Saturday, October 5, 2019

Is the Pope a “Social Justice Jackass”?

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.


  1. Here are brief comments just received from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments about the penal system. I agree with both you and Pope Francis. Our penal system is a national scandal and it needs to be radically reformed."

    1. Thanks, Eric. -- I think you are right about the need for radical reformation of the country's penal system. Part of that is probably linked to the existence of "prisons for profit," but that is something I don't much about (yet).

  2. Then a few minutes ago I received an email from Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "I fully agree with you, Leroy. You have articulated better than I could what the object of social justice should be. I’m surprised you compliment Breitbart by quoting them; they don’t merit such attention."

    1. Dr. Hinson, I appreciate your comments, as always, but I don't quite know how to respond. I do not consider my mentioning Breitbart's inelegant criticism of the Pope to be a compliment to them. Further, I don't think we can just turn a blind eye to websites such as Breitbart or TV channels such as Fox News just because of our disagreement with them, for there are millions of people who see what they post on the Internet and what they show/say on TV. I think the better strategy is to oppose them rather than seeking to ignore them and the people who read/watch them.

  3. I also agree with your stand on Social Justice and if we look at what the Bible teaches us, it about Forgiveness.
    We should look at each case separately and do what's Appropriate.
    In some cases this means to let them back out into society and in some cases to leave them out of Society so they can No longer harm Anyone.

  4. So significant and well stated Leroy.
    I think a 60 Minutes presentation revealed Germany’s practice some years back and wish I could document it. I understand German practice works toward the goal you/we would seek. It included, first that no one faced the death penalty nor life-sentence. Each one had his/her own room with books, etc. and seemingly virtually no guards but each one had a coach. Just how final decisions could warrent one’s potential release, I don’t recall. But if practiced for years, it seems to have proved itself.
    Sorry, I can only open a glimmer and not project a glow.
    Les Hill

    1. Thanks, Les, for informing me (and other readers) about that "60 Minutes" program that aired in April 2016. I didn't see the program, but I just now read the following interesting article and watched the brief video about it:

  5. My split views on the Catholic Church's positions on social justice almost gives me a headache whenever I think about it. On today's subject, I am in total agreement with you, USAmerican jurisprudence is wildly out of control, and becoming more barbaric by the year. With only five percent of the world's population, we have about a quarter of all the prisoners on earth, 30 percent for women. (Although China's "re-education" camps for Muslims may change that.) America has become more concerned with profits from private prisons than with rehabilitation or even rational imprisonment. Orange is the New Black, indeed!

    On the other hand, on other social issues such as birth control, euthanasia, gay rights, non-marital sex and abortion the Catholic Church has been a train wreck ever since the Pope over-ruled his experts and went hard-right half a century ago. At 7.7 billion and counting, the world population has blown right past "replenish the earth" into dangerous overpopulation territory. That, in turn, makes reactionary jurisprudence more likely, undercutting the issues where I agree with the Catholic Church.

    Which gets us to the psychological act of "projection." When Breitbart and friends talk glibly about "social justice jackass" they are saying far more about themselves than about their intended targets. Whenever the political landscape lights up with a new outrageous claim, I instinctively turn it around and ask myself, What are they up to now? The answers since the 2016 election have been terrifying.

    1. Thanks so much, Craig, for your comments. They helped me realize that I didn't think broadly enough about what might be considered social justice issues, so I changed the last sentence in my article from "any social justice issue" to "many social justice issues."

  6. Yesterday afternoon I received these comments from Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "Thanks for another thought-provoking blog. I have never believed in capital punishment but I am uncertain about life-imprisonment. I believe in rehabilitation and reform but not sure how to measure their success. Some hardened criminals have honed their manipulation skills to a fine art. I think there are ways to measure that and surely there has been research to measure the effectiveness of rehabilitation, but I'm not familiar enough with criminal justice to speculate what has or has not been effective.

    "Thanks again."

