PopeWatch: Make the Punishment Fit the Crime

Ed Feser at The Catholic World Reports that the Pope is against the death penalty, life sentences and lengthy sentences:


In a March 20, 2015 letter, Pope Francis said:

Life imprisonment, as well as those sentences which, due to their duration, render it impossible for the condemned to plan a future in freedom, may be considered hidden death sentences, because with them the guilty party is not only deprived of his/her freedom, but insidiously deprived of hope. But, even though the criminal justice system may appropriate the guilty parties’ time, it must never take away their hope.

In an interview in November of 2016, the pope stated that “if a penalty doesn’t have hope, it’s not a Christian penalty, it’s not human” and that life imprisonment is a “sort of hidden death penalty.” In August of 2017, the pope compared life imprisonment to “torture.” And in a December 17, 2018 address, Pope Francis stated:

The Magisterium of the Church holds that life sentences, which take away the possibility of the moral and existential redemption of the person sentenced and in favour of the community, are a form of death penalty in disguise.

Let’s note several things about these remarks. First, again, the pope claims that life sentences are morally on a par with the death penalty, and suggests that to oppose the latter requires opposing the former as well. Second, he says that the way they are similar is that they both deprive the offender of “hope” and of the possibility of “redemption.” Third, he has raised this issue repeatedly and in formal addresses, and not merely in an off-the-cuff remark or two. Fourth, he has invoked “the Magisterium of the Church” when speaking on this issue, rather than presenting it as a mere personal opinion.

Fifth, and remarkably, the pope seems to object not only to life sentences, but to any sentences of an especially long duration. For in his March 20, 2015 letter he criticizes “life imprisonment, as well as those sentences which, due to their duration, render it impossible for the condemned to plan a future in freedom” (emphasis added). Pope Francis appears to be saying that it is wrong to inflict on any offender a sentence that is so long that it would prevent him from returning eventually to a normal life outside of prison.

Now, the implications of all this are quite remarkable, indeed shocking. Consider, to take just one out of innumerable possible examples, a serial murderer like Dennis Rader, who styled himself the BTK killer (for “Bind, Torture, Kill”). He is currently in prison for life for murdering ten people, including two children, in a manner as horrific as you might expect from his chosen nickname. If Pope Francis is right, then it is wrong to have put Rader in prison for life. Indeed, if Pope Francis is right, then Rader should not be in prison for any length of time that might prevent him from being able to “plan a future in freedom.” Rader is 74 years old, so that would imply that Rader should be let out fairly soon so that he can plan how to live out the few years remaining to him. And if the pope is right, the same thing is true of other aging serial killers. Perhaps the pope would put conditions on their release, such as realistic assurances that they are not likely to kill again. But his words certainly entail that it would be wrong to deny at least the possibility of parole to any of them, no matter how heinous or numerous their crimes.

But even this doesn’t really capture the enormity of what Pope Francis is saying. Consider the Nuremberg trials, at which many Nazi war criminals were sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Pope Francis’s view would imply that all of these sentences were unjust! Indeed, Pope Francis’s position seems to entail that, had Hitler survived the war, it would have been wrong to sentence him to more than about twenty years in prison! For Hitler was in his fifties when he died, so that if he had been sentenced to more than that, he could not “plan a future in freedom” – as a greengrocer or crossing guard, perhaps. Pope Francis’s views imply that the Nuremberg judges should have been at least open to the possibility of letting Hitler off with such a light sentence and letting him return to a normal life – despite being guilty of the Holocaust and of fomenting World War II! Perhaps Pope Francis would shrink from these implications of his views. One hopes so. But they are the implications of his views.

Now, are Catholics obligated to agree with Pope Francis that life sentences should be abolished? I would argue they are not obligated, and for the same reasons they are not obligated to agree with Pope Francis about capital punishment. For once again, the pope is either making a claim about doctrinal principle or he is merely making a prudential judgment, and once again, in neither case can Catholics be obligated to agree with him.

Go here to read the rest.  The Pope cares not a fig about the safety of the law abiding or the punishment of the guilty.  When the popes ceased being secular rulers, their pronouncements on civil society  gradually became more utopian and divorced from reality.  Pope Francis is merely the end product of a process that has been underway for over a century.  Of course his stance has bupkis to do with Catholicism.  Better a crazy Mikado than a Pope  who is ever kind to the cruel and cruel to the kind.



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  1. It doesn’t surprise me that this pope identifies with criminals.

    It’s another piece of evidence toward the thesis that the vast majority of clergymen maintain and exemplify the attitudes of randomly selected NGO functionaries. They just speak in a somewhat different idiom and wear funny outfits. We life in a decadent age, and the philanthropic sector (which is bedeviled by undefined goals and weak operational measures of competence) is where unserious people land jobs and stay.

