The foundation of Catholic Social Teaching is a belief that all people are created in the image and likeness of God. Regardless of any factors or reasons we can think of, individuals have an inherent and immeasurable worth and dignity. Each person is unique and special. The image of God comes to its glory in each one of us.
In the Gospel of Luke, we read how Jesus launched his public ministry by returning to his hometown of Nazareth and speaking in the synagogue, He chose to read from the words of the Prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”
In this clarion call, we are invited to work with Jesus to address the needs of all people who are in some way oppressed, which includes both victims of crime and offenders. As Pope Francis said, this demands an approach which combines justice and mercy, seeing them as “not two contradictory realities, but two dimensions of a single reality that unfolds progressively until it culminates in the fullness of love”.
Jesus invites us to recognise Him in those who are rejected and marginalised. As Pope Francis puts it, we must become a ‘Church of the Poor’ which “gets involved by word and deed in people’s lives; it bridges distances, and is willing to abase itself if necessary and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others“. Doing this requires deep listening, to understand the challenges people face, and courageous commitment to action which may well lead to uncomfortable associations, unpopularity or rejection.
Our nation’s history is full of examples of Christians responding to this call in the area of criminal justice. Prison reformers such as John Howard and Elizabeth Fry drove improvements in treatment and conditions during the 18th and 19th centuries. The formation of the probation service is often traced to Frederic Rainer, who wrote to the Church of England Temperance Society, concerned about the lack of support for people leaving prison4. His donation led to two people being appointed to South London courts with the purpose of “reclaiming drunkards“.
Today, many of the third sector organisations who are working to improve the lives of ex-offenders, victims and their families in the Diocese of Leeds are Christian in either mission or origin. For example, the West Yorkshire Community Chaplaincy Project (WYCCP) works with prison leavers; St George’s Crypt runs housing and a number of services for homeless and ex-offenders and is closely associated with the Leeds church of the same name. Many charities and voluntary groups involved in helping addicts to achieve sobriety are Christian: Alpha House in Halifax, which provides supported living and addiction rehabilitation, and Horizon Life Training in Harrogate. Other charities in the sector are no longer faith-based but have a Christian heritage. St John’s Approved Premises in Leeds – also known as a ‘bail hostel’ – began in 1947 when the Leeds branch of the Knights of St Columba wanted an alternative to ‘Borstal’ for boys who were getting into trouble5.
In England and Wales the Catholic Church’s work on criminal justice and prison ministry is overseen by the Rt. Reverend Richard Moth, liaison Bishop for Prisons and Canon Paul Douthwaite, National Catholic Chaplain for Prisons. Catholic chaplains, charities and volunteers work in every prison throughout England and Wales supporting thousands of prisoners and their families every year.
Interested in knowing more about Catholic Social Teaching? Then please click here
Summaries of Reports produced by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
A Place of Redemption: a Christian approach to punishment and prison (2004)
This weighty report takes a broad overview of the criminal justice system from the point of view of the needs of victims and offenders. It is described in later reports as the “seminal contribution” of the Catholic Church to the discussion on the criminal justice system in England and Wales. The recommendations ask the church to do more to help ex-offenders and prisoners’ families and encourage the use of restorative justice. The report also offers several recommendations for improving prisoner welfare and reducing the use of prison.
The Right Road: A Catholic approach to prison reform (2016)
This report draws on ‘chaplains, charities and experts’ to focus on reform of prisons. “By creating humane environments and giving prisoners some agency over their own lives, we can make prison ‘a place of redemption’ where their potential is realised,” it says. Again there is a series of recommendations, echoing those in ‘a place of redemption’, including advocating for restorative justice and the preservation of the family, looking for alternatives to prison and better prisoner welfare, and the importance of faith and pastoral support for prisoners.
Belief and Belonging: the spiritual and pastoral role of Catholic chaplains for catholic prisoners (2016)
This report aims to highlight the spiritual needs of prisoners, as well as the role of prison chaplains. It surveys Catholic prisoners about their spiritual practices and the experience of practising their faith within prison. From this it makes a series of recommendations for prison chaplains, including: emphasising the importance of attending Mass and other practices to prison staff and authorities, supporting prisoners to make contact with their families, and flexibility of arrangements for Mass.
A Journey of Hope: A Catholic approach to sentencing reform (2018)
This report seeks a “more fundamental change” to the criminal justice system than the previous report “A right road”. It argues for significant changes to sentencing practice, to reduce the use of short stays in prison and use community sentences that focus on rehabilitation. It notes the increased pressure on prisons: increased numbers, reduced funding, and poor conditions. The report states that the criminal justice system should firstly be built for victims, but encourages them to seek forgiveness rather than retribution. Again, restorative justice, prisoner welfare and alternatives to custody are highlighted.
True justice must produce a positive outcome for the victim, for society and for the offender. It must give every opportunity for criminals to come to terms with what they have done, to recognise their own guilt, and to acknowledge the need for remorse and penitence. In atoning for their past they recognise the human dignity of their victims and they also help to redeem themselves. It must be possible, within such a system, for an offender to make different choices from those that they have hitherto made. And the system must make it possible for that transformation to take place, and be assisted, at every point during the offender’s sentence and life thereafter.
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, 2004, A Place of Redemption: A Christian approach to punishment and prisons.
 Luke 4:18-19
 Isaiah 61:1-2
 Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus 20 – http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_letters/documents/papa-francesco_bolla_20150411_misericordiae-vultus.html
 Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium 24 – http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html
 A place of redemption, a Christian approach to Punishment and Prison, 2004. The Catholic Church Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. Available at: https://www.cbcew.org.uk/home/our-work/prison-ministry/a-place-of-redemption-2004/
 Belief and belonging: the spiritual and pastoral role of Catholic chaplains for catholic prisoners, 2016. The Catholic Church Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. Available at: https://www.cbcew.org.uk/home/the-church/catholic-bishops-conference-of-england-and-wales/documents-and-publications/belief-and-belonging-2016/
 A journey of hope: A Catholic approach to sentencing reform, 2018. The Catholic Church Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. Available at: https://www.cbcew.org.uk/a-journey-of-hope-a-catholic-approach-to-sentencing-reform/