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 in criminal justice
The United States is the world’s most aggressive incarcerator, containing only five 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 one in nine 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 is 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 J. 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, healthcare 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.