Recently Pope Francis reiterated papal opposition to the death penalty and, going a step further, also renounced life imprisonment, which is the alternative that many death penalty opponents typically cite.
“All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty. And this, I connect with life imprisonment,” he said at an October 23 event with the International Association of Penal Law. “Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.”
Evidently Vatican City has abolished life imprisonment, which obviously is mostly symbolic, since the papal enclave is hardly teeming with violent crime. The most serious crime there in recent years was the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, after which the assailant was tried in an Italian court.
Opposing life imprisonment raises questions. Should mass murderers be freed during their active lifetime? And what if they show no sign of remorse or rehabilitation? (My questions come respectfully from a Protestant who appreciates Catholic teaching.)
The Pope’s remarks acknowledged that official Catholic teaching still accepts the state’s rightful power to execute, quoting the Catechism that “the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” News reports say he quoted the Catechism that “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” It is not clear but presumably he also included the Catechism phrase immediately before those words, which cites the “possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm.”
What power does the state have for “rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm” except for the option of life imprisonment for recalcitrant murderers?
It seems unlikely that many Americans, Catholic or otherwise, will advocate abolishing life imprisonment for heinous crimes. But recently Colorado’s pro-death penalty Republican gubernatorial candidate, a Catholic, recalled that Denver’s former bishop, Charles Chaput, had assured him that church doctrine is not against the death penalty. Chaput is now Philadelphia’s archbishop, and his office declined comment.
But in a 2005 column Chaput explained, “The death penalty is not intrinsically evil. Both Scripture and long Christian tradition acknowledge the legitimacy of capital punishment under certain circumstances. The Church cannot repudiate that without repudiating her own identity.” He endorsed ending the death penalty but emphasized capital punishment is not like abortion or euthanasia, which are always wrong, but more like war, which might be legitimate in some circumstances.
The subtleties of Catholic teaching on capital punishment are difficult to translate into media sound bites or political explanations. Pope Francis’s comments against life imprisonment seem to go beyond the letter of the Catechism. Some activist American religionists, Catholic or otherwise, may latch on to them for a new campaign. But such an effort potentially would provoke a backlash and embolden defense of the death penalty.
Much of the American religious political witness today is totally uncomfortable with the state’s divine vocation for punitive action, much less lethal force. The New Testament offers little direct counsel on civil government’s responsibilities except, in St. Paul’s Romans 13, which warns that that “if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoers.” This language is pretty punitive.
But so much of modern American religious political witness prefers a highly non-punitive version of government. Their preferred vision likens the state to an indulgent, nurturing mommy, whose primary role is to feed, clothe, and ensure health care for all her children, while also welcoming all illegal immigrants, protecting the environment, lecturing against politically incorrect “hate speech,” and offering universal love, while simultaneously disarming in a way ironically that likely inhibits physical protection for her children.
Most of this mommy work the Scriptures and Christian tradition actually assign chiefly to the church, which is metaphorically a mother and the Bride of Christ. The Romans 13 focus for the state more resembles a stern father, who dispenses impartial but severe justice for the protection of his children. This sort of paternal state, unlike the sensitive mommy, reserves its interventions for dangerous misconduct. And it lets its charges pick themselves up from their stumbles, that they might grow strong, not remain immature through ceaseless coddling.
A true balance in society aligns nurturing mommy with stern father, both fulfilling their complementary roles in creation. The absence of one distorts human reality and creates corruption and tragedy. Pope Francis doubtless has earnest reasons for speaking against even life imprisonment. But his sentiments will likely only inspire the chronic mommy vision of the state already preferred by so many do-gooding religionists.
Religious leaders need to restore balance by citing Romans 13 and explaining the punitive, morally imperative stern father role of the state that is divinely ordained and essential for human justice.