Pope Francis, the Lérinian legacy of Vatican II, and capital punishment

There are at least three reasons I think that Pope Francis cannot provide a Lérinian justification of the abolition of capital punishment as a matter of doctrinal development.

Icon of St. Vincent of Lérins (Wikipedia); Right: Pope Francis celebrates Mass during the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Vatican Congregation for Eastern Churches on Oct. 12 at St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome. (CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters)

Pope Francis and Vincent of Lérins
In his October 11th address to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis returns to the main source of theological guidance in his own thought on the matter of doctrinal development, namely, the monk and theologian St. Vincent of Lérins (died c. 445). Thomas Guarino was the first theologian to draw attention to the importance of Vincent in the pope’s thought in the September 2013 First Things essay “Pope Francis Looks to St. Vincent of Lérins”. I developed this connection in Chapter 1 of my book Pope Francis and the Legacy of Vatican II (Lectio Publishing, 2015).

How do we account for legitimate theological pluralism and authentic diversity within a fundamental unity of truth? The thesis of my book is that Pope Francis’s response to this question is carried out in light of the Lérinian legacy of Pope John XXIII. The theologian of Lérins very carefully balances growth and preservation, tradition and innovation, continuity and discontinuity, unity and diversity. The Lérinian legacy is, arguably, based on the distinction between truth and its historically conditioned formulations, between form and content, propositions and sentences, which was presupposed by John XXIII in his opening address at Vatican II, Gaudet Mater Ecclesia.

Pope Francis’s explicit support for the Lérinian legacy stretches back to his pre-papal writings (e.g., On Heaven and Earth, 26) and continues in the same Lérinian vein in a later interview (A Big Heart Open to God, 62-63) and figures prominently in his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium. Indeed, in Evangelii gaudium (no. 41n45), he refers to John XXIII’s address precisely where the latter distinguishes between truths and its formulations. John stated: “For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing; the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.” The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from Vatican I (Dei Filius 4.13-14), and this passage is itself from the Commonitórium primum 23.3 of Vincent of Lérins: “Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only with the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment.”

Vincent’s crucial point here is about meaning-invariance and hence unchanging truth and, as John XXIII put it, “to transmit the doctrine, pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion, which throughout twenty centuries, notwithstanding difficulties and contrasts, has become the common patrimony of men.” Of course, Pope John was not simply urging the Council to repeat what everyone already knew. This is another important aspect of the Council. “What is needed is that this doctrine is more fully and more profoundly known and that minds be more fully imbued and formed by it.”

Bernard Lonergan, remarking on the intention of John XXIII in calling the Council, stated: “There was no point, he said, in their gathering together merely to repeat what anyone could find in familiar theological handbooks.” Indeed, “[w]hat is needed is that this certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which loyal submission is due, be investigated and presented in the way demanded by our times.” Therefore, to carry out this task faithfully and responsibly John calls this Council to distinguish between unchanging truth and its formulation, or, as Lonergan remarks, “between the unchanging deposit of faith and the changing modes of its presentation,” yet those new formulations must keep the same meaning and the same judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia). This distinction is crucial for understanding the continuity and material identity of dogma over time.

Contours of the Lérinian legacy
Now the thesis of my book is that Pope Francis stands in the Lérinian legacy of Vatican II. For example, in his encyclical Laudato Si he explicitly appeals to Vincent after the following statement: “Christianity, in fidelity to its own identity and the rich deposit of truth which it has received from Jesus Christ, continues to reflect on [contemporary] issues in fruitful dialogue with changing historical situations. In doing so, it reveals its eternal newness” (no. 121). Endnote 98 of the encyclical explicitly refers to the Commonitorium Primum, 23.29, of Vincent of Lérins. In his address via video to the International Theological Congress held at the Pontifical University of Buenos Aires on September 1-3, 2015, Pope Francis looks again to Vincent. As in the encyclical Laudato Si’, in his address to the International Congress, Pope Francis cites from Vincent’s work in Latin, but I will give the English translation of the clauses he selects (emphasis added) setting them within the context:

Thus it behooves the dogma of the Christian religion, too, to observe these laws of progress; it [Christian religion] may be consolidated with years, expanded with time, grow loftier with age; yet must remain incorrupt and undefiled: it may attain to fullness and perfection in all the proportions of its parts, and as it were in all its proper members and senses, but can admit nothing more in the way of change, can suffer no loss of any property, no variation in its definition.

Francis explains: “The theologian who is satisfied with his complete and conclusive thought is mediocre. The good theologian and philosopher has an open, that is, an incomplete, thought, always open to the maius of God and of the truth, always in development, according to the law that Vincent describes as: ‘annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate’ (Commonitorium primum, 23: PL 50, 668): it is strengthened over the years, it expands over time, it deepens with age. This is the theologian who has an open mind.” Of course Vincent holds that inadequacy of expression does not mean inexpressibility of dogmatic truth (for more on this point, see Thomas G. Guarino’s 2013 book Vincent of Lérins and the Development of Christian Doctrine).

Like Vincent and John XXIII, Pope Francis urges the theological transmission of revelation to be pure and integral, without any attenuation or distortion of doctrine. As he writes in Evangelii gaudium:

Whenever we make the effort to return to the sources [of faith] and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world. Every form of authentic evangelization is always ‘new.’ (no. 8).

This is Francis’s call to return to the authoritative sources of faith, that is, ressourcement for faithfully revitalizing our thought and practice.

Pope Francis looks to Vincent because he is persuaded that a Lérinian approach to doing theology in the stream of the Church’s living tradition avoids the temptations of rigidity or immobilism at the level of theological formulation or expression because it may lead to petrification, on the one hand, or relativism, on the other. Since Francis is not a doctrinal relativist, he does not hold the truth itself to be variable with time and place, but only its formulations, urging an expansion of its expression, namely, as he puts it, “seeking ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness.” In a nutshell, this is the hermeneutics of continuity in renewal. So, we can say with justification that Pope Francis is a man of the Council. In particular, Francis stands with John XXIII who framed the question regarding the nature of doctrinal continuity in light of the Lérinian principle, allowing for legitimate pluralism and authentic diversity within a fundamental unity of truth. Says Francis, “This is a unity which is never uniformity but a multifaceted and inviting harmony.” Or as Francis states in his recent Address:

The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfilment that none can halt. This law of progress, in the happy formulation of Saint Vincent of Lérins, “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age” (Commonitorium, 23.9: PL 50), is a distinguishing mark of revealed truth as it is handed down by the Church, and in no way represents a change in doctrine (emphasis added).

In Evangelii gaudium, Pope Francis expresses the same point about development:

The Church … needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of the truth …. Within the Church countless issues are being studied and reflected upon with great freedom. Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of them help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance [in expression], this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But such variety [of expression] serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel” (no. 40).

