Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Pope answers policies that suffocate hope



To an outsider it is interesting, and to advertisers and media proprietors a matter of life and death, to note which of the millions of words that are spoken each day attract notice, and to reflect on why they are noticed.

Pope Francis visits with inmates during his visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correction Facility in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 27 September 2015. (Photo by Todd Heisler-Pool/Getty Images)Recently, for example, many news outlets reported on what had become a fairly routine visit and speech by Pope Francis to the prison officers, visitors and prisoners at a Roman prison. Francis spoke with his customary sharpness of phrase about life prison sentences without parole. The passage is worth quoting at length:

'Take courage, never suffocate the flame of hope ... To revive this flame is the duty of all. It is up to every society to feed it, to ensure that punishment does not compromise the right to hope, that prospects of reconciliation and reintegration are guaranteed. While remedying the mistakes of the past, we cannot erase hope in the future. Life imprisonment is not the solution to problems, but a problem to be solved. Because if hope is locked up, there is no future for society. Never deprive anyone of the right to start over!'

Perhaps this speech was considered newsworthy because in Australia sentences to a lifetime in prison without parole are becoming less contentious and more used. The passage also bears reflection because the Pope's approach to prisoners and their criminal behaviour is in such strong contrast to strands of Australian culture in which exclusion and the denial of hope are an instinctive response to perceived misbehaviour.

This is evident in increased anxiety about crime despite a falling crime rate, the increasing expressions of anger at punishments considered inadequate, in the increased use of incarceration as a response to crime, as well as in the denial of parole as a rule rather than an exception. It is also evident in the popularity of an asylum seeker policy in which indefinite detention, the denial of permanent residence and exclusion from other services that other Australians take for granted are central planks. The policy rests on denying hope to people under Australian control in order to deny hope to others who might seek protection here.

The same absolutism in condemning people who misbehave and defining them forever by their misdemeanours is also evident in popular culture. People who are accused of behaving badly at any time in their lives are held up for condemnation, massively so in social media. There is protest against any favourable reference to anything they may have done well, and demand for banishment from any roles they may have in society or in the arts. Their presence, personal or by reference, damns any enterprise in which they have a role.

Because they are defined by their misbehaviour they cannot hope for the restoration of their place in society nor of their reputation. Allegations against them are often held to be true and exclusion maintained even if rejected in court.


"Key to this drama is the hope that one can change, be accepted, be forgiven and be reconciled. Without this vision the costs to society are uncountable."


These tendencies reflect a dichotomy made in society between the virtuous and the vicious, the respectable and the disreputable, between us and them. Those who break the rules and go over to the dark side can never return. They are forever in the dark and are properly left without hope. One might be tempted to call this outlook Puritanical in its secular vision of predestination to damnation, if it were not that the historical Puritans could never be sure who among themselves the damned might be.

The framework of thought guiding Francis is interesting because it is the antithesis of this sombre vision. The basis of his argument is that all human beings are precious and that the dignity of each is inalienable, no matter what they have done. In addition, however, all human beings are fallible and act badly. In any human judgment the unrighteous always judge the unrighteous.

At the deepest level in society there is no polarisation between the righteous and the unrighteous but a constant drama in which all are participants of rise and fall, sin and forgiveness, repentance and rehabilitation. Key to this drama is the hope that one can change, be accepted, be forgiven and be reconciled. Without this vision the costs to society are uncountable. That is underlined by the Pope's vivid phrase: 'Life imprisonment is not the solution to problems, but a problem to be solved.' It takes away hope, and so is humanly destructive.

Christians may be tempted to think that the new intolerance in public culture results from the erosion of Christianity in society. The temptation should be resisted — in practice Christians are to be found among the most intolerant advocates of a harsh punitive regime and among the quickest to demonise social minorities. And among the most committed proponents of giving people a second chance are people with no Christian faith who would recognise the operative vision of Pope Francis as their own.

