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William J. O'MalleyJune 20, 2011

Most Christians, one supposes, are just. But I cannot bring myself to accept Christian justice as a unique form of moral behavior. The very juxtaposition of Christian and justice is not only paradoxical but much too stingy. The evidence against the fittingness of fusing those two priceless realities is legion: “Turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, give him your jacket, too”; “Love your enemies, do good to those who torment you”; “Does no one condemn you? Then neither do I”; “Your brother was dead; we simply had to celebrate”; “You strain out the gnat, but you gulp down a camel”; “Forgive us our trespasses just as we forgive those who trespass against us”; “Forgive 70 times seven times”; “This is the cup of my blood. It will be shed...so that sins may be forgiven.”

Christianity’s two overriding laws are not strictures but limitless invitations, and its sole determinative assessment of one’s life at the end is not about conformity but about attentive kindness. Then there is that last-minute kicker, from the place of Jesus’ execution, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” All this puts Christianity light years beyond the reach of “justice.”

In an interview with Catholic News Service, Professor Edward Peters, canon law professor at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Seminary and a top adviser on that subject to the Vatican, excoriated Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany for not publicly refusing Communion to New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo, since he is a public sinner. Newspapers far and wide had trumpeted the fact that the governor, divorced with three children, is living with his girlfriend, Sandra Lee, a well-known television personality, yet still dares to approach the sacraments. Mr. Peters declared, for all to hear: “If he approaches for Holy Communion, he should be denied the august sacrament in accord with Canon 915.” Who could deny those “facts”?

Yet in at least three places in the Gospels, Jesus reacted quite differently to sharing food and drink uncritically with manifestly public sinners. At a dinner hosted by Simon the Pharisee, a woman “known as a sinner in the town” broke in indecently, wept on Jesus’ feet and dried them with her hair. Not only did Jesus not reprehend her, but he told his indignant host, “Much has been forgiven her because she has loved much.” Elsewhere, Jesus met at the well of Sichar a Samaritan woman who had already had five husbands, “and the man you’re with now is not your husband.” In a small town, six men would guarantee a woman a considerable reputation, but Jesus immediately dropped the subject and spoke of more important matters, like eternal life. And when he encountered the feisty enemy collaborator Zaccheus, peering down at him from a sycamore tree, Jesus boldly invited himself (and his entourage, one supposes) to the tax man’s house for lunch. Neither the Samaritan woman nor Zaccheus forced themselves on Jesus’ hospitality. On the contrary, he imposed himself quite blithely on theirs.

Moreover, there is reliable evidence that Jesus washed Judas’s feet and shared food with him at his farewell dinner, the model for our eucharistic celebration, even knowing what the disciple was about to do. How shockingly nonjudgmental!

Laws are not only laudable but utterly necessary, of course, especially for people unable—or unwilling—to think. But the first sign of a dying society is a new edition of the rules. Conformity begins to outweigh conviction.

A story that poses the justice/Christianity contrast is the segment in Les Misérables about the bishop’s candlesticks. The gendarmes return Jean Valjean to Bishop Bienvenu with the silverware Valjean has stolen. In justice, the bishop has a right not only to the return of his property but also to some kind of retributive penance because of the betrayal of his hospitality and kindness. But no! “Ah, my brother! Here you are! How is it you forgot I gave you the silver candlesticks, too!” That is not justice. Even to the minds of some professed and diligent Christians, such a way of behaving is rank foolishness. Unmerited forgiveness is an attitude that would corrode the entire fabric of our usurious and litigious society.

As a teacher of religion for close to a half century, I have frequently been tempted to violate the school administration’s “laws”—at times, I think, to worthwhile effect. Once while reading English essays, I found two that were not only similar, but identical. When I spoke to the two students, it was clear they had not collaborated; each had copied the essay verbatim from an Internet provider. They asked me with anxious interest what I intended to do. I told them I thought it was pretty serious, so I would let them know the next day. The following morning, while presiding at a small Mass for teachers and staff, I mentioned the cheating during the prayers of the faithful and said that rather than summarily “turning them over to the Polizei,” I would like to handle it in the way Jesus might, but I had yet to find a way. Afterward, one teacher was irate and insisted the matter be brought to the attention of the office. Instead, I saw the two students separately and asked them to write an essay covering three points: What does integrity mean; what does it feel like to lose it; and how does one get it back?

One boy wrote that it was the first time in his life he understood what Christianity really meant. The other came to confession “for the first time since eighth grade.” The angry teacher, meanwhile, went to the administration to report the matter. Although I reported the results of my attempt to be Christian, I was told, “All well and good, but their cheating has to go on their records.” I refused, because this was one of those rare occasions when I myself felt how good Christian conversion feels—for both sides.

I am fairly sure those students, as confused as Jean Valjean was with a basket of silverware in one fist and two silver candlesticks in the other, will remember that event more than they would remember prolonged detention or even suspension. Perhaps public sinners might more meaningfully be lured home if authorities depended less on judgment and more on imagination.

Mr. Peters has certainly spent many hours pondering church law. But since he has sat in public judgment on both a governor and his bishop, one might legitimately ask of him publicly whether he has adequately pondered the intentions of the Person who occasioned the law.

