California Democrats are pushing a bill – AB 2590 – to reform criminal sentencing. The hope is to bring the principles of restorative justice into the state’s penal system…and eventually to expand them into other state systems.
Reformers understand restorative justice to be less about punishment than about rehabilitation and restitution. The proposed legislation would also give judges more latitude in sentencing, allowing them to explore creative approaches for dealing with convicted offenders, determined case by case.
There’s an interesting coalition supporting this legislation, including the California Catholic Conference and several of the Alinskyian faith-based networks, namely PICO and the Industrial Areas Foundation.
There are two levels of discussion about political activism, however. One concerns whether or not a given approach works. In this case, does it make the streets safer?
Are people with a history of criminal activity helped to redirect their lives?
Can incarceration become an opportunity to build something socially positive rather than reinforcing what is socially negative?
These are valid questions and it may very well be that the reformers have hit on a good idea.
The second level of discussion concerns a deeper problem – the problem of the Catholic Church and its activism.
The California Catholic Conference is an entity whose primary purpose is to make public policy and act as a legislative lobby. The Alinskyian faith-based networks were established precisely to engage people within their congregations to support these policies. They are political organizations, creating “people” power for social change.
Why is this a problem? Don’t “people of faith” have as much right – and even the responsibility – to bring their values into the public square? If they aren’t shaping public policies – introducing more humane and effective legislation – doesn’t that leave the field wide open for less humane values?
The answer is, of course, “yes” – but “people of faith” don’t hold to a single monolith of ideas for achieving a just society. Within the California Catholic Conference and the Alinskyian faith-based networks there are “people of faith” who can’t even agree about whether or not it is morally permissible to kill innocent human infants if their mother’s want them dead. If there’s no common moral foundation, how can they begin to shape a just society?
Banding them together, therefore, actually weakens the justice values that “people of faith” might be striving to accomplish, at best, relegating them to the lowest common denominator – at worst, simply secularizing justice issues altogether.
But that isn’t the worst of it.
The worst is that the churches have become so focused on accomplishing secular tasks for which they are only minimally equipped that they have, within many congregations and some entire denominations, abandoned the spiritual tasks for which they were founded. It would be far more radical for them to address issues of widespread criminality by converting the sinner. Secular politics has made “evangelization” politically incorrect.
Here’s the irony of the situation: when the Church focuses on serving God, it is going to be far more effective at improving general social welfare than when it focuses on a secular – even a good secular – program for rehabilitating criminals. This is because the Church’s gifts are not for this kingdom. Asking it to serve the earthly structure is asking it to operate at 5% of its capacity. It may be an exemplary 5% but still such a small portion of what the Church could be, and ought to be, doing.
Spero News columnist Stephanie Block edits the New Mexico-based Los Pequeños newspaper and is the author of the four-volume Change Agents: Alinskyian Organizing Among Religious Bodies, which is available at Amazon.