America's Crime Wave: A Catholic Perspective
An inside look into the nation's crime wave and what Catholic teaching has to say.
Jared Gould, formerly Senior Editor at Campus Reform, is poised to begin his new role as Managing Editor of Minding the Campus at the National Association of Scholars in November. He also holds a consulting position at the Faith & Politics Institute. You can read his published works here and you can find him on Twitter (or X) @J_Gould_.
A spike in crime has cast a dark shadow over blue cities. Carjackings, murders, drive-by shootings, and looting have become disturbingly familiar. In Washington, D.C., the city I call home, residents do not question if they will be the next victim but when.
This current wave of criminality unfolds against the backdrop of social justice, which, with its focus on equal outcomes, views crime as a manifestation of a racially biased criminal justice system. For example, in June 2020, Washington, D.C. council member Charles Allen stated, “The council, like all Americans, is grappling with undoing centuries of layered and systemic racism and its manifestations throughout our society.” Consequently, the council proposed a $15 million reduction in the police budget. In this landscape, there must be a new social justice system that looks out for the most vulnerable in society: the real victims of crime.
So, where should Washington, D.C. and other blue cities turn to for guidance? The answer lies in Catholic social teaching and an emphasis on retribution over rehabilitation.
A district-area priest explained to me that Catholic social teaching emphasizes the inherent dignity of every individual, the importance of community, and the pursuit of justice in society. He requested anonymity but generously shared insights and directed my attention towards Catholic research concerning the issue of crime. This article greatly relies on the wisdom and guidance derived from him and the sources he provided.
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When addressing the issue of crime, the Catholic Church tends to focus on the concept of sin and not solely on criminal activities, the priest said. The Church views crime as a manifestation of sin that disrupts the political order of society, and therefore the Church offers universal principles to guide the consciences of the faithful and empower them to address crime.
In its attempts to protect violent offenders, Washington, D.C.’s city council members not only downplay the crime wave, but have also worked to block reforms pushed by Mayor Bowser, which included harsher sentences and punishments for violent offenders. The council’s justification for blocking reform is in its commitment to liberal social justice, arguing that harsher punishments would disproportionately affect minority groups.
This city council belongs to an orthodoxy that views perpetrators as victims because of their societal circumstances — ironically ignoring that racial minorities are overrepresented as victims of crime — demanding that criminals be liberated from an unjust criminal justice system. Recent measures along these lines include lower minimum sentences and letting violent offenders out of jail ahead of trial.
Victimhood mentality is harmful not only to the spiritual well-being of those who commit crimes but also to the individuals and communities they harm. Fostering a “poor-me outlook” or indulging in a perpetual “pity party” are counterproductive to living a life of gratitude and personal responsibility, the priest said.
This rise of “victimhood culture,” when matched with the left’s vision of social justice, paralyzes communities and their leaders in the face of violent crime. This is evident in Washington, D.C., where council members are afraid to prosecute criminals for fear they will be accused of racism. Such thinking, however, is incompatible with a Christ-centered outlook, which emphasizes repentance and conversion, along with the protection of society.
In contrast to the beliefs of the city council, the Church asserts that individuals possess the capacity to transcend their circumstances and assert control over their own lives — a principle that should be applied to all criminals.
Breaking free from a victimhood mentality represents just one facet of the solution, however. Catholic social teaching, in particular, emphasizes retribution as the primary fixture of criminal justice. Prominent D.C. Democrats, like city council Chairman Phil Mendelson, remain steadfastly opposed to reforms that would enable a more stringent approach to dealing with violent criminals, championing rehabilitation over retribution. This approach is antithetical to Catholic tradition, however, especially in the context of murder.
Take, for instance, the Church’s stance on the death penalty. Even in light of Pope John Paul II’s teachings, which explained that capital punishment should be used sparingly, tradition has accepted the view that capital punishment serves as a means to protect society. This perspective is exemplified by figures like St. Augustine, Pope Innocent III, and St. Thomas Aquinas, who argued that capital punishment safeguards the common good. The death penalty, they contended, is not an act of vengeance but a restoration of justice, as it aligns punishment proportionally with the crime.
John Paul II’s position on the death penalty can be seen as an effort to retain the four traditional purposes of punishment: retribution, defense of society, deterrence, and rehabilitation. Retribution, however, remains the primary aim of punishment because, among the four purposes, it also serves as a deterrent, which even secular intellectuals support.
For example, Dr. Paul Rubin, Professor of Economics at Emory University, in his 2006 written testimony for the Senate Judiciary Committee wrote, “modern refereed studies have consistently shown that capital punishment has a strong deterrent effect, with each execution deterring between 3 and 18 murders. This is true even for crimes that might seem not to be deterrable, such as crimes of passion.”
Retribution, especially in the case of the death penalty, not only renders the offender incapable of victimizing again, but it also removes the desire for “personal avengement,” which follows criminal law’s definition of retribution:
Retribution prevents future crime by removing the desire for personal avengement (in the form of assault, battery, and criminal homicide, for example) against the defendant. When victims or society discover that the defendant has been adequately punished for a crime, they achieve a certain satisfaction that our criminal procedure is working effectively, which enhances faith in law enforcement and our government.
Put simply, if the D.C. council passed reforms that impose the death penalty for heinous murders, it could deter the most serious crimes. However, we should not reserve severe punishments exclusively for murder. All crimes should prompt swift action by our nation’s leaders.
Take looting, for instance, which local authorities have failed to control. More drastic actions, such as deploying the National Guard, are necessary to maintain order and to protect victims, namely store owners and innocent shoppers.
As Americans grapple with rising crime rates, moral guidance and sound principles are sorely needed. The Catholic Church offers a valuable compass to navigate city leaders and voters towards reform that do not overshadow the importance of individual responsibility and repentance, but instead encourages individuals to transcend their circumstances and take control of their lives.
Beyond decoupling from a victimhood mindset, our nation’s leaders must protect the social order through retribution, as the prevailing notion that rehabilitation alone is sufficient to protect society is evidently untrue.
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