Saturday, February 18, 2023

Pope Francis contra life imprisonment

The white supremacist Buffalo shooter who murdered ten people has been sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  According to scripture, natural law theory, and traditional Catholic moral theology alike, he is worthy of death.  It follows that this lesser penalty can hardly be unjust.  However, it seems that Pope Francis would disapprove of it.  For he has on many occasions condemned this sort of punishment as on a par with the death penalty, which he has also famously condemned.  I discussed this neglected but problematic aspect of the pope’s teaching in a Catholic World Report article originally published in 2019, and he has since then made further statements along the same lines.  Current events make the topic worth revisiting.

The pope’s statements on the topic

I am aware of at least ten occasions on which Pope Francis has condemned life sentences.  Let’s review them in order.  In an address to the International Association of Penal Law on October 23, 2014, the pope said:

All Christians and men of good will are thus called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty, whether legal or illegal, and in all its forms, but also in order to improve prison conditions, with respect for the human dignity of the people deprived of their freedom.  And I link this to life imprisonment.  Recently the life sentence was taken out of the Vatican’s Criminal Code.  A life sentence is just a death penalty in disguise.

In a March 20, 2015 letter to the president of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, Francis wrote:

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 comments made to the press in September of 2015, the pope approvingly referred to calls to end life imprisonment, comparing the punishment to “dying every day” and a “hidden death penalty,” insofar as the prisoner is “without the hope of liberation.”

In a November 2016 interview, Pope Francis condemned capital punishment, saying that “if a penalty doesn’t have hope, it’s not a Christian penalty, it’s not human.”  For the same reason he went on to condemn life imprisonment as a “sort of hidden death penalty” insofar as it also deprives the prisoner of hope.

In remarks made to prison inmates in August of 2017, the pope called for their reintegration into society and said that a punishment without a “horizon of hope” amounts to “an instrument of torture.”

In his December 17, 2018 address to a delegation of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, Francis stated that “despite the gravity of the crime committed, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is always inadmissible because it offends the inviolability and dignity of the person.”  He then immediately went on to say:

Likewise, 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 disguiseGod is a Father who always awaits the return of his son, who, aware he has made a mistake, asks forgiveness and begins a new life.  Thus, life cannot be taken from anyone, nor the hope of one’s redemption and reconciliation with the community.

In a September 2019 audience with penitentiary staff and prison chaplains, the pope said:

It is up to every society … to ensure that the penalty does not compromise the right to hope, that prospects for reconciliation and reintegration are guaranteed… Life imprisonment is not the solution to problems – I repeat: life imprisonment is not the solution to problems, but a problem to be solved… Never deprive one of the right to start over.

In remarks made to a meeting on prison ministry in November 2019, Pope Francis stated:

You cannot talk about paying a debt to society from a jail cell without windows… There is no humane punishment without a horizon.  No one can change their life if they don't see a horizon.  And so many times we are used to blocking the view of our inmates… Take this image of the windows and the horizon and ensure that in your countries the prisons always have a window and horizon; even a life sentence – which for me is questionable – even a life sentence would have to have a horizon.

In an in-flight press conference, also in November 2019, the pope said:

The sentence should always allow for reintegration.  A sentence without a “ray of hope” toward a horizon is inhuman.  Including life sentences.  One must think about how a person serving a life sentence can be reintegrated, inside or outside.  But the horizon is always necessary, the reintegration. You might say to me: but there are mentally ill detainees, due to illness, madness, genetically incurable, so to speak ... In this case, one must seek a way in which they can do things to make them feel like people.

Finally, and most significantly, in his 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis stated:

All Christians and people of good will are today called to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal, in all its forms, but also to work for the improvement of prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their freedom.  I would link this to life imprisonment… A life sentence is a secret death penalty.

As far as I know, that is the most recent public statement the pope has made about the issue.

Implications of the pope’s teaching

Let’s note several things about these remarks.  First, 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 the possibility of “redemption,” and are both “inhuman” and contrary to the “dignity” of the person.  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.  Indeed, with Fratelli Tutti he has proposed this teaching at the level of an encyclical.

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.  Presumably 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, Mike Lewis, editor of the website Where Peter Is, has claimed that the pope’s statements on this subject have been distorted by his critics.  Lewis says that in the 2019 in-flight press conference quoted above, the pope indicates that “of course there are cases when releasing someone is impossible… because of the danger that they pose to society or themselves.”  This suffices to refute “the more hysterical criticism” by “papal detractors [who] made it sound like he wants serial killers set loose.”

But this completely misses the point.  So far as I know, no one is claiming that Pope Francis has said that we must release serial killers and the like even when they are known to remain dangerous.  They claim rather that the pope appears to think they ought to be released as long as they are not dangerous.  Not only does Lewis not deny this, he approvingly describes the implications of Francis’s views as follows:

Where a prisoner has clearly experienced a dramatic conversion or change of heart, demonstrated over time, and the risk of a return to former ways is deemed negligible – the merciful response is to give that person a second chance at life on the outside.

What the critics object to is precisely this.  The criticism is that, even when the very worst offenders are no longer dangerous, it would simply be a miscarriage of justice to release them, given the enormity of their crimes.  Suppose, for example, that the BTK killer or a Nazi war criminal “clearly experienced a dramatic conversion or change of heart” and could be known to pose no threat to anyone.  By the pope’s criteria, as Lewis himself interprets him, such an offender should be released from prison – regardless of how absurdly light his sentence would then be compared to the many lives he took, the trauma he caused the families of the victims, and the chaos he introduced into the social order.

Lewis also claims that the qualification that offenders who remain a threat should not be released “was always implicit” in Pope Francis’s teaching on life imprisonment.  But as anyone can see who reads the remarks from the pope I quoted above, that is clearly not true.  Out of ten occasions on which the pope has addressed this issue, there is only a single one – the November 2019 in-flight press conference – where he even comes close to qualifying his teaching in this way.  Moreover, the qualification is off-the-cuff and not clearly stated.  In every other case, including the formal context of an encyclical, the pope speaks in an extreme and peremptory way, not even acknowledging, much less answering, the obvious questions raised by his teaching on life imprisonment.  Lewis is correct that it is plausible to suppose that Francis would not want to release offenders who remain deadly threats.  But the fact that he has repeatedly failed clearly to make even this obvious qualification illustrates the persistent lack of nuance or caution in the pope’s statements on the subject.

Doctrinal and practical problems

This brings us to several serious problems with Pope Francis’s teaching on life imprisonment – the first being that, like other novel and controversial claims the pope has made, it is not presented clearly or systematically or in a manner that addresses the many grave doctrinal and practical difficulties it opens up. 

For example, if life imprisonment, and indeed even sentences so long that they would not allow an offender to plan for a return to society, are off the table, exactly what is the maximum sentence the pope would allow?  Should a mass murderer get the same maximum penalty as a one-time murderer or a recidivist bank robber?  Is there at least some minimum sentence that an offender ought to receive for the gravest crimes?  Or should parole be possible as long as repentance seems genuine, no matter how short the time served in prison?  How is the prospect of imprisonment supposed to deter the gravest crimes if the offender knows that he will not get even a life sentence for committing them (let alone the death penalty)?  How are police and prosecutors going to get the most stubborn offenders to cooperate with investigations if they are unable to threaten them with life imprisonment?  Is the pope saying that life imprisonment is intrinsically evil?  Or only that it is wrong under certain circumstances?  What level of certainty do we need to have about an offender’s repentance and likelihood to behave himself before letting him out again?  Is the burden of proof on the offender to prove that he should be let out – or rather (as the pope’s teaching seems to imply) is the burden of proof on governing authorities to prove that the offender should not be let out?  Again, the pope does not even acknowledge, much less answer, such (rather obvious) questions. 

A second problem is doctrinal.  The claim that it is wrong to inflict a penalty of life imprisonment, or even a very long imprisonment, conflicts with the traditional teaching of the Church that “legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense” (as the Catechism states).  For certain crimes are manifestly so grave that nothing short of life imprisonment would be proportionate to their gravity – for example, serial killing and genocide.  To say that not only the death penalty, but life imprisonment or even long imprisonments, must never be inflicted, would be to strip the principle of proportionality of all meaning.

