Pope Francis raised his position on the death penalty to a whole new level on Saturday by going so far as to speak out against life imprisonment, saying it diminishes a criminal’s “right to hope.”
“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,” Pope Francis said, as reported Catholic News Agency. “Life imprisonment is not the solution to problems — I repeat: Life imprisonment is not the solution to problems, but a problem to be solved.”
“Because if hope is closed in a cell, there is no future for society,” he continued. “Never deprive one of the right to start over.”
Pope Francis then directed his message toward all prisoners, advising them to carry hope no matter what and reminding them that God still loves them.
“Never let yourself be imprisoned in the dark cell of a hopeless heart; do not give in to resignation. God is greater than any problem and is waiting for you to love you,” said the pontiff. “Stand before the Crucifix, in the gaze of Jesus, in front of Him with simplicity and sincerity. From there, from the humble courage that belongs to those who do not lie to themselves, peace is reborn with the trust of being loved, and the strength to go on flourishes again.”
“You who are detained are important to God, who wants to do wonders in you,” he said. “Have courage because you are in the heart of God; you are precious in his eyes, and even if you feel lost and unworthy, do not lose heart. God is greater than our hearts.”
Pope Francis concluded by thanking prison ministers and chaplains for preaching the Gospel “within the walls of prisons” and encouraged them to “enter the most difficult situations with the sole strength of a smile and a heart that listens.”
Pope Francis has previously spoken out against life in prison, on top of his denunciations of the death penalty. In 2014, he even said that such a sentence is “a hidden death penalty.”
“All Christians and people of goodwill are called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether 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 told delegates from the International Association of Penal Law. “And this I connect with life imprisonment. Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.”
The pope attached life in prison to his over-arching message of prison reform.
“It is painful when we see prison systems which are not concerned to care for wounds, to soothe pain, to offer new possibilities,” he said at a Philadelphia prison in 2015. “It is painful when we see people who think that only others need to be cleansed, purified, and do not recognize that their weariness, pain, and wounds are also the weariness, pain, and wounds of society.”