Vatican City (AsiaNews) - "Every Christian and all people of of goodwill are called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty, whether it is legal or illegal and whatever form it takes," but they must also stand against "life in prison, which is a concealed form of death sentence". Above all, "Respect for the dignity of the human person comes before all other purposes," Pope Francis told a delegation from the International Association of Penal Law.
In his address, the pontiff talked about justice in the light of the Church's "mission of evangelisation, human progress, and service to justice and peace". He began with two sociological considerations.
First, "in mythology, as in primitive societies, crowds discover the evil powers of sacrificial victims, people who are accused of the misfortunes that affect the community. This is not absent even from modern societies. Experience shows that the existence of legal and political mechanisms to address and resolve conflicts does not offer sufficient guarantees to prevent some individuals from being blamed for everyone's problems."
Second, "not only do we seek scapegoats who pay with their freedom and life for all social ills, as was the case in primitive societies, but there is also sometimes a tendency to create deliberately an enemy, a stereotypical figure who carries all the traits that society perceives or interprets as threatening. The mechanisms by which such images emerge are the same that once allowed the growth of racist ideas."
"As things stand, the penal justice system goes beyond its proper function of enforcing penalties, affecting people's freedom and rights, especially the most vulnerable, in the service of prevention whose effectiveness, until now, has not been proven, not even for the severest penalties, like the death penalty. Otherwise, we might fail to maintain the proportionality of sentences, which historically reflects the scale of values protected by the state."
In the current situation, "we hear less and less about criminal alternative sanctions." In fact, as a principle, the primacy of the person, "has many consequences," the pope said in his address, starting with the fact that "it is impossible to imagine today that states have no other means than capital punishment to defend people's lives against unjust aggressors."
"States may even take away life, not only through the death penalty and wars, but also when public officials take refuge in the shadow of state power to justify their crimes. So-called extrajudicial or extra-legal executions are deliberate murders committed by some States and their agents, often disguised as casualties incurred during clashes with criminals or presented as unintended consequences of the reasonable, necessary and proportional use of force in enforcing the law. Thus, although 35 of the 60 countries that still have the death penalty on the books have not enforced the death penalty in the past [ten] years, the death penalty is still applied, illegally and in various ways, all over the world."
"There are many well-known arguments against capital punishment," ranging from miscarriage of justice to the fact that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes "use it as a tool to suppress political dissidents or persecute religious and cultural minorities, victimised by laws that criminalise them."
"Every Christian and all people of goodwill are called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty, whether it is legal or illegal and whatever form it takes, but also for the improvement of prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of people deprived of their liberty. This is the case in connection with life in prison. The Vatican, a short while ago, changed its Penal Code, removing life imprisonment, which is a concealed form of death sentence."
Based on the same principle, Pope Francis condemned pre-trial detention "when it abusively anticipates imprisonment before conviction or is applied in cases of more or less well-founded suspicion of a crime. [. . .] This situation is particularly bad in some countries and regions of the world where the number of prisoners without conviction tops 50 per cent of the total."
"Jailing people in maximum security prisons can sometimes be a form of torture. Justified in the name of greater security for society or special treatment for certain groups of prisoners, its main feature is none other than isolation from the outside world," which has been shown to cause "mental and physical suffering, and problems like paranoia, anxiety, depression, and weight loss, significantly increasing the tendency to commit suicide."
Since physical and mental torture "are no longer administered only as a means to achieve a particular purpose, such as confession or denunciation - practical features of the doctrine of national security - but are a supplement of pain along with the ills of detention," the pope noted that" these abuses will stop only when the international community becomes fully committed to primacy of the pro homine principle, namely the dignity of the human person above all else ".
The same principle requires states "not to punish under their penal laws children, who have not yet completed their development towards maturity and for this reason should not be charged". At the same time, there should be no "punishment for people who are severely or terminally ill, pregnant women, people with disabilities, single parents with underage or disabled children. The elderly too deserve special treatment."
Finally, Pope Francis turned to "certain crimes that seriously touch human dignity and the common good," namely slavery and corruption.
Slavery is not just a form of "treason against humanity". Indeed, "since it is not possible to carry out such a complex crime like human trafficking without the complicity - by commission or omission - of states, it is clear that, when efforts to prevent and fight this problem are inadequate, we are faced once more with a crime against humanity".
"What is more, if those who are charged with protecting people and their liberties in fact act as accomplices of those who carry out human trafficking, states are in such case responsible before their citizens and the international community. "
Corruption "is itself a process of dying. When life dies, corruption sets in. There are few things harder to do than opening a breach in a corrupt heart."
"Someone who is corrupt has no brothers or friends, only accomplices and enemies. He does not realise his own corruption. It is a bit like bad breath. If you have it, it is hard for you to notice it. It is up those who perceive it to tell you. For this reason, it will be hard for those who are corrupt to get out of their state as a result of remorse or a pang of conscience." Indeed, "Corruption is an evil greater than sin. Rather than forgiven, this evil must be treated."
In his conclusion Pope Francis reiterated the principle that when enforcing penal laws "respect for human dignity must not only act as a limit against arbitrariness and excesses by the agents of the state, but must also act as a guideline for prosecuting and repressing those activities that represent the most serious attacks on the dignity and integrity of the human person."