How does mercy apply to public policy in the Year of Mercy?

Categories: Around the Diocese,Year of Mercy

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By Maria Wiering
For The Visitor

As the public policy voice of the state’s Catholic bishops, the Minnesota Catholic Conference is also working on broader issues — including how, in the Year of Mercy, to apply mercy to public policy.

When speaking about mercy, Jason Adkins, MCC executive director, is quick to distinguish between “true mercy” and “false mercy.”

“True mercy can be a powerful way to enrich justice,” Adkins said. “Not only can it make justice more than simply the application of impersonal commands, but it can [also] help heal and restore right relationships, and ultimately, that’s the true aim of justice and should be the true aim of our laws.”

Adkins sees that understanding of mercy as particularly applicable to the criminal justice system. He said the MCC is working to build on some of its prior efforts — such as working to restore voting rights to people who have been convicted of felonies and “banning the box,” or eliminating the criminal record check box from job applications.

The efforts are designed to help people leaving the criminal justice system to have more opportunities to rebuild their lives and for community healing, Adkins said.

Now the MCC is turning its attention to mass incarceration policies. “Are these policies just? Are they prudent? Or do they do more harm than good?” Adkins asked. “From the economic standpoint, it seems more and more the case that we simply can’t afford to be incarcerating people en masse. We have a population explosion [and] we have a bed shortage, so what are we going to do about it? Are we going to build more prisons, or find more productive ways to deal with [people who commit minor offenses]?”

More research is showing that it may not be in the public interest to sentence to prison, for instance, people convicted of possessing or selling small amounts of illicit drugs, Adkins said. “It’s actually counter-productive; you’re putting people in a pipeline that puts them on a negative trajectory, particularly young males from minority populations,” he said.

Adkins is interested in addressing underlying questions, such as how high incarceration rates in the black community affect families, how addiction can be addressed outside the criminal justice system, and how to stem addiction-related deaths.

“Mercy helps us think concretely about justice as right relationships, but it also can help us think about policies more broadly by thinking about the ways we’ve received mercy, and then viewing public policy through that lens as well,” he said.

While criminal justice should be viewed with “true mercy,” physician-assisted suicide is often presented with a false understanding of mercy, Adkins said.

“Sometimes people look at physician-assisted suicide, or euthanasia, as ‘mercy killing,’ and it’s not merciful at all,” he said. “Compassion really means ‘to suffer with’ someone. Sending someone home with a vial of pills to die, and perhaps even die alone, is not compassion, it’s not humane.”

Last year, state Sen. Chris Eaton (DFL-Brooklyn Center) introduced the “Compassionate Care Act” to permit doctors to give dying patients drugs with which they could take their own lives. Backing the bill is the national organization Compassion and Choices, formerly known as the Hemlock Society. Adkins doesn’t expect the bill to pass this year, but he said the issue should be discussed.

“We want to create a state where people don’t feel like the only choice they have is to end their life,” Adkins said. “Really, the debate comes down to two things: Do we want life to end sooner, or do we want life to end well? Proponents of physician-assisted suicide want life to end sooner, and we want life to end well.”

Minnesota is “one of the best states for health care,” Adkins added. “There is no need to enact physician-assisted suicide.”