Every day Christians pray for justice and mercy in the prayer that Jesus taught us: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Every day Christians recognize both that we are guilty of sin and that we are forgiven: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." This common prayer, the Lord's Prayer, recognizes our failures and offenses, and acknowledges our dependence on God's love and mercy.
Our Catholic faith can help us and others to go beyond the current debate and gain a deeper understanding of how to reject crime, help heal its victims, and pursue the common good. We wish to move away from the so-called "soft" or "tough" approaches to crime and punishment offered by those at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
St. Paul outlined our task when he told us to "test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil" (1 Thes 5:21). He calls us to affirm the demands of both justice and mercy, the place of punishment and forgiveness, and the reality of free will and poor choices.
In the United States, history tells us that the prison system was, in some ways, built on a moral vision of the human person and society—one that combined a spiritual rekindling with punishment and correction.28 But along the way, this vision has too often been lost. The evidence surrounds us: sexual and physical abuse among inmates and sometimes by corrections officers, gang violence, racial division, the absence of educational opportunities and treatment programs, the increasing use of isolation units, and society's willingness to sentence children to adult prisons—all contributing to a high rate of recidivism. Our society seems to prefer punishment to rehabilitation and retribution to restoration thereby indicating a failure to recognize prisoners as human beings.
In some ways, an approach to criminal justice that is inspired by a Catholic vision is a paradox. We cannot and will not tolerate behavior that threatens lives and violates the rights of others. We believe in responsibility, accountability, and legitimate punishment. Those who harm others or damage property must be held accountable for the hurt they have caused. The community has a right to establish and enforce laws to protect people and to advance the common good.
At the same time, a Catholic approach does not give up on those who violate these laws. We believe that both victims and offenders are children of God. Despite their very different claims on society, their lives and dignity should be protected and respected. We seek justice, not vengeance. We believe punishment must have clear purposes: protecting society and rehabilitating those who violate the law.
We believe a Catholic vision of crime and criminal justice can offer some alternatives. It recognizes that root causes and personal choices can both be factors in crime by understanding the need for responsibility on the part of the offender and an opportunity for their rehabilitation. A Catholic approach leads us to encourage models of restorative justice that seek to address crime in terms of the harm done to victims and communities, not simply as a violation of law.
The Old Testament provides us with a rich tradition that demonstrates both God's justice and mercy. The Lord offered to his people Ten Commandments, very basic rules for living from which the Israelites formed their own laws in a covenant relationship with God. Punishment was required, reparations were demanded, and relationships were restored. But the Lord never abandoned his people despite their sins. And in times of trouble, victims relied on God's love and mercy, and then on each other to find comfort and support (Is 57:18-21; Ps 94:19).
Just as God never abandons us, so too we must be in covenant with one another. We are all sinners, and our response to sin and failure should not be abandonment and despair, but rather justice, contrition, reparation, and return or reintegration of all into the community.
The New Testament builds on this tradition and extends it. Jesus demonstrated his disappointment with those who oppressed others (Mt 23) and those who defiled sacred spaces (Jn 2). At the same time, he rejected punishment for its own sake, noting that we are all sinners (Jn 8). Jesus also rejected revenge and retaliation and was ever hopeful that offenders would transform their lives and turn to be embraced by God's love.
Jesus, who himself was a prisoner, calls us to visit the imprisoned and to take care of the sick (including victims of crime), the homeless, and the hungry (Mt 25). His mission began with proclaiming good news to the poor and release to captives (Lk 4). In our day, we are called to find Christ in young children at risk, troubled youth, prisoners in our jails and on death row, and crime victims experiencing pain and loss.
The story of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10), who did all he could to help a victim of crime, a stranger, is a model for us today. We must be willing to stop and help victims of crime recover from their physical and emotional wounds.
The parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15) shows God's love for us and models how we should love one another. In spite of his younger son's reckless life and squandering of his inheritance, the father celebrates his return home, recognizing that his son has shown contrition and has changed his life. The lost who have been found are to be welcomed and celebrated, not resented and rejected. Pope John Paul II said
What Christ is looking for is trusting acceptance, an attitude which opens the mind to generous decisions aimed at rectifying the evil done and fostering what is good. Sometimes this involves a long journey, but always a stimulating one, for it is a journey not made alone, but in the company of Christ himself and with his support. . . . He never tires of encouraging each person along the path to salvation.29
We Catholic bishops hope that these modest reflections will stimulate a renewed dialogue among Catholics and other people of good will on issues and actions regarding crime and criminal justice. We encourage and support those called by our community to minister to prisoners and victims and all other people who work directly in the criminal justice system. We suggest that they use these reflections to assess how the system can become less retributive and more restorative. We pray that these words offer some comfort to victims and communities threatened by crime, and challenge all Catholics to become involved in restoring communities to wholeness.
We are guided by the paradoxical Catholic teaching on crime and punishment: We will not tolerate the crime and violence that threatens the lives and dignity of our sisters and brothers, and we will not give up on those who have lost their way. We seek both justice and mercy. Working together, we believe our faith calls us to protect public safety, promote the common good, and restore community. We believe a Catholic ethic of responsibility, rehabilitation, and restoration can become the foundation for the necessary reform of our broken criminal justice system.
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In light of this moral framework, we seek approaches that understand crime as a threat to community, not just a violation of law; that demand new efforts to rebuild lives, not just build more prisons; and that demonstrate a commitment to re-weave a broader social fabric of respect for life, civility, responsibility, and reconciliation. New approaches should be built on the following foundations: