This website is the home site of my criminal reformation apostolate; here you can find details about the Lampstand Foundation which I founded as a 501c (3) nonprofit corporation in Sacramento, California in 2003.
I also maintain a daily blog, The Catholic Eye, https://catholiceye.wordpress.com/
The work connected to the apostolate is listed under the home page categories which I will be expanding as needed.
Journal of Markets & Morality
Review: “Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church”
by David H. Lukenbill
LampStand Foundation, Sacramento, California
Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church Andrew Skotnicki Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007 165 pp.
Working in the criminal justice system and having read many of the writings of Andrew Skotnicki, I approached his new book with a certainty that I would be rewarded with well-researched and eloquent expressions of those things that I already agree to be true about an effective criminal justice system. They are (1) that punishment for crimes is important in both a spiritual and a temporal sense; (2) that prisons are an appropriate ground for punishment while protecting the public from the criminal in the process; and (3) that the essential impetus for reformation comes from the criminal, not from any external influence applied to him.
There are essentially two criminal justice narratives. One issues from the academy and many nonprofit advocacy organizations, is primarily sociological, and rests on the assumption that we need less of everything involved in criminal justice—crimes, arrests, convictions, and prisons. The other is promoted by the practitioners (police, district attorneys, judges, and prison guards) who make the case for strengthening the existing system—more of everything.
Dr. Skotnicki’s work, as expected from scholarship based on the universal faith of the Catholic Church and its social teaching principles, bridges those two narratives in a way no other perspective can.
The current environment of much of the professional advocacy class writing and thinking about criminal justice issues—many Catholic writers among them—focused as it is on banning the death penalty and closing prisons, has created a position incompatible with Catholic teaching. Given the difficulty of discovering the Church’s teaching concerning these issues, their ideas have stood relatively unchallenged. With the publication of this book and the further attention its influence will bring to the author’s other writings, that will no longer be the case.
Skotnicki addresses the controversial issues of punishment and prison from the tradition of the Church. Appropriate penal practices are necessary not only to protect the public from the aggressor but also to allow the criminal the opportunity to reform himself with the aid of his God.
Skotnicki notes, “the prison as we know it in the West originated in the penitential practice of the early church and in primitive monastic communities,” and therefore argues, “with some reservations,” that “it thus bears a meaning as valid and necessary as penance and monasticism themselves” (6). A significant accomplishment of this book is the explanation of that coherent historical development—infused with spiritual meaning and Catholic teaching—of the appropriate use of the prison.
In a manner that will speak most powerfully to the imprisoned, the book is informed by the criminal and prisoner status of Jesus Christ who allowed himself to become so for the singularly significant reason to affirm his suffering and his immutable bond with humankind.
While Skotnicki’s suggestion that “Christ himself is and must be treated as the malefactor” (73) is certainly Church tradition, it would appear more normative that in those horrific cases of offense that repulses even other criminals—thrill murderers, serial rapists, and child molesters—the malefactor we are dealing with is the Devil, with whom an evil partnership has been formed quite beyond that mundane pact with the criminal world made by the professional and habitual criminal largely motivated by economic gain.
The professional criminal who commits crimes for money, though doing everything in his power to avoid being caught and brought to justice, generally understands and accepts the sanctions imposed for crimes, particularly if he has committed many besides those for which he was apprehended.
Considering the importance Christ placed on criminals, the works of the early and medieval Church fathers, and Pope Pius XII’s statements on crime and punishment in the mid-twentieth century, the lack of substantial comment in recent years is striking, as it corresponds with the period of the most massive incarceration in human history.
The Jubilee Year report from the American bishops, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice (2000), though welcome as an attempted resumption of the conversation, was more reflective of a certain political stance than a solid Catholic construction around criminal justice issues.
With the publication of Skotnicki’s deeply spiritual and intellectually satisfying book, this brief Catholic silence about criminal justice has ended, and we will hope to see much more thought being focused on this most Catholic of issues.
Retrieved July 23, 2008 from http://www.acton.org/publications/mandm/111review07.php#frm
CAPITAL PUNISHMENT AND THE CONSTANCY OF CATHOLIC SOCIAL TEACHING
David H. Lukenbill
The experience of individuals in the world shares certain consistent realities, and among those shared realities is response to institutional constancy. We all share the experience of receiving promises that are not kept, from individuals representing institutions. When this becomes a continual experience, then our response to those promises will often be different than it otherwise would have been. And while we may still embrace the institution, we will become more deeply exasperated by its lack of constancy. While an institution’s failure to deliver on promises may merely make some people cynical, it can have disastrous results upon individuals seeking the truth if the institution in question is the Church herself, the custodian of Truth.
When promises are kept and faith is congruent with practice, particularly over a long period of time, constancy is maintained and the level of trust and respect engendered rises proportionately. We have this wonderful gift in our well-informed knowledge of the history of the Church, her great constancy to the ancient truths that are congruent with what she still teaches. Many of these are embodied in the simple, visible movement of the priests and the faithful through the sacraments, but it is in the teaching—built on the stones of Sinai, the ministry, death and resurrection of Christ, and the rock of Peter—that there shines a light in the eternal cathedral of time and memory, embracing us all in the immortal truths.
This constancy is sometimes not easily perceived. The world has attempted to destroy the Church from her very beginning, often with the conscious or unconscious help of her members, and the smoke of Satan’s war against the Church has always swirled about the corners of the sanctuary, often as close to us as Cain was to Abel. But the record of the thousand battles of this war during the thousands of years it has been waged, and the great triumphs of Holy Mother Church, are resounding still; even within the darkest heart of a sinner they may resound—and when a penitent soul discovers the mark of this triumph written across the heavens and through the centuries, it can be efficacious in bringing that soul to redemption.
The mandate for the constancy of the Church comes from the truth that there will be no further revelation, as the Catechism teaches us:
In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. Christ, the Son of God made man, is the Father’s one, perfect and unsurpassable Word. In him he has said everything; there will be no other word than this one . . . 1
The deposit of faith is sacred, interpreted by the Church:
The apostles entrusted the ‘Sacred deposit’ of the faith (the depositum fidei), contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church. ‘By adhering to [this heritage] the entire holy people, united to its pastors, remains always faithful to the teaching of the apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. So, in maintaining, practising and professing the faith that has been handed on, there should be a remarkable harmony between the bishops and the faithful.’2
Working from this divine foundation, the conversion of sinners through the transcendence of the truth of the world by the truth of God is a process involving time, prayer, and grace; and in many cases today, the rôle of the social teaching of the Church is substantial.
While Catholic social teaching has always supported capital punishment, based on scripture, tradition, and teaching as expressed in the two universal catechisms (that of the Council of Trent and that post-Vatican II), the death penalty has been opposed by some in the Catholic hierarchy as unnecessary, with current criminal justice technology being judged adequate to the protection of the innocent against the aggressor, meeting the criteria established by the Holy See in 1997:
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means. . . 3
Capital punishment as a way of protecting the innocent from the aggressor has become one of the central issues in the social teaching of the Church, and the ambiguity about it during the past several decades, after two millennia of seeming certainty, places the credibility of the Church’s teaching itself in doubt. This impairs the Church’s social teaching as an effective tool for conversion, and causes further risk to the immortal souls of those who are lost and whose being found largely depends on the constancy of that social teaching.
