Foundations Once Destroyed: The Catholic Church and Criminal Justice

By Skotnicki, Andrew | Theological Studies, December 2004 | Go to article overview

Foundations Once Destroyed: The Catholic Church and Criminal Justice


Skotnicki, Andrew, Theological Studies


MY TASK HERE IS TWOFOLD. First, I present, by means of historical analysis, an understanding of the principal components of the Catholic position on criminal justice including the justification for the punishment of offenders, the end that punishment seeks to achieve, and the means to attain that end. (1) Secondly, I offer a critique of the way that the tradition is currently being presented especially by the Catholic Church in the United States. (2) After discussing the three principal elements in punishment theory--justification, ends, and means--my historical section places special emphasis on the practical methods that the Church developed to implement its theory, namely, the novel reinvention of the prison as a disciplinary apparatus expressive of the desire to chastise its errant members, to provide the means for their betterment, and to reintegrate them into the social body. (3) The critical section of my article addresses what I perceive to be some interpretive problems in recent official documents regarding certain key concepts and normative principles, both within the tradition and in the contemporary correctional project.

I use the word "critique" to define my second task with some hesitation. I say this because the attempt by the U. S. Church to say something about the chaotic and destructive tendencies in current crime control strategies is itself commendable, if not always sufficiently informed about the beast it is attempting to tame. In addition, the historical and theoretical corpus is immense and requires a hermeneutic in order to be presented in a methodologically consistent manner. There is need for a process of classification and interpretation over which some disagreement is inevitable.

I guide my own analysis with the insight that the response to crime and the treatment of the criminal in each age are, at the deepest level, driven by metaphors or social portraits of the offender. (4) Those who critique the particular way a prisoner is "captured" are influenced by their own historical context. Therefore, the analytical undertaking of deciphering the substance of Catholic thinking on criminal justice is accompanied by a rhetorical one, essentially arguing that what should be drawn from the deep well of Catholic practice are those commitments, those particular interpretations of normative beliefs that are consistent with images of Christ as prisoner, with the Church as stern but loving parent, and with liberation. These images dictate how the data is worked because, frankly, there is much in Catholic practice, rhetoric aside, that is not worth recovering. There have been startling, brilliant developments that should be defended, and other innovations, practices in service to the images of lesser gods, that ought to be left in their historical tomb.

My dissatisfaction with contemporary Catholic analysis is not that the image of Christ as prisoner, or the goal of liberation are ignored, but that the images of prison and prisoner in ecclesial documents have been depicted, in part, from an improper perspective of the historical and penal landscape. Thus the rich conceptual treasury of Catholic social ethics has been mistakenly applied, in critical areas of practical implementation. Furthermore, the survey of historical and current data leads me to argue that Christ the prisoner, and the longed-for liberation of those imprisoned, are to a significant degree incongruous without sustaining the very concept of the prison. This assumption necessarily leaves my own interpretation open to a critique as well, one that will be welcomed in the attempt to reformulate a more historically and sociologically accurate Catholic theology relating to crime and criminal justice.

RENEWED INTEREST IN PRISONS AND PRISONERS

The leaders of the Catholic Church, and especially the U.S. bishops, have recently been more and more involved in issues connected with crime and punishment. Their declarations have not always been able to keep up with fast developing insights. …

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