This is not doctrinal relativism. Francis makes clear that “we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness.” He explains: “At any rate, religions refine certain expressions [of the truth] with time, even though it is a slow process because of the sacred bond that we have with the received inheritance … the received revelation” (On Heaven and Earth, 26-27). Thus, he adds, “we grow in the understanding of the truth” (A Big Heart Open to God, 62).

In the interview found in A Big Heart Open to God, Pope Francis cites a passage from the Commonitórium primum of Vincent of Lérins, which seems to be a favorite of his because it is also cited in On Heaven and Earth (26), and once again, in his address at 25th Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Vincent states: “Thus even the dogma of the Christian religion must proceed from these laws. It progresses, solidifying with years, growing over time, deepening with age.” Pope Francis continues in this interview:

St. Vincent of Lérins makes a comparison between the biological development of man and the transmission from one era to another of the deposit of faith, which grows and is strengthened with time. Here, human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. …So we grow in the understanding of the truth.  Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgments. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. …Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning (A Big Heart Open to God, 62-63).

Notice that Francis does not hold the truth itself to be variable with time and place, but only the formulations, namely, “the forms for expressing truth … in order to develop and deepen the Church’s teaching” (A Big Heart Open to God, 63). Indeed, he aligns himself with John Paul II making clear that it is the expression—not the truth—that changes: “Let us never forget that ‘the expression of truth can take different forms. The renewal of these forms of expression becomes necessary for the sake of transmitting to the people of today the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning’ [Ut Unum Sint, no. 19]” (Evangelii gaudium, no. 42). Elsewhere he adds, “It [the task of evangelization] constantly seeks to communicate more effectively the truth of the Gospel in a specific context, without renouncing the truth, the goodness and the light which it can bring” (Evangelii gaudium, no. 45, emphasis added).

Thus, the greatest danger, according to Pope Francis, is that even “with the holy intent of communicating the truth about God and humanity” we may “hold fast to a formulation while failing to convey its substance.” As I argued in my book, Pope Francis and the Legacy of Vatican II, I think we need to understand that he is a man of the Lérinian legacy of Pope John XXIII.

In particular, Vincent’s point about the nature of development is supported by a distinction he insists on between progress and change, the import of which is not lost on Francis who, like Vincent, compares the transmission of faith with the biological development of man. Hence, development must be organic and homogeneous. Vincent writes: “But it [progress of religion] must be such as may be truly a progress of the faith, not a change; for when each several thing is improved in itself, that is progress; but when a thing is turned out of one thing into another, that is change.” In other words, the import here of this distinction is that (as Guarino notes) “‘development’ can never mean a substantial transformation, a change in the very essence of a church teaching. The theologian of Lérins very carefully balances growth and preservation.”

Vincent distinguishes between “progress” and “change.” Regarding the former, he understands the development of faith as progress that is organic and homogeneous and occurring within the boundaries of the dogma. In other words, the faith remains identical with itself in its progress. He distinguishes this idea of development from another in which an understanding of faith’s development involves “a thing [being] turned out of one thing into another, that is, of change.” The point here is made clear by Vincent: progress in understanding may result in new modes of expression, but such expressions are authentic and legitimate only if they keep the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia]. In other words, the same datum of faith is said in different ways. In short, truth is unchangeable, development of dogma is not a development of truth, or a change in Church teaching, but a development in the Church’s understanding of the truth.

Pope Francis affirms a legitimate diversity of theological formulations of unchanging truth, but is mindful that the diversity must be consistent, complimentary, and commensurable with the truth. He says, “We need to listen to and complement one another in our partial reception of reality and the Gospel” (Evangelii gaudium, no. 40n44).

Lérinian Legacy and capital punishment
Against the background of the Lérinian legacy of Pope Francis’s thought, I shall now turn to his brief comments about the death penalty. Considering the Lérinian distinction between “progress” and “change” defined above, the question arises whether the Pope’s call for abolishing the death penalty, its radical revision, indeed, the reversal of the teaching of the Catholic tradition on capital punishment, is progress or change?

Francis states that abolishing capital punishment is a harmonious development of doctrine because it is a perception of the true significance of the dignity of the human person. “It is necessary, therefore, to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” Therefore, abolishing the death penalty, adds the pope, is “not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defense of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively.” And on the general point of doctrinal development, Francis explains: “Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit.”

In sum, the death penalty, urges Francis, “is per se contrary to the Gospel.” Its acceptance reflects a “mentality more legalistic than Christian,” overvaluing the law that “prevent[s] a deeper understanding of the Gospel,” and hence ignoring “the primacy of mercy over justice.” Francis concludes, “No one ought to be deprived not only of life, but also of the chance for a moral and existential redemption that in turn can benefit the community.”

It is not possible, within the framework of this article, to discuss the question regarding the morality of capital punishment. Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette have done that exceptionally well in their powerful new book, By Man Shall His Blood be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (Ignatius Press, 2017). Here, I simply want to argue that, in light of the Lérinian distinction between “progress” and “change”, Francis’s call for abolishing the death penalty is clearly a change and not progress, and hence it is in contradiction with the Church’s teaching. This is so for several reasons.

First, there is a clear contradiction between historic Catholic teaching and calling for the unqualfied abolition of the death penalty because the latter, Francis now insists, is always wrong.  The Church has never taught that capital punishment is intrinsically unjust, and certainly not as contrary to the Gospel. Indeed, as Cardinal Avery Dulles remarked in summarizing the judgment of Scripture and tradition (which includes natural law arguments), as it is reflected in magisterial teaching: “we can glean some settled points of doctrine.” And:

It is agreed that crime deserves punishment in this life and not only in the next. In addition, it is agreed that the State has authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death.

Second, the teaching of recents popes, such as John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have argued for a moratorium against the state’s right to exercise the death penalty as a matter of prudential judgment and not of moral principle. Clearly, John Paul explicitly affirmed the state’s right to exercise the death penality in cases of absolute necessity. Despite Francis’s claim to the contrary, he is in contradiction not only with “settled points of doctrine” (to use Dulles’s words) but also with the 1995 Encylical Evangelium Vitae (nos. 55-56), the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 2266-2267), and the Compendium of the Church’s Social Doctrine (no. 405).

Third, as a matter of moral principle, the most important natural law defense of the death penalty is regarded as a matter of retributive justice. As Christian ethicist J. Daryl Charles correctly notes:

Retribution as a justification for punishment is lodged in two unbending ethical realities: the degree of wrongness of the criminal act, and the degree of the individual’s criminal responsibility in committing such an act. Retribution, then, requires that wrongdoers get no more and no less than what is proportionate—or just—to their crime.