A third problem is that the pope’s claim that long imprisonments deprive the offender of hope seems to presuppose a secular rather than Catholic understanding of hope.  In Catholic theology, hope is a theological virtue.  It has nothing to do with looking forward to pleasant circumstances in this life.  As St. Paul wrote, “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (I Corinthians 15:19).  Rather, hope has to do with the desire for eternal life and trust in God to provide the graces needed to attain it.  Now, life imprisonment is in no way contrary to hope in this sense.  On the contrary, as the Catechism teaches, “when [punishment] is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation.”  And the possibility of expiation for sin is precisely a reason for hope.  Accepting the penalty of life imprisonment as one’s just deserts can mitigate the temporal punishment one would otherwise have to suffer in purgatory.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine how an offender like the BTK killer or a Nazi war criminal could plausibly be said to be repentant in the first place if he had the effrontery to request going back to a normal life outside of prison despite the enormity of the evil he inflicted.  You might say that, with the worst offenders, the very fact that they want to be released itself proves that they should not be released. 

As I have argued elsewhere, when one considers all the details of Pope Francis’s statements on capital punishment together with the consistent teaching of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes, the only plausible way to interpret his teaching is as a prudential judgment that is not binding on the faithful, rather than a doctrinal development with which they must agree.  This clearly applies a fortiori to his teaching on life imprisonment, which is even less clearly or systematically stated and even more out of harmony with the traditional doctrine of the Church.

In our book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, Joe Bessette and I discuss in some detail the teaching of Pope Pius XII on the topic of crime and punishment (at pp. 128-34).  It was a theme he treated in a series of addresses, and to our knowledge, no other pope has come close to setting out Catholic doctrine on the matter at such length or in such a systematic way.  Now, Pius’s teaching is entirely in line with the Thomistic natural law approach to punishment that Bessette and I expound and defend in our book.  Pius emphasizes how retributive justice must always be factored in when considering what punishments to inflict, even if it is not the only consideration.  He rejects the idea that punishment should consider only what is conducive to rehabilitating the offender and deterring him from future offenses.  Rather, guilt for past offenses is enough to justify inflicting a penal harm on the offender, and this penalty ought to be proportionate to the offense.  Indeed, Pius says that this is the most important function of punishment.  He considers the suggestion that such a retributive aim reflects past historical circumstances and is no longer fitting in modern times – and he explicitly rejects such claims as incompatible with scripture and the traditional teaching of the Church.  While condemning excessively harsh punishments, he also warns that there is an opposite error of making punishments too lenient, and that making punishments proportionate to the offense is the key to avoiding both errors.  Unsurprisingly, in light of all this, Pius explicitly affirmed on several occasions the continuing legitimacy of inflicting capital punishment in the case of the most heinous crimes.  Obviously, it would follow logically that life imprisonment can be a justifiable punishment too.

Any Catholic who wants to think seriously about these issues should study Pope Pius’s teaching carefully.  Again, in our book, Joe Bessette and I discuss it in detail, providing many quotations from the relevant texts.  Now, it is very hard to see how the teaching of Pope Francis can be reconciled with that of Pope Pius XII, with respect either to their conclusions or the principles they appeal to in reaching those conclusions.  To be sure, as with Pope Francis, Pope Pius did not make any ex cathedra pronouncements on the subject.  However, in the case of Pope Pius, we have teaching that is set out in a very clear, detailed, and systematic way; that is perfectly consistent with scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, all prior popes, and the natural law theory that the Church has adopted as the core of her moral theology; and whose implications and applications to concrete circumstances are straightforward and unproblematic.  By contrast, with Pope Francis, we have teaching that is unsystematic and embodied in extreme and sweeping assertions rather than precise doctrinal formulations; that is novel and hard to reconcile with scripture and tradition; and which opens up many grave but unaddressed difficulties where practical application is concerned.

Given these considerations, together with the fact that Pope Francis’s teaching is most plausibly read as prudential and non-binding, it is hard to see how a Catholic could be obligated to agree with Francis over Pius where their teaching seems to conflict.  In any event, here as in other areas (such as Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, and capital punishment), Pope Francis has muddied the doctrinal waters.  And in this case there are dire implications not only for the faithful’s trust in the Magisterium (which would be bad enough), but also for the social order more generally.  Like the successors of popes Honorius and John XXII (who also generated doctrinal crises), the successors of Pope Francis will have their work cut out for them.


  1. 'Perhaps Pope Francis would shrink from these implications of his views. One hopes so."

    "Good luck with that", as a popular psychologist clinician and social critic is wont to say.

    And as I would observe: Grievance driven imperious resentment and sublimated masochism shrink from nothing. Especially, when the one issuing the pronunciamentos has no real skin in the game.

    He can sit on his stool, and in knowing tones "épater le bourgeoisie" to his heart's content. It is not his children being murdered, nor is he personally tasked with or in any way capable of, defending the weak from physical aggression. In fact he does not seem concerned to protect his ostensible flock from much at all, so much as lash out at them.

    As for me personally, I'd much prefer not to kill, physically punish, or even imprison such people; but to simply deposit them on some inaccessable place like a south Atlantic island, and have done with them, except for drop offs basic foodstuffs and garden tools.

    Let them sort themselves out there and create the society that expresses what and who they are. (Yeah, I know what they would actually do with their food stores, shovels, hoes, relative freedom, and each other)

    But as we have all seen through historical examples, those who have little to no regard for interpersonal boundaries, be they santimonious priests and philosoper gadflies, or psychopathic rapists, would prefer to themselves die or drink hemlock, that be set out on their own.

    Must be a character trait of the buggering kind.

    1. As a citizen of the state, the murderer brings himself to Justice and is executed at capital punishment through his own power of attorney used by his executioner. Germaine Grisez's "human dignity" has nothing or little to do with the execution of capital punishment for killing in stealth.

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  3. It's one thing to repudiate the death penalty as if were dangerous to use because it cuts off the condemn person's time to repent and save his soul; it isn't really a sound argument overall, but it's at least plausible. To argue that both the death penalty and life imprisonment are bad because they leave no room for the criminal to return to normal life here on this Earth, that's just nutty, and it's both implausible and not even seemingly cogent. It requires that we simply discard eternal considerations for temporal ones, AND THEN it requires that we insist upon temporal goods for the criminal that are better than he deserves, just because, without rhyme or reason. As if the criminal's temporal enjoyment of life is simply a matter that we must make happen, regardless of any other concerns. Got news for you: if you discard eternal goods and focus only on this life, then (a) we cannot possibly get perfect justice for everyone (there will be children who suffer illness without being culpable of any wrongdoing); and there is no reason that we should insist on justice here, because (if there is no God) there is no principle of goodness that obliges us to serve it on behalf of others. If we can ditch eternal goods from consideration, then why should we CARE whether the criminal gets out of prison and returns to some kind of normal life?

    As a secondary matter: the presumption that the person in prison is "not a member of society", cut off from all humanity, unable to live life, is also just plain wrong. As has been shown over and over again in the memoirs and stories of holy people in prison: they can and do live a life with meaning, with joys and sorrows, with peace and turmoil, and learn to please God in their narrowed circumstances. These are actions worth taking, and a life worth living. Moreover, these people can positively affect others around them, including fellow prisoners, guards, visitors, and (if their story is written up) many others outside of the prison. This is NOT "cut off from humanity." Every person in prison should be treated as a human person worthy of human dignity, and THEY TOO should treat every person there like that. Their proper dignity as humans includes being held responsible for their crimes, and properly includes willingly serving just and proportionate sentences lawfully imposed. A guilty murderer who repents and goes to his execution calmly and willingly giving his life up in penitence, with hope of heaven, can and will be an aid to others in believing in God's justice and mercy - no mean goal to have by a death well made. Pope Francis would drain all of this dignity and meaningful life from prisoners, demeaning their life IN prison by exaggerating the importance of regaining a typical life after prison and negating the worth of time in prison - as if they aren't really human in prison. If we are going to talk about undermining human dignity.

    1. Very well put. Has not the Holy Father a example of that on the late Cardinal Pell? The man time on prison was worth more that my life, really XD

      These remarks of the pope do express a concerning secular view of life, we know better.


    2. The condemned of first degree homicide as a member of the state brings himself to Justice and is executed through his power of attorney. Church ministers do not perform capital punishment. Their job is to put this in God's hands.
      The death penalty is imposed on the victim of homicide without the benefit of civil rights, a trial, a verdict. Where is the church on the homicide of innocent persons created equal by "their Creator"

  4. As you know, Dr. Feser, although St. John Paul ll never said the death penalty was intrinsically evil, he nevertheless opposed it, saying that justifications for its use were "practically non-existent," in "Evangelium Vitae." And five years later in a homily he said,"
    A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.” (Homily at the Papal Mass in the Trans World Dome, St. Louis, Missouri, January 27, 1999).

    I will take the words of St. John Paul ll on the death penalty over those of Pope Pius Xll.

