Speaking from St. Peter’s Square, this Sunday, Feb. 21, Pope Francis called upon world leaders to abolish the death penalty worldwide for the duration of the Holy Year of Mercy.
“The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty,” he said.
The Holy Year began on Dec. 8, when Francis opened the northernmost door of St. Peter’s Basilica, a long-standing Catholic tradition that marks the beginning of a holy year, or “Jubilee.” Such a year, according to Catholic tradition, involves forgiveness of debtors and prisoners. It is an apposite time, in other words, to contend with one of humanity’s oldest forms of punishment.
And this is not the first time Francis has called upon political leaders to take action on this subject. Back in September 2015, in his landmark address to the U.S. Congress, the Pope called upon American legislators to abolish capital punishment.
“The Gold Rule also reminds us of our responsibilities to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” Francis said. “This conviction has led me from the beginning of my ministry to advocate at different levels, the global abolition of the death penalty.”
The first sentence in the above quote will remind readers that Francis, like all of his predecessors, assumes the orthodox stance on abortion rights. But it also reminds us that Francis’ political views do not fall in line with American idiosyncrasies.
“I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred,” Francis said in his address.
Think about the use of the word “sacred” for a moment, beyond the scope of spiritual doctrine.
Somehow, the American political poles have become skewered regarding the extent to which either party believes that humans ought to intervene in the lives of others.
The prototypical conservative stance (and you will have to forgive that this example is partially made of straw) holds that certain criminals have acted so callously that they have forfeited their own right to life as a human. They will also tell you that a fertilized zygote is enough of a human to deserve those protections that the criminal has lost.
The typical liberal will state the opposite: no act of crime is enough to deprive someone of their personhood, though they will usually not be able to point to just when during gestation a human becomes a human.
I am not here to discuss the psychological ethics of criminality, nor will I attempt a biological explanation of what constitutes a person. These are questions I cannot even begin to answer. (Though I hear that pop-science advocate Bill Nye has a ticklish response to the latter.)
But I want to recognize that the Pope is offering a sort of political retreatism from the typical idiosyncratic stances on such issues. If every life is sacred, then it is not left to human judgment whether to draw the line of “human” at infancy or infamy, fetus or felon.
At some point, every society will have to decide where they choose to draw the definitive line, and whether the authority to draw that line is theocratic or circumstantial. Perhaps it will be a meeting of both.
Now, I secretly suspect that if only women were allowed to vote on the issue, the consensus on abortion rights would be near-unanimous. And I further suspect that if only felons and miscreants were allowed a say toward their final fate, the issue would be resolved.
Which is where we return to the Golden Rule, as invoked by Francis back in September. Looking beyond the guillotine or the health clinic, the simple maxim “Do unto others…” may yet be the panacean metric by which all social institutes operate. But that’s idealistic speculation.
First must come the uncomfortable conversations, the reconciling of inconsistent ideologies, and the recognition of what it means to define a human. First we must decide how to draw the lines of our own limits. Only then can we decide how we govern life and death.