This sort of justice is integral to Catholic moral thinking about a free and just society, and hence the difference between private and public spheres. Furthermore, Francis’s charges against the supporters of “settled points of doctrine” raise many questions. For instance, does Francis hold that mercy releases the demands that justice imposes? Does mercy triumph over judgment both in the context of personal relationships (private sphere) as well as in the duties of the state (public sphere)? Moreover, is it fair to reduce the question of moral principle and hence of justice to a legalistic mentality?

I’m sure there are other reasons, but at least for these three reasons I think that Pope Francis cannot provide a Lérinian justification of the abolition of capital punishment as a matter of doctrinal development. Clearly, Francis’s position involves change and not progress. Thus, the pope will have to find another way to justify his call for abolishing the death penalty.

About Eduardo Echeverria 12 Articles

Eduardo Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. He earned his doctorate in philosophy from the Free University in Amsterdam and his S.T.L. from the University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome.

56 Comments

  1. “Francis’s call for abolishing the death penalty is clearly a change and not progress, and hence it is in contradiction with the Church’s teaching.”

    If this statement is true, as I believe the author has established, then it follows necessarily and as a matter not only of theology but also of logic that Pope Francis is a heretic.

    • Not necessarily…This statement of Pope Francis was not an exercise of Papal Infallibility. In his personal opinions, it is possible for a pope to be incorrect.

  2. ‘there is a clear contradiction between historic Catholic teaching and calling for the unqualfied abolition of the death penalty…’

    The historic teaching (or to be more precise: historic understanding) does indeed seem to be based on a pre-Gospel (Gen 9:6) worldview.

    Taking a cue from the comparison of the transmission of faith with the biological development of man >~> the pre-Gospel worldview is akin to nails on a growing human being. Periodic cutting / ‘pruning’ of nails doesn’t imply a “change” in the person per se.

    “Despite Francis’s claim to the contrary, he is in contradiction not only with “settled points of doctrine” (to use Dulles’s words) but also with the 1995 Encylical Evangelium Vitae (nos. 55-56), the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 2266-2267), and the Compendium of the Church’s Social Doctrine (no. 405).”

    It looks like Cardinal Dulles’ “gleaning” that the ‘point of doctrine’ has been “settled” is a respected theological opinion. But then, I’m reminded of the answer to the question: ‘Is there an example of the doctrine of which you say: That has not come into the Catechism?’ at http://cathcon.blogspot.in/2017/10/amoris-laetitia-ist-ganz-in-der-linie.html

    At best, Cardinal Dulles’ opinion is akin to Moses being legally ‘within bounds’ in Mt. 19:7. But considering the next verse, if the man sitting on the Chair of Peter exercises the power in Mt. 18: 18 in a more evangelical way than the man sitting on the Chair of Moses, can he be faulted?

    As for nos. 55-56 in Evangelium Vitae, CCC 2266-2267 and no. 405 of the Compendium of the Church’s Social Doctrine, if we read carefully, we will be able to “glean” that there is a “progression” from a “bud” (Chair of Moses) into a “flower” (Chair of Peter).

    ‘Retribution, then, requires that wrongdoers get no more and no less than what is proportionate—or just—to their crime.’

    Sounds ‘Old Testament-ish’ / eye for an eye-ish / Mt. 5:38-ish. (I hasten to add: there is nothing ‘wrong’ with the ‘Old Testament’ just as there is nothing ‘wrong’ with a ‘closed’ bud. But one can’t quite stay stuck in ‘bud’ stage forever!
    Another loose analogy: the cross / pain / suffering / death are not ‘ends’ in themselves but one has to ‘move on’ like 1 Cor. 15:17 to the Resurrection and beyond.)

    ‘does Francis hold that mercy releases the demands that justice imposes?’

    No – https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/audiences/2016/documents/papa-francesco_20160203_udienza-generale.html

    ‘Does mercy triumph over judgment both in the context of personal relationships (private sphere) as well as in the duties of the state (public sphere)?’

    Re private sphere, refer the previous link and http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2017/02/24/pope_francis_in_god_there_is_both_justice_and_mercy/1294715

    Re public sphere, the ‘state’ – or rather, a state ‘authority’, – would truly fulfill his/her duty if power is exercised in reflection of the font of all Authority (i.e., God) – in whom, as noted at http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2017/02/24/pope_francis_in_god_there_is_both_justice_and_mercy/1294715 ‘justice is mercy and mercy is justice.’

    ‘Moreover, is it fair to reduce the question of moral principle and hence of justice to a legalistic mentality?’

    Any such perception of ‘reduction’ is a misunderstanding, considering what is given in the links above.

    • Please supply the Magisterial references that confirm your contention that “the pre-Gospel worldview is akin to nails on a growing human being. Periodic cutting / ‘pruning’ of nails doesn’t imply a “change” in the person per se” and “there is nothing ‘wrong’ with the ‘Old Testament’ just as there is nothing ‘wrong’ with a ‘closed’ bud. But one can’t quite stay stuck in ‘bud’ stage forever!” Also, please explain how your contentions differ from Gnosticism and Marcionism and from Modernism. Thank you.

      • I don’t have any Magisterial references that confirm my contentions since the development of doctrine on the issue of the death penalty is still in its evolving stage and it is therefore premature to expect any explicit reference yet.

        Admittedly, the analogies which I have given (´nails on a growing human being´, ´closed bud´ vs. ´open flower´, etc.) are loose. [Re ´pruning of nails´ on a growing human being, here´s another *loose* tangential analogy: ´Extra ecclesiam nulla salus´ is right of course – but then, when ´Feeneyite´ / over-the-top triumphalistic tendencies / nails grow, it is good to have CCC 847, 848, etc. Similarly, the traditional understanding of the Church re death penalty is not ´wrong´ but, see further below…]

        The bottom-line is, – if we carefully reflect on:
        a) nos. 55-56 in Evangelium Vitae
        b) CCC 2266-2267
        c) no. 405 of the Compendium of the Church’s Social Doctrine
        d) http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/death-penalty-capital-punishment/index.cfm (for example)
        e) statements on the subject by not only Pope Francis but also his 2 immediate predecessors, (http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/death-penalty-capital-punishment/holy-father-and-vatican.cfm ) …
        it would be clear that there is indeed a ´move against´ the death penalty by the shepherds.

        In time, the CCC would be amended to reflect the evolved understanding.

        Can we really imagine the Lord approving the death penalty?

        Pope Francis is right – it ¨is per se contrary to the Gospel.¨

        So did the Church get it all wrong up till now?
        No.

        The Church´s ´pre-Gospel understanding´ was not wrong just as Moses was not wrong in Mt. 19:7.