My personal thinking on capital punishment has gone through three phases. A former professional criminal, I served twelve years in maximum security federal and state prisons, where I gained an intimate knowledge of unrepentant evil. At that time I supported capital punishment, especially for those crimes against innocent women and children that professional criminals associate with its just use. When I became a Catholic, I moved in opposition to it, because I was taught during the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults that the Church opposed it, and it was very important to me to think with the Church in all things. Later, continuing my studies on Church teaching, I returned to a position of support when I discovered that the Church’s teaching opposed only the improper use of capital punishment. My position has become more certain with my growing realization of how deeply support for capital punishment is woven into Church doctrine as an important aspect of the protection of the innocent against the murderer, “for all time” as the Catechism notes:
The covenant between God and mankind is interwoven with reminders of God’s gift of human life and man’s murderous violence: ‘For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning. . . Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image’ (Genesis 9:5-6). The Old Testament always considered blood a sacred sign of life (Leviticus 17:14). This teaching remains necessary for all time.4
One of the most important reasons for ensuring that capital punishment remains an option for protecting the innocent is that it is a clear response to evil, and it is important that our Church remain committed to confronting and fighting evil directly. In fact, ultimately, the Church’s constancy in fighting evil is informed and animated by the constancy of the social teaching of the Church, and is an eloquent indicator of the truth of that social teaching.
Part of the constancy of the social teaching on the efficacy of capital punishment as a function of the ancient and transcendent sword of justice, rests on its retributive purpose, as noted by J. Budziszewski:
The question to ask about the retributive purpose of capital punishment is this: is it possible for punishment to signify the gravity of crimes which deserve death if their perpetuators are never visited with execution? This seems unlikely. Consider the deviant who tortures small children to death for his pleasure, or the ideologue who meditates the demise of innocent thousands for the sake of greater terror. Genesis says murderers deserve death because life is precious; man is made in the image of God. How convincing is our reverence for life if its mockers are suffered to live? 5
It is this reverence for life, especially innocent life, which underlies the traditional support of the Catholic Church for the juridical use of capital punishment. The protection of innocent life is of central importance to the Church, and while support for capital punishment as part of that protection exists among the faithful of the Church (Gallup Poll data indicate that 61% of Catholics find capital punishment morally acceptable6), we still encounter damage done to the responsibility to protect the innocent, in the general confusion about the life issues that the abolition movement abets.
While the Catholic Church does not base its traditional support for capital punishment on the quality of the administration of justice in one nation or another, one of the arguments used by proponents of abolition in the United States is the possibility of an innocent person’s being executed, and while some researchers conclude that this has occurred, others deny it, and the debate continues, even within the U.S. Supreme Court:
Justice Scalia vigorously criticized Justice Souter’s dissent and the ‘growing literature’ he cited. First, he noted, there was no showing that an ‘actually innocent’ person had been executed under contemporary capital punishment laws. Second, he challenged the methodology of the studies cited by Justice Souter. Third, he agreed with Justice Thomas that the reasoning of Justice Souter’s dissent amounted to a quest for ‘100% perfection’ in capital proceedings that would lead to additional unjustified judicially-created encumbrances on the imposition of the death penalty.7
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has long called for the abolition of capital punishment in the United States. Its statement of 2005, The Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, is based primarily on the belief that current criminal justice technology provides protection to the innocent from the criminal aggressor without resorting to capital punishment.
However, our legal system guarantees rights of visitation and communication in even the most secure confinement, and the aggressor still has the capacity to reach out and harm the innocent, whether through the possession of contraband cell phones, or the transmission of information through corrupted attorneys, guards and visitors, and it is in this context that criminal justice professionals require the continued option of capital punishment. And it is also from this perspective that the magisterium of the Catholic Church, expressed through the centuries, continues to allow for capital punishment:
The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor . . . 8
An important point was made by Avery Cardinal Dulles, in 2004, regarding the argument reversing the traditional support of the Church for capital punishment:
The reversal of a doctrine as well established as the legitimacy of capital punishment would raise serious problems regarding the credibility of the magisterium. Consistency with scripture and long-standing Catholic tradition is important for the grounding of many current teachings of the Catholic Church; for example, those regarding abortion, contraception, the permanence of marriage, and the ineligibility of women for priestly ordination. If the tradition on capital punishment had been reversed, serious questions would be raised regarding other doctrines. . . 9
Crime is a theological problem; it is only within theology that evil—the deepest dimension of crime—can be addressed. It is evil which must concern us in addressing crime and we must recognize that though evil rarely reforms, most criminals can and will do so, given a reason and shown the way. And the way is often the threat of imminent death, imposed judicially, for crimes committed, as St Thomas Aquinas taught:
When, however, they fall into very great wickedness, and become incurable, we ought no longer to show them friendliness. It is for this reason that both Divine and human laws command such like sinners to be put to death, because there is greater likelihood of their harming others than of their mending their ways. Nevertheless the judge puts this into effect, not out of hatred for the sinners, but out of the love of charity, by reason of which he prefers the public good to the life of the individual. Moreover the death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner, if he be converted, unto the expiation of his crime; and, if he be not converted, it profits so as to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprived of the power to sin any more.10
The most powerful example of this reflection on capital punishment by St. Thomas that “the death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner” is that of Dismas, the good thief crucified with Christ, who established the eternal model of the efficacy of capital punishment in calling forth deep and true penance, which Christ, in the open confessional of Golgotha, received, forgiving Dismas and elevating him to sainthood. Total abolition of capital punishment appears deeply incongruent with centuries of ecclesiastical support, and unduly dismissive of the possibility of the spur of temporal death leading to redemptive liberation from eternal torment. We cannot forget that we have eternal life, and it is the spur of eternity that often brings redemption to a sinful soul facing the certainty of temporal death. That is the good, the charity, that the magisterium of the Church speaks of in relation to its strong and ancient support of capital punishment.
The recent change, regarding capital punishment, from support to opposition by some of the leadership within the Catholic Church is examined by Romano Amerio:
An important change has occurred in the Church regarding the theology of punishment. We could cite the French bishops’ document that asserted in 1979 that the death penalty ought to be abolished in France as it was incompatible with the Gospel, the Canadian and American bishops’ statements on the matter, and the articles in the Osservatore Romano calling for the abolition of the death penalty, as injurious to human dignity and contrary to the Gospel.
