Mercy for Gosnell, For Us All

I tend to ramble and write down all the details, leaving them fussily thrown about, in piles and pieces and mess, for you to make sense of. A lot of that is by choice, trying to copycat this or that brilliant writer who has true randomness in her prose, a trait that I fiercely envy. But some of it is just the way this stuff comes out. Editing is tough work, mainly because there is a lot of stuff that, even though it’s not perfect, it is as good as it will get.

On Friday I felt the way I tend to feel every so often about the world: hopeless. I like to languish about the excremental cultural crisis we inhabit at regular, medicinal intervals. I suspect it’s a professorial habit. But the Kermit Gosnell story took it to another level. I suppose this is arbitrary in certain ways. Any time spent watching television, even in a waiting room or a restaurant, presses most of my doom and gloom, everything is lost, buttons. But Gosnell was much worse than bad news, it was (and is) hopeless news. News of the new apathy: the craze to forget and distort, despite all best intentions.

When things are this ugly, the truth just isn’t true enough.

Then I awoke to “A Plea for Mercy for Kermit Gosnell,” by the well-known natural law theorist, Robert George.

I do not share many of his philosophical fancies — and we certainly disagree about politics — but I’ve grown to respect and admire his insistence that we need not rely on theological arguments in public, and therefore secular, disputes. He is immensely reasonable. His recent work on marriage, for instance, ultimately proves unsatisfactory to me, precisely because of the rigorous philosophical limit he rightly places on the conversation.

Suffice it to say that I found myself guilty of being surprised and deeply moved by George’s absolutely authentic and perfectly stated plea. He turned me around and forced me to reconsider a great number of assumptions I’ve carried in my heart about him and pro-life movement in general. I’ve come to realize that I forgot to remember that Robert George is not George Weigel, that one thing does not always lead to another.

My Patheos colleague, Tom McDonald, summoned a line that aptly captures the essence of George’s plea, as he, too, struggles to find his way on this question:

A powerful voice that calls for death–even the death of the guilty–is very rarely the voice of the Holy Spirit.


I tried to be a pacifist for a while, but I am constitutionally incapable of it. I have a temper. Not a righteous temper, either. There is no denying it: I can be downright monstrous sometimes, I can feel Anger pulse through my veins and drug my heart, creating a passionate hunger for more of it. A cold, dead sort of rage. There is something dark, primal, and even soulful about this side of me and it prevents me from believing myself when my head rehearses pacifist mantras to my heart.

From a philosophical perspective, I find pacifism to be one of those “possible world” arguments. An entity for which the necessary and sufficient conditions rarely exist in anything but an abstract, normative fairyland. Since I am not an ethicist, I take no pleasure visiting these lands of pallid perfection. They disgust me. I prefer the infernal here and now. Plus, there are plenty of reasons to oppose war and support demilitarization that do not presuppose pacifistic ethical principles.

For all these reasons, capital punishment should make perfect sense to the logic of my heart — both in general and for Gosnell. But it doesn’t. Maybe I drank too much of the John Paul II kool-aid, but I find the Church’s teaching on this question clear, applicable, and intuitive.

Here it is from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 2267:

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

I assent to this teaching, but the dissonance it causes within my non-pacifist self reveals that my obedience is perhaps too easy and convenient. Suspicious, even. I must admit it: I dabbled with pacifism and oppose capital punishment in part because it advances my personal and political vendetta against the divisive and incomplete cultural platform of the pro-life movement. As many other whole cloth Catholics, my consistency is more a trophy or a club than the voice of God written on my innermost heart.

For me, opposing capital punishment is, among other things, a ready-made rebuttal, a gotcha line, a more-consistent-than-thou that excepts me from far too many conversations.

That’s too bad. There are better reasons to oppose it than that. In fact, this is the worst than the worst reason: it isn’t a reason at all.

I think I am justified for many in my opinion about the oftentimes narrow and equally culpable antics of the pro-life movement — and I would argue that they started it, I didn’t pick this fight — but that justification brings me zero redemption or credibility when I’m imitating.

I cannot stand aside and oppose abortion and capital punishment and war and material poverty and capitalism and consumerism and all other terrible isms and human trafficking and racism and MSNBC and FOX and everything in between, as though my stance is somehow categorically different from all the ones who support any number of those things. I cannot cling to Feminists for Life forever, as a savior from my own lack of creativity and thoughtfulness.

We can only figure some things out slowly, one by one, person by person, heart by heart — even when one’s own heart is divided against itself.

Other things can never be known for sure, but can they still can be desired for. I desire mercy. I must cling to mercy. Anything short of mercy is not love, it is conceit and fear.

Professor George showed me some of that petulance in myself, in his plea for mercy. He proved himself a better man than me today. Most days, I suspect.

I add my name to his plea, but I do so with a chastened and fragile sense of hope and renewal. For perhaps the first time in a very long time, I simply stand for what I hope is right.

Hope against hope: have mercy on us and on the whole world. 

After all, we are all guilty. No one escapes the dark need for mercy, a hopeful darkness from which love springs.

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