Justice is so much easier than Christianity.

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Mike Evans
11 years ago
And so nationwide our criminal justice system is cruel and nasty, all about vengeance and punishment and not at all about forgiveness and rehabilitation. It would seem that any Christian notions are completely absent from the process. Our church provides little in the way of chaplaincy to these penal institutions or even a critique of archaic and senseless sentencing. Probably as many Catholics support the death penalty as the rest of society. Seems that the gospel messages fall upon completely deaf ears. While our bishops now meet to argue about trivial issues, the vast majority have nothing to say about fairness, justice, the preferential option for the poor, or inclusiveness of all within the embrace of God's mercy. Our so-called Christian faithful are equally silent and divided, apparently untouched by either homilies or gospel teachings.  Unless the Church becomes a highly visible advocate for justice and for the poor, it will not be a gateway to the kingdom of God.  The recent statement on gridlocked budget negotiations just released by the California Catholic Conference of Bishops is a great example of what should happen in every state conference as well as nationwide.
11 years ago
Justice is so much easier than Christianity.

This should be a great topic to discuss.  Bloggers get in, #1 Mike has a good start.
joseph o'leary
11 years ago
I can think of two sayings attributed to The Desert Fathers that mirror Bishop Bienvenu's dealing with theft. Father O'Malley's personal example is not quite the same, as the student's transgression is against the school, not the teacher (although as faculty of the school, one could argue he is the school.) It's a gray area, and I won't second-guess Fr. O's handling of the matter.

But for the sake of discussion, who's hurt when rules are broken, and who really gets to forgive? In the case of cheating at an institution that grants diplomas, is it the institution or the public or even the student? As an employer considering hiring the student, do I believe that the diploma comes with a no-cheating guarantee on its holder? If the cheating went on the student's "record" and he still earned the diploma, how would I know that? Is the institution's reputation harmed if it unleashes a plague of unpunished plagiarists? What about a graduate who cheated and didn't get caught? Better yet, if the graduate broke the rules and was treated in the same way as Fr. O's student (and repented in the same way), the diploma carries no indication of the student's shortcoming and his redemption. Unless somehow the school, public or student is harmed by the cheating being forgiven and going "unpunished", why should anyone object?

As for our criminal justice system - acknowleding its imperfections - a very strong public policy reason does exist for incarceration (not the death penalty): a person who willingly harms others should be isolated, for the protection of the community, esp. the vulnerable. And there is a place for leniency and forgiveness when a judge sentences, as well as diversion programs for first-time offenders. However, I will leave further commentary on that to a judge, law professor, defense attorney or prosecutor.

The "buried" issue in Fr. O's story is anger. Why do we get so angry when we see someone break rules and go unpunished, whether we are harmed or not? Better yet, why do we get angry when we see an injustice go ignored or uncorrected? How is the anger over, let's say, goverment's failure to correct unfairness in the criminal justice system any different than, maybe, anger over the government's failure to allow the death penalty?

2,000 words, due next week. Don't plagiarize. ;-)

11 years ago
Writing about Fr. O'Malley's article on student plagiarism, Joe O'Leary says the 'buried issue' is anger.  Yes.  When a student thought I was stupid enough to mistake professional for amateur writing, I WAS annoyed.  (Haking them document the material in MLA format was punishment enough, though.)

No wonder anger is one of the 7 Deadlies; by focusing us against other people, it paralyzes our efforts to fix bad situations.  Fr. O'Malley didn't get mad or even; he bettered two young lives.
Robyn York
11 years ago
"Pondering the intentions of the One who occasioned the law", as Fr. O'Malley writes, serves as an urgent reminder.  Does Jesus not want us to replace self-righteousness with humility, and exclusion with inclusion?  Thank you, Fr. O'Malley, for "walking the walk", as exemplified by your interactions with your students and by writing this article.  One of the reasons why "justice is so much easier than Christianity" is because as Christians we are not only to "not abolish the law" but also to "fulfill it".   How might one fulfill the law without abolishing it?  Jesus' intentions, his Spirit, his actions show us how.  
Christopher Mulcahy
11 years ago

The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.  No Christian is entitled to ramble on about one, say justice, with complete negligence of the other three.  An exclusive obsession with "fairness" and "justice" is characteristic of persons of a young age,  and of adults plagued by envy.

Furthermore, not even God can forgive where there is no repentence.  Mercy, but not forgiveness.

It is important to retain balance in the use of tested, traditional Catholic concepts.