[O]ne cannot cancel out the Old Testament’s decrees regarding the death penalty, by a mere stroke of the pen. Nor can canon law, still less the teaching of the New Testament, be cancelled out at a stroke. I am well aware that the famous passage in Romans (Rm 13:4) giving princes the ius gladii (the right use of the sword), and calling them the ministers of God to punish the wicked, has been emptied of meaning by the canons of the new hermeneutic, on the grounds that it is the product of a past set of historical circumstances. Pius XII however explicitly rejected that view, in a speech to Catholic jurists on 5 February 1955, and said that the passage of St. Paul was of permanent and universal value, because it refers to the essential foundation of penal authority and to its inherent purpose.11
The change in the wording on capital punishment in sections 2266-2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, from the first edition (1992) to the second edition (1997), moved from clear support by affirmation to muddy support by deprecation. What happened? We know that the new language concerning capital punishment in the second edition of the Catechism originated from the encyclical of John Paul II, Evangelium vitae (25 March, 1995), and as to the explanation of that language, we have the words of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) who presided over the Interdicasterial Commission for the Catechism of the Catholic Church, responsible for overseeing the publication of the second edition, as reported in First Things:
Clearly, the Holy Father [John Paul II] has not altered the doctrinal principles which pertain to this issue as they are presented in the Catechism, but has simply deepened the application of such principles in the context of present-day historical circumstances. Thus, where other means for the self-defence of society are possible and adequate, the death penalty may be permitted to disappear.12
- A. Long, in The Thomist, commented on the change in the legitimacy of capital punishment after Evangelium vitae:
The Magisterial judgement of Evangelium vitae concerning the legitimacy of capital punishment constitutes—as emphasized anew by its insertion within The Catechism of the Catholic Church—the most important modern locus for understanding the Church’s teaching on this topic. The position presented in this encyclical has figured prominently in more recent papal and episcopal statements dealing with the death penalty. The question that has created some confusion is what kind of teaching is being presented. A common interpretation is that Evangelium vitae marks a doctrinal development: the encyclical is said to restrict use of the death penalty to cases where it is absolutely necessary for the physical protection of society in a sense comparable to the use of lethal force in self-defence. Yet such a reading neglects numerous and substantial contributions from the tradition that argue for a different understanding of the penalty’s legitimacy. It is the nearly unanimous opinion of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church that the death penalty is morally licit, and the teaching of past popes (and numerous catechisms) that this penalty is essentially just (and even that its validity is not subject to cultural variation).13
After an extensive refutation of the reductionist argument, he concludes:
From a Thomistic vantage point, the reductionist interpretation of Evangelium vitae is difficult to reconcile with Catholic tradition, because this tradition must consider the political state as providentially bound to acknowledge and implement a morally transcendent order of justice. So long as Catholics do not become contract theorists or Hobbesians, they must conceive the state as executing an order of justice that transcends it in origin, majesty, and truth. Only on such a ground does punishment as a righting of moral imbalance make sense.14
What was changed was perhaps a more sensitive appreciation of the seriousness of capital punishment, and the expression of a sincere hope that someday, in some way, and under some conditions, it may not be necessary to resort to it. But that time is not here yet.
The calls by the USCCB for an end to the use of capital punishment when other means can be used to protect the innocent from the aggressor, have been issued without much exploration of the Catholic historic record regarding capital punishment, and without reference to the current consensus among criminal justice professionals that even within the confines of a maximum security prison, criminals are still able to carry out aggression against innocent persons, even outside the prison.15 The incompleteness of the bishops’ analysis was noted by Andrew Skotnicki, O. Carm., in 2002, referring to the statement on crime and criminal justice by the Catholic Bishops:
The [USCCB] document [Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice] has notable flaws. It suffers not in its methodology but in the particular way that contemporary carceral experience and the foundational concepts of the Catholic social tradition are then invoked to support an incomplete and sometimes inaccurate analysis.16
One handicap in discussing capital punishment is the modern tendency to discount, or not properly understand, the hard reality of Satan’s deep involvement in the criminal world. Within the dark bowels of our nation’s maximum security prisons the animating visage is his, a reality well-known to those living and working inside the steel and stone. I wrote about prison life in my first book, The Criminal’s Search for God, and some of what I wrote seems relevant here:
In a world of predators, each revelation was significant. If in defending yourself, it appeared you were close to giving up or appeared to be less than total in your commitment to protecting yourself, you might have to fight again. If the other convicts thought you would kill over a pack of cigarettes, they would be less likely to take your cigarettes. . . The cruelty and brutality of the prison is classically evil in the sense that the prisoners are being cruel and brutal consciously. That is the paradigm that works. It is not that there is that much that happens in prison that doesn’t happen on the outside; it’s just that in prison it is so much more concentrated and undiluted by goodness. Being an evil person is considered good in prison. Being able to hurt others without inner doubt or hesitation is considered high praise. . . Honour, as it is expressed in prison, is controlled brutality.17
The Church’s traditional support for capital punishment is based on the assumption of the reality of evil, which the relativist secular world has to struggle to accept. Some offences are so terrible that the only just and charitable response is to deprive the evildoer of life, and hope that before the sentence is carried out he will be spurred to seek forgiveness.
Cardinal Dulles gives us an historical overview:
In modern times Doctors of the Church such as Robert Bellarmine and Alphonsus Liguori held that certain criminals should be punished by death. Venerable authorities such as Francisco de Vitoria, Thomas More, and Francisco Suárez agreed. John Henry Newman, in a letter to a friend, maintained that the magistrate had the right to bear the sword, and that the Church should sanction its use, in the sense that Moses, Joshua, and Samuel used it against abominable crimes.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the consensus of Catholic theologians in favour of capital punishment in extreme cases remained solid, as may be seen from approved textbooks and encyclopedia articles of the day. The Vatican City State from 1929 until 1969 had a penal code that included the death penalty for anyone who might attempt to assassinate the pope. Pope Pius XII, in an important allocution to medical experts, declared that it was reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life in expiation of their crimes.
Summarizing the verdict of Scripture and tradition, we can glean some settled points of doctrine. It is agreed that crime deserves punishment in this life and not only in the next. In addition, it is agreed that the State has authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death.18
The proper response to unrepentant evil is God’s punishment, and capital punishment speeds that consequence, whereas human mercy delays God’s judgement. The historic Catholic support for capital punishment—as part of a long tradition of protecting the innocent—is vital to the social teaching of the Church, as that teaching needs to remain true to itself if it is to retain its potency in the conversion of sinners. To overturn a principle of the social teaching as ancient as the judicial use of capital punishment could bring all of its enduring principles into question. The Church’s social teaching still seeks to protect the innocent from the aggressor, and its teaching must be steadfast and true, for it is a light unto the world whose flame must burn constant and bright.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, §65
- Ibid., §84.
- Ibid., §2267.
- Ibid., §2260.
- J. Budziszewski, “Categorical Pardon: On the argument for abolishing capital Punishment”, in E. C. Owens, J. D. Carlson & E. P. Elshtain, Eds., Religion and the Death Penalty (Cambridge, England: Eerdmans Publ., 2004), p. 116.
- F. Newport, “Catholics similar to mainstream on abortion, stem cells” (30 March, 2009). http://www.gallup.com/poll/117154/Catholics-Similar-Mainstream-Abortion-Stem-Cells.aspx.
