Pope Francis calls for abolishing death penalty and life imprisonment
By Francis X. Rocca
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis called for abolition of the death penalty as well as life imprisonment, and denounced what he called a “penal populism” that promises to solve society’s problems by punishing crime instead of pursuing social justice.
“It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples’ lives from an unjust aggressor,” the pope said Oct. 23 in a meeting with representatives of the International Association of Penal Law.
Pope Francis speaks during his general audience in St. Peter’s Square Oct. 22. (CNS/Paul Haring)
“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. “Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.”
The pope noted that the Vatican recently eliminated life inprisonment from its own penal code.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, cited by Pope Francis in his talk, “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,” but modern advances in protecting society from dangerous criminals mean that “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
The pope said that, although a number of countries have formally abolished capital punishment, “the death penalty, illegally and to a varying extent, is applied all over the planet,” because “extrajudicial executions” are often disguised as “clashes with offenders or presented as the undesired consequences of the reasonable, necessary and proportionate use of force to apply the law.”
The pope denounced the detention of prisoners without trial, who he said account for more than 50 percent of all incarcerated people in some countries. He said maximum security prisons can be a form of torture, since their “principal characteristic is none other than external isolation,” which can lead to “psychic and physical sufferings such as paranoia, anxiety, depression and weight loss and significantly increase the chance of suicide.”
He also rebuked unspecified governments involved in kidnapping people for “illegal transportation to detention centers in which torture is practiced.”
The pope said criminal penalties should not apply to children, and should be waived or limited for the elderly, who “on the basis of their very errors can offer lessons to the rest of society. We don’t learn only from the virtues of saints but also from the failings and errors of sinners.”
Pope Francis said contemporary societies overuse criminal punishment, partially out of a primitive tendency to offer up “sacrificial victims, accused of the disgraces that strike the community.”
The pope said some politicians and members of the media promote “violence and revenge, public and private, not only against those responsible for crimes, but also against those under suspicion, justified or not.”
He denounced a growing tendency to think that the “most varied social problems can be resolved through public punishment … that by means of that punishment we can obtain benefits that would require the implementation of another type of social policy, economic policy and policy of social inclusion.”
Using techniques similar to those of racist regimes of the past, the pope said, unspecified forces today create “stereotypical figures that sum up the characteristics that society perceives as threatening.”
Pope Francis concluded his talk by denouncing human trafficking and corruption, both crimes he said “could never be committed without the complicity, active or passive, of public authorities.”
The pope spoke scathingly about the mentality of the typical corrupt person, whom he described as conceited, unable to accept criticism, and prompt to insult and even persecute those who disagree with him.
“The corrupt one does not perceive his own corruption. It is a little like what happens with bad breath: someone who has it hardly ever realizes it; other people notice and have to tell him,” the pope said. “Corruption is an evil greater than sin. More than forgiveness, this evil needs to be cured.”
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Join us at our Monthly DCODP Meeting as we plan to repeal Delaware’s death penalty in 2015. Find out what you can do to help end Delaware’s ineffective, costly, and biased death penalty. Monday 10/27/14 at 5:30 pm. LOCATION: Wilmington Friends Meeting House, 1st floor Social Room, 401 N. West St, Wilmington, DE 19801. Park in the parking lot on the 5th Street side or on the street. Ring the doorbell at the West Street entrance. Call 302-379-0488 for info. All are welcome! Invite a friend!
by Abraham Bonowitz
Abraham Bonowitz is a member of Catholic Mobilizing Networks Advisory Board
The Delaware Repeal Project (DE Repeal), a coalition of 29 partner organizations in Delaware, educates Delawareans about the problems of the death penalty system and leads the campaign to repeal the death penalty in the state.
The coalition was founded in 2011 as a partnership with Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty (organizing and educating about Delaware’s death penalty for over 20 years), the League of Women Voters, the Delaware Center for Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware, the NAACP and Pacem in Terris (a local peace and justice organization).
A bill to repeal the death penalty passed in the Delaware Senate in 2013 and died in the House Judiciary Committee in 2014. The campaign and its many allies are setting the stage for quick passage of a new bill in the 2015 legislative session. There is strong bi-partisan support, including from conservative Republican legislators remaining true to their Catholic faith.
“The Delaware Repeal Project is mobilizing its partners from all corners of the state. We have collaborated with a broad range of religious communities, including the bishops and leadership of all of the major Christian and Jewish faiths, the heads of our most active African-American churches, and more than 120 other clergy,” said Ti Hall, DE Repeal Projects’ Campaign Manager. “Also involved are families who have lost a loved one to murder, non-profit organizations, civic groups and individuals who are all helping to promote a conversation about the flaws of Delaware’s death penalty system and the opportunity to replace it.”
More than 140 faith leaders have added their names to a “Clergy Sign-on letter,” and those who have not yet done so may add their names here.
DE Repeal is focusing on expanding the coalition and grassroots support. To this end, the organization attends festivals and fairs throughout Delaware and regularly engages the faith community. “Death Penalty Awareness Days” are scheduled from November 14-23, 2014, providing two weekends in which clergy are asked to preach on the issues and mobilize worshipers. Town Hall meetings will take place in various parts of the state on November 18, 19 and 20. Details on these events and the Death Penalty Awareness Days will be posted soon at www.DERepeal.org.
One of the featured speakers at the upcoming Town Hall meetings will be John Breckenridge, a retired police officer from New Hampshire whose partner was murdered as they investigated a disturbance. Breckenridge originally supported the death penalty for the killer; however, in time and with a return to his Catholic faith, he has come to forgiveness. He now advocates for an end to the death penalty.
Catholics and others ready to help end the death penalty in Delaware are urged to sign up with the DE Repeal Project at www.DERepeal.org and to ask their state Senator and Representative to support a bill to repeal Delaware’s death penalty. Legislative Advocacy can begin now and will be very important when the legislative session resumes in January, 2015. The Delaware Repeal Project seeks volunteer “captains” to assist in local organizing, leading the effort within their Parish, and/or helping to ensure that many Delaware Repeal supporters are at Legislative Hall in Dover on lobby days and on days when the bill will be voted on. For more information and to get involved, contact email@example.com.
To read the full issue of Catholic Mobilizing Network’s newsletter, click here.