Pope Francis I, the current leader of the world's Catholics, is proving to be a true social leader and arbiter of change. In fact, the recent days when the Church governed through benign neglect (at best) or paternalistic obstructionism (at worst) appear to be rapidly fading from memory. When the College of Cardinals selected this Pope, they undoubtedly got far more than they had bargained for. Francis shakes thing up!
It's only been a couple of week ago that Pope Francis rattled Church windows worldwide when he led his bishops in drafting a document suggesting that the Church should be more tolerant toward gays and divorced Catholics. Radical notions like those brought about open angst and even condemnation from some conservative corners of the Church, particularly in America. Now, before the Catholic bureaucracy has finished trying to tone down his last remarks, the Pope is off on a new crusade.
This time he is talking about the death penalty and prison reform.
In a speech before the International Association of Penal Law this past week, Pope Francis noted the Church's established opposition to the death penalty. He also used the occasion to call for the elimination of life sentences and to propose serious prison reforms. He said, in part:
"All Christians and men of good will are called today to fight not just for the abolition of the death penalty in all its forms, whether it be legal or illegal, but also the goal of improving prison conditions, out of the respect of the human dignity of people deprived of their freedom."
Keep talking, Your Holiness. Every word you utter is golden!
Through my past employment as a social worker, I had occasion to visit inside of several American jails and prisons. Most, including those with which I am personally familiar, are seriously underfunded and understaffed, conditions which make them more dangerous than is necessary. Some, like those in Arizona, are privatized (owned by private, for-profit companies), which make their profits through deliberately under-serving their inmate populations. Add to that the impact of grandstanding politicians (Joe Arpaio, for example) who whip up public fervor against inmates having any rights or privileges, and the result is a penal system whose goal is only to degrade and humiliate - with no emphasis at all on rehabilitation. It becomes a sucking cesspool where prisoners have no hope of deliverance back into society as productive human beings.
(There is no word yet on a reaction to the Pope's statements by America's most formidable Catholic institution - the United States Supreme Court. Surely Justice Scalia won't be able to let this affront to his angry God pass without comment.)