Saturday, March 5, 2011

Kermit Gosnell and the Gospel of Life, or taking an unpopular stand

Since it's unexpectedly turned into social justice week here at Καθολικός διάκονος, I thought I would post something today on an issue that presents a real conundrum for a lot of Catholics, namely the case of the abortion practitioner, Kermit Gosnell. I would suggest that a necessary prologomena to this post is my post from last Saturday, the title of which is taken from Romans 12:17, "Repay no one evil for evil." To summarize, if we are truly followers of Jesus Christ, we must forgive, but forgiveness is not only a process, in many cases it is only made possible by the grace of God, that vengeance is the Lord's, as St. Paul tells us, and that mercy does not cancel out justice, even in the kingdom of God, as Pope Benedict wrote about with great insight in his encyclical letter Spe Salvi.

What Kermit Gosnell stands accused of is atrocious. I have no problem calling it evil. Elizabeth Scalia, who blogs as The Anchoress has a post that details Gosnell's alleged doings, which constitute a whole lot more than being responsible for the death of a woman for whom he performed an abortion and brutally killing babies who survived his botched abortion attempts. Specifically, as The Anchoress details, "Prosecutors in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania announced today they will seek the death penalty for abortion practitioner Kermit Gosnell, who faces charge[s] related to killing a woman in a botched abortion and killing babies infanticides." As a result of being charged with first-degree murder, prosecutors let Gosnell's attorney know "that they will seek death by lethal injection if a jury finds Gosnell guilty" on this charge. Additionally, "Gosnell faces a third-degree murder charge related to the death of 41-year-old Karnamaya Mongar from a botched abortion Gosnell performed. Mongar died November 20, 2009, after overdosing on anesthetics prescribed by the doctor." Gosnell stands accused of a lot more than these crimes. Elizabeth provides a link to the Grand Jury report, which I provide here for the sake of ease with a warning that the contents are horrifying.

Kermit Gosnell

This is clearly a case when we realize that it’s not easy to take an unpopular stand, even when it’s right, but as followers of Jesus, even in a case this gruesome, we must oppose the death penalty. In his encylical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II saw rising opposition to the death penalty as great sign of hope, writing, "Among the signs of hope we should also count the spread, at many levels of public opinion... evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of 'legitimate defence' on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform" (par. 27).

Now, it is inadvisable to write about the death penalty without addressing the issue of moral equivalence. Probably the greatest consternation that arises as a result of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin's seamless garment of life proposal is that it seems (only because many don't take the time familiarize themselves with what Bernardin actually proposed) to establish in the minds of many Catholics a moral equivalence between abortion and the death penalty. Of course, there is no moral equivalence between the taking of an innocent, helpless human life and that of a person who is guilty of murder, or, as with Gosnell, multiple murders. In this country, insuring that the person facing the death penalty is actually guilty of the crime he is accused of, or often convicted of, is very problematic, to say the least, but that is a justice issue for another day.

This certainly becomes an issue at election time, when we routinely face a choice between candidates who oppose abortion, but who support the death penalty and vice-versa. Well, because they are not morally equivalent, if your decision comes down solely to this issue, which it usually does not, proportional reasoning indicates you go with the candidate who opposes abortion and supports the death penalty. This is just one case study in how difficult it is to bring our faith to bear when exercising our rights as citizens in a representative democracy, which requires us to use proportional reasoning.

The "clinic" where Gosnell provided "Family Planning" services

Also in Evangelium Vitae, JPII states,
"The problem [of the death penalty] must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is 'to redress the disorder caused by the offence'. Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated."

"Therefore, he continues, 'It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent'.

"Finally, In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: 'If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person'" (par. 56; CCC par. 2266-2267).
I would apologize for posting such long extracts of papal teaching, except that when it comes to these so-called "hot button" issues that tend to stir up a lot of emotion, it is important for both of my readers to know that I am not merely offering my own opinion. It is also good to be reminded, in this case as well as the one raised by recent efforts to eliminate or severely limit the right of workers to collectively bargain, that we shouldn't only appeal to church teaching when it suits our personal politics, that is, fits with our preconceptions. How does this challenge us to follow Christ with ever more fidelity? More importantly, we must ask ourselves how advocating for Gosnell's death affects our witness to the inherent dignity of all human life, created in the imago dei, which even the most heinous sins cannot completely efface; the radicality necessitated by the Gospel about which I posted last Saturday.

A friend reminded me today of something Don Giussani said that synthesizes and summarizes this all very well: "The Mystery as mercy remains the last word even on all the awful possibilities of history."

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