Politics in the Year of Mercy

| Jason Adkins | January 6, 2016 | 2 Comments

The current Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis is an opportunity to reconsider how the creative force of mercy can be extended to the realm of public policy. Though the aim of law is to establish justice, it can be enriched by a life-giving mercy that seeks to restore and maintain right relationships — the true aim of justice. Otherwise, the execution of justice can become merely the impersonal application of commands.

Some appeals for mercy in public life are justified, while others are actually pity or false compassion posing as mercy. Distinguishing one from the other requires that we are attentive to the truth of things, including our shortcomings both as individuals and as a society, as well as God’s providential ordering of creation known through revelation and the natural law.

Two issues in particular highlight the proper and improper application of mercy to public policy: mass incarceration policies and proposals to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

Clemency and justice

The United States is the world’s most aggressive incarcerator, containing only 5 percent of the world’s population but holding 25 percent of its prisoners.

A bipartisan consensus is emerging, however, that mass incarceration policies are not the primary source of the continued decline in crime, but have actually become counterproductive, too financially burdensome, and even inhumane — particularly for non-violent offenders who comprise almost half of the state prison population.

Besides the strain on public budgets, there are significant social costs to mass incarceration. For example, there are 2.7 million minor children with a parent behind bars. More than 1 in 9 black children have a parent incarcerated. Mass incarceration has disrupted marriage rates and will no doubt contribute to negative outcomes among affected children who spend part or all of their childhood without one parent.

So what can be done? As Minnesota’s prison population reaches capacity, it may be worth considering three reforms that manifest mercy to offenders but at the same time make our criminal justice system more just by healing and restoring social relationships in a way that is consistent with public safety.

First, Minnesota should consider recalibrating its criminal penalties and sentencing guidelines, especially for non-violent offenses that have been particularly harmful to young men from minority communities and which have put their lives on a difficult trajectory. Second, Minnesota could reform the practices of its Board of Pardons to allow for reprieves or commutations of sentences when warranted. Third, Minnesota should restore the vote to felony offenders who have completed their time of incarceration and are living and working in the community under supervised release (probation or parole).

‘Mercy’ killing a failure to love

Minnesotans will begin hearing much more about legalizing physician-assisted suicide in 2016. It is claimed that assisting someone’s suicide is the “compassionate” and “merciful” thing to do so that people do not experience prolonged suffering and can “die with dignity.”

But sending someone home with a vial of pills to end their life is not merciful. As Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia has written: “The moral law guides us toward choices that are life-giving, and true mercy is always intimately linked to truth. Indulging our own or another’s flawed choices in the supposed service of mercy defeats mercy’s true goal.”

Compassion literally means to “suffer with,” and true mercy emphasizes the relational care that the sick and suffering deserve — and that we owe them. Assisting a suicide, on the other hand, is merely a small and misguided act of pity, and legalizing it would indeed be pitiful — an utter failure by this state to make the policy choice to accompany people in a difficult stage of life so they need not “feel like a burden” (sadly, one of the main reasons cited by people wishing to receive “aid in dying”).

Minnesota should instead enact creative programs in the areas of palliative care, advance care planning, health care workforce development and social assistance to ensure that no one feels coerced into ending their life prematurely because they lack other options or adequate care.

In these ways, by properly applying mercy to public policy issues such as mass incarceration and physician-assisted suicide, we can more fully live out God’s mercy in this Jubilee Year.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.


action-alertHelp feed the hungry during Lent

Join the Minnesota FoodShare March Campaign

The Minnesota Catholic Conference is proud to help sponsor the Minnesota FoodShare March Campaign. For more than 30 years, this annual grassroots food and fund drive has provided more than half the food distributed by 300 food shelves throughout Minnesota. The March Campaign is the only statewide effort where every dollar donated goes directly to food shelves to purchase food for the hungry.