    1. Thanks for your comments, Truett, and the issue you raise. Certainly one of the main challenges to the idea of indeterminate sentences is that being able to evaluate rehabilitation adequately. While admitting that that is not easy, still I think that that ought to be the goal for the penal system.

  7. Then this from local Thinking Friend Temp Sparkman:

    "I agree wholeheartedly with you. The ‘right’ is most often ‘wrong.’ You appropriately bemoan this wrongness especially when coming from Christians."

  8. Leroy, Charles Kiker here. I certainly do not think the Pope is a social justice or any other variety of jackass. However, I cannot unconditionally oppose life without parole. In my opinion, without the option of life w/o parole, death sentences would go up in Texas. And I am generally opposed to the death penalty. I note the feds will be seeking the death penalty of the alleged hate crimes terrorist accused of murdering 22 people in El Paso for no other reason than that he wanted to kill Mexicans. Of course Texas law will have nothing to do with his case. But this guy, if what is alleged is fact, should certainly be walled away from society at large. Even for him, I prefer he would be behind prison walls than under six feet of earth.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Charles. It was good to hear from you again.

      Of the four purposes for prison that I note in my article, retribution (punishment) is an important one of those, but is there justification for punishing a young man for the rest of his natural life?

      Incapacitation is a second purpose, and it is quite obvious, I think, that the terrorist in the El Paso murder case should be safely locked away in prison as long as he is a potential threat to other people outside of prison. But the Pope's point, and mine, is that redemption is theoretically possible and that that possibility ought to be honored. Lifetime imprisonment might be necessary in this case--but it might not. Lifetime imprisonment without possibility of parole has been called a "living death penalty," and in some way it may be harsher than execution.

  9. I was happy to receive the following comments early this morning from Thinking Friend Andrew Bolton in England:

    "I think the Christian critique of the death penalty begins with the fact that Jesus suffered the death penalty. Right at the beginning that should make us suspicious as Christians about the death penalty. Then in the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), Jesus is asked to adjudicate whether he would okay her stoning according to the law or not. He cleverly refuses. Not one of us is without sin, all of us need mercy.

    "I am glad you are tackling the question of Life without Parole. Such a sentence does not exist in Britain, nor in Western Europe. Christians believe in redemption as well as judgement, in the possibility of conversion, repentance. To not be open to this possibility is a grievous, hardhearted error. I do not think the Christian Right is Christian."

  10. I found it interesting during a trip to Colonial Williamsburg the use of capital punishment, normally hanging, was preferred in colonial America over long term imprisonment which was considered a "harsh and unusual punishment." I have always thought capital punishment was wrong. How to deal with long term prison sentences, however, has been an issue.

    Could regular psychiatric evaluation be required which might lead to release before death? This would be far more than a parole board review. Or a minimum sentence tied to an age? How do Britain and Western Europe deal with the most violent criminals?

  11. I shared Tom's questions with Andrew (see above), and Andrew responded as follows:

    "This is a good question but I am not a criminologist so what I am going to write is my personal view. What is the solution to violent crime in Europe? 

    "There is not a gun culture in Europe. People, not guns come first. In Britain the normal policeman does not even carry a gun. There is no right claimed to bear arms. People support this. It makes for a safer community.  The murder rate is lower.There is greater welfare provision for the poor, so the poor are not as desperate as in the USA. So there are less acts of violence. There are national health services so anyone can get first-class health care. So there is less stress about living. There is a sense of being cared for.  I think this reduces violence.The gap between rich and poor in Europe is less than the USA. This also reduces violence. So there is less violent crime in Europe. Britain stopped the death penalty in 1965.  Attempts to bring back the death penalty have failed. 

    "Read the Wikipedia article on Capital Punishment in the United Kingdom. I think the justice system is more humane in Britain.  

    "Hope this helps."

    1. Thanks much for sharing this, Andrew. (I wonder how much of this contributed to your decision to move back to England from Kansas City.)