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Imagine all bishops going to prison

The pope’s appeal to the world’s bishops to visit a prison during Jubilee year 2000 deserves universal applause.

At a time when liberal societies have largely vanished, when hard-nosed, right-wing solutions are applied to most of society’s ills, prisons are a prime growth industry. Barbed wire topped fortresses, usually just out of sight so as not to disturb us, testify to our communal failure at living together. Even in this country, where critics say prisoners are coddled, those who have done time bring back stories of brutality and inhumanity. Yet our jails are a soft touch compared with some of the world’s hellholes where dehumanized sections of humanity rot away.

No doubt, most of those in jail did wrong. Many did terrible things. They deserve to be punished. But the rate at which both prisons and crimes multiply indicates the system isn’t working. It’s not a matter of reform here or there; we need a consciousness adjustment so radical that we will rethink crime and punishment from the ground up.

While much of the world seems morally adrift, the Catholic church, with a billion members, is one of very few entities with enough energy and moral authority left to tackle such vast issues. This includes capital punishment, the tip of the iceberg, but it gets down to the most fundamental ground of good and evil.

Society has learned by now that people can’t be punished into submission or coerced into goodness. People, the good ones and bad, must become engaged at some deeper level, not only physical but psychological and spiritual. Any viable solution should include the possibility of redemption, an elusive concept that challenges humanity’s best instincts.

Imagine what might happen if every bishop on earth accepted John Paul’s challenge. Imagine them arriving every which way, barefoot or in limousines, at jails that even God seemed to have abandoned. Imagine the nuisance they would create for prison administrations, the sensation they would be for the media, the contempt they would meet from many prisoners, the solace and hope they might bring to others. Imagine all the bishops making this a worldwide topic of conversation and action.

Imagination is the key. This is the kind of imaginative gesture John Paul has made all too seldom. Too preoccupied with keeping the lid on doctrine and discipline, he failed to use his vast popularity to act rather than react, to enable rather than control. Yet it’s never too late.

Then imagine what a difference the bishops could make together, a brand new collegiality. It would be a calamity if this inspired idea were allowed to fade.

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999