Feeding the hungry is traditionally listed as the first of the corporal works of mercy. For more information about how to involve your parish, community organization, business or school in this beautiful opportunity to show mercy during the Jubilee Year, visit the Minnesota FoodShare website at http://www.gmcc.org/mfs/marchcampaign or call 612-276-1530.


Category: Faith in the Public Arena

  • Charles C.

    I have to agree with the discussion on assisted suicide, but perhaps for another reason. The latest “buzz topic” is the sanctity of creation and how developed countries are spoiling it. But what could be a more sacred piece of creation than a human life? It is a gift from God and not to be thrown away. It is irreplaceable. When society tells people they can destroy the most intimate and personal part of creation because it is expensive or painful to keep it, how will society tell us, with any moral authority, that it’s wrong to do the same to other pieces of creation?

    But Mr. Adkins returns to the incarceration theme. I’ve heard frequently that the US is the Great Incarcerator. So? The US is a leader in the rate of its citizen incarceration. Six countries have more than 1 person jailed for every 200 citizens. The US is one. So are Cuba, the Virgin Islands, Turkmenistan, and St. Kitts and Nevis. The world leader is the Seychelles, jailing 1 out of every 125 citizens. What does that tell us about incarceration policies?

    And which countries have found ways to meet Mr. Adkins request for fewer inmates? There are 18 countries who have imprisoned 1 in 2,500, or fewer, of their citizens. Some of those countries include: Central African Republic, Nigeria, Niger, Liberia, Chad, India, Mali, etc. Do we turn to them for advice on establishing a penal system?

    But what about Mr. Adkins first point:

    “First, Minnesota should consider recalibrating its criminal penalties
    and sentencing guidelines, especially for non-violent offenses that have
    been particularly harmful to young men from minority communities and
    which have put their lives on a difficult trajectory.”

    If I’m not mistaken, he’s saying that we should change the penalties for minority drug dealers so that they don’t carry a felony record with them for committing felonies. That’s fine, but does that stop drug dealing? And what is worse for a society, a drug dealer, or someone who snatches a purse a woman is carrying? Tough call, but why are we so sure that the citizens have made the wrong call in choosing their laws and penalties? Because it hurts the people who break them?

    Drug dealers exist because they believe that the benefits, in cash and prestige, outweigh the possible penalties if caught. What will reducing the penalties even further do?

    If people, at the age of 21, can accept the responsibilities which come with marriage, drinking, voting, etc., why can’t they accept the responsibilities that come from drug dealing?

    Speaking about driving, in Minnesota if you get pulled over for impaired driving four times in ten years, the felony penalty is 3-7 years. You don’t have to hurt anyone, or even violate a traffic law to cause the stop. It’s a non-violent crime, frequently committed by youth. Is a felony charge too much? Sure, it can become deadly, but so can drug dealing.

  • Charles C.

    I noticed something that seems worth mentioning. From the article:

    “[I]t may be worth considering three reforms that manifest mercy
    to offenders . . .”

    “First, Minnesota should consider recalibrating its criminal penalties
    and sentencing guidelines, especially for non-violent offenses that
    have been particularly harmful to young men from minority communities
    and which have put their lives on a difficult trajectory.”

    That suggestion doesn’t show “mercy” as described in any dictionary or moral treatise that I’m aware of. You’ll note that the proposed merciful act (the reduction of the sentence) will take place before the offender asks for mercy, before he knows mercy is available, before he’s convicted, before he’s arrested. In short, “mercy” will be granted to someone who hasn’t committed any offense, but is expected to sometime in the future. What?

    And I can just see the convict, standing before the judge, awaiting sentencing: “Mercy, your honor, mercy!” And the judge replying “I will manifest mercy to you by allowing you to vote after you’re out of prison.” The convict has to be thinking, “Uhh, that’s not exactly what I had in mind.”

    Mr. Adkins’ position, that we should reduce the penalties for drug dealing, is one which can be discussed. So can making it easier for felons to vote. Likewise, reviewing the pardon and commutation process. But to claim that those positions manifest “Mercy” is to put a saddle on a hippopotamus and enter him in the derby.