youth left her questioning the goodness of the gods themselves. As a girl, the princess Orual was tutored by a Greek slave captured by her father in battle. The Fox, as Orual affectionately dubs her philosophical teacher, and Orual share an exchange near book’s end – I shan’t spoil the plot – when the Fox is escorting Orual through a vision.
“My judges?” Orual asks.
“Why, yes, child,” the Fox replies. “The gods have been accused by you. Now’s their turn.”
“I cannot hope for mercy.”
“Infinite hopes – and fears – may both be yours. Be sure that, whatever else you get, you will not get justice.”
“Are the gods not just?””
“Oh no, child. What would become of us if they were? But come and see.”
How many people have struggled to understand how God is both fully just and fully merciful (even after studying their Aquinas), only God knows. But these lines struck me instantly and have constantly haunted me when I appropriate for myself the role of moral judge.
As Christians, we know that, in strict justice, we deserve damnation. It is neither our due nor our right to enjoy beatitude with the Godhead for eternity, an enjoyment made possible for us only through God’s literal condescension.
Kermit Gosnell has done terrible things. It’s hard to envision someone with less regard for the dignity and sanctity of human life short of history’s classical villains, the eternal fate of whose souls, by the way, we can in no way pretend to know. But, as Professor George put well, the problem with considering Gosnell, who really has shown no signs of remorse at all, as beyond conversion of heart, is that we ourselves are damned by that same logic. Let we who are without sin be the first to proclaim him irredeemable. Let us pray for Kermit Gosnell.
I will never forget the sadness I felt when, during my freshman year at Notre Dame, students across campus practically rioted in triumphant joy when the news of Osama bin Laden’s death was made public. As much as anyone, I was happy that a dangerous and hateful man would kill no more. But the jubilation and exultation in a child of God’s death seemed vindictive, spiteful, or both, and neither emotion should accompany the death even of evil men.
I am far from qualified to venture an opinion on whether social justice or Catholic teaching demands Gosnell’s execution, or anyone else’s in this day and age. But as a Christian, I am glad to make the understatement of creation – the gods aren’t just. What would become of us if they were? Rather than serving justice by playing the role of the hangman, Christ epitomized misericordia – which Aquinas considered the most God-like of the virtues – while playing the hanged. If justice really demanded the hangman, we’d all lose much more than our earthly lives.
These thoughts do not constitute an argument against capital punishment either per se or with respect to public policy or individual cases. I’m fully familiar with what the Church documents and Tradition have to say about the legitimacy of capital punishment. Then again, what the Church says about capital punishment is not really in question so much as how the teaching ought to be implicated and applied in civil societies. Nor are these thoughts meant primarily as a critique of Zmirak’s perspective.
Rather, these are reflections on what seem to me to be the deeper currents running beneath the back-and-forth about the status of this teaching in the Magisterium, the questions of the conditions under which capital punishment is permissible today or the relationship between justice, mercy and clemency. Beneath all of this, and possibly responsible for one’s own application of the Church’s teachings, is a fundamental disposition towards our immortal souls vis-à-vis God’s love for us.
“Some people think it renders our witness for the sanctity of innocent life more credible when we extend it even further to cover the guilty. I disagree,” Zmirak argues.
Regardless of the merits – and there are many – of Zmirak’s argument, it’s a good thing for us, the best thing – the Good News – that God doesn’t feel the same way. It’s good for us that God doesn’t administer the death penalty on our souls. Let’s not be the forgiven servant who turns and demands a much smaller sum from his fellow servant. If God can hold out to us the communion of life eternal when strict justice dictates otherwise, perhaps we can find it in ourselves to drop our stones and go and do likewise.