Two recent stories — one involving a Chicago priest named Paul Kalchik and one involving Marine le Pen — have something significant in common. Neither figure is being punished but each is being examined. In Le Pen’s case a psychologist will be tasked with determining whether she is “capable of understanding remarks and answering questions.” Fr. Kalchik’s psychological examination, Cardinal Blaise Cupich wrote, is to ensure that he “receive[s] pastoral support so his needs can be assessed.”
These are perfect embodiments of what C. S. Lewis called “the humanitarian theory of punishment.” Those holding this theory
maintain that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. When this theory is combined, as frequently happens, with the belief that all crime is more or less pathological, the idea of mending tails off into that of healing or curing and punishment becomes therapeutic. Thus it appears at first sight that we have passed from the harsh and self-righteous notion of giving the wicked their deserts to the charitable and enlightened one of tending the psychologically sick. What could be more amiable?
Thus Cupich’s claim that his actions are focused on Fr. Kalchik’s “needs.” But Lewis’s continuation is vital: “One little point which is taken for granted in this theory needs, however, to be made explicit. The things done to the criminal, even if they are called cures, will be just as compulsory as they were in the old days when we called them punishments.” And, from the point of view of the state or any other governing body, this shift from punishment to healing has certain desirable consequences. More from Lewis, on an article he had recently read:
The author was pleading that a certain sin, now treated by our laws as a crime, should henceforward be treated as a disease. And he complained that under the present system the offender, after a term in gaol, was simply let out to return to his original environment where he would probably relapse. What he complained of was not the shutting up but the letting out. On his remedial view of punishment the offender should, of course, be detained until he was cured. And of course the official straighteners are the only people who can say when that is. The first result of the Humanitarian theory is, therefore, to substitute for a definite sentence (reflecting to some extent the community’s moral judgment on the degree of ill-desert involved) an indefinite sentence terminable only by the word of those experts — and they are not experts in moral thology nor even in the Law of Nature — who inflict it. Which of us, if he stood in the dock, would not prefer to be tried by the old system?
It is not clear, of course, that there will be any “sentence” of Fr. Kalchik or Marine Le Pen. But the remote possibility of lengthy punishment is coupled with the immediate certainty of compulsory therapy at the hands of people who wield enormous power over their future. This is certainly meant to have a profound deterrent effect not only on them but in the one case on all priests in the Diocese of Chicago and in the other on the French public as a whole. Pour encourager les autres and all that.
Lewis is at pains to emphasize that his case against the Humanitarian theory of punishment assumes “no evil intentions on the part of the Humanitarian.”
My contention is that good men (not bad men) consistently acting upon that position would act as cruelly and unjustly as the greatest tyrants. They might in some respects act even worse. Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
But what if the official straighteners are not good people? You’ll have to read the rest of his essay to find out.