        But (in a hyperbolic vein), the Word has been made flesh, the Kingdom has come, the Lord is risen, and it is incongruous to countenance the death penalty – in the light of Jn 10:10 – in the City of God / the New Jerusalem. Let´s leave that for the pagans / the city of man / the Old Jerusalem!

        ¨please explain how your contentions differ from Gnosticism and Marcionism and from Modernism¨

        Each of them have a large number of beliefs – so not sure what exactly you are referring to. If the following don´t suffice, do clarify where / how you think my contentions coincide with them:

        1) I firmly believe in the Creed
        2) I affirm every word in the Act of Faith
        3) I reject all the false doctrines/beliefs of Gnosticism, Marcionism and Modernism (for instance those listed at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06592a.htm, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09645c.htm and http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10415a.htm )

        • Just as for example one might imply that the church’s “pre-gospel” understanding of same-sex marriage, co-habitation, and even abortion were not “wrong” – but now we have shepherds and a pope who are moving toward “mercy” and a new “post gospel” understanding. Yahoo!
          This is so clear. In a hundred years we may have a completely different faith, but it will be the same, and both will be right!

          • No. Reference to a ´pre-Gospel understanding´ is not code for moral law ´dilution´ / ´laxity´ in the Gospel understanding.
            Same-sex ¨marriage¨, co-habitation (I presume you mean fornication), abortion etc., are all not in accord with the Gospel.
            No Church teaching has ever justified or can ever justify them.

          • “Same-sex ¨marriage¨, co-habitation (I presume you mean fornication), abortion etc., are all not in accord with the Gospel.” – Well, maybe not yet, but the same forces are moving to change that, with the same reasoning so…

          • ‘maybe not yet, but the same forces are moving to change that, with the same reasoning so…’

            There will always be forces which try to overwhelm. And tares among wheat. The temptation is to try to get us to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. But Jn 10.27, Lk. 10:16, Mt. 16:18 etc. The gates of hell will not prevail.

        • Modernism can be boiled down to immanence. That there is no fixed dogma and that revelation comes through living history, culture etc. Sort of like saying… we’re moving away from the “pre-gospel” understanding.

          • As I said, moving away from the pre-Gospel understanding doesn´t imply diluting the moral law. The errors of modernism are firmly rejected.

            There is indeed ´fixed´ dogma (the Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption, etc.). But (with a nod to Mt. 13:52), there is also legitimate development of doctrine which doesn´t conflict with Sacred Tradition. And it is the Magisterium that gets to decide whether a particular development of doctrine is legitimate or not.

            In the case of the death penalty, there is indeed a case for updating of the CCC. In time, the Magisterium will move decisively in that direction.

            Inevitably there would be some who fear that this is a bow to modernism / heresy. Some among them may later see the light and rest assured in the guarantee of Mt. 16:18. Others would sadly continue to cry foul (set themselves up as the undeclared Magisterium?!?) and sigh!…
            http://cardinalsblog.adw.org/2015/02/pope-touchstone-faith-unity/

          • And, what is the argument for this? Why did it take 2000 years to determine this fundamental point? Has there been new revelation? No. so what, it feeeeeels right? “The god I worship wouldn’t….” “Modern society can’t accept….” It’s not revelation, but it is. The signs of the times… That is modernism, just because we still say that Assumption is fixed, doesn’t mean we’re suffering modernism.

          • And you can tell Cardinal Wuerl that popes have been wrong before. They have made bad calls in all of the areas he speaks of and even been swayed by heretical tendencies in the church, so his little “anyone who thinks there’s something off about the pope needs an education or is a bad person” article isn’t really useful.

          • The development of doctrine obviously takes time. In the early years of Church history, more core truths (example: the divinity of Christ) had to be thought through and formulated as precisely / rigorously as possible.

            The CCC and the Compendium of the Church’s Social Doctrine give a hint as to why the issue of the death penalty is now coming center-stage.

            To wit, CCC 2267: ´…Today, in fact, *as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime*, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”´

            And # 405 of the Compendium: ´…The growing number of countries adopting provisions to abolish the death penalty or suspend its application is also proof of the fact that cases in which it is absolutely necessary to execute the offender “are very rare, if not practically non-existent”. The growing aversion of public opinion towards the death penalty and the various provisions aimed at abolishing it or suspending its application constitute visible manifestations of *a heightened moral awareness*.´

            As for ´suffering modernism´ with respect to this topic, I suppose that charge will be vindicated when the Church formally condemns all talk of abolition of death penalty and perhaps directly or indirectly censures the likes of St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI etc. for perpetrating modernism in, (for example) http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/death-penalty-capital-punishment/holy-father-and-vatican.cfm

            And I also suppose that if the heretical shepherds don´t get their act together, we can look forward to another round of filial corrections against the propagation of heresies.

          • Yes to the filial correction, yes to the correction/ condemnation of Pp’s John Paul and Benedict.

            As to the silly excuse first explored by John Paul about how it was alright to execute in the past, but modern technology has made it less so… it is laughable. (but even worse when one asks why, or how it is so now that in most places, the spiritual component of conversion isn’t even thought of.

          • Re spiritual component of conversion, isn’t it incongruous to ask the death row convict to convert when we have slammed the door shut permanently and definitely taken away from him the possibility of redeeming himself?

          • We, or I at least, was talking about saving his soul, not getting him a job making widgets so that he can feel useful. And, by the way, the sight of the hangman’s noose has converted (that is to say, their souls) quite a few people.

            Now, of course, that means nothing to those in the church who don’t believe in hell, but maybe hell is just another pre-gospel thing.

          • Further below, please see the quote by Robert Fastiggi of Pope St. Nicholas. We should try not only to save the soul but also the body.

            It’s not a question of a convict ‘feeling’ useful. Rather, it is the question of truly (as opposed to lip-service) affirming/acknowledging the fundamental worth, dignity, sacredness and value of his life.

            ‘The sight of the hangman’s noose has converted (that is to say, their souls) quite a few people.’

            Of course. But then so has it hardened the heart of others.

            Abolishing the death penalty and prudent, patient accompaniment of the lost sheep, not resting UNTIL he is back home – in short, truly evangelical (as opposed to cheap) Mercy is a higher and extremely tough path. But that will save more souls and bodies rather than threats of immediate taking of life by the state.

            Hell exists and is real. As for whether it is a pre-Gospel thing, that depends on our understanding of ‘the Gospel’ and the triumph of the Immaculate Heart.

            There is scope for development on the subject of the harrowing of hell.
            http://www.crisismagazine.com/2014/the-harrowing-of-hell

        • Actually the Lord approved a death penalty in Mark 7:10…watch the phrase ” die the death” and he is contrasting that law with it’s death penalty… over against the circumventing of the pharisees. And…get this….He as Word gave that Jewish only death penalty as Word in the Trinity 1200 years prior to incarnating as Christ.

