In recent years, the Christian approach to punishment has been recovering, in the words of Pope Francis, the perspective of a “justice that is humanizing, genuinely reconciling”. It has not, however, always been this way. On the contrary, over the centuries the equating of sin and crime has often made the Church an inflexible judge against offenders; especially if the offenders are women. To the relationship between Catholicism and justice is dedicated La Chiesa e il problema della pena (Scholé) [The Church and the Problem of Punishment] by Luciano Eusebi. The author is a jurist at the Catholic University, and among the pioneers in Italy of the study of restorative justice.
For a long time, the Church was seen as the guarantor of a punitive administration of justice. Why is that?
Unfortunately, religion has been used for centuries to support retaliatory conceptions of justice, based on the supposed correspondence between the objective gravity of the crime and the extent of the punishment. The Church has therefore failed to proclaim a different model of justice, i.e. evil should not be responded to with an evil that is analogous to sin or crime. To act in this fashion in no way heals the evil that has been done, but rather repeats its logic, and does not lead the perpetrator to change. From this perspective, as the condemned person is often seen as a weak subject - think here of the ancient trials against women too – they have ended up representing a symbolic scapegoat in order to attest to a facade of society’s justice.
How has the Church come around to conceive of a different kind of justice?
We see in the Old Testament that divine justice is a source of salvation. God goes in search of those who experience the failure of having committed evil, makes a truth of that evil, and points out a pathway for the perpetrator to live their life. With Jesus, the reversal is complete. God’s justice consists in faithfulness to good even in the face of evil. This is the love of which Jesus on the cross that saves the human being is the witness. This authentically Christian vision of justice has become perceptible again, above all, through the Mercy Jubilee and with the magisterium of the recent Popes.
How does the Church look at prisoners and especially female prisoners today?
The view is reparative. There is true justice when the offender takes responsibility for the offence committed and changes his or her life. It is a very feminine perspective. One of the peculiarities of the latter is in not recognising the image of justice in the figure of a woman holding a sword as its own. Instead, to building a new one, which weaves nets instead of dividing.
By Lucia Capuzzi
A Journalist with the Italian national newspaper, Avvenire