    1. When Pope JPII said that good situations to use the death penalty were "practically non-existent" he was making a prudential judgment of current conditions. This kind of judgment is not the kind about which the Church makes definitive, dogmatic teachings that are infallible - and so JPII was saying something fallible, and neither he nor the Church claimed his prudential judgment was protected from error by the Holy Spirit. When Pope Pius XII was saying about the death penalty that it was morally licit in the right conditions, and further that this conclusion does not depend on certain conditions or cultural arrangements, this is the sort of teaching which the Church can teach as irreformable because it is taught infallibly under protection from error by the Holy Spirit. And, indeed, this teaching of his was merely one more statement of virtually identical such statements in favor of the licitness of the death penalty by popes and bishops going back 15 centuries or more.

      JPII's comment manifestly fails to recognize the growing problem of gangs and other organized crime syndicates by which even gang leaders behind bars warp the justice system to threaten witnesses and cops and judges and juries, and who reach past prison bars to kill prisoners who are witnesses, and to turn prison guards so as to escape. Even a relatively small amount of such events undermine all pretense of prisons being reliable in keeping us safe from criminals who are momentarily behind bars.

      When JPII said "a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel ...", he was blathering. I don't say this lightly: I greatly admire him and and immensely grateful for many of his encyclicals and other official documents. But calling the death penalty "cruel" without careful limitations and qualification was outrageously inappropriate - the kind of incautious, ridiculous, exaggerated, careless and silly faux pas that Francis has made the hallmark of his papacy. Perhaps some executions are cruel. But putting a mass murderer to death by injection, after he has killed in prison and has promised to do so again, is not "cruel", and even JPII might agree that this rare case is exactly the sort of thing which justified his putting "practically" in front of "non-existent".

    2. Pope Benedict XVI, the successor of Pope John Paul ll, also opposed the death penalty. From a talk he gave on Nov 30, 2011:
      Addressing a group of pilgrims gathered in Rome for an international conference on the controversial topic, the Pope said he hopes that their deliberations “will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty.”

      The statement of Pius XII on the death penalty was .made a half-century ago. The Church's attitude towards the death penalty has evolved. No pope will ever defend the death penalty the way Pius XII

    3. Because of the warm, fuzzy feelings, no doubt.

    4. Why does JPII call it "cruel" if it is not intrinsically evil? Does it become cruel because there are other ways to protect society or because we have enough prisons? That just seems confused. May he rest in peace.

    5. It seems they all adhered to personnalism, which entails a warped understanding of human dignity (no longer distinguishing ontological dignity from operative dignity).

    6. It seems to me that one can agree that the death penalty is licit on certain situations(a moral consideration) but also agree that we do not need it today to keep society safe so we can be merciful with criminals(a prudential judgment), so we do not need to create a past popes battle.

    7. @Anon

      "It seems they all adhered to personnalism, which entails a warped understanding of human dignity (no longer distinguishing ontological dignity from operative dignity)."

      Can you elaborate on that? Sounds interesting.

    8. It is however worth noting that the statements of opposition to the death penalty from St. JPII on (including the revision to the Catechism made under Pope Francis) have consistently made reference to the observation that modern society has other means available to ensure the protection of society. Notably among these is, as the Catechism puts it, "more effective systems of detention". Pope Francis's statements on life imprisonment addressed in this article would, if anything, undercut this recent current of opposition to the death penalty by removing one of the key factors contributing to the prudential judgment that capital punishment is no longer appropriate.

  5. A very insightful post, Prof Feser!
    I am generally in agreement although I do have some queries which I hope may prompt some fruitful discourse.

    Right from the onset I want to clarify that, I think the death penalty is licit, and that retributive justice along side deterrence and rehabilitation is an important factor while considering the appropriate punishment.

    Having said that though, as Peter Kotriansky showed in his book that exposits Aquinas' teaching on punishment and also defends the death penalty, that despite featuring prominently throughout his treatise on punishment, retributive justice is barely mentioned in his treatment of the death penalty. Prof Kotriansky tentatively posits that this may be because even though retributive justice is an important aspect of his treatise on punishment, it's demands can never fully be met in this life as Aquinas and Prof Feser have noted before.

    In the book, he also demonstrates how Aquinas that inflicting retributive punishment is "not exactly" a like for like affair with the crime that was committed but properly speaking reflects the extent to which the perpetrator's will was perverted in the act. So if someone kills another person by stabbing them 10 times, their death penalty doesn't have to be "death by 10 stabbings" which would be Kantian, rather death by any less brutal means would still suffice (hanging, lethal injection) etc.This understanding also allows one to consistently posit that there may have been mitigating psychological circumstances etc which show that the perpetrator's will was not fully commited to the act even though it may have been to a large extent. This is usually what the courtroom proceedings revolve around once guilt has been established.

  6. Now, taking all this into consideration, it seems to me that there may be rare (emphasis on rare) cases where one might licitly commute a life sentence. If one considers the purpose of punishment, with regards to deterrence, after 25-30 years the case goes out of public consciousness, assume rehabilitation has occured, which leaves us with retributive justice, taking into account that the person has served 25-30 years (which is a long time despite not being life , has other aspects which are intended part of the punishment as well which serve the purpose of justice, sub-human living conditions, lack of proper social bonding etc), the psychologically mitigating factors during the time they committed the act and the fact that demands of justice can't completely be fulfilled in this life, a genuine possibility for the perpetrator to be rehabilitated into society is not impossible. Although one has to note that proper rehabilitation is itself rare which the possibility presupposes though it can be made more common if the contemporary discourse on the justice system focuses more on proper prison reformative programs instead of just trying to prematurely release them.

    I think that this would be in keeping with Pope St JPII's Golden jubilee homily to prisons and prisoners where he made a public request to all world leaders to reduce the terms of punishment of "all" prisoners which include life sentenced ones.

    "I turn with confidence to State authorities to ask for a gesture of clemency towards all those in prison: a reduction, even a modest one, of the term of punishment would be for prisoners a clear sign of sensitivity to their condition, and would surely evoke a positive echo in their hearts and, encourage them to regret the evil done and lead them to personal repentance"

    I don't think Pope St JPII was subverting justice when he made this appeal.

    At the same time I do not think it's obligatory for catholics to champion this cause nor am I insinuating anything about the buffalo case etc which I think was rightly decided. My observations are on the more general case of the possibility of reducing a life sentence.

    However the way in which St Pope John Paul II dealt with prisoners by treating them as human beings and not the scum of the earth is exemplary. In all his prison visits, he always reiterated that he wanted to hear their personal stories, frequently mentioned how they can relate to Christ's life from prison, read their handwritten letters. Somewhere along this discourse we tend to forget their humanity and we shouldn't do that regardless of our prudential judgements.

    I'd also like to see an article by Prof Feser on the principal of proportionality with regards to justice, people tend to misunderstand this in my experience. For example the CIA committed many acts of rectal violation on their prisoners in order to torture them at Guatonamo Bay (rectal feeding). If one had to punish those officials now would they be punished in the way they violated their victims or is there something intrinsically wrong with the act itself which is hard to establish since the rectum is not intrinsically sexual. People who argue against the principal of proportionality typically use arguments like this since everyone knows there's something intuitively wrong with the aforementioned act. So establishing what makes certain acts wrong as opposed to other acts is crucial to defending the principal of proportionality.

    1. "I turn with confidence to State authorities to ask for a gesture of clemency towards all those in prison: a reduction, even a modest one, of the term of punishment would be for prisoners a clear sign of sensitivity to their condition, and would surely evoke a positive echo in their hearts and, encourage them to regret the evil done and lead them to personal repentance"

      I admit that I have not interacted much with prisoners, so my information is second-hand. That said, I have interacted with people under some penalty for a mis-deed: it seem to me hopelessly inept to suggest that, for MOST prisoners, they would view an across-the-board reduction of sentences to be "a clear sign of sensitivity" and a good jump-start toward their regretting the evil crime they have done. In particular, I doubt that prisoners who have been the victims of violent crimes in prison are likely to view that across-the-board reduction in sentences even for the violent offenders who continue to abuse others is a good reason to think that such an action by the authorities is a "clear sign of sensitivity". "Oh, yes, we are so sensitive to your plight that we are willing to release early the very guy who is making your life here in prison a minor hell. So you can see him hit the streets the same day you do!" Errrr, no thanks!

      On the contrary: a general range of prison terms is provided for a crime, which then the judge tailors to the individual criminal by way of taking into account his own aggravating or mitigating factors, in order to locate a just sentence. Similarly, true mercy is properly administered on an individual basis, and applies to each person based on his own particular needs and circumstances. A general reduction of all sentences, not on account of a belief that the sentences were in general too long for justice, but on a general belief that prisoners will think this measure is kindly and enlightened and implies a loving state to which they should respond in loving regret for their sins, is naive at best. No more than people getting a check from the government under an across-the-board give-away means that the government loves them and holds them in charity. Not.

