I received this e-mail from a Catholic reader this morning:

Did you see what the Pope said yesterday abut the death penalty? He said it should be abolished and was against Gospel values. He said that the deposit of faith can develop, but this would not be a deepening of understanding. This would be saying that what the Church taught previously is wrong! This directly contradicts the ordinary universal magisterium of the Catholic Church which has held that the State does have the right to use the death penalty. The Pope said this was wrong and that the Catechism should be changed. I know that the Pope can have a personal theological opinion that is wrong, but I never thought that I would see a Pope say publicly that what the Church has held definitively is wrong and that THE CATECHISM should be changed!

Rod, this is going to be big. This means that the Pope has essentially contradicted the infallibility of the ordinary universal magisterium. It means that this Pope is no longer the Pope.

I don’t know enough about the way Catholic theology works to be able to judge this claim. Can any of you with theological training help? Understand, I’m asking a theological question here, not a question about whether or not you believe in the death penalty. (For me, I believe that capital punishment can be licit, but I am generally opposed to its application.) The point the Catholic reader is making does not depend on one’s opinion of the death penalty, but rather on the way Pope Francis is exercising his role as a teacher.

Many non-Catholics don’t understand that the Pope is not free to say whatever he wants to, and those words become binding on Catholics. This is not being a “cafeteria Catholic,” but rather a matter of precise theological authority. The crisis in this instance — if indeed it is a crisis — is not over whether or not Francis said something that upsets conservatives who favor the death penalty. The crisis is about the Pope unilaterally overturning, or attempting to overturn, past authoritative Catholic teaching.

The trad Catholic Steve Skojec makes a theological case for why, in his view, Pope Francis is wrong about the death penalty … but that doesn’t really answer my question. What if Francis comes out tomorrow, in that garrulous way of his, and says that the concept of “just war” is no longer operative in Catholic theology, and the Catechism must be changed to reflect that fact? Would it really be a “fact” in Catholic theology? And if not, what does that tell us about Pope Francis, and his status as pope? Would he really cease to be Pope?

Again: only answer if you have a theologically informed response. I’m not going to post yellers on either side. I’m trying to learn something here, and to understand the ramifications of what the Pope said yesterday.