Since he assumed the role of leader of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has largely been recognized as a reformer who has challenged long-held views about the Church’s relationship to poverty, interfaith relations and the formality of the Vatican itself. But despite how progressive his reputation has become, there is one traditionally conservative opinion he has been unwavering on: Being pro-life.
Though many of his statements about controversial issues like homosexuality and divorce have been measured, his thoughts on abortion are unequivocal, calling the act an “abominable crime” and “horrific.”
He famously said that even civil rights are “based on the recognition of the first and fundamental right, that to life, which is not subject to any conditions, neither economic nor qualitative nor ideological.”
Last week though, Pope Francis made statements about being pro-life that will challenge many Christians’ views on what the label itself even means. He told the International Association of Penal Law on Oct. 23 that “all Christians and people of goodwill” should advocate for “the abolition of the death penalty be it legal or illegal, in all of its forms.”
In the U.S.—the country that ranks fifth in the entire world in the number of people executed each year—support of capital punishment among Christians is actually relatively low. According to a recent Barna Group study, just 40 percent of Christians—and only 32 percent of Christian millennials—said they agreed that “the government should have the option to execute the worst criminals.”
But even though Pope Francis’ view on the death penalty isn’t outside of the opinions of many in the Christian majority, his other statements at the recent meeting may challenge how some view the life issue: He said Christians must also fight for “the improvement of prison conditions in the respect of the human dignity of those who have been deprived of freedom” which he said he links to the death sentence.
While decrying torture, corruption in criminal justice systems and the awful conditions of many prisons around the globe, Pope Francis said he believes “a life sentence is a death sentence which is concealed.”
Calling for the end of life sentences is a fairly radical position that is not shared by many in the American legal system where, in 2012, there were 160,000 prisoners serving them.
But Francis’ statements aren’t just a reflection of his views on social justice—they are part of his theology. Beyond his advocacy for the poor and the victims of injustice, Pope Francis is an advocate for the concept of redemption. This may be partly why the idea of a life sentence has become part of his pro-life platform: It could be that he sees denying even the very worst prisoners the opportunity to be redeemed from their criminal past by taking away their freedom is counter to the idea of Christ’s redeeming power.
Early in his papacy, Pope Francis drew headlines for comments (which were taken out of context in some places) when talking about the power of the redemption, and made an analogy referencing atheists. He said,
“The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this Blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the Blood of Christ has redeemed us all! And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter that so much. We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
According to Catholic teaching, this idea of redemption isn’t the same as salvation. Pope Francis believes that Christ’s redeeming sacrifice was for all people—even terrible criminals—even though many may not accept salvation. He believes that every person is a child of God for whom Christ died on the cross. This makes every life valuable.
Even though Pope Francis is pro-life, he continues to live up to his reputation as a leader who challenges traditional thinking by expanding the idea of what the label actually means.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.