    2. Dear Tony

      Thank you for your kind reply.
      I agree with everything you say!

      If you read the prior comment, you'd see that I made it very clear that there would be extremely rare cases where it would be prudent to reduce the life sentence

      My citation of John Paul II was only to show that it doesn't necessarily have to be contrary to justice if a prisoner's sentence is reduced even if that sentence was rightly imposed given certain conditions are met as I elaborated above.

      I in fact disagree with John Paul II's broader prudential implications in that citation and don't think such reductions would be beneficial at all and any reduction (if any) should only be decided with very careful consideration.

      My response was mainly prompted because the esteemed Prof seemed to suggest that even considering a "potential" reformation and reduction in sentence of the prisoner who was correctly life sentenced (say some serial killer) is completely off the table on account of it's subverting justice. I think there may be some cases (very few,) where such a reduction can be licit. And my citation of JPII just wanted to drive in that point.

    3. Norm, thanks for the clarification. I am sorry, I didn't follow your train of thought.

      In other contexts, Prof. Feser has made the point that (contra Kant), the licitness of punishment that is fully proportionate doesn't DEMAND that we always and everywhere employ them: there is room for merciful reduction of sentences. In his book on the DP, IIRC.

      I too think mercy can be used. I even think it can be used more often than "rarely". But I don't think we can manage a "justice" system that regularly and normally applies gravely lenient punishments without subverting justice, nor without undermining the goals of conversion of the sinner and deterrence of those who are not yet solidly virtuous.

  7. I am a Spanish lawyer very interested in apologetics. To understand the unfortunate and morally repugnant opinion of Pope Francis on life imprisonment and the death penalty, one must take into account the influence of progressive criminal law on Pope Francis (Eugenio Raúl Zaffaroni and others). Since the mid-19th century, a lobby of Criminal Law professors, Masonic, Krausist and liberal reformist lodges turned Ibero-American Criminal Law, with an unfounded belief that lower sentences would prevent coups d'états and military dictatorships, into a joke. The reasons for this exceptional benevolence with criminals are not clear, but already at the end of the 19th century the criminologist Von Liszt pointed out the irrational nature of these penal reforms in the Hispanic world that contrasted with the exceptional harshness of the Napoleonic penal code of 1810. In one As early as 1863, Venezuela constitutionally prohibited the death penalty, life imprisonment, and set a maximum serving time of a ridiculous 10 years. Costa Rica also abolished forced labor for prisoners in 1877, Portugal abolished capital punishment and life imprisonment in 1867 and 1884. But all the countries mentioned failed in their democratization. Diana Cohen Agrest is an Argentine philosopher and activist for the human rights of victims of violent crimes. She is also one of the leading Latin American experts on the disastrous consequences for civil society that the penal reforms that the Pope proposes have had. I recommend that you contact Diana Cohen Agrest to better understand the Pope's failed penal philosophy. A Colombian judge denies (for now) parole to Alfredo Garavito, murderer of 189 children Colombian outrage over early-release plea for serial killer

  8. “As I have argued elsewhere, when one considers all the details of Pope Francis’s statements on capital punishment together with the consistent teaching of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes, the only plausible way to interpret his teaching is as a prudential judgment that is not binding on the faithful, rather than a doctrinal development with which they must agree.“

    Lately, I’ve been wondering if there is another possibility. If it were the case that there exists certain actions which can be taken by the state that it only does so justly with the approval of a competent ecclesiastical authority, we could say that Pope Francis statements on the death penalty not as applying to the intrinsic morality of the death penalty, but as a blanket rejection of that approval.

    This sort of approach seems preferable to me because it shifts the conversation out of the realm of objective moral issues (and thus eliminating doctrinal problems with them) without reducing the weight of Pope Francis’ statements on the issue. It would be an exercise of the ordinary magisterium and isn’t irreformable, but Catholics would still owe obedience and submission.

    1. Interesting ploy. However, I don't think it works, as the Church has made entirely clear that the "proper competent authority" involved is that of the civil authorities. They don't need ecclesiastic approval to carry out actions which are lawful under the natural law. The state itself is not per se under the jurisdiction of the Church. Pope Leo XIII showed this when he said that each of Church and state is an authority instituted by God, and each authority is supreme and sovereign in its own sphere and calls on our allegiance.

      (Not to mention the fact that even if states were properly subordinate to the Church per se, no modern democracy accepts that position and it would be ridiculous for a pope to issue an edict pretending that they should think themselves obliged to obey his determination on this.)

      And while reading Francis's re-writing the Catechism's 2267 as meaning, roughly, that all Catholics must now oppose the death penalty even though it remains technically licit within the natural law would be a sort of charitable way of putting it, such a reading doesn't do justice to the words he used. The phrase "is inadmissible" is explained by "it IS an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person", which is an unconstrained, universal assertion about all capital punishment, not a limited one about "here and now" conditions or anything of the sort. And if it is, always and everywhere, an unjust attack on the dignity of the person, then it is inherently illicit and immoral.

      If I were at the USCCB's department in charge of overseeing a revision of the Catechism due to Francis's change, I would have flatly refused. I have no doubt that a new pope will revisit this language and change it again, because it is insultingly confused and demands clarification.

  9. Forgiveness is like guilt: a gift that keeps on giving. If there were neither death, nor imprisonment for murderers, odds are there would be far more people murdered. You can't have it both ways, can you? Pragmatism advises that one cuts one's losses.

  10. "In a November 2016 interview, Pope Francis condemned capital punishment, saying that “if a penalty doesn’t have hope, it’s not a Christian penalty, it’s not human.” "

    I fear this exposes Pope Francis' core beliefs. For a Christian puts all his hope in a life of eternity with God. Pope Francis seems to lack this hope, thus the strenuous effort to give such overwhelming primacy to this current life.

  11. In all sincerity, i ask: why does Christ allow his Bride to be treated thus? Would any of you who are married allow similar treatment of your spouse as the church is experiencing at the hands of Francis, Hollerich, McElroy, Cupich et al?
    Or are they all correct, in which case Church teaching CAN be changed and thus she is but a fallible institution that can't be relied on?
    It appears that either he is neglectful or the church is man-made.

    1. He allows it like He allowed himself to be spat on, beaten and put to death.

  12. If Dr. Feser thinks those statements by Francis are damning, wait until he reads Jesus's parables! It's almost like the God of scripture is a prodigal, utterly un-pragmatic bestower of grace and forgivenes, and any theory of "natural law" or "Catholic moral theology" that squirms uncomfortably at the idea that God gives grace where it isn't deserved (and commands those that love him to do likewise) isn't worth much.

    Also, I just love it when ostensibly "conservative" Catholics moan on and on about the Pope. What an excellent argument against the truth of the Catholic faith, when even those who claim to be the defenders of orthodoxy spend most of their energy explaining why they shouldn't have to listen to the Pope, because they understand the infallible magisterium better than he does. The conservatives should submit some "theses" for Francis's consideration? I'd say 95 of them should do the trick.

    1. It is precisely because God is "a prodigal, utterly non-pragmatic bestower of grace and forgiveness" that it's hard to accept the view that he just doesn't care about the suffering of the victims, only that of the criminals.

    2. Now, I do agree that it must be mighty uncomfortable to defend the opinion that, when the Pope says "the Magisterium of the Church holds that [whatever]", the Pope didn't really mean that, or that one understands the magisterium better than the Pope himself - especially when practically (or actually) nobody in the Church hierarchy is saying the same thing. Philosophers and theologians can wrap their minds around this; ordinary people can't.

    3. When JPII made this statement:

      Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

      one might suggest that he was effectively claiming two distinct theses, and both of them are theses of an HISTORICAL nature. The two separate propositions are:

      (1) The traditional teaching affirms the proposition (a) the Church does not preclude recourse to DP [as morally licit in principle]; and

      (2) The traditional teaching of the Church affirms that (b) the DP is morally licit only when it is the only means of effectively keeping people's lives safe from that aggressor.

      The first one is eminently confirmed by examination of the historical data - vastly many documents from popes, councils, Fathers, Doctors, bishops, etc.

      The not. That is, there is no similar wealth of historical documents from authoritative sources that asserts (b) and provide its rationale.

      A Catholic is required to assent to (a), not primarily on account of JPII's assertion of it, but because it has been taught by the Church so universally for so many centuries. JPII's addition to that long line of affirmations adds to our reasons to assent to it, but only in a slight way.

