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Francis & The Death Penalty

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 [1] … 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.

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54 Comments To "Francis & The Death Penalty"

#1 Comment By Anne On October 13, 2017 @ 2:11 pm

This idea that a pope who teaches “contrary to the settled tradition of the Church” would no longer be pope (!) ignores a whole lot history, not to mention dogmatic theology and canon law. It implies that a pope who writes or says anything contrary to what previous popes had said in the broad category of “faith and morals” is a heretic (!), a serious charge that simply cannot be backed up by precedent. (See my comment above on John Paul II and slavery, just one example of that pope contradicting his predecessors without facing allegations of heresy).

As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cdl. Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI) began, out of frustration, no doubt, to claim a sort of ordinary — or “secondary” — infallibility that allegedly attaches to certain doctrines never technically defined as infallible yet necessarily related to revealed dogmas such as, say, the Incarnation or Resurrection of Christ. That was the reasoning he used for declaring John Paul II’s 1994 encyclical opposing women’s ordination “secondarily” infallible, even though it technically didn’t meet the guidelines required of such a statement, i.e., that a pope declare it solemnly “ex cathedra,” from the papal chair, and that it have been part and parcel of the “deposit of faith” all along. Still, many theologians have pointed out that the Congregation for the Faith has no authority to declare any doctrine infallibly taught, much less secondarily. Only popes and ecumenical councils have that authority to do so, and then only under certain circumstances and when specific guidelines are followed. So far only two such clearly-defined dogmas have been so declared, and they both involve Mary, i.e., her Immaculate Conception and Assumption into heaven.

Moreover, according to Canon 749.3, “No doctrine is understood as defined infallibly unless this is manifestly evident.” Until the First Vatican Council less than two hundred years ago said a pope is capable of making such a declaration, worldwide ecumenical councils were the only legitimate sources of such definitions, and there was always considerable controversy over which of these had had the authority to bind the whole church. The churches of the East, like most Orthodox churches to this day, accepted as fully binding only those definitions that were issued by the first seven ecumenical councils of the church.

It’s not surprising that many laymen in this Information Age have come to feel an urgent need for the kind of certainty concepts such as biblical inerrancy and doctrinal infallibility provide. Unfortunately, they’re two-edged swords, giving temporary comfort to anxious Christians, yet potentially binding them in untenable positions when new information comes to light or a deepened understanding muddies what once appeared black-and-white. There’s a reason why only a handful of dogma has been declared infallibly taught over the centuries, even though Catholics accept the authority of the magisterium to teach a wide range of doctrines on its ordinary authority and theologians continue to study and learn from past shortcomings in understanding. After all, as long as we remain on earth, we see, as St. Paul put it, through a glass darkly.

#2 Comment By David C On October 13, 2017 @ 4:24 pm

Quite an instructive thread.

Those who wish to provoke a massive constitutional crisis in the Church over this issue – one in which there is a consistency among the three most recent popes – manifestly display not a crisis in the Church, but a crisis in their willingness to receive the development in teaching. The development is rational, gradual, and consistent with both a development in society (modern penal systems) and (much more importantly) the deep principle of the dignity of all persons, a principle the Church has more urgently defended in an age of abortion, euthanasia, and the like. The inability to accept this consistent development ends up reinforcing the mysterious air of novelty that appeared in Francis’s address.

The fear that accepting this development puts everything “up for grabs” is unwarranted. Indeed, it is quite the contrary: on capital punishment, the development of the tradition is explainable in the best, deepest insights of both the natural law and the teachings of Christ against vengeance. This is the kind of development that should be welcomed. In all these ways, it sharply differs from some other potential “developments” in the air. The other developments some wish for are, by contrast, (a) in severe tension with the immediately preceding popes, (b) very difficult to reconcile with the deeper, continuously-held natural law principles on marriage, and (c) either lacking any warrant in the teachings of Christ or apparently opposed to them. Catholics should welcome disciplined development in good cases precisely so they are able to resist it in weaker cases.

#3 Comment By thomas tucker On October 13, 2017 @ 6:53 pm

Some Catholics apparently do not understand the ordinary universal magisterium and what it means. David C does not understand the difference between a development and a reversal of doctrine. Again, the constant teaching of the Church has been that capital punishment is a moral option. The development (under the last 3 Popes) has been that it should be used less and less frequently under modern circumstances. The reversal would be that it is intrinsically immoral. And that would contradict all prior teaching.

#4 Comment By jv On October 17, 2017 @ 3:44 am

The modern papacy’s penchant for defining doctrine for fun–rather than out of necessity when the Church is being divided by controversy and/or error–seems … odd. (It certainly didn’t start with Francis. I don’t know if there are precedents before Pius IX.)

I would propose that henceforth the pope not be allowed to “develop” dogma unless he’s willing to explicitly excommunicate and anathematize those who disagree. I mean, if he’s not actually willing to say, “Believe this, or you’re out of the Church,” then maybe he shouldn’t be defining it as dogma.

Similarly, there’s something odd, or even perverse, about using Cardinal Newman’s rules as a permission slip for deliberate innovation in dogma. Newman’s purpose was to demonstrate how the Church had remained constant in her teaching, despite obvious change through history: in other words, constancy in teaching was what the Church claimed and gloried in; apparent innovation was a scandal to be explained.

I suspect Newman would be shocked to see this turned around so that innovation is valued in itself and constancy is reduced to a box to be checked. He would be horrified to see his work being used to justify all of this–as if his rules were some kind of infallible meta-dogma, not just necessary for demonstrating that some historical change was continuous, but sufficient for justifying new changes.