Who Would Jesus Incarcerate for Life?

While the “traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor,” it is also Church teaching that if “‘bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should 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.’” [1] What’s more, under modern conditions, “‘given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself,’” cases where the death penalty is necessary are, as St. John Paul II observed, “‘“very rare, if not practically non-existent.”’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) §2267)

by Jeffrey Bruno
All of this is well known Catholic doctrine. It is, therefore, not surprising that Pope Francis has recently called for an end to capital punishment. [2] It would have been astonishing if he said anything else. What might raise some eyebrows, however, is that he also called for the abolition of life sentences, which hitherto has been offered as the suggested replacement for the death penalty. Indeed, one might easily have thought that it is the modern world’s capability of humanely imposing life sentences that has rendered the death penalty obsolete. But a close look at the Church’s teaching on criminal punishment provides insight into what the Holy Father said.

First of all, the principle purpose of criminal punishment “is to redress the disorder caused by the offense.” (CCC §2266) Of course, in the case of murder, which is the crime for which life in prison is most often advocated, complete redress is not possible; nothing the State can do to the offender can bring the murdered person back to life again. Moreover, it is clear that there can be no replacement for a person. Economic compensation, even toward support of a murder victim’s dependents, can never match a human person’s infinite value. A prison sentence of any kind does nothing to overcome the impossibility of redress for a murder, even if the sentence is for the life of the offender.

by Bart Everson
A second consideration is the preservation of public order and the safety of persons. (CCC §2266) General deterrence of crime is what must be looked at here. Superficially, it might seem as though general deterrence would be best served by the harshest penalties possible. But criminological research has shown “that enhancing the certainty of punishment produces a stronger deterrent effect than increasing the severity of punishment.” [3]  The truth is, existing “evidence does not support any significant public safety benefit of the practice of increasing the severity of sentences by imposing longer prison terms. In fact, research findings imply that increasingly lengthy prison terms are counterproductive.” There is simply no reason to believe that life sentences are necessary to maintain public safety, and there is, indeed, reason to believe that they are not so.

Finally, criminal punishment should have a kind of medicinal value: “as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.” (CCC §2266) But, as the Holy Father has pointed out, “Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.” An offender cannot reform if he is executed, nor can he do so if he is rendered effectively dead to society by a sentence of life imprisonment. Even if the offender undergoes a complete change of heart while incarcerated, there is no way for him to effectuate any internal reform if his continued incarceration is a certainty. Note that what Pope Francis is objecting to is not the separation of a dangerous person from the rest of society as long as he is dangerous, but sentences that foreclose the possibility of reform from the onset. Where there is no hope of parole, there is less incentive for reform, and an essential purpose of criminal punishment, according to Catholic teaching, is hindered, and effectively removed.

As always, Pope Francis’s seemingly radical statement is simply a reflection of Catholic doctrine and the tradition of the Church. The benefit of the media attention the Pope receives is that orthodox Catholic teaching is deemed newsworthy.

Jack Quirk