May 24, 2013
This week’s Spirit & Life is by Marie Meaney, Ph.D., a contributor to Human Life International’s online publication the Truth and Charity Forum.
Spirit & Life is the weekly e-column of
Human Life International.
Throughout his decades long career, Philadelphia abortionist Kermit Gosnell killed thousands of innocent babies, and harmed numerous adult women. His recent conviction for the murder of three babies born alive who then had their spines cut with scissors, and the involuntary manslaughter of Karnamaya Mongar, caused many to wonder if the death penalty was a just punishment for his crimes (though prosecutors have decided he will instead face life in prison).
As Christians, we are called to evangelize the world, forgive those who have done wrong, and pray that all will turn their lives over to Christ. When we encounter men and women who perform acts of pure evil, such as Gosnell, this teaching can be extremely hard for us to practice. In this week’s Spirit & Life, Dr. Marie Meaney focuses on the message of Christ’s mercy, and on praying for Gosnell’s conversion: “Gosnell is our brother … As such, he deserves our hope for his conversion. We see the horror of what he has done, but we should pray that he will repent and change.”
As Pope Francis recently reminded the world, Jesus Christ came into this world and died to redeem the sins of all on this earth. Despite the media hype about the Holy Father’s statements, we know there is nothing new in this teaching. Our Lord offers his mercy and love to all men and women, if only we will accept those mighty gifts. As we continue in this great Year of Faith of the Church, please join me in praying that all who have sinned will seek the forgiveness and mercy of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Father Shenan J. Boquet
President, Human Life International
Dare We Hope for Gosnell?
A few days ago the news broke that a deal was struck between Kermit Gosnell and prosecutors. Gosnell waived his right to appeal the verdict. In return, the prosecutors dropped their demand for the death penalty. Up until this point the question was still very much in the air whether he should receive this extreme punishment or not.
In a short article for First Things, Robert George has asked for mercy for Gosnell, who had, among other things, snipped the spines of children born alive after abortions, kept their body parts in jars, put the lives of women at risk by operating in filthy conditions, and employed people as nurses without any medical diplomas.
The Gosnell saga was a sensation in the pro-life community far and wide. The story was finally covered, at least marginally, by the mainstream media after they were shamed into reporting it by numerous denunciations. The media hated the Gosnell case because it contradicted their predominantly pro-abortion ideology that is wrapped in soothing lies about safe, rare and legal abortions.
Gosnell could have received the death penalty under Pennsylvania law. This raises the question whether his execution would have been a good thing or not.
Robert George mentions a number of arguments against the death penalty in Gosnell’s case: one of them (which he doesn’t support himself, though he says it could be used) is that the logic of legalized abortion leads to infanticide. The Planned Parenthood Federation, among other groups, has defended the practice of infanticide as a backup plan for a botched abortion!
Whether a child is killed in the womb or outside, it is de facto the same: an innocent life is directly and intentionally taken. One could argue that there is a double standard in condemning Gosnell to the death penalty while allowing other abortionists to go scot-free, simply because they stay within the boundaries of an unjust positive law.
Of course, one could also reason that the law is not unjust when punishing Gosnell and should therefore be carried out to its full extent. That others are not punished is a shame, but at least he gets what he deserves. But Professor George doesn’t actually embrace this line of argument.
Gosnell is our brother, George argues, and as such, he deserves our hope for his conversion. We see the horror of what he has done, but we should pray that he will repent and change. One could object that this is not yet an argument against the death penalty in and of itself.
In the Middle Ages, when people at large were much more concerned about their eternal fate, no contradiction was seen between executing a man and hoping for his eternal salvation. A priest was generally present at the execution, and the criminal could turn to him for the last sacraments and spiritual support until the end. Apart from the general opinion that the death penalty was seen as being the just punishment for certain crimes, the hope was that such a strict punishment would shake the criminal out of his moral blindness and awaken him to his misdeeds — let him turn to God and repent. For the eternal punishment expecting him in the next life was going to be much worse than any punishment he could receive in this life.
Punishment, as the French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil has said, following Plato, is a need of the soul. Therefore, the criminal has — strange as this may sound — a right to punishment, since it puts him back in touch with the realm of justice out of which he has propelled himself through his crime. Punishment helps him access again the truth about his deeds.
The question would then be whether the death penalty is ever the appropriate answer to a crime. Robert George does not think that it is ever required or justified as a matter of retributive justice, and thus puts himself in line with Blessed Pope John Paul II.
Except in cases of not being able to protect society against a criminal, Pope John Paul stated in Evangelium vitae that the death penalty was not justified. Since the value of an individual person is infinite, to ask for his death is therefore incommensurate even if the criminal himself has many lives on his conscience.
That human justice is furthermore fallible and lacks the knowledge of another person’s soul and his responsibility (which would require the omniscience of God) could be used as a further argument against the death penalty. However, my goal is not to debate the question of the death penalty as such, which would require much more space, but to look at George’s plea for mercy for Gosnell and its significance as a pro-life witness to the world.
George obviously agrees that Gosnell must be punished; the abortionist is now condemned to multiple life-sentences without parole, and rightly so. Justice is met imperfectly either way. One could argue that not even the death penalty is an adequate punishment for some horrific crimes. It is “only” one life against many others, and furthermore we will only be rightly judged in the next life by a judge who alone is capable of doing so. But by being merciful and not discontentedly complaining that he should have been executed, we are sending a message to Gosnell and to the world which is singularly powerful.
True mercy is not separate from justice or from the truth. Life in prison without possibility of parole does not let Gosnell off the hook easily. Nor does this sentence send the message that his deeds weren’t horrible after all, or that he is getting off lightly. But it provides time for him to convert; we wish his ultimate good which requires his repentance. The mercy he is experiencing is a severe and a demanding mercy requiring a painful transformation for him.
Mercy is the expression of the ultimate victory of the good; it shows how superabundantly the good can make up for all possible evil that has been committed. Only God can bring this about, therefore human mercy will merely be an expression of this divine mercy. His mercy which makes all things new can transform murderers like Gosnell and make them participate in the joy of Heaven, though it does presuppose his repentance and making reparation for his deeds as far as that is possible.
It’s possible this message of mercy and the hope it expresses in his capacity to change won’t reach him. But it would be a fine gesture if the pro-life movement tried to contact him and made this clear. It would not just be an important message to him, but also to the world. This gospel of mercy may resonate with all who have been involved in abortions and have repented but have a hard time forgiving themselves and truly believing in God’s forgiveness.
Perhaps former abortion doctors or former abortion clinic directors like Abby Johnson could send such a message to Gosnell. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux exclaimed, even if she had committed the worst sins, she would still throw herself into the merciful arms of God. Let us hope the same for Gosnell.