- W. A. Campbell, “Exoneration Inflation: Justice Scalia’s Concurrence in Kansas vs.Marsh”, in The Journal for the Advancement of Criminal Justice (Summer, 2008), p. 52.
- Catechism, §2267.
- Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Catholic Teaching on the Death Penalty”, in Owens, Carlson & Elshtain, op. cit., p. 26.
- Summa Theologica (II-II, Ques. 25, Art. 6, reply to objection 2).
- Romano Amerio, Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century (Kansas City, Mo.: Sarto House, 1996), p. 432.
- Richard John Neuhaus, “The Public Square”, in First Things (October, 1995).
- S. A. Long, “Evangelium vitae, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Death Penalty”, in The Thomist 63: 511-52 (1999), p. 511.
- Ibid., p. 548.
- For accounts of convicts conducting criminal activities while behind bars, vide inter alia J. Bykowicz, “Reigning from behind bars”, Baltimore Sun (9 March, 2008); J. Fenton, “Indictments reveal prison crime world”, Baltimore Sun (17 April, 2009); D. Kane, “Cell phones plague prisons: A smuggled phone can fetch $500”, The News and Observer (5 December, 2008); D. Thompson, “Prisons press fight against smuggled cell phones”, San Diego Union-Tribune (14 April, 2009); and M. Ward, “Prison officials ask for $66 million to help stop cell phone smuggling”, Austin American-Statesman (4 Dec., 2008).
- A. Skotnicki, “The U. S. Catholic Bishops on Crime and Criminal Justice”, i Josephinum Journal of Theology (Winter-Spring, 2002), p. 147.
- D. H. Lukenbill, The Criminal’s Search for God: Criminal Transformation, Catholic Social Teaching, Deep Knowledge Leadership, and Communal Reentry (Sacramento: Lampstand Foundation, 2006), pp. 18-21.
- Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Catholicism and Capital Punishment”, in First Things (April, 2001). Mr. Lukenbill, of Sacramento, Calif., is president of the Lampstand Foundation, an apostolate built on Catholic social teaching, providing leadership tools for reformed criminals who work in criminal-transformative organizations. He is the author of the book, Capital Punishment and Catholic Social Teaching: A Tradition of Support.
This paper was presented at the Thirteenth Annual Conference of the Scholars for Social Justice and published in the Social Justice Review, Vol. 100, No. 11-12 November-December, 2009, (pp.150-154)
The Prison Ministry
by David H. Lukenbill
The prison ministry is one of the most dangerous of ministries but also one of the most valuable. This article will examine the issues involved in developing and sustaining a prison ministry, while making sure that the ministers themselves become proficient and remain protected.
The prison first enters Western consciousness through Genesis and the story of Joseph, sold by his brothers into slavery and became, for a while, a prisoner in Egypt.
Joseph’s prison was the “Great Prison,” the hnrt wr at Thebes, present-day Luxor, whose existence is unrecorded before the period of the Middle Kingdom. [2050-1786 B.C.] 1
In the New Testament, Christ Himself teaches us to regard visiting those in prison as a work of corporal mercy: “…I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25: 36)
Our prisons have roots deriving from Catholic Church history, says Andrew Skotnicki:
My own conclusion is that the prison as we know it in the West originated in the penitential practice of the early church and in primitive monastic communities. With some reservations, I argue that it thus bears a meaning as valid and necessary as penance and monasticism themselves. Perhaps a more restrained way of phrasing it would be that since the contemporary prison is in many ways a Catholic innovation, whatever hope it may have as a locus and vehicle of criminal justice lies within the history we are about to survey. 2
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has more to say about the works of mercy:
The works of mercy are charitable actions by which we come to the aid of our neighbor in his spiritual and bodily necessities. Instructing, advising, consoling, comforting are spiritual works of mercy, as are forgiving and bearing wrongs patiently. The corporal works of mercy consist especially in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and burying the dead. 3
Let us keep in mind the four elements I have just mentioned: the prison as an ancient institution; prison visits as a work of mercy; the prison in the modern West as Catholic- inspired; and works of mercy being how we aid one another. The prison ministry that I present in this article is a spiritual work of mercy directed to prisoners in maximum security prisons, for the purpose of evangelization and the development of transformative criminal/carceral leadership to help other prisoners.
At the end of 2009 there were 1,613,656 prisoners in American federal and state prisons. 4 The population in maximum security prisons hovers around 40% of the total—including the 1-2% in super-maximum security prisons.
In 1974, about 44% of the inmates in state confinement facilities were housed in maximum security prisons; by 2000, this percentage declined to about 38%. 5
The reason for focusing on maximum security prisoners is because they are “the point of the spear”, able, if converted, to lead others to conversion. Christ calls us to extend our evangelical reach to the greatest sinners, whose conversion creates the greatest joy in Heaven, revealed in the parable of the prodigal son and in the compassion Christ felt for the two criminal saints, Dismas and Mary of Magdala. Maximum security prisoners are mostly professional criminals—those who commit crimes for money and as a profession—with a strong commitment to the carceral/criminal world, but in the roots of that commitment lies the possibility of a commitment to conversion.
Professional criminals have the highest rearrest rates:
Released prisoners with the highest rearrest rates were robbers (70.2%), burglars (74.0%), larcenists (74.6%), motor vehicle thieves (78.8%), those in prison for possessing or selling stolen property (77.4%), and those in prison for possessing, using, or selling illegal weapons (70.2%). 6
Maximum security prisoners in the general population are not informants or pedophiles; these will not survive for long except in protective custody. The evil of the acts of the pedophile and the informant (who, after being apprehended, betrays his accomplices) is described in Christ’s own words:
Matthew 18:6 – “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
Matthew 26:24 – “The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born.”
Pope Benedict XVI comments on Judas:
Judas is neither a master of evil nor the figure of a demonical power of darkness but rather a sycophant who bows down before the anonymous power of changing moods and current fashion. But it is precisely this anonymous power that crucified Jesus, for it was anonymous voices that cried, ‘Away with him! Crucify him!’ 7
Professional criminals’ immersion in the carceral/criminal world is spurred by their search for freedom, money, and power; which, from their perspective, is an honorable path, as defined by the way of the world. Professional criminals occupy the upper echelon within carceral/criminal culture and are the most apt to respond to an intellectual approach based on the social teaching of the Church. They will also share it with others—who will listen to them.
The ministry’s objective is to present the truths of the faith in the catechetical way, in order to increase their being received, at the same time deflecting the potential for abuse in a personal relationship. In the Gehenna, “the place where the rebels against the Lord will be strewn” 8, it is Catholic truth which will free, and some relationship that is always being tested. The only relationship which will break the hardness of the evil there is the personal one with Christ, and the intellectual one with the words of Peter and the saints. (The ideal prison ministry, metaphorically, is like the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, in that the ministers and the prisoners will both be facing Christ, not each other.)