          • It is quite a stretch to state that Mark 7:10 is indicative of the Lord´s ´approval´ of the death penalty.

            If your understanding is right, then, after this same Word in the Trinity gave Lev. 20: 10 and Deut. 22: 22 – 24, then implicitly ´affirmed´ / ´approved´ the legitimacy of stoning in Jn. 8:7, why didn´t He Himself – who was obviously without sin – carry out the Mosaic law, stone the adulteress, and thus ´satisfy justice´ by executing the death penalty?

        • “Can we really imagine The Lord approving the death penalty?” Hmmmm … let’s see.
          John 19:11
          “11] Jesus answered: Thou shouldst not have any power against me, unless it were given thee from above. Therefore, he that hath delivered me to thee, hath the greater sin.”

          Jesus said this in response to Pilate stating that he had power of life and death over Jesus. Jesus makes it clear that Pilate, as the representative of “the state”, does indeed have this power.

          So I can not only imagine it, Jesus himself makes this clear.

          • Non sequitur.
            As in, – Jn 19:11 cannot be taken as proof for divine *approval* of the death penalty.

            Loose analogies:
            (1) merely because Spirit-inspired Scripture *mentions* wives taken by a man, – examples: 2 Sam. 5: 13; 2 Chron. 11: 21; Ex. 21: 10 – does that automatically imply a divine *approval* of polygamy?
            (2) God *permits* (NOT *approves*) evil to occur but manages to ´draw straight through crooked lines´. As CCC 412 – quoting St. Thomas Aquinas – says: ¨God permits evil in order to draw forth some greater good.¨ The evil of the condemnation of the Son of Man and the imposition of death penalty was permitted by God. Not ¨approved¨ by Him – and definitely not in the sense that it should form the basis / excuse / cover for future taking of life by the state!

            Besides, if what you say is true, as noted above, the Word gave Lev. 20: 10 and Deut. 22: 22 – 24 and then implicitly ´affirmed´ / ´approved´ the legitimacy of stoning in Jn. 8:7.
            However, why didn´t He Himself – who was obviously without sin – stay true to His Word, carry out the Mosaic law, stone the adulteress, and thus ´satisfy justice´ by executing the death penalty?

          • JN,
            So you ignore ” The Lord says” where you want to in the OT? The OT has God giving those death penalties in the first person imperative. Very trending. I can prove the last three Popes join you in that odd view of the OT. Let us thank Raymond Brown et al for this progress into a private dark dead end that looks bright as satan sometimes does.
            Christ didn’t stone her because both man and woman had to be caught by witnesses and both had to be stoned beginning with the witnesses acting first Deut17:7…then the community joins in. Where was the male?
            And more importantly, Christ was in this event ending the very death penalties He as God had given since He was telling the men the inadequate nature of the “law” compared to the Grace that would come thru Him.
            In the woman/adultery incident, other things were going on. He was not only ending the Sinai covenant death penalties that He gave as Word. He was showing each accusing man WHY He was ending the Sinai covenant. Christ stoops to write in the dirt twice. What did He write? The first writing I suspect is from Daniel but not needed here. The second dirt writing affects the men already affected by Christ’s words about which of them is without sin …who all grow silent and leave in an exact order. The words alone would not have convicted the proud….the writing was needed.

            He wrote each accusing man’s secret worst sin in the dust near their name in this second writing in the dust. How do we know this? Look at the text. Each accusing man leaves totally alone and in exact order of descending age….and silently with no protestation further. Each was stunned and fearful that He knew and wrote their hidden sin in the dirt. Hundreds of years prior Jeremiah (17:13) wrote these words:
            ” they that depart from thee, shall be written in the earth.”. Originally said of reprobated men, they are a prophecy of this event fragmentally in that Christ was giving these men a chance to avoid reprobation.

            The macro issue of the event was that the Sinai covenant didn’t give any of them…the woman and the male accusers…sanctifying grace…Galatians3:21…” had there been a law that giveth life, salvation would be from the law”….Hebrews7:19…” the law brought nothing to perfection”. Christ was ending His own stoning laws for the Jews because He was bringing the New Covenant which however included Romans 13:4 reiterating Gen.9:5-6…the sole death penalty to all nations not just the Jews and for crimes …not for sins like adultery. If a guilty inmate is predestined to salvation ( a Catholic and NT idea), he will be at peace with execution whether it is fast in China or 20 years of appeals in California. Those predestined by God can’t be taken out of His hand…” And those he predestined he also called; and those he called he also justified; and those he justified he also glorified.” Rom.8:30.
            Romans 13:4 was inspired by the Holy Spirit during a morally deficient empire which had life sentences in the mines and which had recently unjustly killed Christ and unjustly killed James in Acts 12:2 with the same machaira/ sword mentioned by Rom.13:4. It is a synecdoche for which the Holy Spirit could have moved Paul to use the Greek for “scourge” …but did not. Execution is a metaphor for hell….another topic treated absurdly by modern Catholic authors in the empty hell hope of Von Balthasar and Rahner which Bishop Barron calls rational which means he too like them ignores Christ in Luke 13:24 saying…” many will seek to enter and they will not be able”. Don’t get me wrong…Revelations 7:9 notes that very many ( uncountable) will also be in Heaven despite the narrow way passage which is about the wayfaring state not the after death state.
            The two Popes previous to Francis both suggested that we can’t be sure Judas is in hell….despite Christ in John using the certain ( according to Justin Martyr) past tense prophecy….” those whom you gave me I guarded and not one of them perished except the son of perdition”…..said by Christ prior to Judas completing his first major sin. Isaiah uses past tense prophecy in chapter 52 about another certainty…Christ…” by his wounds we were healed”….” there is no beauty in him and we have seen him and there is no sightliness that we might be desirous of him.”
            Judas is in hell and that makes hell real instead of hypothetical only. Three Popes hated hell and hated execution because they were loathe to handle the severe side of the gospel as (Acts20:26-27) Paul had to when he said…” I call you to witness this day that I am innocent of the blood of all because I have not shrunk from declaring to you the whole counsel of God”…..the sweet and the sour as the Chinese say.

          • I’m not sure where to most properly make my comment but this is the earliest point where the reply option is available.
            *
            There has been some mention of the woman taken in adultery. The prophets called Israel a harlot for her frequent lapses into idolatry. Idolatry is spiritual adultery against God. To me the woman taken in adultery is the type of idolatrous, adulterous Israel. The absence of a john could be explained by the falsity of the pagan gods that Israel worshiped, see Psalm 115. In some translations it is said that the elders were the first to leave. When Christ was writing on the ground, I wonder if He wrote some verses from Hosea and Jeremiah?

