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Have mercy

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  • November 6, 2014

There is nothing novel in a Pope rejecting the death penalty, but in typical style Pope Francis went a step further recently by also denouncing life sentences. 

In a meeting with the International Association of Penal Law, the Pope said capital punishment and life imprisonment should both be abolished. He called life sentences “a hidden death penalty,” and advocated for prison systems that, rather than existing solely to punish, defend human dignity and promote prisoner rehabilitation. 

A week later, his comments became particularly relevant in Canada when a New Brunswick judge sentenced a triple murderer to 75 years in prison without parole. It was the harshest sentence in Canada since two men were executed in Toronto’s Don Jail in 1962. Justin Bourque, who shot and killed three RCMP officers and wounded two others in Moncton last June, is 24 years old. So unless he lives to be 99, he will spend the rest of his life behind bars. 

Many people would argue Bourque got off light. He confessed to three murders and two attempted murders after planning and executing an ambush. He told police he wanted to inspire others to rise up against uniformed men and women who, he railed, were failing the poor. His actions were cold and deliberate. In many countries, he would have been executed, no eyebrows raised. 

The Pope, however, is asking society to regard even the most violent criminals through a lens of mercy. An unforgiving penal system, he said, should no more be seen as a cure-all for crime than believing “different diseases could be cured by the same medicine.” 

When it comes to the death penalty, he said the cases are rare, if they exist at all, in which the state must execute prisoners in order to protect society. When it comes to the living death of life in prison, rather than seeking vengeance, he said society’s obligation should be to restore a person’s dignity, whenever possible. 

“All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty,” he said. “And this, I connect with life imprisonment. Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.” 

The Pope’s words remind us that living a truly Christian life is not easy. We are called to neither judge nor condemn, but to forgive always. For Francis, that means no person, regardless of their crime, should be locked away forever as if they are beyond redemption and unworthy of compassion and dignity. To do so, even for Mountie killers, is to impose a death penalty by another name. 

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