      For the second: there is no particular reason we are required to give religious assent to an HISTORICAL claim by JPII, and in particular we are justified in reserving our opinion when the historical data seems, at best, very doubtful. And because there is little basis to affirm THAT the Church has historically taught (b), there is no similar basis (as with (a)) to affirm proposition (b) with religious assent when it has seemingly neither the long and universal train of affirmation by the Church as a whole, NOR an accurate historical basis asserted by JPII.

      To cap that last point: JPII himself changed the way he phrased that point, 3 times in only 5 years. In the first version of the Catechism, he put the qualifier on DP's use as:

      to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons,…

      And in Evangelium Vitae in 1993 he phrased it:

      It is not licit to go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.

      Both of these phrasings conceptually allow for the use of DP as a general defense of society by upholding and vindicating the just order through proportional punishment - i.e. including in cases where the criminal himself is unlikely to be dangerous himself. Of the many things that qualify the kind of assent we are required to give Church teachings when they are non-infallibly presented, one of them is that the teaching is itself still undergoing revision, i.e. it has not yet been clarified and resolved into a finished statement. Changing the teaching 3 times in 5 years is pretty clearly a case of a position not yet certain.

      In such cases, it would seem that the laity are safe to keep holding what had always been taught and let the eventual "adjustments" and "refinements" become clear...eventually.

    4. I have to admit that The Great Thurible of Darkness is a great troll and demagogue who falsifies the gospel, in this case the parables, to justify his ridiculousness.
      by the way, there is no need for conservatives to do the 95 theses trick, bergoglio and his people have already done that.
      postscript; The Great Thurible of Darkness is a bad high school joke!

    5. You are aware that grace is transformative, right? God being generous in grace literally makes the guilty party better. The same cannot be said for laxness in temporal penalties, at least not as such.

      And therein lies the difference. God can infallibly convert the hearts of His enemies in His generosity and mercy toward them, if He so chooses. We cannot do so. So let's not enable recidivist evildoers to continue harming the innocent because we have some weird messiah complex with respect to said evildoers. Deal?

    6. Hello Tony, I agree with you on the merits, but I think you miss the broader picture. You quote past Popes, documents, etc. and declare that such-and-such a view is credible "because it has been taught by the Church so universally for so many centuries".

      True. But it kind of defeats of the point of even having a magisterium. Say I'm not a Catholic and I want to know the Catholic view on the admissibility of the death penalty. I can check the Catechism, which tells me it is inadmissible. I can ask a priest, which will get me different and contradictory answers (what's the use of the magisterium again?) and I think we all know what the vast majority of them would be. And since the Church has a hierarchy, I can ask the highest priest of them all, and we know what he says.

      Against all this, we have Prof Feser (say) raising his hand and saying "I disagree". Let's stipulate Feser is 100% right on the merits of the argument. But... does it matter? How is one supposed to find out that the Catechism, the priests, the Pope, are all wrong, and that Feser (say) is right?

      Oh, I can study the problem myself, go the sources, ideally learn Greek and Latin, and check it out for myself that Feser really is right. True, that. But that's true for everything. What is the use of the Church in doctrinal terms? if the only way to get to "the true magisterium" is building it up oneself from first principles? "The magisterium" comes off sounding very much like "things I believe are true", with everything I don't think is true becoming ipso facto "not the magisterium".

      That 's why I said Philosophers and theologians can wrap their minds around this; ordinary people can't.. Intellectuals can wait for decades (say) to see their arguments vindicated (in Vatican III, say). But to ordinary people it boggles the mind that the Church can be what it says it is, have the authority it says it has, and... work like this.

    7. Alat: it would be nice if the Church's magisterial teachings were laid out in a manner that is simple, straightforward, crystal clear, once for all time.

      That's not the reality. There are SOME magisterial teachings on individual dogmas that are stated so by the Church, in straighforward language, and demanding unconditional assent. But there are vastly many other teachings laid out with incompleteness, with obscure language, with meanderings, and sometimes unevenly in the sense that sometimes a great teacher will accurately recite "the Church's position" on most things, and then get it wrong on a few, and issued in a way that does not demand unconditional assent.

      Origen, for example, had a vast and impressive reputation in the early Church, and he helped solidify many teachings, but he went off the rails on a few points, and got them quite wrong. Indeed, many bishops signed on to some of the early heresies in the Church - usually in connection with apparent paradoxes that needed some solution - and the solutions to those paradoxes only came later after much debate. Later, the infamous example of Pope John XXII is another example: it had been taught that when holy saints die and go to heaven, they enjoy the Beatific Vision after death, before the Final Judgment. But that pope tried to propose otherwise, that they must wait for the Final Judgment before they enjoy the Beatific Vision: The truth had been taught, but it had not taught in a way that was dogmatically definitive. It was only after his death that the Church spoke out in a definitive way, settling the matter beyond debate.

      The central point is that while the Church can and (rarely) does teach in a definitive way in an infallible and irreformable dogmatic statement (e.g. in ecumenical councils, or in an ex cathedra statement by the pope) which, by its form and specifics requires unconditional assent from Catholics, she ALSO teaches many things in a lesser way. Sometimes those lesser ways are something like mere suggestions (which we can take or leave), but plenty of times they are taught with confidence and assertiveness by popes and bishops, in a way that does require our willing assent, but does not require our unreserved assent.

      And (to make the waters muddier), at Vatican II the Church declared that some teachings by the bishops in their ordinary office as teachers, even without their being gathered in an ecumenical council, also teach infallibly, when they "are in agreement that a particular teaching is to be held definitively and absolutely." The infallibility is not found in EACH bishop's individual teaching, but in the agreement found in and amongst them in their teaching. Thus it is impossible to discern whether a teaching has been taught infallibly in this latter way without examining the various teachings by the bishops and considering them with each other, and this is inescapably messy. That's the nature of Catholic teaching.

      It would be nice if the Church had said "you don't have to worry about teachings by the bishops, those aren't 'the Magisterium' speaking." But that exactly NOT what the Church holds: each bishop holds a magisterial office of teacher. It would be easier if the Church said "you don't have to credit an agreement among the bishops on a teaching as definitive until the pope or an ecumenical council confirms it", but again that's not what the Church said - the point of her statement in Vatican II about infallible teachings coming from the bishops in their ordinary magisterium shows quite the opposite position: we DO have to pay attention more closely to what the bishops all teach in agreement, even when there hasn't been a specific dogmatic pronouncement of it in confirmation.

  13. I would humbly recall (1) that the Pope is not the Church, and that it is the Church that makes the Pope and not the other way around, (2) as a Catholic in my Creed, I declare to believe in the Church and not the Pope as such, (3) that the Pope has the right to have his personal opinion and that it is perfectly legitimate for us not to share his opinion, (4) that when the Pope does not teach what the Church teaches, it is a no-brainer for a Catholic to ignore his opinion.

    It could be argued that we must still listen to his utterances because of his formal position at the apex of the Catholic hierarchy. However, as St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, the Authority's Principle is the weakest of all to establish truth. When the Pope himself cannot be evidently supported by the Church's teachings, his authority must be upheld by fidelity to Christ, the righteousness of his theology and philosophy, and the strength of his union with the Church of Christ.
    Unfortunately, this present pontificate does not offer these qualities. Pope Francis has apostatized by worshipping the pagan goddess Pachamama, which was crowned in a basket by ritual phalluses over the Tomb of St. Peter himself. He has also formally and materially taught many heresies all along his ten years of pontificate. He even created a formal schism with article 1 of Traditionis Custodes which has caused ecclesial structures that adhere to it to split from the Tradition of the Only One Church of Christ, as a compass of their lex orandi and the lex credendi.

    It should be noted, however, that even St. Peter himself was an apostate, a heretic who deserved a "Vade retro Satana," and a tentative schismatic reproved by St. Paul himself. Yet, these sins did not make St. Peter any less the stone upon which the Church is build up nor impede Francis to be the current Pope.

  14. On the topic of the new thread opened by Prof Feser about life imprisonment, I would like to express why I share Francis' point of view, even if not his rationale, about this topic.

    Obviously, the position of Francis about the death penalty itself goes against 2000 years of the Church's obvious teaching, and enough has been said about that topic. If I were to vote in favor of the capital punishment in my own home country, it would be because I am Catholic.

    That being stated and the topic closed on my side, I would like to underline that the concept of prison, beyond the time needed to avoid a culprit running away before their judgment, is human torture which goes against all principles of justice and charity.

    If someone misbehaves, they must be given the possibility to exercise charity and apply justice with the support of a legitimate civil authority. For charity, the culprit must absolutely be given the opportunity to repair the integrity of the damages they generate, and this with generosity and overwhelming effort. For justice and pedagogy, they must be punished according to the social and cultural rules of the society they are part of.