  2. David WS, Yes, but it is a Christian penalty because I have hope the Church will survive him.

    Where do we delineate a penalty as being just? If the world sets a hard limit for murder at 25 years, Francis would complain that 20 should be the limit. Better yet let’s ask the criminals; who better to know what would be most therapeutic. “Your honor, I truly believe ten good years of therapy, anger management, hot yoga and a couple of classes on tantric sex out to set me on the right path.”

  3. “kind to the cruel and cruel to the kind.” describes Pope Francis.
    “Better yet let’s ask the criminals; who better to know what would be most therapeutic. “Your honor, I truly believe ten good years of therapy, anger management, hot yoga and a couple of classes on tantric sex out to set me on the right path.”” Except that criminals do not keep the law or their promises.
    The death penalty is executed through the power of attorney of the condemned capital one, homicide in the first degree, murder in stealth, murderer. To deny the condemned murderer’s power of attorney or his free will is to deny his human dignity. Better to be executed through the murderer’s own power of attorney, than to live without the human dignity of a sovereign person who, although being a capital murderer, is denied his dignity, his power of attorney, his free will and his autonomy and live as a beast of burden to atheism and the latest fad…nonsense.

  4. Our justice system allows for punishments for criminal actions as our Church also does in venial and mortal sins and their just consequences. If we find ourselves in a situation where we deliberately murder someone or commit other heinous crimes, I for one would rather repent of my sin and be punished in this life rather than the next life for we will have to make reparation for our sin. Pope Francis seems to want to take that option away from us. That seems to me to be taking away MY hope of reparation for the sins I’ve committed.

    41 We are punished justly, for we are receiving what our actions deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!”

  5. “Pope Francis seems to want to take that option away from us. That seems to me to be taking away MY hope of reparation for the sins I’ve committed.”
    This is a very great insight into the thought processes of Francis. Considering that Our Lord, Jesus Christ, the only innocent man WHO ever walked the earth suffered the death penalty, murderers in stealth and their supporters are nothing but cowards.

  6. Priests in this country make over 40k a year, get a free house, and get decent benefits – with no kids.

    If you consider that the median American is making less than 60k, he has kids, he pays more for benefits, and he doesn’t get a free house – and works more hours with worse student loans – you start to realize that the priesthood is a really sweet gig with almost no oversight, that apparently anyone can get into.

    Then you realize where terrible priests (including bishops) come from.

  7. In The Death of Christian Culture, John Senior has this essay, “To Each His Own” in which he critiques the way that sentimentality enervates and undermines virtue. Two quotes worth sharing:

    “Since a convict is a man, it is wrong to treat him like a pet. He possesses a dignity according to his nature, having intelligence and will; and he has a right to a just punishment proportioned to his crime.”


    “A person who commits a crime has indulged his will against his reason; a disequilibrium has been established in his soul . . . which can only be righted by a retributive exercise of reason against his will. The greatest evil in the world is to do wrong without being punished.”

    If Senior is correct, punishment insufficient to correct that disequilibrium must be the second greatest evil.

    (But I’d still trade off the death penalty to secure an end to legal abortion.)

  8. “Priests in this country make over 40k a year, get a free house, and get decent benefits – with no kids.”


  9. (But I’d still trade off the death penalty to secure an end to legal abortion.)

    The death penalty has never been a hot button issue on my list of priorities, but bad, and often dishonest, arguments against it infuriate me. The main good argument against it is that an innocent man might die, but that is certainly true of all punishment, and death penalty cases receive endless appellate scrutiny, unlike life sentences for example.

  10. Perhaps the pope would put conditions on their release, such as realistic assurances that they are not likely to kill again.

    But wouldn’t those conditions simply be a form of hidden life imprisonment? And as we all know, hidden life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.

  11. A person serving a life sentence is deprived of hope? It’s almost like he hasn’t heard of heaven. If we truly love the murderer as Christ commanded us, a life of prayer and penance is just what the Divine Physician ordered.

  12. Open the max security jails/penitentiaries in Rome and it’s suburbs and employ the hard cases in some capacity within Vatican City. Let the Pope see how that works out.

  13. Before Vatican 2 Priest have a normal work load, having a maid that cook, did the laundry, house workand live in the rectory. Everything change after the Council of Vatican 2. Today with the shortage of priests, they are in charge 3 and 4 parihs, give them more traveling, no cook, have a house keeper that go few days a week, being on call at hospital ,it can be at any time day or nigth beside program for catholic shool ,the list can go on and on. I personnely know some of them never take their day off. They get burn out and over tired. And when i hear people critisizing them they dont deserve having a priest to serve them spiritualy. People dont realise how precious is a PRIEST. They are a gift to us from God. Peace.