11 years ago
Sadly, it at least seems Chris Mulcahy won't allow for even the possibility of unconditional forgiveness-for hurts so profound no form of atonement is even conceivable.  The kind of helpless love a mother has for her first-born, even on death row,  Not only must we "retain balance in the use of tested, traditional Catholic concepts," as he claims, but we must also avoid the pernicious contagion of closed-mindedness.  As Nils Bohr said to Einstein, "Albert, don't tell God what he can and cannot do."
11 years ago
I think we can all learn something from Victor Hugo and Les Miserables about compassion and forgiveness. It seems to me there are too mny people who are too quick to judge and condemn and want to punish. I think esepcially about those who seem to have anointed themselves with the gift of knowing what is ight and wrong and then insisting that every one else think and act as they do. Jesus did not tell the Samaritan womna she had to live as "brother and sister" with her five husbands, he simply sent her on the way to spread the good news that he was there and she was an effctive mninister of the "Word". I can shake the hands of a number of people I don't agree with and can stiil respect them. Why do we insist that pople knuckle down to our way of thinking "or else" . That certainly wasn't the mindset or action of Jesus.
11 years ago
I do not understand how you can compare Andrew Cuomo's situation with your students.  The only commonality is that  both Cuomo and the students knew the ethical principles involved.  Your students were caught by you as has Cuomo been by the Bishop. The consequence for the students was at least doing a paper and addressing the issue and maybe changing (confession?).  It seems as if they learned their lesson  What should be the consequence for Cuomo?  Just let it go?  How about that he write an op-ed explaining the teaching of the Church and how he as a public figure is setting an example for who can receive the eucharist (anybody!). Do you dismiss all consequences. What is the consequence for Cuomo in your eyes?
11 years ago
In response to JIM SULLIVAN:  I'm quite happy to leave judgments on Mr, Cuomo to God.  I hesitate at throwing any stones.  Judging souls is Someone Else's job.  I'm very definitely not smart enough.
11 years ago

I read Les Miserables while in Catholic high school 60 years ago.  Of course it was on my own initiative as the book was on the Index, and my  book report was not well received even before it was read.  The episode of the bishop’s silverware was unforgettable, and had a profound influence on the rest of my life.

My comments have to do with “justice”.    The common notion of justice seems to be based mostly on the idea of tit for tat, eye for eye;  I’ll call this pseudo justice.     A quite different notion that I get from scripture is God’s justice.   We say “God is just” meaning that God is true to promises made, and that God gives each of us what we deserve.  So what are the promises made, and what is it that we deserve?    Seems to me Jesus’ answer for both is love; God has promised to love us, and so what we deserve is love, not because we earned it, but just because that’s the way God is.   Unfortunately we too often attribute the notion of pseudo-justice to God, which is very unfair to God, and fits not at all with the command to forgive seventy times seven times.

In the case of Father O’Malley’s plagiarizing students it’s clear that in his heart he equated justice with the love that the students deserved, rather than the usual punishment and report to the administration.  They got the love they deserved, justice was done, and they responded in an amazing way.  I get teary thinking about how the students and he must have felt.

I don’t mean to imply that there’s never a need for some sort of disciplinary action.   Suppose I get caught with my hand in the cookie jar.  I still deserve to be loved but in some cases a slap on the hand and temporary loss of cookie privileges may be the proper tough love response to help me develop the discipline required to get along in the world.    But in some cases it may not be the proper tough love response.     

Here are some comments on the silverware.  Father O’Malley writes as follows.

In justice, the bishop has a right not only to the return of his property but also to some kind of retributive penance because of the betrayal of his hospitality and kindness. But no! “Ah, my brother! Here you are! How is it you forgot I gave you the silver candlesticks, too!” That is not justice.    

First comment regards "In justice the bishop has a right to the return of his property ....". I wonder.   Is it justice that anyone, bishop or lay, have expensive silver service when people are actually starving to death?   (I propose that the bishop is better off without the silver, but this may be tangential.)  But if the whole system of property distribution is unjust (is it just that something like 1% of the people in the US own 40% of the wealth or that we 5% of the worlds population consume 25% of the resources) then I argue that to have laws requiring the return of stolen property, even from poor people to very rich people is socially necessary but not always just.

Second comment regards “….. but also (a right) to some kind of retributive penance….”   I find nothing in the accounts of Jesus teaching that support the idea of such a right.    There is sometimes a need to keep a person in jail to prevent harm to others.    And in most cases stolen property ought to be returned to the owner.   So I see a “right” to require these actions for social stability, but I see no “right”  to impose any penalty as retributive penance.    

A final comment on the last line  “Justice is so much easier than Christianity”.    If justice is defined as tit for tat then doing justice would have nothing to do with being a Christian  and this line would make sense.    But Jesus’ whole life was about doing justice, which led him to the cross.    For me, trying to be a follower of Jesus is also about trying to do justice (although I readily admit it’s to a limited extent because I’m not courageous enough to follow Him all the way to the cross).  So for me, living as a Christian and doing justice are synonymous.

I’ll end with the thought that Father O’Malley’s students have been fortunate to have a teacher with “heart”.


11 years ago
Bill - I do not understand the response to my post above.  I thought I was clear so let me try again.  I too have no business making eternal judgments on anyone and I DO NOT in Cuomo's case or in any other.  i too understand my place before God. I appreciate your "look to love" attitude.
11 years ago
William O,Malley's contribution to the June 20-27 issue is a refreshing reminder that Jesus was a revolutionary.  The Catholic Church, especially the Magisterium, would be much better off if it keeps this in mind, especially when it comes to making rules about the reception of the Holy Eucharist.

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