    If we want this to be truly pedagogical, the time that elapses between the criminal act and its punishment must be reduced to its minimum. I do not think anyone among us would occur to punish a child or a teenager one month after a misdeed, because we all understand that this is meaningless. Actually, till a couple of centuries ago, this speed in judging was reduced to a minimum, and the prison was not considered as a punishment per se but just as a precautionary measure.

    By imprisoning people short, medium, or long-term, we actually comply with an act of deep injustice in terms of punishment. Meaningful punishment must be swift, meaningful, and not prolonged.

    We should focus on the charity side: the culprit must absolutely make reparations as much as possible, essentially with his work and assets, to repair the damage he has caused. Someone who has destroyed other people's assets, health, and maybe even life, must definitely serve his victims for as long as it takes, and do so generously, which, in the end, is the only objective sign of repentance. The state can act as an intermediary and guarantor between the victim and the criminal, and in some circumstances depending on the culture of a given society, forced labor could be considered.

    At the end of the day, no one should endure such torture as being in prison, and those who deserve capital punishment should not wait dozens of years to meet their well deserved fate.

    1. I agree with the sentiment that trials should be speedily done, insofar as possible. I think it is a travesty of a "justice system" if it typically takes up to 2 months to have a traffic ticket heard, and usually at least 2 years to have a murder go to trial. There has been a disconnect somewhere. That said, with the greatly increasing probability that the state will soon be arrayed against sane, wholesome Christians, I don't want to undo current defendant safeguards until we can also undo the insanity in other arenas.

      Actually, till a couple of centuries ago, this speed in judging was reduced to a minimum, and the prison was not considered as a punishment per se but just as a precautionary measure.

      Under Roman rule, there were clearly long prison stays while authorities delayed trials more or less at whim - at least in the conquered areas. Those who were convicted of serious crimes were usually sentenced to death or to slavery in galleys or mines - either of which is certainly much worse than modern prisons in general. True, they didn't really envision prison sentences of 20 or 30 years, but they certainly did envision hard labor in the salt mines for 20 or 30 years (or earlier death, of course). It is my impression that we discouraged the labor-unto-death model of punishment in favor of prison as an IMPROVEMENT in conditions.

      And because a prisoner awaiting trial often depended on his family and friends providing for his sustenance, the "costs" of maintaining him could be modest. In part because the authorities might not bother with heating in winter, for example, and there was no such thing as air conditioning. So, people often died in prison within a year, if the proconsul didn't wish to have a trial.

      I am fine with a broad principle of having the convicted felon "paying back" to society (and his individual victims) by other means than simply his loss of freedom in prison...if that is possible, that is. But two things to note: first, if the damage he causes to victims is grave and lasting (rape, maiming, or death), then however you conform his "paying back" it must needs be set hard enough to take a loooonnnng time to be truly proportional. And if the damage he causes to society as a whole is grave and lasting (e.g. a long string of rape-and-tortures causing fear in the populace), it is unclear how any kind of redress penalty lasting less than a very long period could possibly be proportionate. As to the method: while enforced labor certainly helps satisfy on one layer of his debts to others, like with the Romans the idea is open to abuses and to difficulties (like, for example, what if he simply refuses to work?).

      The invention of a humane form of a convict paying back his moral debts that lands on an ideal of being proportionate to the offense AND being likely to encourage reform AND to not require a long time to accomplish is simply implausible in the extreme for truly severe crimes. And if it takes a long time to accomplish, it necessarily requires authorities to enforce it, usually with force either actively or passively (i.e. restraint). A form that requires a rich man to give up, say, $10M if he kills someone, is not morally proportionate if his net worth is $200M, if he can simply go on his normal way of life afterwards. Administering a form of punishment that requires his ongoing service in a difficult and meaningful employment for LONG enough to redress a murder is, precisely, to take on all the difficulties hinted at above. There are reasons we went to prison terms for the most part.

      That said, I heartily wish that we could drastically reform enforced stays without standard freedoms in a way that was in reality humane and likely to result in reform of the convict. I don't know what those reforms would be, but I can believe there is something possible.

    2. @Tony
      I frankly do not know what the Roman Empire's judicial system has to do in this discussion; I imagine it is a strawman. For sure, there have been judges and people who have abused their system along the centuries and millennia, but this does not justify using their forms of abuse as a good system for us.

      The details of judging specific cases are not pertinent here as the only thing we can discuss are principles and processes. Each cultural and political legitimate system has judges who carry the burden of judgment according to their own human and theological virtues.

      Charity is not expressed through a judge or a system of laws, but is established between the criminal and the victim. It is up to the victim to forgive if they have the virtue to do so, and up to the criminal to repent, which must be concretely exercised in overflowing reparations. The concrete side of this charity is perfectly measurable externally, and it is the level of debt forgiveness granted by the victim, as well as the level and intensity of the acts of reparation carried out by the criminal. The judge and the state are only intermediaries and guarantors. For example, if a criminal does not want to perform these acts of charity voluntarily, it is certain that they must be forced to dedicate all their labor to them.
      Punishment is something radically different from reparation. We have an existential example with the reparation of original sin accomplished by the Holy Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, but which does not exempt us from the punishment linked to this same original sin, such as our own bodily death. God's justice is fully satisfied by this reparation resulting from His Charity, but in no way requires the lifting of the punishments deserved by original sin.

      Punishment restores order to things, such as public order, and punishes the guilty. Straightening out what is crooked is the main function of punishment. A person who has killed an innocent person and is alive twists reality. It is not right that they are alive and the innocent person is not; this is objectively twisted. Punishment then intervenes to restore order. It is not a question of moral order strictly speaking, as is the question of reparation, but a question of ontological order, whether political, cultural, religious, etc. By straightening out what is wrong and putting things in their place, despite the fact that one cannot go back to before the crime was committed, one in fact gives a new access to happiness to all parties involved: the victim, the guilty party, and society. It is up to each specific society to define what they need for their happiness and, hence, the kind of punishment needed.

      As for how to do this concretely, I would propose a way that is more Aristotelian than Kantian: by considering the justice and charity to be exercised as an (ethical) process rather than a top-down application of (transcendental) principles.

    3. A person who has killed an innocent person and is alive twists reality. It is not right that they are alive and the innocent person is not; this is objectively twisted. Punishment then intervenes to restore order. It is not a question of moral order strictly speaking, as is the question of reparation, but a question of ontological order,

      I disagree: the lack of order that you are calling "ontological" is a lack found expressly in the moral order (which also exists and therefore has its ontological aspect). If a murderous traitor dies in a car crash on the way home from the crime, his mere lack of LIFE does not settle the disorder. And it is the moral degree of the person's willful disregard of the common good and public order in choosing the crime that properly determines whether he ought to receive the harshest punishment in the range set out for that crime, or a lesser sentence. That is, the punishment's nature and proportion is determined by the moral order.

      It is up to the victim to forgive if they have the virtue to do so, and up to the criminal to repent, which must be concretely exercised in overflowing reparations. The concrete side of this charity is perfectly measurable externally, and it is the level of debt forgiveness granted by the victim,

      I don't think that's valid either. A victim can give a complete moral forgiveness of the crime, and still require reparations to deal with the external effects of the crime: a victim's spouse might completely forgive her husband's murderer but still require wrongful death payments to support her and her young children. The effects of the crime don't go away just because the victim forgives the offender, and the forgiveness is primarily one of an internal determination to disregard the personal affront, not all the other effects. Furthermore, charity for the criminal may well entail seeing that full reparations and full punishment will best accomplish reform of the criminal, and approve of those measures for the good of the criminal. Thus it is that a parent often punishes a child in charity, and may insist on reparation even while personally forgiving the child, for the child's own good.

    4. @Tony
      There is no doubt that the moral aspect has an ontological poignancy, nonetheless a criminal act is basically against an ontological order of things. Considering the intensity intention of who commits said crime is not really relevant: once again consider the fact that we do participate to the original sin simply because we come to existence but we undergo the penalty all along our lives.
      As for the second point, I intend the term "forgive" only in the very practical sense or "remission" of concrete debts: now no one says that this "remission" should be total, it could be partial or nil, it all depends on the level of virtues of the victim which also takes into account his objective situation.
      Incidentally, we do not need a third party, judge or state, or priest, to exercise justice: it is essentially a matter between a victim and his abuser. Third parties are not a must but a nice to have in specific circumstances.

    5. Incidentally, we do not need a third party, judge or state, or priest, to exercise justice: it is essentially a matter between a victim and his abuser.