The traditional prison ministry as a corporal work of mercy dates from an older time, when many prisoners were first-time felons and often eagerly penitential. As the carceral/criminal world has deepened over the past several decades in America, only the most hardened go to prison. Within the maximum security prison the culture is mandated—there are no bystanders—and penance is weakness and weakness is surrender or death.
Some preparative and logistical elements of prison ministry could include:
- Two reference books which would be very important for the ministry group to read and discuss before beginning outreach: Inside the Criminal Mind: Revised and Updated Edition. Stanton E. Samenow. Ph.D. (2004). New York: Crown Publishers, and Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church. Fr. Andrew Skotnicki, O. Carm. (2008). Lanham, MD; Rowman & Littlefield;
- A Post Office Box, set up for privacy;
- A minimum of four people to start a ministry;
- Retired law enforcement personnel, sought out to become part of ministry;
- Group reading and response of all letters within te ministry;
- Work to be done with a maximum of four prisoners at a time, with each weekly meeting focused on one of them, or with each monthly meeting focused on each of them sequentially, and one letter a month to each, with money (for stamps, paper, books, commitment).
- At the prison you choose to work with, interviews with the Catholic Chaplain and with the appropriate correctional officers (to determine the details about what type of prisoners you are dealing with, and as a resource when and if necessary).
The greatest danger in prison ministry as a spiritual work of mercy—especially if you attempt it as an individual—is that you will be used for the prisoner’s purpose rather than your purpose of helping bring him to conversion. Working in a group somewhat reduces the chance of this occurring. A primal description of the prince of the criminal world—“the father of lies”—refers to an eternal method, not an occasional tool; for he lies always and eternally—it is a way of being. The imprisoned professional criminal is often an adept weaver of word magic, schooled in the charm and glamour of the dark criminal/carceral world, and can easily induce the traditional evangelist to accept his claim of salvation. In the acceptance of a false salvation, the evangelist can become victim rather than savior. In these dangerous fields, the evangelist who is at one remove and armed with a deep understanding of the social teaching of the Church, will be engaging the prisoner intellectually, and will reap a bounty rooted that much deeper.
A concept dilutive to effective prison ministry in maximum security prisons—currently enjoying some favor among many in the Church—is restorative justice. The emphasis on restorative justice grew out of the pacifistic perspective of some non-Catholic faith traditions, where no defense is mounted against evil—an attitude alien to a Catholic economy, which confronts evil at every turn. While we can appreciate the enhanced discussion the concept of restorative justice has brought to the criminal justice dialogue, its utility is much too limited in dealing with professional criminals who have served time in maximum security prisons, and are the dominant group defining and shaping the culture of the criminal/carceral world. With these criminals, the salvific tool with the most potency is the classical Catholic teaching of punishment, penance, and redemption.
In a seminal article Fr. Andrew Skotnicki examines justice from a Catholic perspective:
While by no means the first to do so in the Christian tradition, Anselm is a representative figure in a long line of arguments that maintain that punishment and reconciliation, like justice and mercy, find their most creative expression when held in tension with one another. Punishment is not absolute, as the theory of penal retribution claims, because justice is improperly served solely by looking backward at the offence. However, neither is justice fulfilled in theories such as rehabilitation or deterrence whose sole concern is future-oriented, that offenders amend their behaviour whether through treatment or out of calculated self-interest.
The answer is that justice demands both punishment and re-integration. The offence against God’s commandments, against the harmony of the universe and the sanctity of creation must be addressed. To put it in legal terminology, transgressions of the law itself must be punished independent of the specific harm caused to humans. However, paralleling the theology of the atonement, although punishment can be just, punishment in itself does not produce justice. Justice also must embrace equity, mercy and reconciliation. 9
In the same article he states:
Restoration is a principal component of justice; but it is not the only component. Justice also requires punishment. The schema for restoration suggested by contemporary philosophers and criminologists would require a thicker description of the nature and meaning of criminal offences, as well as a more substantial role for the state as representative of the body politic. 10
As do liberation theology and the so-called “consistent ethic of life”, restorative justice tends to relativize Catholic social teaching away from the Church’s essence as a sign-of-contradiction to one of being popular and influential, or as Jeff Mirus notes:
The inroads of Modernism, the treason of the intellectuals in colleges and universities, the seduction of many traditional religious orders, and the desire of bishops to avoid conflict (and be perceived as players) have all led to a public image for the Church as something of a fiddler—fiddling, so to speak, while Rome burns. 11
The professional criminal will realize this as he studies the social teaching, and it will be the clear and consistent linkage with the roots of the social teaching that will call him to embrace the constancy of it.
Understanding the power of interior reflection provided by the prison is a compelling factor in effective prison ministry, as remarked by Joseph Pearce in his biography of Solzhenitsyn. Although the strengthening of the American carceral/criminal interiority is usually in the opposite direction, that power is evident nonetheless.
Solzhenitsyn was clearly concerned never to lose sight of the truths he had learned in the camps, never to allow the comforts of life to corrupt him from the purity of the vision he believed he had acquired there. It was precisely ‘the highest, noblest impulses of the soul’ that he felt he had discovered in prison and precisely those impulses that he was determined the material pleasures of life should not obscure. 12
Unless the practitioners of the prison ministry come to some understanding of the forging power of the prison experience and the refining of the culture of the criminal world through the carceral experience, it will be impossible to appreciate the level of resistance to eternal truth by the “worldly truth” that animates the carceral/criminal world.
While true conversion is rare in prison—especially on the mainline of a maximum security prison—the introduction of the intellectual concepts and history of the social teaching of the Church is a presentation of truth capable of trumping the criminal/carceral world truth the criminal relies on, and it may remain with him long enough to develop enough traction to become in some way directive upon his release.
The social teaching should be presented in conjunction with a balanced Church history. I recommend the two volume work of Fr. Rodger Charles, SJ, Christian Social Witness and Teaching: The Catholic Tradition from Genesis to Centesimus Annus, and Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church, A 2,000 Year History, by H. W. Crocker III. They are excellent works to place in the hands of prisoners in ministry.
The 2,000 year history of the Church on the earth, connected with the constancy of its social teaching through the worldly battles threatening it, is a true story of triumph, courage, honor, and truths held hard, that can resonate with the professional criminal, whose life is lived by those same qualities, to a degree that may not be immediately obvious.
Some cogent advice from a former prison minister:
For many years I was involved in prison ministry…
Ultimately, these environments, full of criminals, are also seedbeds for the works of the Evil One and therefore are in dire need of Christian ministry. The idea that a person goes to prison to become “reformed” is an absurdity. Oftentimes they become confirmed in their criminal ways. I would ask … anyone in prison ministry, to be of good cheer, fully confident that your work is blessed by God because it is a work that Christ explicitly asked His Church to carry out. If the “official” Church does not pay proper attention to this work of the Gospel, then those in authority will be held accountable before the Judgment Seat of God. Ours, however, is not to agonize over what others are not doing, but to do what we are supposed to do with greater fervor, asking God to sanctify us in the process. 13
Finally, it is crucial to remember that the criminal—not society, capitalism, or the criminal justice system—is the problem. Some Catholics who are attracted to prison ministry believe, due to the myths of Hollywood or Marxism, that the criminals are the good guys, and the police, district attorneys, prison guards, and legislators who support stringent criminal sanctions, are the bad guys. This stance does everyone a disservice—in particular the penitential criminal—who may find little reason for proper expiation within a culture defining criminality as somehow admirable. Professional criminals understand that their criminality is only admirable in the context of the culture of the criminal/carceral world, and if the ministry does not understand this, it will have little real resonance.
