A Closer Look: “Don’t Go Revengin’ in My Name”
Often, when theologians engage in their craft, they will deliberately adopt a general interpretive lens through which to examine specific topics. This lens is called a “hermeneutic” and the resolution of certain questions might vary according to the hermeneutic chosen. For example, for questions of moral theology a “hermeneutic of law” may yield different answers, at least in emphasis if not substance, from a “hermeneutic of virtue.” And both answers may be consistent with the Church’s teaching on a particular issue.
A Fundamental Touchstone
While not explicitly using the term, St. John Paul II, in his encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, implicitly urges the Church to view the moral life through what might be called a “hermeneutic of mercy.” When God appears to us in the person of Christ, St. John Paul explains, he “becomes especially visible in His mercy.” Mercy, therefore, “is not just the subject of a teaching; it is a reality made present by Christ.” Christ is the incarnation of mercy. Mercy, therefore, is the “fundamental touchstone” – the primary hermeneutic – of “His mission as the Messiah.” As such, the pope explains, we are demanded to order our moral lives by mercy. This mandate “forms part of the very essence” of Christ’s mission and “constitutes the heart of the Gospel ethos.” The “program of mercy” is the program of God’s people, His Church.
Thus, we are called to be merciful, and to apply a hermeneutic of mercy to all moral questions. I know of no better issue to apply such an interpretive lens than the difficult problem of capital punishment. In May 2018, Pope Francis approved revised language for Section 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), the provision on the death penalty. The Catechism now concludes that “the death penalty is inadmissible,” and the Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
This revision has been the source of intense theological debate, both as to the meaning of the new language and, if it is different from prior versions, how (or if ) that difference can be squared with the Church’s historic position on capital punishment. While this column is not the place to resolve those questions, I suggest the most appropriate way to view CCC 2267, and capital punishment more generally, is through a hermeneutic of mercy.
Probably the most obvious alternative to a hermeneutic of mercy is one of justice. Justice is the classical virtue by which we render to another according to his due. Applied to criminal defendants, the measure of justice is the proportion of the punishment to the crime – no more than an eye for an eye, but no less either. Thus, a person who takes a life must give his life in return.
But in Dives in Misericordia, St. John Paul II responds with a different approach – a hermeneutic of mercy. To be sure, “mercy is in a certain sense to be contrasted with God’s justice,” he explains. But while different from justice, mercy is not opposed to it. Mercy serves and tempers justice so it does not devolve into its perversion, vengeance. Justice alone is not enough. In fact, he explains, justice “can even lead to the negation and destruction of itself” if the deeper power of mercy is not allowed to shape human life. In other words, justice must be examined through the hermeneutic of mercy, so that it does not become revenge.
If we apply a hermeneutic of mercy, we are better able to understand revised CCC 2267. There, the proper measure of the limit of punishment is not the proportion to the crime committed, but the mandate of “safeguarding the common good.” If justice can be satisfied by protecting common good without putting the criminal to death, mercy demands that he not be put to death. Justice is not contradicted by mercy, but tempered by it. And vengeance is avoided.
Put another way, mercy is the bulwark preventing justice from becoming revenge. And the crucifixion of Christ is where the hermeneutic of mercy is perfected. It is where justice and mercy meet; where the penalty that justice requires and the forgiveness that mercy demands are both fulfilled. The mystery of the cross, St. John Paul II explains, is “the overwhelming encounter of divine transcendent justice with love: that ‘kiss’ given by mercy to justice.”
In their song, “Murder in the City,” the Avett Brothers sing, “If I get murdered in the city/Don’t go revengin’ in my name/One person dead from such is plenty/No need to go get locked way.” The lyric is an admonition not to take personal vengeance. But it can easily be applied to the way we think about criminal penalties imposed by the state, which acts in our names. If we apply a hermeneutic of mercy, even to the most violent crimes, we embody the very mercy that God the Father has shown to us in the incarnation and crucifixion of his Son. Because we have experienced the mercy of God, we are called to practice mercy towards others. “Blessed are the merciful,” proclaimed Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they shall obtain mercy.”