Mark Singel, who served as lieutenant governor and, temporarily, acting governor of Pennsylvania from 1987 to 1995 has a deeply moving and deeply unsettling piece in America Magazine this month. He reflects on his recommendation to pardon Reginald McFadden, who was serving a life sentence for murder, and who then was re-arrested for rape of one woman and the murder of another.
I have had 25 years to reflect on my decision to recommend clemency for Reginald McFadden. Given the ease with which political opponents can twist compassion into weakness, providing second chances to known criminals is always a risk. Why did I take that leap of faith on a convicted murderer?
I was raised in the Byzantine rite of the Catholic Church, one of six siblings in a family of modest means. My parents instilled in us the importance of kindness, charity and cooperation—all essential virtues for a fair distribution of chores and a reasonable chance of equal dinner portions. And every day, we attended a Slavonic liturgy that taught us to ask one thing: Hospodi Pomiluj. Lord, have mercy. The refrain was sung by a choir or chanted by the congregation more than 50 times at each Mass.
Having so often petitioned a gracious God for the blessing of mercy, how could I deny it to others? Some might say mercy belongs in the realms of family and faith, but has no business influencing the actions of a government official. But I believe forgiveness is in fact a requirement of civilized society.
As much as Singel is reflecting on his own decision, which appears to be deeply influenced by his faith, he sees larger implications for society. He concludes,
But as much as I regret that fateful decision, I cannot accept the alternative: a government and a society that looks with cold indifference at those who have turned their lives around and who languish in our overcrowded prisons. Too often fear and hatred drive our reactions to tragedy, and the result is only more pain, more violence, more suffering. For me, mercy and compassion are more than personal options. They are the antidotes to that fear and hatred. They are the underpinnings of what can make America not only great but good.
The comments to the article are generally quite critical, with several people indicating that feelings of mercy should not blind us to the need for justice.
Aquinas notes that mercy can be a passion, whereby we feel sorrow for the evil another person is experiencing, but it can also be a virtue, when our feeling of sorrow is regulated by reason. In this way, mercy can be compatible with justice.
It seems to me that Singel, whatever his personal feelings may have been, went to great efforts to make sure that his act of mercy was in line with the demands of reason. The board overseeing the pardon voted four to one to commute McFadden’s sentence. The evil that McFadden did was unforeseeable, which is not to take away from the suffering he caused, but it is to say that mercy is not without its risks.
Earlier this summer, the pope made precisely the same point. In a June 5 homily, he said that mercy demands that we both share the pain and the risks of those who are suffering: “Think about here in Rome in the midst of war. How many, beginning with Pius XII, took risks to hide Jews so that they wouldn’t be killed, so that they wouldn’t be deported! They risked their skin! But it was a work of mercy to save the lives of those people!” he said.
It was a work of mercy to save the lives of Jews, but those who took the risk took it not only for themselves but for their families and neighbors as well. The alternative, though, was too horrible to not risk the dangers of being merciful.
Mercy is not an individual transaction between the giver and the receiver. It has larger ramifications for society, some of which will involve risks. Mercy might put us in danger, but more frighteningly, it might put someone else in danger.
When we talk about being a merciful Church, we need to remember this, that we are in this together, that we do not consent to be merciful on behalf of ourselves alone. Often mercy will free a person from the grips of sin and its consequent suffering. Sometimes mercy will allow sin to conquer, at least temporarily. And this is why mercy is such a challenging teaching. Far from being a wishy-washy tolerance of evil, mercy demands that we fight evil no matter what, even knowing that sometimes, evil will still triumph.