Remember also that regardless of the moral evil done by many clerical and lay Catholics—which will often be thrown back at you during your ministry—the work of the Church on earth is magnificently good, strong, and true. It will be your deep understanding of this history and the underlying social teaching, strengthened by your personal relationship with God that will eventually prove most valuable in your spiritual work of mercy with prisoners.
- Edward M. Peters, “Prison before the prison: The ancient and medieval worlds”,In Morris, N. & Rothman, D. J. Eds., The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 9.
- Andrew Skotnicki, Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), p. 6.
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2447, Retrieved April 24, 2010 from http://www.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a7.htm
- Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners at Year End 2009-Advance Counts, Retrieved June 24, 2010 from http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=2272
- Bert Useem & Anne Morrison Piehl, Prison State: The Challenge of Mass Incarceration. (New York: Cambridge University Press 2008) (p. 105)
- Bureau of Justice Statistics, Recidivism, Summary Findings, Retrieved June 24, 2010 from http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=17
- Pope Benedict XVI. (Holy Week, 2010). (Magnificat. 12(1). p. 73.
- Scott Hahn, Ed., Catholic Bible Dictionary. (New York: Doubleday, 2009.) p. 305.
- Andrew Skotnicki, How is Justice Restored?, Studies in Christian Ethics, (Vol. 19, No. 2, 2006), (pp. 192-193)
- ibid. p. 192.
- Dr. Jeff Mirus, The Catholic Publicity Paradise. Catholic Culture, July 23, 2010, Retrieved July 26, 2010 from http://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/otc.cfm?id=676
- Joseph Pearce, J., Solzhenitsyn: A soul in exile. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999), p. 140.
- Rev. Thomas J. Euteneuer, Euteneuer Replies in Letters to Editor, New Oxford Review, May 2010, Retrieved June 10, 2010 from http://www.newoxfordreview.org/letters.jsp?did=0510-letters
Mr. Lukenbill, of Sacramento, Calif., is president of the Lampstand Foundation, an apostolate built on Catholic social teaching, providing leadership tools for reformed criminals who work in criminal-transformative organizations. He is the author of the book, The Criminal’s Search for God: Criminal Transformation, Catholic Social Teaching, Deep Knowledge Leadership and Communal Reentry.
This article was published in the Social Justice Review, Volume 101, NO. 11-12 November-December 2010 (pp. 192-175)
THE HIERARCHY OF EVIL IN THE CRIMINAL/CARCERAL WORLD
David H. Lukenbill
Within the criminal/carceral world there exists a hierarchy of evil. Professional criminals occupy the upper echelons; informants, rapists and paedophiles occupy the lower. The hierarchy is inverted, as those at the lower end are considered the most evil and those at the top the least evil. This hierarchy plays a crucial rôle for pastoral work related to the rehabilitation or conversion of criminals; the present article examines the hierarchy and its implications for work in the prison ministry.
The work of my apostolate to help reform professional criminals through exposure to the history and social teaching of the Catholic Church can only be as effective as my love for the professional criminal—those who commit crimes for money, and are not informants, paedophiles, or rapists. That love is built on the knowledge of the criminal world that I absorbed during twenty years as a criminal, including twelve years spent in maximum-security state and federal prisons.
Though it has been decades since I was in prison or lived as a criminal among criminals, my love for them continues today, and it manifests itself in the pleasure and joyful anticipation I still feel when I have the opportunity to venture into a maximum-security prison to speak with prisoners. The love I came to know in the criminal/carceral world for professional criminals of both sexes is built upon shared experience and many shared perspectives on the world. It has grown as a result of my deep immersion in Catholicism, which began during the months leading up to my entering the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, and has deepened in many ways since my baptism and the founding of the apostolate.
I am no longer a criminal, yet I retain a deep respect and quiet love for some of the cultural artefacts of the criminal/carceral world and the moral principles that have marked criminals since before the criminal saint Dismas hung at Christ’s side on Golgotha. This love informs the work of my apostolate—as love of neighbour should always inform the criminal-ministry work undertaken by other Catholics acting in the spirit of the charitable love which Pope Benedict XVI reminds us is at the heart of the Church:
The Church’s deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia), and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensible expression of her very being.1
The moral judgements implicit within the hierarchy of evil have reached the current criminal/carceral world through popular absorption of teachings emanating directly from Christ—His actions as much as His words, particularly in relation to two prototypical criminal saints, Mary Magdalene and Dismas. The historic popular devotion to St. Dismas contributed to developments in the criminal/carceral world ethos that are still largely prevalent, through reflection upon Dismas’ actions on Golgotha and on the Road to Egypt, where legend has it that he protected the Holy Family from robbery and violence at the hands of his band of thieves.
The Catholic hierarchy of evil—venial sins, sins of moral gravity, and sins that cry out to heaven—is set forth in the Catechism:
Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. The distinction between mortal and venial sin, already evident in Scripture, became part of the tradition of the Church. It is corroborated by human experience…. (§1854)
The catechetical tradition also recalls that there are “sins that cry to heaven”: the blood of Abel, the sin of the Sodomites, the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt, the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan, injustice to the wage earner. (§1867)
Sin is a personal act. Moreover, we have a responsibility for the sins committed by others when we cooperate in them:
– by participating directly and voluntarily in them;
– by ordering, advising, praising, or approving them;
– by not disclosing or not hindering them when we have an obligation to do so;
– by protecting evil-doers. (§1868) 2
Within the criminal/carceral world, only some sins are considered evil, but nevertheless the hierarchy of evil within the criminal/carceral world is an adaptation of that which has been sanctioned in the Judaeo-Christian world through the Old Law and deepened and clarified by the New. Beyond the validation of the Old Law by Christ, the root of this criminal-world adaptation appears in His other words and actions, especially in His relationship with the betrayer Judas and the Good Thief Dismas. Down through the centuries the adaptation has reconstituted itself into the hard reality that governs the internal narrative of the world of thieves and—as the criminal perceives it—much of the internal narrative of the wider world upon which that of thieves is structured.
The sanctions against criminal/carceral world evils that exist inside maximum-security prisons—which for the past several decades have also determined those of the outside criminal world—are an element that is congruent with the nature of the prison, as described by a former prisoner:
County jail experiences and associations helped prepare me for my eventual journey into the California prison world of the 1970s. Still, the differences were dramatic. Jails are community facilities, close to family, where inmates serve short sentences. In comparison, prisons are places where people spend many years. The men, both prisoners and guards, are bigger and tougher, many with tattoos. Penitentiaries, maximum security “big house” institutions are huge complexes, filled with thousands of men, and known for high levels of violence, blatant racism, and hatred….
