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This is our weekly theological article.
It is a common complaint of the media that criminals are not given an appropriately severe punishment. An article in The Express, SNP Plot to Scrap Short Jail Sentences Could See Thousands of Criminals Avoid Prison, argues that plans to introduce a “presumption against” sending people to prison will mean that thousands of people convicted of serious crimes will avoid prison. In another article, this time from the Herald Sun, prosecutors in Australia complained that the sentences criminals received were not in line with community standards.
Of course, this represents the common misconception, perpetuated by the media, that the judiciary exists to serve the standards of the community. It does not. Rather, the Justice System exists independently of both public opinion and politics. It bases its decisions on equality before the law and justice for all.
Much of the media’s rhetoric is designed to feed off of our very human desire for revenge based justice. When we read about a rape or child murder in our daily newspapers, often our first reaction is to wish all kinds of cruel and inhumane punishments to be exacted on the criminal guilty of those crimes. Our indignation turns us into barbarians, not civilised people.
In his encyclical, Dives in Misericordia, Pope John Paul II warns of how justice can quickly devolve into cruelty and hatred when it is not tempered by mercy:
“It would be difficult not to notice that very often programmes which start from the idea of justice and which ought to assist its fulfilment among individuals, groups and human societies, in practice suffer from distortions. Although they continue to appeal to the idea of justice, nevertheless experience shows that other negative forces have gained the upper hand over justice, such as spite, hatred and even cruelty.”
God tempers His divine justice with mercy. If He were to judge us purely on our thoughts and deeds we would surely be condemned to hell. But in his mercy and love for us, He allowed his only Son to suffer and die on the Cross so we may be freed from the shackles of sin and death.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution; justice without mercy is cruelty.” It is precisely this idea, that justice ought to be tempered by mercy, that should drive the way we treat those who have harmed us. As Isabella tells Antonio in Measure for Measure: “it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but tyrannous to use the strength of a giant.” We should never forget that the person who has wronged us is a human being who is as loved by God and as deserving of His forgiveness as we are.
Is there any other time in history more malaligned than the Middle Ages? Our modern conception of the so-called “dark ages” is that it was time characterised by superstition, barbarity, oppression, ignorance with a few outbreaks of the plague, just to make things interesting.
This view has been helped by numerous so-called educational resources. BBC’s Bitesize website, for example, takes a leaf from certain 19th-century British historians, the type of who saw Catholics as ignorant and childish, and caricatures Medieval peasants as “extremely superstitious” individuals who were “encouraged to rely on prayers to the saints and superstition” for guidance through life. It even accuses the Catholic Church of stagnating human thought and impeding technological development.
This does not represent the view, however, of many serious historians and academics. As Professor Ronald Numbers of Cambridge University explains:
“Notions such as: ‘the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science’, ‘the medieval Christian Church suppressed the growth of the natural sciences’, ‘the medieval Christians thought that the world was flat’, and ‘the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages’ [are] examples of widely popular myths that still pass as historical truth, even though they are not supported by historical research.’
In reality, the Middle Ages saw advances in law, politics, the sciences, theology, philosophy, and more. It saw the birth of the chartered town which ushered in the tradition of local self-governance. The existence of a strong papacy laid the foundations of limited political power as it prevented monarchs, who justified their power through their so-called “unique” relationship with God and the Church, from monopolising power. This symbolic limitation on monarchical power was manifested in the Magna Carta (1215) and the birth of the English Parliament.
The people of the Middle Ages produced magnificent Gothic cathedrals and churches. Many medieval monks became patrons of the arts and many were even artists themselves. In literature, the Middle Ages saw Dante’s the Divine Comedy and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In music, the Middle Ages laid the foundation of Western classical music and saw the development of musical notation, western harmony, and many of the Christmas carols we know and love today.
Likewise, the Carolingian Renaissance of the 8th and 9th centuries saw advancements in the study of literature, architecture, jurisprudence, and theology. Medieval scholars and scientists, many of whom were monks and friars, studied natural philosophy, mathematics, engineering, geography, optics, and medicine.
In the spirit of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment, many universities, including Oxford University, Cambridge University, and the University of Cologne. These universities educated their students on law, medicine, theology, and the arts. In addition, the period also saw the foundation of many schools and many early Christian monasteries were committed to the education of the common people.
The Middle Ages saw advances in science, literature, philosophy, theology, the arts, music, politics, law, and more. Its legacy is all around us: whether it is in the limitations placed on the powers of Governments, the music we listen to, or in the tradition of education many of us have benefited from. In an era of political correctness perhaps we should be wondering whether we’re living in the “dark ages.”