I am getting questions from lots people about Pope Francis’ move to change the Church’s doctrine concerning capital punishment.
If this is in the Catechism, do I have to give in and believe it even though this is different from what the Catechism taught before?
What is required of Catholics regarding the change to the teachings on capital punishment? I don’t agree with the change, and what’s worse, I don’t believe what the Holy Father has written is Church teaching.
These changes disturb my peace and cause me to question if I can recieve communion.
At the very least Francis seems to have cut the legs out from under the authority of the Catechism, if not the Catholic Faith, by introducing something into that Catechism which seems to contradict the Church’s perennial teaching.
What is the authority of the Catechism?
I often tell people that, when they hear something confusing, go to the CCC. That is a bit more difficult now, but I stand on it. Why?
Teachings found in the Catechism are not true, reliable and sure because they are in the Catechism.
Teachings are true because they’re true.
Teachings have authority in themselves, because they are rooted in natural law, revelation, the Church’s entire body of teaching and the Rule of Faith, going back to Apostolic Times.
The Catechism is a sure reference and authoritative because it has sure teachings in it.
Teachings don’t become sure because they are included.
In Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (US HERE – UK HERE) Joseph Ratzinger wrote:
The individual doctrines which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess. The weight of the Catechism itself lies in the whole. Since it transmits what the Church teaches, whoever rejects it as a whole separates himself beyond question from the faith and teaching of the Church.
In the same section, Ratzinger said that the CCC is not a “super-dogma”, which can repress theologians in their free explorations.
Let’s stress: “as a whole”.
It is possible that some point in the Catechism will have greater authority on the mind and conscience of a Catholic than another. For example, what the Catechism contains concerning the Holy Trinity is far more binding on the minds and hearts of Catholics than what it says about religious liberty or the death penalty or other matters of contingent moral decision making.
Even within matters that concern moral decision making, some issues have more weight than others. For example, the right to life of the innocent is found within the Church’s teaching on abortion and euthanasia, which is unquestionable. However, capital punishment concerns NOT the taking of the life of an innocent person, but rather of a guilty person who has in some way demonstrated a lack of respect for the right to life of others. This point about innocence or guilt has always been at the heart of debates about the legitimacy of capital punishment.
So, if you say “I reject the content of the CCC” you reject the Catholic Faith in its entirely: it is comprehensive. If you say that you reject a doctrine in the CCC which is at the very core of the Catholic Faith, such as the Trinity or the Incarnation or the Resurrection, you reject the Catholic Faith: you cannot believe as a Catholic if you reject the Trinity. If you reject some highly controverted teaching that involves moral contingencies, such as the just war teaching of the Church or such as capital punishment, you do not reject the whole of the Catholic Faith, for the Faith doesn’t depend on those murky issues.
Let’s pretend for a moment – and it doesn’t take much – that baseball’s designated hitter rule is a matter for the Church’s Magisterium. If I, Pope Clement XIV The Second, were to drop into the Catechism a paragraph stating that the designated hitter is wrong and inadmissible, that opinion’s presence in the Catechism wouldn’t make that statement true and necessary for belief.
Things in the Catechism don’t become true when they are put into the book. They are put into the book because they are true. The fact is, you can argue about the designated hitter forever.
So what happens if something blatantly false is put into the Catechism, such as, “abortion is not intrinsically evil”. That would be a serious violation of the purpose of the Catechism and it would reveal the insertor as a heretic. But what about the insertion of something ambiguous? For example, stick into the CCC that, because of the human dignity of the person, the capital punishment is “inadmissible”. I suppose we can argue about what “inadmissible” means. It doesn’t manifestly state that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, as abortion and euthanasia is intrinsically evil.
The Church in CCC 2271 teaches what she has always taught from the earliest times: abortion is a grave moral evil. That teaching is in the CCC because the Church has always taught that.
The Church in the CCC 2277 teaches that direct euthanasia is, in English, “morally unacceptable”. Not too different from “inadmissible”, right? But it goes on to call it “murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person… a murderous act”.
What Pope Francis wrote about capital punishment doesn’t call it intrinsically evil or a murderous act.
But he does say that it is “inadmissible”… “not allowable”.
Is that a hedge? It is hard to take it as a hedge.
There is going to be a lot of ink spilled about this.
Finally, it seems to me that Pope Francis has emphasized the Church’s outward, pastoral policy which she desires to argue before the state: don’t put people to death.
Having thought about it, I am not entirely convinced that Pope Francis didn’t attempt to change the Church’s teaching about capital punishment. At the very least, he made it far murkier than before.
It seems to me that someone could place the new paragraph side by side with the rest of the body of the Church’s teachings on capital punishment and then make a well-informed choice to stick with the traditional teaching, while embracing the pastoral policy of diminishing the application of the death penalty.
The admissibility of the death penalty WAS, in fact, in the Catechism. And it was there for a reason: it is the traditional teaching of the Church and, therefore, TRUE.
Meanwhile, we seem to be pushing outrage about McCarrick out of the news cycle.