Last summer Pope Francis reversed the Catholic's stance on the death penalty. But are the Catholic church in tune with the modern world enough for his opinion to matter?
Every so often, a situation develops that causes society to stop and take stock of its future. And the more tolerant we have become, the more it has happened. In the last few years alone, we have paused to reflect on: equality in the workplace, a woman’s right to abortion, the integration of the LGBT community, and the treatment of immigrants. On each occasion, we have tried, though not always successfully, to recenter ourselves on the road to righteousness. But this time, as society comes to a halt at the bidding of The Vatican, it is terribly alluring to retrace our steps.
Our latest ethical standstill has been divinely orchestrated by Pope Francis, aka God’s wild child. Last year, he reversed the Catholic Church’s primordial teaching on capital punishment, thereby relocating the Vatican to team against and seemingly sweeping the rug from under his clergy’s feet. The strikingly progressive pontiff replaced passage n.2267 of the Catechism on capital punishment, which upheld the right and duty of legitimate authority to exact death if it was commensurate with the gravity of the crime, with a complete ban on the act. “Today, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of a person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes … consequently, the Church teaches, in light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” he wrote. Cries of heresy echoed on the walls of the Church as members of the clergy exclaimed that Pope had defied established Catholic teaching and was guilty of doctrinal error. But their demurrals fell on deaf ears; for Pope Francis had joined a forty year old campaign and he was going to see it through.
When Amnesty International first positioned itself on the foreground of the war on execution, it had one defence; that the death penalty was a violation of human rights, in particular the right to life and to live free from inhuman or degrading treatment. With time and patience, however, it fortified its position - yet, not without the helping hand of injustice. If not for rampant corruption, Amnesty would not have developed the stronghold it did; namely one built on proof that capital punishment is being used as a political and/or discriminatory tool. It would not know that the death penalty is felt disproportionately by underprivileged, racial and religious minorities; nor would it know that children are dying by the hand of the law as well. It most certainly would not have experienced the cases it did, whereby people were executed on the basis of torture-tainted evidence, inadequate or non-existent legal representation, and political sedition. With knowledge came power and its power came in numbers.
It saw its infantry grow from 16 countries in 1977 to 142 in 2017. Of those, 106 had completely outlawed the death penalty, 7 retained the right to execute in certain cases, and 29 upheld the law but had not practised it in nearly ten years. It still bore the burden of the cause, but the growth in numbers was an embodiment of its mantra; “The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it” It would chant that everyday, until one hot summer’s morning, Pope Francis turned up with his arsenal of modern day values. In one hand, the Pope brandished an exemplary correctional system and in the other he held the gospel. Both lent credence to the cause, but it was the latter that lent certainty. By the light of the Gospel, one would see that the death penalty was irreconcilable with the Christian faith, which has always insisted on the dignity of human life. And today, more than ever, “there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of a person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes,” Pope Francis wrote in the new teaching, a tactful reference to the clergyman who, he believed, had cast a blanket over their eyes and called it the word of God. “Let him be anathema,” they protested, nostalgic for the time when the Church teachings were sacrosanct; when the faith did not appeal to congenial modern circumstances; and when an advancement in knowledge did not foster a change of heart, much less a change in teaching. To his mind, Pope Francis had done nothing wrong. He was, for all intents and purposes, a Catholic hippie, very much at odds with those aspects of the faith that propounded inequity. They were an itch he could not scratch, worsened by the irritant that was his uncompromising clergy. Indeed, the grey hairs came thick and fast in the time he spent reasoning with the Church. But the Pope could wait no longer; for a position that was once merely troublesome had become iniquitous. And the Church had modern day society to blame.
In his rescript, Pope Francis explained that today’s systems of detention, with their commitment to the public and prisoners alike, had rendered the Church’s position untenable. For it was the balance of two duties - namely, to safeguard the common good and to punish commensurately - that had prompted recourse to the death penalty, and here was a method that achieved both without blood shed. The systems were born of a society more liberal, more compassionate, and far more cognisant of criminal behaviour than previous generations. People grew to appreciate the power of social inequity to compel a life of crime; and had resultantly disavowed standard incarceration in favour of facilities that would help inmates to overcome their circumstances. These facilities would take offenders, handcuff in hand, to the root of their pain and provide them with the tools to beat it. They would offer education, employment, and counselling; and would work closely with inmates to eradicate malevolent thought processes. But most of all, they would uphold the liberal ideal that a person’s humanity can always be salvaged. The real question, however, was if it should. The idea that crime is a product of circumstance implies that our most valuable qualities - free will and autonomy - are the consequence of privilege. When really, our capacity to make an informed, un-coerced decision, free of the constraints of necessity or fate, is what sets us apart from other animals. While adversity may narrow one’s options, it certainly does not withhold their moral agency; and to suggest otherwise is to dishonour people who remain lawful in the face of hardship.
To force a criminal take responsibility for his/her wrongdoing is not to detract from their personal pain, nor does it trivialise the burden of social inequity. Rather, it shows them that they have always possessed freedom in some form and can do again. And here is where the buck should stop. The primary function of the criminal justice system, the reason why we give it jurisdiction quite frankly, is to rebalance society’s moral equilibrium by inflicting a harm commensurate to the harm suffered. In doing so, the system censures the offender for his/her behaviour, communicates a zero tolerance policy for unlawfulness, and shows society that it takes it rules, and the breach of them, very seriously. Most importantly, the righting of a wrong secures justice, or at the very least closure, for the victim, to whom its duty must always lay. The system simply has no business trying to save souls, because when all is said and done, it is not the offender who needs protecting from death. For a loss of life doesn’t always mean the heart stops beating. What do you have to say now, Pope Francis?
Article written by Lauren Dorling. Keep up with Lauren here