Over the past six years, it’s become clear that Pope Francis generates his most provocative and unexpected headlines on airplanes. Sometimes this happens when he’s overheard while greeting reporters as they board the plane before a flight. More often, his tradition of holding a free-wheeling, on-the-record press conference with reporters on the return flight from every overseas trip has led to some of his most candid and unfiltered thoughts on many issues.

On today’s return flight from Japan, there’s no question that his words about nuclear power and nuclear disarmament will receive the most publicity. But for those of us who have been closely following his thoughts and teachings on the treatment and rehabilitation of criminals and the death penalty, one of his responses in particular stood out.

Pope Francis was asked a question about the death penalty, which is still practiced in Japan. He reasserted the Church’s position on the inadmissibility of capital punishment, but then he turned to another, related issue, on which his teachings are perhaps viewed with even greater suspicion: life imprisonment.

Francis has spoken in the past about how life sentences without the possibility of parole are another kind of death penalty, because they destroy hope, and they kill a prisoner’s motivation to improve his or her situation in life. Of course his critics immediately become furious at this suggestion. Using rhetoric along the lines of, “So you’re saying Ted Bundy should have been released back into society? Do you think child molestors should be let loose?!? Should Aileen Wuornos have been been freed after what she did?” Francis’s critics think they have a slam-dunk example of where his wisdom and judgement are severely defective.

This isn’t what he’s saying, and today he went into greater detail about what he means:

“Any sentence must always allow for reintegration, a sentence without a ray of hope is inhuman. Even when it comes to life imprisonment, one must think how the person serving a life sentence can be reintegrated, inside or outside.

In this response, he directly addresses some of the more hysterical criticism against his statements about life sentences. “Inside or outside” was always implicit. Of course there are cases when releasing someone is impossible, but papal detractors made it sound like he wants serial killers set loose.

Francis goes on:

“You will tell me: but there are people sentenced because of problems of insanity, sickness, genetic incorrigibility… In that case, a way to make them feel like people must be sought.”

This is important. Many people, especially in the US, have a “Lock them up and throw away the key” mentality, if not a total “Let him fry” attitude. But Catholic teaching doesn’t permit this. Catholics believe that Human Dignity is inviolable and intrinsic, and therefore even the most terrifying or violent among us is beloved by God. And while it’s certain that a more humane system of detention that’s geared towards rehabilitation and reintegration will not always be completely effective, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try.

Christian hope often means that we must work towards what appears unlikely or unobtainable because it’s right. And creating better conditions for prisoners, while promoting their rehabilitation is the right thing to do.

What does this mean, in a practical sense? If someone cannot be released because of the danger that they pose to society or themselves, how do we give them opportunities for hope?

There are systems where prisoners are rewarded with more freedoms and independence based upon progress towards rehabilitation and good behavior. For example, a good work record and good behavior over a certain period of time might result in a larger cell or more recreation time. Opportunities for job training and further education can be provided to prisoners who want to better themselves. And yes, in some cases–where a prisoner has clearly experienced a dramatic conversion or change of heart, demonstrated over time, and the risk of a return to former ways is deemed negligible–the merciful response is to give that person a second chance at life on the outside.

Rather than simply warehousing people, justice demands that every prison must give inmates an opportunity for hope. This is Francis’s point.

This type of path to rehabilitation is my family’s story. My great-grandfather committed a heinous crime as a teenager and was sentenced to die. The sentence was commuted to life in prison, and later he received a pardon, based on his demonstrated rehabilitation and good behavior.

Francis is teaching us that this kind of mercy should be available to everyone.

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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.

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