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.