The way I saw the world and myself continued to change during my early prison years. I became a lot like those I saw around me who seemed to be doing the easiest time. These were the guys who were respected; the ones with tattoos all over their bodies, lifting weights, drinking coffee with cream and sugar, smoking tailor-made cigarettes, getting high, and laughing all the time. My developing convict identity was learned from those men I associated with, the meanings we shared, the things we did, our use of language and prison humour, and how we were seen and treated by others.3
The criminal/convict identity, built upon the necessity of survival in a brutal world where one mistake can mean death or exploitation, is an identity that sticks, as former convict John Irwin notes:
The convict identity is very important to the future career of the felon. In the first instance, the acquiring of the taken-for-granted perspective will at least obstruct the releasee’s attempts to reorient himself on the outside. More important, the other levels of the identity, if they have been acquired, will continue to influence choices for years afterward. The convict perspective, though it may become submerged after extended outside experiences, will remain operative in its latency state and will often obtrude into civilian life contexts.4
Each act of Christ in His ministry is vital in its continuance as a deep influence on human behaviour, consciously or unconsciously. “Our Lord, throughout His life, and especially in the smallest details of His Sacred Passion, fulfilled every type and every prophecy. Whence in very truth He was able to say, when expiring upon the cross, ‘It is finished.’” 5
He set one archetype by His condemnation of the betrayal by Judas, that “it would have been better for that man if he had he not been born” (Matt 26: 24). Though the great condemnation was directed specifically at Judas, its use against any betrayal has become normative within the world of the professional criminal (and even within much of the noncriminal world). Another condemnation touched those who harm children: “…but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt 18: 6). That condemnation remains in force today against paedophiles, who are subject to being killed if placed within the general population of a maximum-security prison.
Professional criminals define those who inform on their crime partners (a relationship within the criminal/carceral world of great trust, honour, and respect) or prey on innocent women and children, as decidedly evil, beyond the pale and unworthy of respect, in prison or out. The sanctions against the evil of rapists and paedophiles stem partially from criminals who do not accord recognition to those acts as any kind of “crime” worthy of the name. “Rape [and] paedophilia…are not perceived by prisoners as real crime.” 6 Consequently, those acts are considered to be outside the morality of criminals, and their perpetrators are unable to command protection under the normal bounds of respect within the criminal world. (Such incidents as “statutory” rape, between individuals of similar age, are not considered evil, as the violent serial rape of innocents most certainly is.)
“[R]atting, snitching, telling, informing . . . [are] hated by other inmates inside prison”, 7 and can lead to death:
‘Don’t snitch’ is a code among inmates. The price of squealing on another con may be a beating or even death. Even so, the inmate realizes that every man is out for himself and that even his best buddy may turn informant to save his own skin or to acquire privileges. Although convicts share an understanding of “no snitching”, the dominant ethos in prison is, as it was outside, ‘[Screw] everybody else but me.’ 8
One kind of informant situation in the outside criminal world, in which a member of one criminal organization cooperates with law enforcement by informing on a rival organization, in order to compete more effectively, is not generally considered “informing” in the classic sense, but rather as corruption of law enforcement to satisfy criminal organizational goals.
Within the criminal/carceral world, the sanctions visited upon sexual offenders and informers are marked by violence, and go much further than the sanctions of the noncriminal community, which usually restricts its non-legal response simply to disgust and fear. Professional criminals remember what the noncriminal world—including many rehabilitation practitioners—has forgotten: that betrayers and sexual predators choose to do what they do; do not act because of corrosive familial or social influences; and, given the opportunity, will choose to repeat those acts.
Professional criminals understand the difference between the murder of a gang member by a member of another gang during a dispute over territory or profits (which they see as an act of war that soldiers are legitimately authorized to perform), and the murder of a child victim by a paedophile rapist (an act of the most predatory evil, more severely sanctioned by professional criminals than by most American criminal justice systems). Capital punishment is the sentence that professional criminals pronounce and execute upon child rapists. This is where the effort by many Catholics to abolish capital punishment—a sanction which the historical tradition of the Church teaches to be appropriate—conflicts with the conversion of criminals, who ask why a Church that does not understand the proper use of capital punishment is a Church for the ages.
The criminal/carceral world takes the Machiavellian view that a murder committed under the well-known rubric “It’s just business” is legitimate, while one committed on account of lust, thrill-seeking or craziness is not: “Those cruelties we may say are well employed, if it be permitted to speak well of things evil, which are done once for all under the necessity of self-preservation and are not afterwards persisted in…” 9
Any organized rehabilitation work that mingles those who, by criminal/carceral world standards, should be executed, with those who could perform or support the execution, is almost certainly guaranteed to fail, for it has already exhibited a lack of understanding of a fundamental aspect of the culture of the criminal/carceral world.
Criminals differentiate between informing on a crime partner and a regular citizen’s reporting to the police a violent crime committed against innocents. The former is always evil; the latter is always good.
I should be remiss not to mention the radical theory of criminology built on Marxism, which has set up a different hierarchy of evil, and one that many prisoners have adopted as their way of perceiving their crimes, as noted in the recent text Criminology:
Steven Spitzer devised probably the most intriguing Marxist theory of deviance. Assuming that capitalist societies are based on class conflict and that harmony is achieved through the dominance of a specific class, Spitzer reasoned that deviants are drawn from groups who create problems for those who rule. Although these groups largely victimize and burden people in their own classes, “their problematic quality ultimately resides in their challenge to the basis and form of class rule”. In other words, populations become problematic for those who rule when they disturb, hinder, or call into question any of the following:
1) capitalist modes of appropriating the product of human labour (called into question when the poor “steal” from the rich);
2) social conditions under which capitalist production takes place (questioned by those who refuse or are unable to perform wage labour);
3) patterns of distribution and consumption in capitalist society (questioned by those who use drugs for escape and transcendence rather than sociability and adjustment);
4) the process of socialization for productivity and nonproductive rôles (questioned by youth who refuse to be schooled or those who deny the validity of family life);
5) ideology that supports the functioning of capitalist society (questioned by proponents of alternative forms of social organization).10
The sociologist Richard Quinney developed another Marxist perspective on crime, furthering the work already done by Richard Spitzer:
Quinney identified four types of crimes of domination that result from the reproduction of the capitalist system itself. ‘Crimes of control’ include crimes by the police and the FBI…’Crimes of government’ involve political crime…’Crimes of economic domination’ consist primarily of corporate crimes…
‘Crimes of accommodation’ are acts of adaptation by the lower and working classes in response to the oppressive conditions of capitalism and the domination of the capitalist class…
Thus for Quinney, the crimes of domination seem to be the real societal harms, but they are not criminalized because they benefit the ruling class. Crimes of accommodation, on the other hand, range from simple adaptation to conscious political resistance. In fact, for Quinney, some crimes and, therefore, criminals, are admirable elements in the overall class struggle. 11
This Marxist/sociological perspective informs many in the academy, and has exerted great influence upon many criminals who have earned college and postgraduate degrees and secured academic positions. It often renders rehabilitative pastoral ministry somewhat difficult, because these theories often have some depth, and resonate among some criminals who cherish the idea that their crimes have made them heroes.
