Pope Francis contra life imprisonment, Dr. Edward Feser


The pope has often stated 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. Here are the implications and problems with his reasoning.

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 disguise… God 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 offences. Rather, guilt for past offences is enough to justify inflicting a penal harm on the offender, and this penalty ought to be proportionate to the offence. 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 offence 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.

(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on Dr. Feser’s blog in a slightly different form and is reprinted here with the author’s kind permission.)

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