  14. If the priest is doing his duties properly he is way underpaid. Improperly he is not worth anything. I have seen some lazy priests, but most priests I know normally put in more hours than I do, and I do not have a light work schedule.

    I appreciate the hours they put in, especially when I’m in the hospital. The trouble is, they commonly do nothing well. I grew up in an Anglican environment, in which the quality of the clergy declined with each successive cohort. They could still manage a moderately dignified service. Consider: you have three women in the balcony chant the ordinaries and a man in the sanctuary chant the propers, and you have your music program. I’ve known one Roman-rite priest who arranged for this, and only for the 7:00 am traditional rite he was offering on the qt. You want traditional chant, you head to an Eastern-rite parish.

    I’ve known one priest who built a file of homilies composed with the day’s readings as a point of departure. He had occasion to amend them when he encountered something in his reading. (“When I see something from the Church Fathers, I grab it”). He was ordained, I believe, in 1943 or thereabouts. He had to retire in 2010 and I do not think I’ve heard a satisfactory homily since. Perfectly forgettable blancmange is the order of the day. You get some stylistic variations. Fr. X starts his with “there once was a little girl who…”. Fr. Y utters the phrase ‘our relationship with God’ over and over. Fr. Q likes sports metaphors.

    And, of course, the confessional is structured to discourage people from making use of it. (At the parish in Clinton, NY, the administrator used the old confessional to store folding chairs until he had it removed entirely). The votive candles are removed (“Fire hazard, puts smudges on the wall” one priest tells me) or, if they’re there, there is not one available to light. (Not kidding there. Cannot recall any time in the last three years repairing to the chapel where they are kept and finding one available. Someone is lighting all of them for some reason; there are never any advisories from the clergy and the number of available candles never increases).

    With the young, nearly everything uttered to them goes in one ear and out the other. (Except if it has to do with sports, music for mass entertainment, or the convoluted interactions they have with each other). Meticulous catechesis will usually fail. I doubt it’s often meticulous.

    /rant off.

  15. In light of the massive fiasco of the clerical abuse crisis, does the Catholic Church have any credibility to lecture anyone about criminal justice? With the level of clerical recidivism during the crisis, with there being a fair amount of catch and release, the Church and the mental health profession have been poor judges of character. Many of the offending clergy were pretty much given 70 X 7 forgiveness, and huge amounts of mercy, to little good effect. The thing that was lacking was a sense of justice for the victim and for future victims. Mercy without justice is just as bad as justice without mercy. A balance is needed. There has been such an unbalanced tilt towards mercy that one can wonder if it is possible to talk about the mercy killing of justice.
    I would suggest that the Pope look to the sequoia size log in the Church’s eye before he lectures society about any log in the criminal justice system’s eye.

  16. @ Art Deco.

    Morning prayers heading up for your parish. How do you stop the boat from filling in with water? Especially in a storm. Damage control must be evaluated, as you have done, and a core of hardened crew must meet, execute top priority and of course pray. Who can change it?

    Jesus in Eucharistic adoration.

    Bring Him out as much as possible.
    Finding the souls to build up a perpetual E.A chapel might sound impossible however it isn’t. The one who moves hearts can do anything.

    I am sending prayers up now.
    God bless your efforts and your parish.

  17. Capital punishment used to not be a hot button issue for me as well. But gaining a clearer understanding of Church teaching on the subject, the collusion between the anti-death penalty and pro-abortion movements, and the positive effect capital punishment has on defending the common good when adequately applied changed all that.

    The connection between the pro-abortion and anti-death penalty movements make the death penalty for recriminalization of abortion exchange an absurd impossibility.

  18. The connection between the pro-abortion and anti-death penalty movements make the death penalty for recriminalization of abortion exchange an absurd impossibility.

    And here I was hoping it would demonstrate the hypocrisy of the so-called new pro-life movement.

    You’re right of course. But I think the consistent ethic of life crowd have half (or maybe half of a half) of a point. That and the example of Allessandro Serenellis weigh heavily with me personally. (In my life, I’ve moved from being enthusiastically pro- capital punishment in my 20s [e.g. we put down rabid dogs, don’t we? Why not rabid people who act like animals anyway?] to being a reluctant acknowledger of the necessity of capital punishment. Since becoming Catholic, I’ve repented of denying the human dignity of persons whom too often deny it of themselves.