Whatever of that, the contrast between Francis' view of society and the opposed punitive view does come across as one between the hopeful and the joyless.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Pope Francis visits with inmates during his visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correction Facility in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 27 September 2015. (Photo by Todd Heisler-Pool/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, prison, restorative justice, Pope Francis



submit a comment

Existing comments

"Criminal behaviour", "perceived misbehaviour" and "behaving badly", all used here as descriptors of the deeds of those who end up in corrective/retributive institutions don't have the ring of equivalence about them. Rather they suggest that some acts are deserving of greater or lesser punishment and this invites the question " Are there behaviours which do warrant life long detention with the loss of all hope such detention engenders?" If Christian belief is to be the benchmark by which this question is answered surely the answer has to be "Yes" in keeping with God's example of retributive justice, namely, suffering for all eternity without hope of reprieve. In consideration of this revelation of the nature of God, lifetime imprisonment might indeed be a very Christian thing to do in that it prevents the offender from inflicting more distress on others of God's children and continuing to breach His laws governing human behaviour! When it comes to detention for wrong doing, the Christian God reputedly does not muck around! Perhaps we should follow His example.

john frawley | 01 October 2019  

Amongst the great challenges of Christianity are the paradoxes inherent in scripture. As examples, having nothing, yet possessing all things; sorrowing, yet always rejoicing. Mercy does not make sense without justice. And we cannot pretend there is an equivalence about misdeeds and the damage inflicted on individuals, families and society. However, to be robbed of hope and the possibility of redemption would be very debilitating. It is an uneasy balance we have to strike and I would guess that to continue to love in the midst of severity is the narrow way Christians often cannot apprehend (myself included).

Pam | 01 October 2019  

I am reminded of the Good Thief, crucified next to Jesus and promised Paradise. Forever. No reservations. I remember working in the public service for six and a half years in Mt Druitt in Western Sydney. There were four huge light towers over the shopping centre which were on all night. Mt Druitt, part of the traditional land of the Dharruk people, had the largest urban Aboriginal community in Sydney bar none. Most people in Mt Druitt worked but the misguided policies of preceding NSW state governments had moved many people with real long term social issues, including severe mental health problems, to Mt Druitt. Just dumped them there. The Society of Jesus had set up a secondary school in the area as a social initiative. I think 'we' create areas like Mt Druitt; the Gorbals and Black Hill in Glasgow; Toxteth in Liverpool and other similar . Serious crime is due to a number of factors. An extremely intelligent GP, who worked for the CMO (Commonwealth Medical Officer), told me she felt most serious criminals had severe mental problems. Some of them, like Ivan Milat, are extremely dangerous and the public needs to be protected from them. What do we do with the rest, who may not be dangerous? Will we commit the necessary resources to change their lives as the Scandinavians do?

Edward Fido | 01 October 2019  

Thank you for another beautifully written article. I appreciate very much your perceptive insights and your compassion when writing about difficult issues.

Maree Brown | 02 October 2019  

Andrew, your article and its conclusions crystallise the fate of our society. In shunting increasing numbers to prisons, we condemn ourselves to the judgements that we inflict on our poor, troubled, illiterate and ill - and their families. Retributive justice has its place but we have lost sight of its counter balance in restorative justice. For five years I have been delivering in-prison restorative justice processes in a regional prison which is very much informed by the Catholic ethos of original grace. My/our efforts are a marginal activity even there but the possibility of the restoration of people and relationships becomes palpable in that short time. For 2 decades I researched Catholicism and its place in the world. In despair at the Church not willing to reform itself, I followed the studies' lead to practise Christianity on the margins. It is only there that Catholicism makes sense and recovers its own hope. I pray that someday soon our narrowing accusatory society will take care of its fraying edges.

Jane Anderson | 03 October 2019  

The closest we can get to knowing the will of God is what Jesus Christ the Son of God taught. The closest we can get to the latter is contained in the Gospels. Now comes the hard part. How do we interpret the Gospels? For me Jesus became man to show me, in word & deed, that the love of his Father for me (and all of mankind, without exception) is eternal and inexhaustible. Amazed at being so loved I try (emphasis on try) to love my fellow human beings as best I can on a daily basis.