      This is expressly denied by St. Thomas in his treatment of punishment. It belongs to the authority to determine and impose the punishment, not the victim. Which is pretty darn obvious, if the victim is dead because the crime is murder. And, because many crimes cannot be reversed by just willing to repent and correct the fault (say, rape), the nature and degree of that which will satisfy the penal debt are not established by nature and thus must needs be established by humans - and NOT by the victim.

      He goes so far as to say that it is improper for one who has had some property stolen to simply take it back himself - he says that doing so arrogates to the victim an action that properly belongs to the one in authority. All the more so for a penal imposition.

    6. @Tony
      I have the feeling that you tend to stereotype your own cultural paradigm to apply it universally.
      One must distinguish police/force dimension to apply an act of justice, from a judge who as to unravel the truth from the false, and the act of justice itself which pertinent only to the victim. A society can delegate, or not, this last task to the judge, who can be the same or not at the one already cited who as to establish what happened, but fundamentally it is only the victim, or who for her (family, tribe, village, society...) if she cannot participate (death, sickness, absence...) who knows precisely what is the damage which she has to suffer, and , therefore, evaluate the level of punishment in order to re-establish, as much as possible, the order broken by the culprit.
      I give you a couple of example which should be easily understandable by you: every time we sin, we actually are the culprits who offend God who is the Victim, and it is God who punishes us with justice (e.g. the consequences of the Original sin) because He precisely knows the value of our offense and how much this last one disturbs the ontological order of things; when we go to confession, we declare the offense, and the priest in the name of the offended One grants (or not) God's forgiveness and at the same time the penance, which is the punishment needed to re-establish things correctly.
      Some judiciary systems, establish a "price of blood", and once the criminal has been recognized as such (by the judge) it is up to the family of the victim or the victim to declare if they want to condone something.
      The victim is the keystone of a sensible justice system: once again a society might deem better to delegate what is the victim's justice's task to a third party, but it is only down to a delegation.

    7. I have the feeling that you tend to stereotype your own cultural paradigm to apply it universally.

      We all have the tendency, it is inbred with human nature. We can, some of us, rise above the tendency by (a) travel, broadening our experience of alternate cultures; (b) reading about other cultures and reading up on philosophies and ideas that spring out in other cultures; and (c) careful analysis of the differences between what is natural and what is cultural. The man who insists he has not the tendency is a man who is not introspective enough to be self-aware, and is not to be trusted. The man who insists that he is certain on all points that he has risen above the tendency is similar. I insist on neither. The man who insists, contrariwise, that it is impossible to rise above the tendency and identify anything that is natural, is one who rejects knowledge as such, and also is not to be trusted.

      but fundamentally it is only the victim, or who for her (family, tribe, village, society...) if she cannot participate

      I suspect that you have utterly undermined your thesis by allowing her family, tribe, or society to stand in for her, when the very fact that they are NOT HER means that they cannot know exactly what the crime meant to her. More than that, however: we are all aware of victims who erroneously blow an offense all out of proportion to its real scale, who would require satisfaction vastly out of proportion to the objective reality. The fact of victimhood gives the victim the (sole) access to the subjective measure of the crime's effect, but does not give the victim better (rather, worse) grasp of the objective aspects of the crime, because the passions incited by the subjective aspect impede her ability to grasp the objective elements, and it is others who are the better judge of the objective aspects of the crime. Which is just one of the reasons it falls to authorities to decide the punishment at least in part, even if the victim is asked for input in part.

      when we go to confession, we declare the offense, and the priest in the name of the offended One grants (or not) God's forgiveness and at the same time the penance, which is the punishment needed to re-establish things correctly.

      This highlights another difficulty of your theory: in confession, God does indeed forgive the sin; however, the penance we say does not eradicate all punishment due for the sin, it leaves SOME temporal punishment due even though the sin is (wholly) forgiven. Forgiveness is something distinct from the debt, and can leave standing debt still to be paid.

  15. Dr Feser, since you use the "Nazi war criminal" as an example, it may be useful to recall the repentance and confession of the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoss, to Polish priest Władysław Lohn.

    SInce this happened while Hoss was awaiting for the execution to which he was condemned and which he richly deserved, maybe this serves as support for the idea that the death penalty may HELP, instead of HINDER, repentance and ultimately salvation.

  16. Maybe this is a useful angle to think about the topic: Pretend for the sake of argument that we had a penal system that could reliably produce contrition on the part of offenders. Would we still have the belief that life imprisonment might be the right thing to do? I'm not sure I would.

    1. Well, Dr. Johnson *did* point out how the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight wonderfully focuses the mind.

    2. Would we still have the belief that life imprisonment might be the right thing to do? I'm not sure I would.

      I would.

      There are clear examples of convicted murderers, sentenced to execution, who repented of their crimes and had real contrition. And who insisted that their coming execution was just and upright, and who met that execution believing in the power of God's forgiveness, hoping to be received into heaven. If they didn't reject the death penalty applied to a criminal who truly repented, why should I?

      Repentance alone doesn't unwind the need for proportionate punishment.

  17. Odd that Dr. Feser would aim all his fire at Pope Francis, and not at the previous two popes that basically advocate, as Pope Francis does, for the abolition of the death penalty--John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

    For a list of their repeated statements, see here:

    Why treat this topic as some vast innovation on Pope Francis' part, and not see it as the culmination of quite recent papal teachings?

    1. The earlier popes were quite cautious in distinguishing between a prudential judgment against the death penalty(which they defended) and a moral judgment against any use of the death penalty (which they never defended). Ed is clearly against pope Francis ambiguous statements and language that do not properly distinguish between the two senses mentioned and so give the impression that the Church just changed her view.

      If Pope Francis were to come and distinguish between the two senses i supposed that Ed would be ok with it.

  18. Regardless of what happens in civil law, the problem is more delicate for a believer when it arises from a religious perspective. The Catholic Church (with the consensus, on the other hand, the Orthodox and Protestants, and except for some minor heretical sects of reformed themselves as mennonites and quakers) has never denied that lawful authority possesses the power to inflict death as punishment. The proposal of Innocent III, confirmed by the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, according to which the civil authority “without sin can inflict the death penalty, provided he acts motivated by justice and not by hatred and carry it with caution and not indiscriminately “is de fide matter.(Vittorio Messori dixit)
    So if the teacher recognizes the legitimacy of the death penalty the only explanation that theologians and bishops’ conferences in full have gone further to define any type of capital punishment as “contrary to the Christian spirit” or “disagree with the Gospel.” This is a desperate attempt by the bishops to remove or reduce the anti-Catholicism on the left. The bishops (and also the pope) believe that by supporting the cultural battles of the liberal left will decrease their anti-Catholicism and his support for abortion. Of course it is a failed strategy, Amnesty International has become a pro-abortion lobby. In other words the bishops sacrifice victims and their families in a pathetic effort to gain the support of the Liberals. Regarding Pope Francis, I do not deny his good faith in the matter of capital punishment and life sentences, but his theological mediocrity compared to that of Benedict XVI and Bergoglio's deep contempt for Thomism.

  19. One might ask why a catholic and even a priest or nun as the sister Helen Prejean in the activities of pro-criminal movement, whose ideology, little is known or studied, is clearly hostile to religion in general, or at least the social relevance of religion, which should be especially dear to a Catholic.
    Some believe that the collaboration of some Catholics with pro-criminal movement is explained by his irritation with the violations of human rights of prisoners, “which leads them to choose, wrongly, because they confuse violent tone with a powerful critic – the hardest line and decided against movements for the rights of victims of violent crime.
    However, my experience tells me that this explanation is valid for a minimum number of Catholics (kind Pope Francis and others, whose ingenuity is as great as his inability to fully understand the problems related to movements such as the pr-abortion groups Human Right Wacht and Amnesty International and the Movement pro-criminal) . For other Catholics, the decision to collaborate with the pro-criminal response to a disturbing logic. They are Catholics who do not ignore the ideological schema secular, pro-abortion and pro-gay pro-criminal and anti-incarcerantion activism; know him well, but plan to use him as a weapon to attack his opponents within the Church, labeling them “fundamentalists.” All this confirms once again the need not fail to interest-and even, when necessary, to intervene – for the violated rights of inmates and prisoners, but starting from a point of view and according to categories specifically Catholic, other than secularism activism pro-criminal. With each passing day it becomes clearer to work with Amnesty International is not only useless, but even reprehensible and harmful.
    On the other hand I know that the American Jesuits have for years financed the pro-abortion Human Rights Watch.

  20. Pope Benedict XVI (who is against the DP and called for it's worldwide disestablishment) said Catholics can disagree with the Pope's on the Death Penalty in a manner they are prohibited from disagreeing in regards to abortion and euthanasia. Francis has not abrogated that.