It is, however, in the actions of the criminal hero, St. Dismas, that the honour of the professional criminal was founded. Dismas, the Good Thief, is usually portrayed as experiencing repentance, hanging beside Christ on Calvary, but nothing in the scriptural record of that central moment in human history indicates that it was actual repentance he was expressing, but that he saw the truth. Dismas recognized that the man hanging next to him was God. We do not know how he came to see this while so many others who witnessed the Crucifixion did not. Perhaps it began on the road to Egypt, where Dismas really saw love and innocence in the prototypical family that he had perhaps dreamt of but not known.
In the act of saving the Holy Family from the robbery and violence of his band of thieves, he acted benevolently for the same reason professional criminals today will not harm children, and will punish with death those who do. Perhaps it was on the road to Calvary, as the two thieves carried their crosses with Christ, that Dismas saw how others responded to Christ, and He to them. On the day of crucifixion Dismas saw the truth and remembered the episode on the road to Egypt, and his words to Christ were: “Jesus, remember me, when you come in your kingly power” (Luke 23: 42).
Dismas might be saying: remember that I have responded to You honourably, I have not pleaded for my life like Gestas, but have accepted my punishment honourably, for it is just. I have realized Your innocence and know that while justice is being done with us, it is not being done with You, so please, “remember me”.
This is not an unusual response for a professional criminal, even today; among themselves, in the cells and on the streets, they will openly, proudly acknowledge who they are, without remorse, asking for no mercy, and though trying anything and everything to escape punishment, once sentenced by judge and jury they will accept it stoically.
One of the elements in the hierarchy of evil—something that if a professional criminal does it will cost him the trust and respect of other criminals—is claiming a desire to live a law-abiding life. A criminal reacts to this as non-criminals would react if a peer expressed the desire for a life of crime. (Although in some circles that would merely be greeted with scepticism, if the contemplated criminal life seemed to have little chance of profit or success—so much has the public been influenced by the spell of Hollywood and the mythology of Marxism, in which criminals are more often seen as romantic figures than as evil predators.)
Dismas saw, in the Man hanging beside him, a Man/God who was truly “walking the talk” and living the truth under the most horrific of circumstances, the Roman crucifixion of criminals. Christ’s decision to take Dismas with Him—through Hell and into Paradise—is, from the human perspective He still possessed, a good idea—to take a reformed criminal into the depths, much as a priest today might ask a reformed criminal to accompany him on a prison ministry visit, both for reassurance and credibility. Perhaps it is incongruous to think of Our Lord’s feeling the need for a guide, but on the other hand, it is congruent with His trepidation expressed in Gethsemane, and even on Golgotha, for He was still a man, however great the Glory to which He was going.
There are mysteries here that I do not understand, but I know each act and each word of the earthly ministry of Christ has eternal meaning. All the books that could be written are being written, and they do fill the world, but we are still mystified. Part of the mystery is why Dismas becomes Christ’s companion on the road from Calvary to Paradise, and in the process becomes the first canonized saint of the Catholic Church. In response to this question, Archbishop Fulton Sheen writes:
One would have thought a saint would have been the first soul purchased over the counter of Calvary by the red coins of redemption, but in the Divine plan it was a thief who was the escort of the King of kings into Paradise. If Our Lord had come merely as a teacher, the thief would never have asked for forgiveness. But since the thief’s request touched the reason of His coming to earth, namely, to save souls, the thief heard the immediate answer: “I promise thee, this day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23: 43). 12
In converting criminals, we should seek to understand this history and the related tradition of the Church regarding the protection of the innocent, which may involve the necessary use of capital punishment and just war, so as not to fall into the avoidance technique of saying that these are “issues men of good will can disagree about”. It is through sharing one’s understanding of the history and the tradition of protecting the innocent (as Dismas did on the road to Egypt) that criminals will be able to see beyond the superficial uncertainties often expressed about these traditional doctrines.
While the Church’s institutional approach to criminal justice may seem a somewhat depleted vessel—at least since the papacy of Pius XII—the anchoring of the Church’s social teaching within the dogma of good and evil still forms the axis around which the charitable and pastoral work of criminal rehabilitative ministry revolves.
The robustness with which the work of charitable apostolates must be done is noted by C.S. Lewis in a sermon he gave on June 8, 1941, entitled “The Weight of Glory”:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. 13
The foremost author on criminal justice issues from a Catholic perspective at the present time is Dr. Andrew Skotnicki, associate professor of Christian ethics at Manhattan College, who wrote, in his “Acknowledgements” in his seminal book Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church:
Finally, I must say something about the countless men and women I have known in the jails, detention centres, and prisons of the United States. I beheld the face of God for over thirty-five years either as a volunteer, or as a part-or full-time chaplain. Caregivers have said so often that they receive far more than they give that it has become a well-worn cliché, but it is a cliché precisely because over and over again, experience proves it to be true, and I feel deeply the joy and burden of gratitude to them all. 14
In many ways, my life as a criminal and convict were some of the most important years of my life, for, as hard, lonely and brutal as they so often were, surviving and thriving during those years gave me the experience that led to my apostolate work, and it is in that work that I also beheld the face of God in the men and women whose lives I’ve been part of during these many past years and those of the still-unfolding future.
- Benedict XVI, Pope, God Is Love: Deus Caritas Est (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), p. 60 (§25a).
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (1997).
- Charles M. Terry, “From C-Block to Academia: You Can’t Get There from Here”, in Convict Criminology, ed. Jeffrey Ian Ross and Stephen C. Richards (Belmont, Calif. Thomson Wadsworth, 2003), p. 99.
- John Irwin, The Felon (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970), p. 84.
- Jean Joseph Gaume, Msgr., Life of the Good Thief (Fitzwilliam, N. H.: Loreto Publications, 2003), p. 71.
- K. C. Carceral, Behind a Convict’s Eyes: Doing Time in a Modern Prison (Belmont, Calif.: Thomson Wadsworth, 2004), p. 214.
- Stanton E. Samenow, Inside the Criminal Mind (New York: Times Books, 1984)145-6.
- Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (East Bridgewater, Mass.: Signature Press, 2008)64.
- Piers Beirne and James Messeschmidt, Criminology (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000), pp. 198-9.
- Ibid., p. 200.
- Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ (New York: Image Books/Doubleday, 1958), p. 545.
- C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, ed. Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan Paperbacks, 1980), p. 19.
- Andrew Skotnicki, Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church (Lanham, Md.: Sheed & Ward, 2008), pp. vii-viii.
Published in the Social Justice Review, Volume 102, NO. 11-12 November-December 2011, (pp. 167-171)