However, the Pope's reasoning goes beyond the fact that today around the world dangerous prisoners can be safely kept from hurting others. He says that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the "inviolability and dignity of the human person."
There are Catholics and non-Catholics throughout the world who will find his position surprising or unsettling, challenging or a source of anger and rejection - while others will rejoice and consider it a long time in coming. The United States may well have a hard time with this teaching. According to a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in the Spring, a majority of U.S. Catholics favor capital punishment - 53%. Among Americans as a whole, 54% are in favor of the death penalty. In the United States, thirty-one states still have the death penalty on the books and 2800 people sit on Death Row. Fourteen executions are scheduled for the remainder of 2018.
However, this popular support for the death penalty is not surprising to Cara Drinan, a professor of Law at Catholic University of America in Washington and an expert on criminal justice reform. She says, " The land of the free has become the world's biggest jailer, and even 'practicing Catholics' have a hard time setting aside this knee-jerk reaction of 'you do the crime, you do the time.' It's part of who we are."
Part of who we are indeed. Just think about the popularity of macho vengeance movies in the U.S. These are the movies that celebrate "an eye for an eye" quid pro quo justice, the movies that insist that it's especially the man's right and duty to enact a form of street justice that punishes the perpetrator, takes his life if he has taken another. We can all understand the righteous anger of someone who has lost a loved one to violence, and so in the U.S., that communal understanding of anger at the death of the innocent has morphed into an overwhelming desire for revenge. And our prison system reinforces justice as punishment - retributive justice - rather than justice which is mercy and restoring to wholeness - which is restorative justice.
Yet, according to Amnesty International, a majority of the world's countries, including nearly every nation in Europe and Latin America, have already banned the death penalty.
Even though some traditionalist and conservative Catholics consider Pope Francis to be a New Age Love-Fest Softy, Pope Francis' teaching is not really new. In 1999, when Pope John Paul II (now St. John Paul) visited the U.S., he denounced capital punishment as "cruel and unnecessary." In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI issued a call for countries around the world to end the death penalty as a legal sanction. And in 2015, in a speech before the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis called for the global abolition of the death penalty.
For Christians to espouse the death penalty is especially sad and well, unChristian, because it's an attitude that does not adequately reflect the Mind and Heart of God. We need to go back to the Bible to understand the Mind and Heart of God, because the abolition of the death penalty has everything to do with God's relationship with God's people.
Perhaps the most famous Old Testament Bible verse deals with retributive justice - punishment-oriented justice. In Exodus 21:24, dealing with Personal Injury Law, we read "but if a serious injury results, then you must require a life for a life - eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot." Some say that these are laws to prevent people from going overboard in their demands for justice. But that isn't the only statement about justice in the Old Testament.
If we investigate Genesis, the first book in the Bible, we see how God deals with Cain, who murders his brother Abel. In "by-faith," the online magazine of the Presbyterian Church, we read about God's just and merciful relationship with Cain. God punishes Cain, but does not take his life, and the punishment leads to Cain's restoration..
"...when Cain played god he acted to kill, maim, and destroy. With Abel’s blood crying for justice from the field and Cain’s hands stained with his brother’s life, God curses Cain. 'You are now under a curse and driven from the ground.'
"It’s easy to close the story of Cain and Abel here, but God does not end His story with a curse. Even when receiving a just consequence, Cain appeals to God, saying, 'My punishment is more than I can bear. Today You are driving me from the land, and I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.'
“'Not so,' God surprisingly responds. 'If anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over.
“'Not so.' Cain’s assessment is wrong. He doesn’t believe God to be generous, and so he looks at the curse as something too hard to bear. But, in fact, the curse is driving Cain in exactly the direction he needs to go. Cain, even by raising his plea for protection to God, has become consciously dependent upon something other than himself. Cain finally admits to needing God. While not full repentance, it is a sign that he is beginning to feel the weight of his sin.
"In response, God pities Cain. The sign of that pity is a mark of protection. God acts generously toward Cain. God withholds Cain’s punishment in order to allow him to live as a wanderer—experiencing in part the gifts of God (a family, a livelihood, time) in order to come to a place where he will be able to offer to God the right sacrifice.
"This story of grace shows that we can, at any moment, throw ourselves on the character of God and not be disappointed. Grace is speaking loudly at every point of this story. At every turn, God’s character is calling for us to respond in faith; for us to cast ourselves in trust upon the God of grace."
In Ezekiel 16, the prophet Ezekiel reams out the people of Israel for their abominable sins. But then in verses 53-55, he speaks of God restoring the people, using the word "restore" four times in a row, and then "restored" three more times: God will restore their fortunes, will restore them to their former state, will restore their former covenant with God.
Fr. Richard Rohr points out, "God 'punishes' Israel by loving them even more and at even deeper levels, just as God does with every human soul. This is the Biblical theme of restorative justice, but it was just too counter-cultural to be heard above the nonstop historical drumbeat of retributive justice. The quid pro quo, retributive mind has to break down in order to truly move forward with God. This is the unique job description of grace and undeserved mercy....Let me paraphrase 1 John 4:10 in this way: love consists in this - not limiting God by our human equations of love, but allowing God's infinite love to utterly redefine our own." (from "The Divine Dance.")
