Thursday, 23 June 2016

Pope Francis and the Death Penalty

This week saw the Sixth World Congress against the Death Penalty, held in Oslo, Norway. The Congress was graced with the presence of Pope Francis, who sent a video message, to condemn the death penalty. He said that ...
"nowadays the death penalty is unacceptable, however grave the crime of the convicted person. It is an offence to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person. It likewise contradicts God’s plan for individuals and society, and his merciful justice. Nor is it consonant with any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to victims, but instead fosters vengeance. The commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' has absolute value and applies both to the innocent and to the guilty.”

This of course is not the first time Pope Francis has spoken out against the Death Penalty. Amongst political causes, this is rapidly becoming his most passionate, on par with immigration and the so-called 'three t's - tierra, techo y trabajo para todos' [land, roof and employment for all].

In June 2013, at the Fifth World Congress against the Death Penalty, held in Madrid, Spain, through a letter signed by Tarcisio Cardinal Bertone, the then Secretary of State of the Holy See, Pope Francis stated the Holy See's support for the abolition of the Death penalty:
“capital sentences be commuted to a lesser punishment that allows for time and incentives for the reform of the offender. Today, more than ever, it is urgent that we remember and affirm the need for universal recognition and respect for the inalienable dignity of human life, in its immeasurable value”

During an address to the International Association on Penal Law, October 23, 2014, Pope Francis said:
"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, ... 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."

In March 2015, Pope Francis met with a delegation of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, before releasing a letter. Stating that the death penalty is "inadmissible, however serious the crime", and decrying life imprisonment:
"On the other hand, life imprisonment entails for the prisoner the impossibility of planning a future of freedom, and may therefore be considered as a sort of covert death penalty, as they deprive detainees not only of their freedom, but also of hope. However, although the penal system can stake a claim to the time of convicted persons, it can never claim their hope"

The most visible call of Pope Francis to end the death penalty, came during his speech to the joint session of the Congress of the United States, September 25, 2016. He used to the Golden Rule to decry capital punishment:

"Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.
It was at this point that many people watching, not just Catholics and the Republicans present in the chamber, thought that the Pope was going condemn abortion. Not so, to the dismay of the Republicans and the glee of Democrats he continued:
This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation."

The strongest condemnation of Capital Punishment, came during the Pope's Sunday Angelus address on February 21, 2016, anticipating a conference in Rome, organised by the Sant'Egidio community, with the theme 'For a World Without the Death Penalty':
I hope that this conference might give new strength to efforts to abolish the death penalty. A spreading opposition to the death penalty, even as an instrument of legitimate social defence, has developed in public opinion, and this is a sign of hope. In fact, modern societies have the ability to effectively control crime without definitively taking away a criminal’s chance to redeem himself. The issue lies in the context of a perspective on a criminal justice system that is ever more conformed to the dignity of man and God’s design for man and for society. And also a criminal justice system open to the hope of reintegration in society. The commandment “thou shall not kill” has absolute value and pertains to the innocent as well as the guilty.
The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy is a propitious occasion to promote in the world a growing maturity for ways to respect life and the dignity of each person. Because even a criminal has the inviolable right to life, a gift of God. I appeal to the consciences of leaders, that they come to an international consensus aimed at abolishing the death penalty. And to those among them who are Catholic, may they carry out an act of courage, giving an example that the death penalty not be applied in this Holy Year of Mercy.

The Pope's arguments on abolishing capital punishment and life imprisonment are weak, based on the assumption that the human race has moved beyond capital punishment and an erroneous interpretation of the Fifth Commandment. The Pope also rules out life imprisonment as an alternative, without stating other solutions. Maybe the Pope has a misplaced faith in humanity. For those interested, here is a thorough piece on the 'The Traditional Case for Capital Punishment', by Fr. C. John McCloskey.

I would like to end by contrasting the Pope's words, with those of the perennial teaching of the Catholic Church:

Catechism of the Council of Trent, published 1566, teaching on the 5th Commandment 'Thou shalt not kill'
Execution Of Criminals
Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment­ is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, publised 1992
2266 The State's effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. the primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.
2267 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.
"If, instead, 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.
"Today, in fact, 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 of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender 'today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]

Personally, I'm not for or against the death penalty. It is for nation states to decide what are just penalties to be imposed by Judges on convicted criminals. I believe the wisdom the Church has always taught on this matter to be correct.

In an interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro SJ in 2013, the first full length of his Pontificate, published in a number of Jesuit publications worldwide (the English version for America the National Catholic Review can be found here), Pope Francis infamously said:
“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

It seems pretty clear that this Pontificate is becoming increasingly obsessed with the abolition of Capital Punishment, and the liberalisation of immigration. Both leftist political issues.

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