    That said, the other side of the scale is heavily weighted by the example of St. Dismas, who humbly accepted the justice of his sentence.

  19. Ernst,

    If most people who commit capital crimes were like Alessandro Serenelli, who murdered St. Maria Goretti, I would at least take a hard look at my pro-death penalty stance. But since practically all of them are anything but, that’s a moot point.

    I understand there are poor arguments used by those on the pro-death penalty side like, “We put down rabid dogs, don’t we?”

    There are far better arguments based upon justice, protecting the common good, and even love for murderer, in that the prospect of impending death can move him to repentance,

  20. I agree there are better arguments, and I support them, reluctantly.

    But I have to point out, if Allesandro Serenelli’s death sentenced hadn’t been commuted to life imprisonment, he would never have experienced Maria Goretti’s visitation, leaving him to die unrepetant, and the rest of us bereft of a Saint.

    I recognize of course that we can’t know what might otherwise have happened, and Maria Goretti would be a saint anyways.

  21. Serenelli was never sentenced to death. He wasn’t even sentenced to life. He was sentenced to thirty years hard labor and served almost all of his sentence before being released. He, along with Goretti’s mother, was present at Maria’s canonization.

  22. You are correct and I am misinformed. So the to my mind most compelling argument against the death penalty turns out to be bunk. Hopefully because I misunderstood what Al Kresta was saying.

    Thanks for the correction.

  23. The Pope makes explicit something sussed out by Tom McKenna. The motor of the squad agitating against capital punishment is an objection to punishment per se, and for the imposition of common judgments of culpability. Once the death penalty is eliminated, they’ll agitate against life w/o parole. Once that is abolished, they’ll agitate against mandatory minimums. The object is a Gene Roddenberry fantasy where everyone gets social work and therapy. Well, everyone except people deemed ‘deplorable’ by those who fancy themselves our social betters (who will receive draconian punishments for minor offenses and fanciful ones).

  24. What, exactly, is wrong with the shorthand of “we put down rabid dogs”?

    We put down rabid dogs (both literally rabid and the merely highly vicious) not because they are worthless, but because it is the only way to effectively prevent them from destroying others.

    The death penalty prevents those who have done horrific wrongs from doing them to others; no other punishment can manage that.

    Frankly, it’s dehumanizing to the criminal to hold that their life is untouchable, but their soul is so worthless that knowingly putting them in the position where they’re going to murder innocents is a good thing. It’s dehumanizing to the innocent to hold that their life being risked in a series of trials being mistaken* is such a dire thing that instead we will choose the course that puts them at a much higher risk of being killed, deliberately, by those who are known to be unable or unwilling to restrain from murder.

    Of course, this weighs pretty heavy on my mind because I, and my kids, are favored targets for murderers. Even my husband is at a higher risk of being killed by a known killer who was released than of being executed for any reason at all.

    *ignoring the murder-by-law where false witness is involved, since murder is murder.

  25. What, exactly, is wrong with the shorthand of “we put down rabid dogs”?

    In my case it functioned as the pro-death penalty equivalent of “non viable lump of cells” or some such.

    Personally, I like the Church pleading for mercy, and the State mostly (mostly, but not always) ignoring its pleas. I think it keeps all of us honest about what we’re doing when we decide, after due process and with all deliberate intent, to deprive a criminal of his life for his crimes.

  26. Look at the most famous example of putting down a rabid dog– Old Yeller.

    Hits about the right notes–still needs to be done, because if it is not, then not only will innocents suffer but Old Yeller will destroy that which he loves.

    I can understand emotional attachment to arguments, though not declaring them invalid because of it. After all, I object to a lot of the so-called pleas for mercy because I keep seeing in my mind the kids who will never see their parents again, because their mom or dad was a cop in Lakewood, Washington, and they were gunned down by a known violent thug while they planned their work-day in a coffee shop.
    I keep seeing the Mountie who was in our hotel for the funeral, and how he teared up in just normal conversation– he and his crew had come down on their own dime to honor those folks.

    Their murderer was granted “mercy,” released from life in jail, even though it was obvious from his record that he not only was going to prey on others, but that he would be getting more violent, and that he would seek out police to kill, in part because it’s a good source of weapons.

    The murderer was given chance after chance, and if he hadn’t decided to try to shoot the cop (with one of the handguns he stole from the murdered officers) who accidentally caught him with a stolen car, he would’ve gotten yet another chance.
    He took all those chances, and used them to murder, and drag others into guilt with him.

    Yeah, “mercy” that goes on other folks’ bill gets a really hard look from me. Right up there with when folks start talking about how “we” can volunteer and sacrifice for a “good cause.”

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