Last month I wrote about Breitbart News referring to Rev. William Barber II as a “social justice jackass.” I thought that was pretty bad. But now Breitbart has even used that inelegant label for Pope Francis!
The Pope’s Position
Breitbart’s complaint (on 9/19) against the Pope was because of his call for the abolition of life imprisonment. According to a 9/16 National Catholic Report article (here), two days earlier Pope Francis told an audience in St. Peter’s Square that “sentencing someone to life in prison without the possibility of parole is ‘not the solution to problems, but a problem to solve.’”
(Here is the link to that full address to penitentiary police and others.)
Actually, this has been Pope Francis’s position for quite some time. Five years ago, on 10/23/14, he called for abolition of both the death penalty and life imprisonment. According to this Catholic News Service article, on that date he told representatives of the International Association of Penal Law, “Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.”
The Right’s Position
It seems quite clear that the political Right and the so-called Christian Right strongly support both capital punishment and life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for heinous crimes.
In the blog article planned for later this month, I will be writing about being fed up with Christian fundamentalism partly because of their view of capital punishment and two other issues. However, I don’t deal with the matter of life imprisonment in my book on fundamentalism, to which the upcoming blog article will be linked.
The position on both capital punishment and life imprisonment, though, seems to be the same: encouraging harsh retributive justice.
It has been said (here, for example) that there are four purposes of prison: retribution, incapacitation, deterrence, and rehabilitation. The author of this linked-to article explains: “Retribution means punishment for crimes against society. Depriving criminals of their freedom is a way of making them pay a debt to society for their crimes.”
According to Breitbart—and most likely most of those who read/support that far-right syndicated news, opinion and commentary website—opposition to strong retributive punishment invites one, even the Pope, to be labeled a “social justice jackass.”
The Correct Position?
As many of you may not know, my college major was sociology. (I waited until seminary to study the Bible and Christian theology academically.) Criminology was one of the valuable courses I took in pursuit of that major, and it was in that course that I became convinced of the validity, and desirability, of indeterminant sentences.
Among other things, that means that there should never be such a thing as life sentences without possibility of parole. And, certainly, capital punishment should never be condoned.
While there is some reason for sensible retribution, and more reason for prison used for incapacitation and deterrence, surely the most important purpose of prison is rehabilitation.
Admittedly, rehabilitation—and the proper evaluation of rehabilitation—is not at all easy. And incapacitation, the removal of criminals from society so that they can no longer harm innocent people, is of clear importance for the wellbeing of society in general.
Still, for example, aren’t there many young men (and maybe some women) who committed heinous crimes in the passion of their youthful impetuousness but who learn in ten, or twenty, years the shamefulness and senselessness of those crimes and who would never think of committing such crimes again?
Given the obstinacy of some few, lifetime imprisonment might be required for them. But for most, surely with proper attention given to rehabilitation there can be an optimal time for release from prison.
So, no, Breitbart, I definitely do not think that Pope Francis is a “social justice jackass”—on this or many other social justice issues.