          • @bill bannon:

            I submit that the OT death penalties given by God in the first person imperative do not apply any longer in the light of the Gospel.

            ´So you ignore ”The Lord says” where you want to in the OT?´

            Am I ¨ignoring¨ or, considering salus animarum suprema lex, simply taking a leaf out from the ´spiritual-maternity-inducing´ Word (including Jn. 10:10)?

            Tangential *loose* examples:
            # 1:
            The Lord SAID something in Gen. 18:17,20 and then arrives at Gen. 18:32c
            # 2:
            The Lord SAID something in Ex. 32:9 and ¨changed His mind¨ by Ex. 32:14
            # 3:
            Jonah 3:10, 4:2,11.
            # 4:
            The Lord SAID something in Jn 2:4
            # 5:
            His ¨coldness¨ in Mt. 15:23a. His ¨elitism¨ in the verse after that. The ¨downright rudeness¨ / ¨slap-in-the-face¨ in verse 26. And then, the fulfillment ¨as you wish¨.

            The point being, – considering:
            a) what Pius XII said in n.47 of Divino Afflante Spiritu (see comment by Robert Fastiggi further below)
            and
            b) the consistent (Lk 10:16) declarations by the recent Popes and other shepherds on this issue along with the growing consensus in the Church,
            it may not be wise to…[please excuse the risqué language and mixed prolife metaphors]:
            1) constrain the Word/Seed (like some ´sola Scriptura´ Protestants!) in a museum/¨theological condom¨ so as to even unintentionally / unknowingly prevent ¨fertilization¨ through Mt. 13:52 (for example), or,
            2) ¨abort¨ fledgling developments in doctrine as ¨progress into a private dark dead end that looks bright as satan sometimes does¨.

            Do the above mean that anything goes? Obviously not! As noted elsewhere, development in doctrine isn´t code for dilution or laxity in the moral law. And it is the Magisterium alone that gets to finally decide whether a particular development is legitimate or not.

            Re the woman caught in adultery, I´m afraid your contention that the absence of the male was a reason for the Lord not stoning the woman isn´t convincing. Jn 8:11b shows He could have condemned but chose not to and instead pointed to a higher path.

            ´Christ was in this event ending the very death penalties He as God had given since He was telling the men the inadequate nature of the “law” compared to the Grace that would come thru Him…Christ was ending His own stoning laws for the Jews because He was bringing the New Covenant which however included Romans 13:4 reiterating Gen.9:5-6…the sole death penalty to all nations not just the Jews and for crimes…´

            That doesn´t make sense! If he ended the death penalties because of the ´inadequate nature of the law´, is Spirit-inspired Romans 13:4 a source of Grace? Isn´t Rom 13:4 simply affirming the legitimacy of temporal authority´s right to punish wrong? Is Rom. 13:4 evidence for divine *approval* (??) of the death penalty? Can it be cited as evidence that the death penalty is per se NOT contrary to the Gospel?!?

            Re ´empty hell hope´, I tend to agree there is a ¨reasonable¨ hope for the same. Despite its wording, Lk. 13:24 isn´t the last word on the subject and doesn´t necessarily ¨close the door¨.
            Can the Groom deny His Bride´s ardent, passionate yearning to quench His thirst? [Eze. 18:23, Jn 19:28, Mt. 16:19, to cite a few.]

            Re Judas, why is it that despite Jn. 17:12, no official Church teaching mentions the names of those who are definitely in hell?

            ¨Three Popes hated hell and hated execution because they were loathe to handle the severe side of the gospel as (Acts20:26-27) Paul…¨

            There is a time for everything.
            A time for the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.
            A time for the weapons of severity.
            A time for the medicine of mercy.

            Back-seat driving isn´t ideal.
            Let the driver drive.

    • correction: ´if the man sitting on the Chair of Peter exercises the power in Mt. 18: 18 in a more evangelical way than the man sitting on the Chair of Moses, can he be faulted?´
      should read as:
      ´if the man sitting on the Chair of Peter exercises the power in Mt. 16:18-19 in a more evangelical way than the man sitting on the Chair of Moses, can he be faulted?´

  3. Justice and Mercy have kissed (Ps 85:10). Insight into the Pope’s thought is related to the controversy between Vincent of Lérins and St Augustine on the issue of grace. St Vincent influenced by Semi-Pelagianism opposed Augustine on his doctrine of prevenient grace given prior to one’s choice. Augustine believed as does Aquinas that grace is always a gift that precedes free choice. Man is free to reject. Justice in Lérinian context may incorporate the human condition and Man’s ethical vision. For example Pope Francis perceives a multiplicity of mitigating factors that affect culpability of D&R and “irregulars” from valid exchange of vows to habitual practice. Exchange of vows is subject to “the more we examine the matter the more apt we are to find exceptions” (AL). Habitual practice includes cohabitation, self abuse, and adultery. Many hold that habitual practice can mitigate the responsibility for grave sin, perhaps completely. The Lérinian idea that Man also manages his salvation prior to grace complies with the Pontiff’s notion that a living tradition subject to human rationale evolves [Benedict XIV later added St Vincent’s Pelagian terms were used before the controversy was decided]. The logic of that argument is it suffices that the reprobate accelerate fornicating, lying, falsely accusing to be free of penalty. All this affects the formation of conscience and frees from guilt. It makes it impossible to determine guilt despite objective evidence. Justice requires benefit of doubt. This is the deception. Justice and Mercy have kissed, although the kiss is akin to that of Judas.

  4. If the development of a doctrine is now “no” without exception, via Pope Francis and his tortured logic, how is that simply not a change?

    How does Francis reconcile this in his own mind that if what he says is true now was not true for all the centuries up to this point…the Church would have to have been in error?

    Capital punishment in this sense is and has been life and death. There is nothing in between.

    How could the Church have stayed silent since the time of the apostles??? If this is contrary to the Gospel, what does one say to the innumerable number of “victims”….”sorry, it was all a mistake as now we have the truth”?

    How does truth change?

  5. Can anyone take anything the pope says seriously? The pope who cried ‘mercy’ like the boy who cried wolf. Part of the church who cried ‘aggiornamento’ Maybe they have a point, but considering the source, is it even worth listening. The man sees no problem giving communion to practicing ss partners… I’m supposed to care what he thinks about a practice that the church allowed and even co-operated with for centuries?

  6. New expressions of an unchanging dogma can be harmful if the rhetoric does not decisively point the audience back to the truth of the dogma itself.

    A physical analogy would be a new cathedral built in a postmodern style whose exterior form in no way aesthetically points to the sacredness of the activities happening inside.

  7. In the hierarchy of nutty things voiced by Pope Francis, his comments on the death penalty hardly merit attention. The schism he will foment will be centered on something like “women “priests,” or the end of Christian marriage laws. Or, the Lord may take mercy on us and intervene before this comes to pass…

    • Or his denial to Scalfari that any souls go to hell, but rather that those who are not brought into union with God are simply annihilated and cease to exist.