    Thus it doesn't matter what Pope Francis says about the Death Penalty or Life imprisonment. I no more have to agree with him than as a Thomist I have to agree with Molinism.

    So Mike Lewis has to stop rebelling against the teaching authority of Pope Benedict.

    Francis has not loosed what Benedict has bound so here we are...

    It is that simple.

  21. Professor Feser, by the way, what do you think of Pope Leo X's "Exsurge Domine" in which the Bishop of Rome condemned Luther's opinion that it was against the will of the Holy Spirit to burn heretics at the stake? Is the death penalty for formal heretics, then, according to traditional Catholic doctrine, right and just?

    1. @ Blog Mirosława Salwowskiego,

      I skimmed "Exsurge Domine" pretty quickly, but I saw nothing that establishes or confirms that the burning of heretics is Catholic Dogma.

      Item 33 , "That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit" in the list of objections to errors certainly does not do it.

      Tom Cohoe

  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. If death is nothing to be afraid of, it is not a punishment.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Empowering Being

      Stop the theological virtue signalling . If you knew that you were going to die a terrible martyrs death you would shit yourself with fear.

  23. Always with uncatholic minds we find the same confusion between mercy and clemency, between a crime and its gravity, between rendering a just verdict and a reasonable punishment, because the uncatholic do not distinguish between the spiritual and the material world.

    "From Fratelli Tutti: “There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.” Can’t be clearer! It’s not a prudential matter anymore."

    Jesus Christ was put to death at capital punishment.

    The death penalty is imposed on the victim of homicide without the benefit of civil rights, a trial, a verdict. Where is the church on the homicide of innocent persons created equal by "their Creator"

    The condemned of first degree homicide as a member of the state brings himself to Justice and is executed through his power of attorney. Church ministers do not perform capital punishment. Their job is to put this in God's hands.

    Playing Monopoly gives the criiminal a get out of jail free card, but not for real.

    P.S. Jesse Timmendaquas raped and strangled seven year old Megan Kanka. Timmendaquas sits in solitary confinement for 22 years with his own guard, recreation hour and all sorts of life. Justice for all?

  25. You are much more likely to get the death penalty if you are poor and powerless. Those who are wealthy and powerful hire the best lawyers, who if they can't get an acquittal or a hung jury for their client, will get a plea deal for life without parole. And even if you are poor and powerless, if you happen to live in a large city with a well-funded public defender office, you may be able to get life without parole. District attorneys have limited resources and long, crowded dockets.

    1. You are much more likely to get the death penalty if you are poor and powerless.

      True...but, you are much more likely to get ANY punishment that is on the books, if you are poor and powerless. That can't be a good reason to get rid of punishments.

  26. Hi, Ed. I have to say I'm with you on this issue. Thank you for defending life imprisonment as a legitimate and morally appropriate punishment. Cheers.

    1. Yes. Vincent, it is legitimate and morally appropriate punishment, but in the USA if you are rich and powerful, you can very likely avoid the death penalty. I live in deep red Alabama and we are among the top five state in executions. In 2008, Brent Springford brutally murdered his parents. It was a sensational case. The community was outraged. If he were poor, the D.A would have sought the death penalty. But Springford got a high-powered defense lawyer and pleaded out to life without parole. In 2013, he overdosed on Tylenol and died in a hospital.

    2. Five years from crime to death? That was a lot faster than the death penalty, no?

  27. James Maroun (cause I can't sign in): Dr. Feser, do we know Pope Francis's position on corporal punishment? I'm not joking. If he thinks a long prison sentence is unjust, maybe replacing them with corporal punishment such as lashes or waterboarding would be a better deterrent and also a just punishment. The convict could get an independent medical evaluation and then receive a punishment proportional to their crime that is within a medically safe limit (that is, that wouldn't kill or maim them, at least).

    1. Ironically, as Canada begins to talk about outlawing spanking your kid full stop (it’s already illegal to hit a child injuriously, or with anger, or with a fist or belt etc), I’ve come to realize I’d maybe prefer to take something like 7 lashes like a man over spending a few months in prison for a petty crime.

  28. As some comments on punishment have hinted, the kind of thinking behind the pope's take on life in prison can lead to the position that ALL prison sentences are wrong: by watering down the meaning of moral responsibility, and misconstruing human nature and human good, we arrive at abhorrence of punishment itself as being a offense against the dignity of man. To "impose an evil" is taken to be per se evil and wrongful, regardless of whatever crime the person has committed. And then: to "remove a person from society" (never mind that prisons are, still, part of society, and form their own sub-society) is to treat them not as persons, but as animals...even as LESS than some animals, for many animals are social and need others to be whole.

    This SHOULD count as a reductio ad absurdum argument to the kind of thinking that first leads to repudiating life sentences. But apparently people are too dense to grasp reductios, too. The emotional distaste these lily-livered people have for the hard work of imposing penal sentences is so severe that not only can they not imagine themselves being subjected to such treatment, they cannot imagine subjecting anyone at all to such treatment...which is effectively the same thing as their not being able to imagine moral wrong as being as bad as physical or emotional suffering. Which, I submit, constitutes an infantile mental and moral framework.

    1. My understanding is that there are bona fide prison abolitionists, so your claim that "this SHOULD count as a reductio ad absurdum argument" looks like an ignoratio elenchi, at least if you're not just intentionally ignoring the abolitionists and their arguments. It looks to me rather like rank fetishism to insist on the sufficiency and sole sufficiency of imprisonment as ideally proportionate and proportionable to all the different crimes that are committed. Why imprisonment? It's just the custom to which we happen to be accustomed, as far as I can see. What's so marvelously fitting and right and rationally, jurisprudentially perfected in the natural order of penal criminal justice about imprisonment? Also, apart from an argument from incredulity, why think Francis and those who think like him would want to make an exception for Hitler, or for serial killers? You can disagree and express incredulity at the thought of not killing such people; but still, DP abolitionists are moreover likely to think it a jolly good idea -- and even entailed by the goodness of God -- that even the prince of demons gets a pardon in the end (universalists and apokatastasists).

    2. Since David responded a few months later, I feel justified also in responding to him a few months later.

      David: please see my comment at Feb 20, at 6:53pm above. I do NOT place emphasis on prison as being some kind of model punishment method, and would be perfectly fine with many other methods. However, I must note that prison became the most common model precisely to ameliorate what was perceived to be shortcomings of many other types of punishments. It can hardly be consistent to say, on the one hand "don't use X, Y, and Z methods, they are too nasty, use prison instead, because it is LESS HARSH", and then, when you are forced to lengthen the time served to generate proportionality, to then say "but this length is too long, it is harsh". There is an inconsistency there. It is very difficult indeed to see how a life sentence can possibly be too long for proportionality for very grave crimes, when a death sentence is not, and the Church's rationale for pulling back from the DP is not that it fails proportionality.

      Secondly, if two secondary ends of punishment are the reform of the criminal, and keeping the rest of society safe from his further depredations, it is hard to see how a life sentence can possibly be said - a priori - to be "too long" in principle. As to reform: how could one know in advance that a shorter time is the right time to produce a reform of his mind and heart? As to keeping society safe from him: if (as sometimes has happened) a criminal keeps on being unsafe to other in prison, then how could a lesser time than life be known to be sufficient to keep society safe? In either case, the period needed could ONLY be known after achieving the end, not before, and so if it is necessary to set out a time frame for the penalty at the start, it MUST be based rather on proportionality, not on the other ends.

      But by all means, if you prefer other punishments than prison, please propose them, and then answer all the objections that LED us to using prison for most grave crimes.

  29. I don't know which Catholic Church you belong to. I am a 70 year old Cradle Catholic and have been taught that the death penalty is against God and the Church - murder is murder, whether it is done by an individual or the state. And life in prison without benefit of parole is inhumane and cruel. Jesus teaches us that everyone deserves a second chance.

    1. And I don't know which Catholic Church you might have belonged to in your youth, but in the 1950s Pope Pius XII confirmed age-old Catholic teaching that the use of the death penalty by the state does not in principle contravene the 5th commandment, as did the Council of Trent 400 years earlier. Pope John Paul II re-confirmed that teaching, saying that the state does have the right and duty to use the death penalty in limited circumstances. Even the recent efforts of some in the Church to move away from the death penalty don't call the use of it by the state "murder."

    2. Anonymous, you have lived 70 years and have never read Romans 13:4 which was inspired by the Trinity. It is echoing Genesis 9:6 wherein right prior to the first kingdom, God asserted the need to execute murderers…because the VICTIM was made in the image of God…lol…the very opposite of what some bishops have said.