Uncle Pat | 03 October 2019  

Remorse remains an emotion until it becomes suitable concrete compensation. An emotion has no value unless it starts the path to compensation. Without institutional mechanisms to make a criminal compensate a victim ‘properly’, the next best is to nominate the State as the proxy victim and extract deprivation of privilege (ie., liberty) as the token of compensation. The Catholic view of remorse is that Purgatory makes remorse real. If remorse for a crime can be made real, imprisonment might be dispensable, just as some quality of repentance might negate or reduce Purgatory. If I run over a work visa recipient who is sole breadwinner for his aging overseas parents, perhaps I ought to be able to negotiate no imprisonment if my wages are garnisheed to support them until the natural conclusion of their lives. But, if he is also a husband, I cannot compensate the wife for lost connubium. Imprisonment is the imperfect easy-way-out for unattained (or unattainable) true remorse. Cutting short imprisonment for imperfect remorse is jubilee mercy. Where the victim is, for convenience, a theoretical entity that cannot feel, the State, any time can be determined by policy to be jubilee time. What about the true victim?

roy chen yee | 05 October 2019  

Fr Andrew I wonder what Jesus would have said about retributive justice in the light of the worldwide Catholic sex abuse scandals. Consider Matthew 18.6 "And whoever welcomes a little child like this in My name welcomes Me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world for the causes of sin. These stumbling blocks must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!" Pope Francis statement is positive but surely the punishment should fit the crime.

francis Armstrong | 05 October 2019  

A few thoughts 1/ Psychopaths roam free trashing the planet and are consistantly rewarded. If only they were given life sentences for their evil deeds. 2/ Some people need to be contained so they don't harm other people in ways that create further trauma and harm-filled chaos. But this containment does not need to be punishing. It can be loving. Punishment is from the past. 3/ I think Australia is interested because we are fundamentally a prison nation. We come back to this from time to time. We are a essentially a prison-based colony... One, indeed, which created a vast network of concentration camps where Aboriginal people were contained, moved, contained and moved again. This network of concentration camps is still in place and the State prison services back it up with temporary punishment routines - as they always did. Every Aboriginal community I know of has forced containment as part of it's history. You can see their ultimate purpose in their bounded geography. People were contained by mountains, rainforest, sea, crocodile infested rivers, claypans. And they were repeatedly moved to more and more distant camps. And still. The movement and dispossession is still underway - look at Deebing Ck and Mona Mona camps. Places people come to call home are threatened over and over with new forms of removal. 4/ The pope speaks truth and calls on hope but he lives in a country that is not a penal colony. Neither Italy nor the Vatican are colonies. This makes our experience fundamentally different and we must do our own thinking. 5/ Language change: "The Colony of Australia" and "Concentration Camps" - we mustn't call those communities "missions". [unless they truly were - a couple were] They were concentration camps where the government paid for camp services from a range of church-like entities.

margaret | 05 October 2019  

Indeed, Margaret; Australia has a unique tradition of co-opting Church agencies into carrying out the wishes of the state, in return for money gleaned through taxation for the provision of social services formerly deemed essential to offset the extreme effects of poverty and deprivation. Brian Kennedy, once head of Catholic Welfare Services in the Brisbane Archdiocese, resigned his position rather than agree to be co-opted into new ways in which the supposedly ameliorative hand of the state, originally intended to fill the gap between the market and those who fall short of it, has been twisted to serve a punitive, neoliberal, post-statist, policy agenda. That some who post here cannot see that, because of their inability to read the ways in which politics enters the picture when it comes to introducing ever harsher means of protecting society, is obvious. When HLA Hart wrote his famous positivist jurisprudential treatise on the purposes of the law, he emphasised that in a liberal democracy the most desirable rationale for sentencing should be amendatory. Our global focus on blame and more prisons means that, among other things, we have become a vigilante society, increasingly suspicious of others and all too ready to cry "Wolf".

Michael Furtado | 12 October 2019