  8. What’s never said is that ccc 2267 is a circumvention of homework on the part of St. JPII. Rather than do any research on whether the death penalty saves lives through deterring other potential murderers in a given country, ccc 2267 stealthily changes the parameters of what deterrence is. It talks only of deterring the one murderer you captured…as though that country has no other murderers out there in its cities in the potential mode. This is ludicrous and no one with a paying job within Catholic institutions can say its ludicrous unless they have a trust fund…or they’ll join Prof. Seifert in exile and in lawsuits. The US Supreme Court prior to the creation of the catechism did four years of comparing real (not one person) deterrence studies pro and con the death penalty while they stopped the USA death penalty from 1972 to 1976 in those states that have it.
    They found that the death penalty is pro life in that it decreases not passion but premeditated murders in a region. The cdf office and the Pope should have petitioned our Supreme Court for that body’s findings if they themselves were going to do no normal deterrence studies and instead circumvent that heavy work by changing deterrence to absurdly mean….deterring the sole murderer you caught which is the essence of ccc 2267. It saved them immense work to simply talk about deterring the one caught man. Laziness from the very beginning. The absurdity is that a non death penalty ( for secular reasons) Catholic region from Brazil to Mexico turns out from UN 2012 figures to be the highest murder rate large area on earth with a lightly death penalty part of Africa second. Guatemala has a murder rate of 31 per 100,000 ( very high) with no employed ordinary death penalty and with a 4% conviction rate for murder. China has a .74 per 100,000 murder rate…that’s point 74…less than 1 per 100,000.
    It is the ideal place to murder.
    Evangelization? This trend will keep China zealous as to controlling Catholicism. She is obeying Romans 13:4 without knowing it and we are never mentioning it. She has hundreds of millions of poor who proved violent in the Taipei Rebellion of the 19th century. She cannot afford to become like largely catholic Brazil and Mexico…24 and 20 per 100K murder rates to her .74 per 100K murder rate…with the death penalty.

  9. Without the death penalty humanity would still be searching for a way out of its situation.It is God’s permissive will to accomplish a supreme good out of an intrinsic evil. Who are we to complain about God’s permissive will? Jesus didn’t so why should we?

    • This is a very thoughtful article on the question of development vs. change in doctrine. I think, however, the focus of Pope Francis is on the deeper development of our understanding of the Gospel teaching concerning the dignity, sacredness, and inviolability of all human life. This development in doctrine leads us to reassess prior teaching on the death penalty.

      Regarding prior teaching on capital punishment, much depends on whether it is definitive or subject to change and development. Not everyone agrees with Feser, Bessette, and Cardinal Dulles that the liceity of the death penalty is settled doctrine. Some believe that the historic recognition of the penalty’s legitimacy is more like a “sententia communis” rather than a definitive teaching. It’s also questionable whether Popes like St. Nicholas I (d. 867) and St. John Paul II (d. 2005) opposed executing criminals on merely prudential grounds. St. Nicholas offers this instruction:

      “….without hesitation and in every possible circumstance, save the life of the body and soul of each individual. You should save from death not only the innocent but also criminals, because Christ has saved you from the death of the soul.” (Epistula 97, cap. 25).

      As can be seen, Pope Nicholas is not appealing to prudential considerations but the Gospel recognition that Christ died for us, which argues against killing even the guilty. The same is true for St. John Paul II’s recognition that non-lethal means of punishment are “more in conformity with the dignity of the human person” (cf. EV, 56 and CCC, 2267). John Paul II speaks of this as a “principle” (principium) not a prudential judgment in Evangelium vitae, 56.

      Some, though, argue that the legitimacy of the death penalty is taught by Sacred Scripture and is, therefore, definitive and infallible. The Old Testament passages that support capital punishment, however, must be studied carefully to determine whether they are permanent teachings or examples of the judicial law, which is subject to change (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas I-II qq. 99–100, 103–105). It’s also important to keep in mind what Pius XII observes in his 1943 encyclical, Divino Afflante Spiritu, n. 47:

      “Let [the sons of the Church] bear in mind above all that in the rules and laws promulgated by the Church there is question of doctrine regarding faith and morals; and that in the immense matter contained in the Sacred Books—legislative, historical, sapiential, and prophetical—there are but few texts whose sense has been defined by the authority of the Church; nor are those more numerous about which the teaching of the Holy Fathers is unanimous.”

      Even the much cited Gen 9:6 is a two-edged sword with regard to the death penalty. If taken literally it would mean that those who execute the guilty also need to be executed. We should consider how Pope Benedict XVI cites Gen 9:6 in his 2012 Post-Synodal Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente, n. 26:

      “God wants life, not death. He forbids all killing, even of those who kill (cf. Gen 4:15-16; 9:5-6; Ex 20:13).”

      The meaning of particular Scripture texts is, of course, subject to interpretation. Those, however, who claim that Pope Francis is contradicting Sacred Scripture on the death penalty must keep in mind what Vatican II teaches in Dei Verbum, 12:

      “For all of what has been said about the way of interpreting Scripture is subject finally to the judgment of the Church, which carries out the divine commission and ministry of guarding and interpreting the word of God.”

      • Someone contacted me about the original language of Benedict XVI’s Post-Synodal Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente (Sept. 14, 2012), n. 26. It is French, and it’s found in the AAS 104 (2012), p. 762. The French reads: “Dieu veut la vie, non la mort. Il interdit le meurtre, même celui du meurtrier” (cfr Gn 4, 15-16; 9, 5-6; Ex 20, 13). 27). A literal translation of the French original might be: “God wants life, not death. He forbids murder, even of the murderer” (cf. Gen 4:15-16; 9:5-6; Ex 20:13)]. Some might say that Pope Benedict XVI is not condemning capital punishment in this text but only the unlawful murder of murderers. It’s important, though, to note that Benedict also cites Gen 4:15-16, which shows that God wished to protect the life of the murderer, Cain. It’s also worth noting that the French noun, “le meurtre,” can refer to an act of intentional homicide or killing, which could include capital punishment. Ultimately, though, it’s up to the Magisterium to interpret these texts of Scripture.

      • Dr. Fastiggi – Could you explain how the doctrine of just war and the right to use lethal force if necessary to protect one’s own life in self-defense can remain if the death penalty is always against the Gospel on the ground that only God may take a human life?

  10. This quote from Luke 23 may appropriate, given that it is his feast day. “We are condemned justly.” Hmmm. I suppose he may have been wrong.

    LK 23:40-43: The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.”

