Monday, October 24, 2016

A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice

Yesterday was Criminal Justice Sunday, and to mark the significance of the day at the Spirit of St. Stephen's Catholic Community in Minneapolis a special prayer was shared along with a powerful excerpt from the U.S. Catholic Bishops' document, "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice." I share both today at The Wild Reed.

But first let me say that in relation to the "Catholic perspective" of these texts, I understand and celebrate the word catholic not in terms of the religious tradition of Roman Catholicism but rather as the process which theologian Ilia Delio writes about in her book The Emergent Christ.

For Delio, catholic is a "dynamic process of making whole," and catholicity, at its roots, is "participation in creating greater unity through deepening relationships." Understood in this way, catholic is a descriptor of a way of being in the world rather than a label of identification with the belief system of a particular church or religious tradition. Indeed, for Delio, catholic describes the whole evolutionary universe. Accordingly, the true catholic is present and active wherever the Spirit of love "weaves the oneness of God." As someone who, more often that not, is mortified by the erroneous and divisive statements and actions of the clerical leadership of the Roman Catholic church, Delio's understanding of catholicity is incredibly liberating and life-giving. It's also an understanding and process which, whether the U.S. Catholic Bishops recognize it or not, is very much present in their 2000 statement "Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration," from which the following is excerpted.

In the United States, 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. 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.

As you read the above excerpt I hope you discerned how the "Catholic" approach and vision outlined by the bishops is very much about, in Ilia Delio's words, "whole-making . . . [through] greater unity through deepening relationships" – a process rooted in the Spirit of love and our participation in this Spirit as together we "weave the oneness of God."

I close with the sharing of the prayer we prayed yesterday at Spirit of St. Stephen's. It's a prayer that, like the bishops' statement, reflects the expansive, "whole-making" understanding of catholic put forward by Ilia Delio.

Prayer for Criminal Justice Reform

Liberating God,
we call upon your love to liberate us
from our many layers of imprisonment.

Systemic racism holds us captive
while fear, addiction, complacency
and despair constrain us.

We remember especially sisters and brothers
bound by prison walls; we remember the anguish
of their victims. We do not understand so many things;
structures of sentencing, a disproportionate number
of inmates of color, the suffering of their children
in now single-parent families, our collective fear
of released prisoners as illustrated by their
inability to find housing, jobs, respect,
or a second chance.

We ask, Compassionate One,
for the wisdom of compassion
and the humility of forgiveness.
In the healing liberation of your love
we pray: free us from fear;
free us to action,
free us from revenge;
free us to reconciliation.

We make this prayer in the name of Brother Jesus,
that, like him, we may become instruments of peace,
healing, and true freedom for each sister & brother
created in Your image.


Related Off-site Links:
Fourteen Examples of Racism in the Criminal Justice System – Bill Quigley (The Huffington Post,July 26, 2010).
Our Prison System is Even More Racist Than You Think – Aron Macarow (Attn:, August 31, 2015).
Disrupting the School to Prison Pipeline – Artika R. Tyner (The Huffington Post, January 24, 2016).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Something to Think About – December 29, 2015
In the Garden of Spirituality – Ilia Delio

Image: Subjects and photographer unknown.

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