Is Punishment only about Rehabilitation?

A minor tempest has arisen in the Catholic blogosphere over the question of the reason for punishing criminals.  Pope Francis, who has already rewritten the Catechism to claim that capital punishment is “inadmissible,” appears also to think that life sentences for criminals might also “violate human dignity.” Papal apologists have taken to arguing that a “just” society is one that incarcerates criminals until they are reformed, and then sends them forth, rejoicing.

After three decades during which such arguments have been generally practiced in most developed countries, the results are in.

Quite bluntly put, not only do such policies fail to protect society. There is nothing in the Catholic understanding of crime that sees punishment as only or at least primarily applicable until the criminal claims to be rehabilitated or demonstrates some ill-defined “evidence” of such.  Those who claim otherwise seem to be reading modern categories and assumptions, including a stark individualism, into the Catholic tradition.

For one thing, a crime is not only or even primarily about the criminal.  It is about an order that has been disturbed by the criminal.  That order is a moral one: one of good versus evil.  It is also a social one: crimes affect the community and the common good.

To reduce the “criminal justice” question, then, to the moral reform of the criminal is to obliterate our awareness of the community. Order in the community has been and remains disordered, regardless of the criminal’s alleged repentance – even his (and it’s usually “his) rehabilitation.  That larger disorder needs to be set right.

Advocates of criminal indulgence will claim on occasion that such restitution is part of their judgment about the criminal’s “reform.” But pardon me if I am skeptical; the forms such restoration has taken are more fiction than reality.

Furthermore, contemporary concepts of “restorative justice” assume the correctness of contemporary notions about evil: that it’s a “lack of understanding” or “opportunity,” that it can be fixed as we “progress” towards an ever-better future, and that “root causes” and not evil choices account for much wrongdoing.

All these assumptions essentially reject traditional understandings of evil acts: that they are choices. And that people can make thoroughly rotten choices in which they both freely – and with full responsibility – persist.

If your aim is to preserve human dignity, recognizing that we all have the ability to choose what’s right, whatever the circumstances, that we’re all moral agents, seems crucial.

Indeed, let us return to a word invoked above: indulgence.  The Church’s misunderstood and neglected theology of indulgences reminds us of two basic truths about sin: 1) that, on his own, man is incapable of repairing it, and 2) that sin’s consequences persist and require repair.


Those consequences are never fully reparable by human beings alone – it would mean wiping out an event of the past. And thus they cannot be fully mitigated in their consequences, especially by the perpetrator.  Does “restorative justice” reckon with these unpleasant truths about man who is a sinner?

Once upon a time we called jails “penitentiaries,” a term that has fallen into disuse, probably because the vision of good and evil behind it has been lost.  Putting a criminal in a penitentiary was intended to foster his repentance and reform, but it was also a recognition by society that – independent of reforming himself – he had to atone for what he did.

He had in some sense to suffer for his crime, not because society is sadistic but because society understood that such activity struck at the heart of civilized common living and had to be punished. And that punishment was one way in which the community expressed its understanding of justice, and both warned – and deterred – those tempted to ignore that social justice.

Could Christ have redeemed us by simply asking His Father?  Of course!  But He didn’t and, despite His understandably human request to “take this cup from me” (Lk 22:42) He went to Calvary.  Was that because His Father was some sort of supernatural sadist, literally out-for-blood to avenge His Honor, who could have simply set it all aside and let bygones be bygones?  Was Jesus’ obedience purely to that Father’s arbitrary and sadistic Will?  Absolutely not!

Margaret Turek’s new book, Atonement, demonstrates how the whole logic of Good Friday, far from being the Father’s stubborn revenge, is wholly rooted in love and persons, and what it takes for persons – including the Persons of the Trinity – to remove the disorder of sin. Sin, i.e., non-love, mars the image and likeness of God in us all.  And Turek’s exposition of what atonement means is a salutary corrective to a very common, but primitive and distorted notion of why God became man.

It also has implications for how we view “reform” in the context of crime and punishment.  Because crime (sin) has not just done something but made its perpetrator a different person, “reform” must “un-make” both that personal deformity as well as the objective disorder the crime created.  That far exceeds a checklist of demonstrable “proofs” that a particular criminal is “rehabilitated.”

The willingness to forgive is indeed divine, and should be the generous attitude of everyone aspiring to be alter Christus.  At the same time, clerical “forgiveness” seems to have degenerated into some magic concept that imagines forgiveness can be proclaimed even when repentance seems unclear, even absent.  Witness the rapid-fire turnaround on excommunication for a reserved offense.  Or the papal directive to “forgive” without exercising a prudential judgment about binding and loosing.

The great Protestant martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned against “cheap grace,” the readiness to “pardon” evil without first looking it in its ugly eye, and then naming and opposing it.  Our sex scandals show this has not worked in the Church.  A society rife with crime, which deprives the innocent of their rights, should not be offering “cheap grace” via the criminal justice system.


*Image: Christ and the Good Thief by Titian, c. 1566 [National Art Gallery of Bologna, Italy]

You may also enjoy:

Pope St. John XXIII On Repentance

Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Cap.’s Repentance for Sin and Sacramental Absolution

John Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views herein are exclusively his.