I wonder if the recent move of the Holy Father to change the text – the teaching of the Church – of the paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church about the death penalty will generate enough buzz to knock anger at McCarrick and Rodriguez Maradiaga’s seminary out of the news cycle.
With a Rescript, the Pope changed the Church’s teaching on capital punishment.
Being concerned about this move does not mean that a person is for the death penalty, even in only extremely restricted conditions. Concern about this stems from other considerations. You can be entirely against the death penalty and still be deeply concerned about what this change means. I’ll spin that out, below.
Letter from the Prefect of the CDF. Card. Ladaria, states that this is an authentic development of doctrine. The Rescript provides the changes in major modern languages but has, inexplicably, excluded Latin.
This is tedious, but let’s look at the texts, before we think more about them and this change with my emphases:
2267 Traditionalis doctrina Ecclesiae, supposita plena determinatione identitatis et responsabilitatis illius qui culpabilis est, recursum ad poenam mortis non excludit, si haec una sit possibilis via ad vitas humanas ab iniusto aggressore efficaciter defendendas.
Si autem instrumenta incruenta sufficiunt ad personarum securitatem ab aggressore defendendam atque protegendam, auctoritas his solummodo utatur instrumentis, utpote quae melius respondeant concretis boni communis condicionibus et sint dignitati personae humanae magis consentanea.
Revera nostris diebus, consequenter ad possibilitates quae Statui praesto sunt ut crimen efficaciter reprimatur, illum qui hoc commisit, innoxium efficiendo, quin illi definitive possibilitas substrahatur ut sese redimat, casus in quibus absolute necessarium sit ut reus supprimatur, « admodum raro […] intercidunt […], si qui omnino iam reapse accidunt ». 177
(177) Ioannes Paulus II, Litt. enc. Evangelium vitae, 56: AAS 87 (1995) 464.
2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.
“If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
“Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]
THE NEW TEXT of 2267 removes language about “traditional teaching” and “not exclude”:
2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. [the death penalty did not deprive the guilty of redemption either]
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
 Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.
Note well that word: “inadmissible”. The Italian says: “inammissibile”. The French says: “une mesure inhumaine”. The German says: “unzulässig”. The rest of the languages are along this line. French is not. We don’t know what the official text is. However, we can be pretty sure that it won’t go farther than “inadmissible”.
It does not and will not say in Latin that the death penalty is “intrinsically evil”.
Back in October 2017, Francis talked about changing the Catechism. At that time he said that the death penalty is “per se contrary to the Gospel” and it was “dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.” Hence, the death penalty is “inadmissible.”
How do we square that with innumerable sources which affirm that the Church has always taught, from Apostles times through the Pontificate of John Paul II in Evangelium vitae, that the death penalty – though highly cautiously – admissible?
Christ Himself upholds Pilate’s authority to kill Him (John 19:11). St. Augustine, writing to the prefect of Africa Macedonius, begged for clemency for a man condemned to death, but he upheld the rights of the state (epp. 152-155). St. Thomas Aquinas, though his teaching is not coterminous with the Church’s, taught in the Summa Theologiae and in the Summa Contra Gentiles in support of the death penalty. Thomas’s arguments are subtle and in no way “dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.” Neither did John Paul’s. Numerous examples are found between Christ and modern pontificates.
The student of theology and Joe Bagofdonuts in the pew will want to know how this change to the Church’s teaching is an “authentic development of doctrine” when it seems to fly in the face of the pretty much universally accepted explanation of development of doctrine described by Bl. John Henry Newman: Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.
In essence, Newman points out that when a development changes the doctrine so that it no longer is what it was, then that is not authentic development of the doctrine. He would call that a “corruption” of doctrine.
Granted that Newman’s view is not coterminous with the teaching of the Church, Francis does not seem to understand “authentic development” in the same way that Newman does.