Jesus, who always understood Jewish law at its deepest, undoubtedly recalled God's relationship with Cain and God's relationship over the years with an abominably-sinning Israel, when he says in Matthew 5:38-48,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Jesus is not speaking against legitimate self-defense in this passage. Focus on the Family comments, "As we see it, Jesus' teaching in this passage has a very narrow application. It's mainly concerned with the issue of personal revenge or retaliation, not self-defense. Christ is telling His followers that they need to let go of the desire to 'get back' at others who have wronged them in some way."
Prison terms are necessary - but what Pope Francis is reminding us is that the best form of justice is justice wrapped in mercy, which is the way God approaches every relationship with us weak, straying humans. The God Who punished Cain did not murder Cain; in fact God marked Cain so that no one else would kill Cain in revenge. God gave Cain the precious gift of time - time to wander, time to live, so that he could gradually, in the slow work of God, come to repentance for his sin. This is restorative justice, the justice that works to restore health and wholeness. This is the work of a God Who causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous, the God Who whole-heartedly yearns for every sinner to return to God and re-enter a life-saving union of love with God. Allowing prisoners to live rather than to die gives them the opportunity to take advantage of time to be restored to their best selves and to relationship with God.
If our prison system truly mirrored God's restorative justice, it would eliminate the death penalty and enact practices that would work to restore men and women to their deepest, best, most mature selves. This is the truest meaning of respecting each human being's dignity as a child of God, created in God's Image. Unfortunately, President Trump has stated that one of his favorite Bible verses is "an eye for an eye." And in a country in which private, for-profit prisons are a big facet of the economy, there's not much of a push towards reform. "Time" magazine reported,
"While there are abuses in public correctional facilities as well, a public prison has very little reason to hide its wrongdoings — no matter how horrible the scandal — because they very rarely lose a contract. The opposite is true for private prisons. In 2010, an Associated Press video revealed that prison guards at Idaho’s largest prison, an Idaho State Correctional Institution operated by CoreCivic, allegedly failed to halt an attack on a prisoner whose head was stomped several times, leaving him permanently disabled. CoreCivic — one of the two largest private prison firms in the nation — lost its contract, and the state of Idaho took control of the prison after a decade and a half of private operation...."
Sr. Helen Prejean, author of "Dead Man Walking," has worked for decades to eliminate the death penalty in the U.S. and to reform our prison system so that it operates for restorative justice, which reflects the dignity of the human person, rather than "eye for an eye" retributive justice. She recognizes that for the U.S. to be converted to a more moral prison system, God's slow work has to happen in our own hearts first - often in the hearts of those who think they are "good Catholics." She says,
"I’m now (hopefully) writing the last chapter of my spiritual memoir, River of Fire, in which I tell about waking up to racial injustice and my own white privilege in New Orleans. Then my stumbling into the Big One, the very big human rights abuse in my home state of Louisiana – state executions of criminals. It’s the story of Dead Man Walking, in which for the first time ever I raised my voice publicly and entered into listening and speaking with the public on a moral issue.
"This book that I’m now writing is about the spiritual awakening that led me to death row, a sort of prequel to Dead Man Walking. A long journey, I might add. It took me 40 years to wake up. Looking back, I see why it took me so long. I was in a double bubble: first, the class bubble (middle-upper), and second, the cloistered bubble (away-from-society nun).
"After I wrote Dead Man Walking I got out on the road. I visited every state, all 50, and participated in the give-and-take of public debate. It was imperative that I learned to listen to the other side. When I took to the road in 1993, support for the death penalty by citizens and politicians was over-the-top. In the South, pro-death penalty positions were close to nine out of 10.
"Being a Catholic nun didn’t help. A terrible statistic came out during this time that indicated that the more people went to church, the more they believed in the death penalty. (Weep, Jesus, weep.) I’ve had to work as hard with the religious community on this issue as with any group. Sometimes atheists were downright helpful, because people who don’t buy into “eternal life” with its rewards and punishments, put all the emphasis on the way we treat each other right now.
"All I’ll say for now (more to come in response to YOU) is that I’m flat-out religious, I’m a NUN, for Christ’s sake – and that is a literal statement, not an expletive. I try to follow the way of Christ, the way of non-violence, the way of justice-to-peace. And I try to follow Christ’s example of speaking out when confronted with injustice."
"Not So," says God, when God refuses to take Cain's life in revenge for Abel's life, and places a mark of protection on Cain. . If you want to say "Not so" to capital punishment, put on the Mind and Heart of God, and feel called to work actively against the death penalty in the U.S., one group that speaks out against the death penalty is the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which works closely with the United States Catholic Conference and is a sponsored ministry of the Congregation of St. Joseph. Like Sr. Helen, each of us can speak out, wherever we are, whatever we do.