By MSGR. THOMAS R. DUFFY
Thirty-six years ago Pope John XXIII wrote a letter entitled “Peace on Earth.” He began this letter with the observation that “Peace on earth can be firmly established only if the order laid down by God be dutifully observed.”
Unfortunately since Adam and Eve sinned, peace has not been firmly established on the earth because we, their sons and daughters, too often follow their example. We choose not to do God’s will, but our own. We try not to discover what is right and wrong, but to determine, at least for ourselves, what is right and wrong. This obviously leads to chaos when we try to live with others. It also leads to anything, but peace.
But all is not lost, we still strive for peace and when we try to do God’s will we often experience the peace he wants us to enjoy and share with others. We understand, if only for a short time, what Jesus meant when he said, “Happy are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God.”
In this particular letter, Pope John XXIII challenged us with some ideas that obviously challenge the ways in which we seek peace today. He wrote the following: “a civil authority which uses as its only or its chief means threat and fear of punishment as promises of rewards cannot effectively move people to promote the common good of all. Even if it did so move them, this would be altogether opposed to their dignity as human beings endowed with reason and free will.”
The pope added: “As authority rests chiefly on moral force, it follows that civil authority must appeal primarily to conscience of individual citizens, that is, to one’s duty to collaborate readily for the common good of all. But since by nature all are equal in human dignity it follows that no one may be coerced to perform interior acts.”
Obviously those responsible for our prison system do not agree with what the pope wrote 36 years ago and hopefully what some people believe today. The prisons are a tool of our civil authority that should rest on and reflect a sense of morality. Our prisons should seek to correct our fellow citizens who have done wrong, so that they might as quickly as possible return to their families and jobs to work for the common good of all. The pope clearly teaches that the best way to do this is not to solely or primarily use threat and fear of punishment as our means of correction. This unfortunately is not only descriptive of the way our prisons treat adult prisoners, but it is the state means for treating youthful offenders sentenced to so-called boot camps.
Thank God no one calls this “tough love.” Those who support it would be the first to deny that any love is involved in it. That is why the pope wrote that such an approach, even if it moves people to act as they should, is wrong because it opposes their human dignity denying that they are endowed with reason and free will.
Our prisons are a disgrace. They demonstrate not so much our lack of trust in the dignity of those in jail, but a lack of trust in our own dignity, in our own power to help those in prison to share with us in the work for the common good of all. No matter what we might think of those who condemn our prisons for the cruel and unusual punishment they say we inflict on those in prison, or the challenge by most religious leaders for us to love everyone including prisoners, we all must admit our prisons are failing. They are not peacemakers. We hopefully all admit we need another approach.
May we at least think of the words of John XXIII and apply them to our prisons. Dare I say it, in dealing with those in jail, let’s give love a chance. I strongly suspect that would be the advice of Jesus.
Msgr. Thomas R. Duffy is pastor of St. Michael Church in Garden City and dean of the Pee Dee Deanery.