Remember, too, that Francis seems to think, given his teaching in Amoris laetitia that the teachings of the Lord and of the Church concerning marriage and adultery are some sort of idea to which people – at least all people – cannot be expected to adhere. Some can’t. Hence, they can legitimately receive the Eucharist even though, objectively, they are committing what the Church has always identified as mortal sins.
All this is tied into the notion of theology based on “lived experience” and, as Francis puts it – indeed, one of the four principles inscribed in Evangelii gaudium which he gleaned from the 19th c. Argentinian caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas:
Realities are more important than ideas.
So, if there is an idea (the Church has always permitted the death penalty though in highly restricted cases) the reality is that, as the CDF Letter to Bishops states, there is “a growing public opposition to the death penalty” and “growing number of countries”. This is lived experience, you see.
While the Letter does in fact mention public order and legitimate defense of society, it emphasized the increasing recognition of dignity of the human person. Hence, it also cites the fact that there are better prisons and an emphasis on reform of criminals.
I suppose we should assume that less developed nations should have these also, even though I don’t think we should assume that, right now, they want them. In other words, those countries have been judged to be backwards: they should be like us. I guess that we are someone who can judge.
I have to ask myself: is there really a growing public opposition to the death penalty? I’m not expert on this matter, but I wonder about that. Maybe, since John Paul II, more countries have abolished the death penalty. I don’t know. However, what sheer numbers of people think and how many countries have this or that law has never and must never be the basis for a doctrine of the Church. Also, this “growing” might be among those who do not practice their Catholic Faith, or any other faith.
But this seems to be part of the grounding of the “lived experience” approach that turns doctrines into ever shifting, morphing, vanishing, reappearing targets.
So, setting aside the thorny problem of whether or not there really is a “growing” opposition to the death penalty and growing move to reform, etc., what are we left with?
I ask, if we are now setting aside Newman’s view of development of doctrine, as this move to change the Catechism suggests, then will we see this new notion of development of doctrine applied to other issues, hitherto thought to have been long-settled?
How much do you want to bet?
As a mind exercise, I tried to substitute some terms into the basic argument of the Letter to Bishops. Without being closely systematic, how does this strike you?
Marriage is a building block of society.
Society must be defended from undermining by same-sex marriage.
But, today, there is growing approval of same-sex marriage.
Many countries have abolished laws about homosexuality and have legalized same-sex marriage.
The Church teaches that we must in all ways respect the dignity of homosexuals.
While the Church today affirms that society must be defended from forces that undermine it, realities are greater than ideas. There are ideals and there is reality lived day to day.
Hence, because it doesn’t seem that same-sex marriage is really harming anyone, we recognize by our lived experience as a authentic development of doctrine the right of same-sex couples to marry.
How does that strike you?
Wile E. Defarge, thwarted in one aspiration might be happy in the long-run.
Now two major camps will be at odds: One camp will struggle to show that this change is coherent with what the Church has always held and that it is an authentic development of doctrine. The other large camp will adhere to the traditional teaching and will work to show that this change is not authentic development.
In fact, we might see several camps, even within camps: One camp will work to show how this change to the Catechism is an “authentic development of doctrine”. another camp will swiftly apply the reasoning in this argument to approve of sodomy and various other strange things, like Communion for, basically, anyone. Another other camp will work to show that Pope Francis has now taught heresy. Some will focus on the fact that the change says “inadmissible”, which is pretty weak, hence people can still believe the “traditional teaching” without being a heretic. Yet another, simply assuming that he has, without further proofs, will argue that Francis has lost his office or that, after a trial for heresy, will lose his office.
Whatever we see will not be unity in doctrine.
Some reading is in order.
Start with Edward Fesser and Joseph M. Bessette
More… check out the late Avery Card. Dulles 2001 article on capital punishment in First Things. Dulles puts his finger already on the argument that Francis would use about human dignity.
His article pretty much puts apart the argument that seem to inhere in the CDF Letter to Bishops.