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Pope Francis and the Death of the Death Penalty

Prison cells

Thomas Hawk

Mark Gordon - published on 10/29/14

The pope calls on Christians to fight not only capital punishment, but life sentences as well.

Popes have called for an end to the death penalty before, but now Pope Francis has gone even further. The Pope, for the first time, has recommended that Christians fight poor prison conditions and even life imprisonment.

“All Christians and people of good will are called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty be it legal or illegal, in all of its forms, but also for the improvement of prison conditions in the respect of the human dignity of those who have been deprived of freedom,” said the Pope in an October 23 audience with members of the International Association for the Penal Law. “I link this to the death sentence. In the Penal Code of the Vatican, the sanction of life sentence is no more. A life sentence is a death sentence which is concealed.”

The Holy Father also condemned routine penal practices such as isolated cells in maximum-security prisons, which he called “cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments and sanctions,” and characterized as a “form of torture.”

“It is an authentic ‘surplus’ of pain that is added to the woes of detention,” he said. “In this way torture is used not only in illegal centers of detention or in modern concentration camps, but also in prisons, in rehabilitation centers for minors, in psychiatric hospitals, in police stations and in other institutions for detention or punishment.”

In his denunciation of the death penalty, the Pope has joined his voice to those of his immediate predecessors. In Evangelium Vitae, a magnificent reflection on the distinction between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death,” Pope St. John Paul II wrote that “the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

John Paul concluded by quoting from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2267, part of which reads, "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also praised efforts to abolish the death penalty and encouraged Catholic groups working towards that end. On the other hand, as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the future Pope once wrote that there was “legitimate diversity of opinion” on the issue. But that was in the context of comparing the issues of war and capital punishment, which may be acceptable in specific and limited circumstances, with abortion and euthanasia, which can never be acceptable under any conditions.

Over the last several decades, the Church has announced the principle that capital punishment is licit “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” For faithful Catholics, the “legitimate diversity of opinion” that Cardinal Ratzinger wrote about refers to application, not the substance of this principle, which has been proposed by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church, and thus commands “religious assent” by the People of God (CCC #892).  

Pope Francis and his predecessors have applied this principle to the penal capabilities of modern states and declared that for all practical purposes the death penalty is no longer licit. Furthermore, they have encouraged Catholics to take a stand against this practice in witness to the Gospel and in furtherance of the culture of life.

What’s new is the linkage Pope Francis has made between prison conditions, including life imprisonment, and the Church’s prudential teaching on the death penalty. As the Holy Father notes, the Vatican penal code no longer accommodates a sentence of life imprisonment.  He also describes such practices as isolated confinement — the standard in American “Supermax” prisons  as an “arbitrary and merciless exercise of power over persons who have been deprived of freedom.”

“There is the risk of losing sight of the proportionality of penalties that historically reflect the scale of values upheld by the state,” said the Holy Father. “The very conception of criminal law and the enforcement of sanctions as an ‘ultima ratio’ [last resort] in the cases of serious offenses against individual and collective interests have weakened. As has the debate regarding the use of alternative penal sanctions to be used instead of imprisonment.”

There is no doubt that these positions represent the personal view of Pope Francis, and they have yet to be fully developed. In their nascent form, they do not command religious assent, much less the assent of faith.

But they do compel us to listen, and listen closely, because Francis is the Vicar of Christ and Successor of Peter. The Holy Father’s thoughts on these matters spring explicitly from his reflections on the dignity of the human person in all its dimensions. No doubt they also spring from his concern for the poor, who make up the bulk of the prison population.

Moreover, these reflections are of particular importance to American Catholics because the United States has the sad distinction of being the world’s largest jailer. Over 2.2 million of our citizens are incarcerated, a number that far outstrips even China, a Communist dictatorship with a population four times our size. At five percent of the world’s population, we boast 25% of its inmates. And many of those prisoners are serving sentences or live in conditions that the Holy Father decried in his remarks.

Thirty-two of our 50 states, the federal government, and the US military still have death penalty statutes on the books. What’s more, the United States is one of only 58 nations that still practice capital punishment, along with China, North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other well-known beacons of human dignity. The death penalty has been banned in all of Europe, with the exception of Belarus. It is still technically legal in Russia, but has been indefinitely suspended there since 1996.

The vaunted deterrent effect of capital punishment has never been conclusively proven, and the same can be said for its efficacy in rehabilitation. Since it is clearly possible for our penal system to protect society from convicted murderers, only the death penalty’s retributive nature can explain why the American people remain so obdurately attached to it.

But that attachment is directly at odds with the teaching of the Church. And perhaps that’s the most important takeaway for faithful Catholics: the Church’s teaching on the death penalty may not rise to the level of her teaching on abortion or euthanasia, but it is still a very serious matter about which dissenters ought to be very careful.

Mark Gordon is a partner at PathTree, a consulting firm focused on organizational resilience and strategy. He also serves as president of both the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, Diocese of Providence, and a local homeless shelter and soup kitchen. Mark is the author of Forty Days, Forty Graces: Essays By a Grateful Pilgrim. He and his wife Camila have been married for 31 years and they have two adult children.

Pope Benedict XVIPope FrancisPope John Paul II
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