Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, “authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse.
The Church believes the State has ‘the twofold responsibility to discourage behaviour that is harmful to human rights and the fundamental norms of civil life, and to repair, through the penal system, the disorder created by criminal activity’. But that more than merely preserving and defending public order the Church argues that there is a moral element involved in the correction of the guilty party, which moves beyond punishment to redemption and reconciliation. The Church’s Social Doctrine says, ‘there is a twofold purpose here. On the one hand, encouraging the re-insertion of the condemned person into society; on the other, fostering a justice that reconciles, a justice capable of restoring harmony in social relationships disrupted by the criminal act committed’. (Compendium of Social Doctrine, n. 402-403).
The Church also believes that just punishment is one that is commensurate with the gravity of the offence. Prison should be a last resort. In Australia, there is no death penalty, but the Church argues that there ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent’ circumstances in which a lethal punishment is a necessity, given the State’s capacity to prevent further harm to the community via other forms of punishment, such as incarceration.
Further because of her belief in the inalienable dignity we each bear, the Church argues that prison environments must uphold and respect human dignity. The balance between appropriate punishment and effective rehabilitation must be maintained and so we must continue to engage with our penal system and hold it to account for both these ends. One of the ways the Church herself attempts to do this is through prison chaplaincies where we can bear witness to the mercy and love of Jesus and help ensure our prison system is a place of punishment, yes, but also one that respects human dignity and gives prisoners, and the entire community, a real chance at rehabilitation.
I was … in prison and you came to me.
To learn more about the Church’s teachings on imprisonment and responses to crime, as well as a range of discussion papers, resources and articles related to this topic visit the Australian Catholic Social Justice Council’s, website on ‘Social Issues: Justice, Prison and the Death Penalty’.