Speaking to a delegation from the International Association of Penal Law Thursday, Pope Francis condemned not only the death penalty, but life imprisonment, calling it a “hidden death sentence.”
“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,” he said. He also descried what he called “penal populism,” which promises to fix society’s problems by punishing criminals rather than addressing underlying issues of injustice.
“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.”
While Thomas Aquinas defended the execution of heretics in the 13th century, Catholic opposition to the death penalty is not new. Pope John Paul II often advocated its abolition, saying that “modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”
The Catechism itself reads: “The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.”
However, the Catholic Church has no official position on the death penalty, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict), explained in 2004: “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
Francis acknowledged that the Catechism does not forbid the death penalty, but said that “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” He also condemned extrajudicial killings, the holding of prisoners without trial, and even maximum security prisons, whose “principal characteristic is none other than external isolation [that can lead to] psychic and physical sufferings such as paranoia, anxiety, depression and weight loss and significantly increase the chance of suicide.”
Without naming any, he took a dig at countries who capture people and send them to “detention centers where torture is practiced,” which some have interpreted as a reference to Guantanamo Bay.
“We don’t learn only from the virtues of saints,” he said, “but also from the failings and errors of sinners.”
Finally, he denounced human trafficking and corruption, saying that “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. Corruption is an evil greater than sin. More than forgiveness, this evil needs to be cured.”
Pope Francis’s home country, Argentina, abolished the death penalty in 2008.