    • I don’t think Pope Francis and Benedict XVI deny the justifiable use of force in self-defense. It is the intentional killing of someone who no longer poses a threat that is at issue. Your passages from Luke are not relevant. They only reflect the views of the speakers.

      • Well, let’s draw that out to it’s logical conclusion, Dr. Fastiggi.

        The Catechism currently says the death penalty may be legitimate if there is no other way to prevent a criminal from harming innocent people. It also says that in the modern world we have the resources to incarcerate people, so as a practical matter, the circumstances that would allow imposition of the death penalty are exceedingly rare – and perhaps even non-existent.

        Francis wants to take that a step further and say that the death penalty is always impermissible and can never be used because it is opposed to the Gospel and only God can take a human life. So, we are moving from something that is theoretically permissible in rare circumstances to a categorical prohibition in all circumstances. In other words, the death penalty may never be imposed, even in the rare circumstances where it might be necessary to save innocent lives (the one “exception” identified by the current Catechism”). The proposed change to the Catechism is specifically designed to eliminate even this remote possibility.

        The inevitable logical conclusion from this would be that:

        a) The State (e.g., the police) may never use lethal force to stop a crime in progress (think of the Las Vegas shooter, for example) (because only God may take a human life and it is not permissible to kill someone even when it is the only way to protect innocent lives).

        b) The State (e.g., the military) may never use lethal force to defend its people from attack by an invading army – even if it were clear that the invading force intended to slaughter, rape, and/or enslave the nation’s people (because only God may take a human life, and the use of lethal force even to protect innocent lives is “against the Gospel”).

        c) An individual may never use lethal force to stop an attacker in self defense (or in defense of his family) because only God may take a human life, and killing someone is always wrong, even under the limited circumstances permitted by the current Catechism – i.e., when it is the only means available to protect innocent lives.

        If Pope Francis’ position becomes official Church teaching, I just don’t see how the use of lethal force to kill someone in any of these scenarios can be justified without violating the law of non-contradiction. If there is a distinguishing principle that makes these scenarios categorically different from the death penalty, please share it because I don’t really see one. In fact, in the situation of the death penalty, the criminal has presumably been given due process, has been tried and found guilty, but (for whatever reason) the state has determined that the only way to protect the innocent is execution. Admittedly, such a scenario would be exceedingly rare in modern, developed states (it is hard to imagine such a situation) but there are places in the world where it would not be far-fetched. And, there is no reason to assume that the relative prosperity and stability that permits effective incarceration in modern developed countries will persist of all time. The possibility of a complete societal breakdown may be unlikely but it is not impossible. For example, after a nuclear war or a worldwide epidemic.

        I think the implications of this proposed change are very profound.

        Peace to you.

        • Thank you for your comments, but I don’t see where Pope Francis says “only God can take a human life.” The death penalty involves “the willful suppression of human life,” and this is different than killing in self-defense. In his March 20, 2015 letter on the death penalty, the Holy Father affirms what St. John Paul II teaches in Evangelium vitae, 55 about legitimate defense, which may sometimes involve taking human life: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/letters/2015/documents/papa-francesco_20150320_lettera-pena-morte.html
          If recent popes had not spoken out against the death penalty, Catholics could engage in ongoing and spirited debates for and against capital punishment. Catholics, though, are expected to give “religious submission of will and intellect” to teachings of the Roman Pontiff even when he is not speaking ex cathedra (see Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 25). This is what I am trying to do with regard to Pope Francis’ teachings about capital punishment. The Pope is not a debate opponent, but the successor of Peter “whose primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact” (Lumen Gentium, 22). Some ardent Catholic supporters of the death penalty, however, maintain that the Pope cannot contradict Scripture and tradition. These Catholics, though, assume that their understanding of Scripture and tradition is superior to that of the Roman Pontiff. If these Catholics have doubts about what the Holy Father teaches, they can submit their doubts to the Holy Father or the CDF. The Holy Father or the CDF, however, will have the last word about such matters because they have the magisterial authority not private scholars.

          • Capital punishment, he said, “heavily wounds human dignity” and is an “inhuman measure.” “It is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of whom, in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor,” the pope said(http://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2017/death-penalty-is-contrary-to-the-gospel-pope-says.cfm).

            I was unaware of Pope Francis’ March 25, 2015 letter; thank you for pointing it out. However, I still think it is pretty obvious that the two positions (i.e., the death penalty is never permissible even to protect innocent lives, but lethal force is permissible in other situations to protect innocent lives) are logically inconsistent.

            What you point out about “resistance” to the Church’s teaching on the death penalty is true. Many Catholics have resisted the Church’s current teaching about capital punishment. Perhaps a call to obedience to the current teaching is in order?

          • Also, as to the resistance, it is interesting that progressive Catholics never seem to mind flagrant and open opposition to the magisterium on other issues, such as abortion, homosexual acts, or artificial birth control (because conscience!) yet go all apoplectic over anyone questioning whether changing the Catechism’s provision concerning the death penalty is really a good idea.

          • It is beyond ridiculous to consider every nonsensical thing that comes out of this man’s mouth (figuratively too) as being magisterial. Much of it is simply liberal or globalist propaganda and should be treated as such.

          • “These Catholics, though, assume that their understanding of Scripture and tradition is superior to that of the Roman Pontiff”
            Well, let me be nice and just say… Maybe they’re right.

      • As to the quote from Luke 23, I only noted it because it addresses the death penalty and it was St.Luke’s feast day. I acknowledge that it expresses the opinion of the “good thief”. Hence, my statement: “Hmmm. I suppose he may have been wrong.” But then, why did St. Luke record these words, which seem unnecessary to the narrative, unless to convey that the execution of the thieves was just while the execution of Jesus was unjust?

      • Pope Francis’ stated reason for declaring capital punishment evil is: the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception until natural death. How does that defence excuse killing in self-defence (supposing Pope Francis considers that moral) but not capital punishment? Pope Francis is or should be well aware that many who have upheld the defence of human life from conception to natural death see no contradiction between that defence and proposing the moral liceity of both self-defence and capital punishment. It’s incumbent on him to show the relevant distinction he is making – if indeed he has one. Otherwise, his argument is, to say the least, unconvincing.

      • “It is the intentional killing of someone who no longer poses a threat that is at issue.”

        No, that is not the issue. If that were the issue, there would be no need to change the Catechism since it already rules out the death penalty In such cases. The issue is precisely the opposite: proposing to prohibit the death penalty even in cases where there is no other way to prevent harm to innocents.

        CCC:
        2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

        If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

        Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”68

        • the catechism is perfect… It just needs to be changed. This is true, but it’s false. It was infallible in the past, but now it’s not…
          (but don’t worry, because we will never ever try to apply the same logic to anything that really matters, like abortion or contraception or same sex marriage – those teachings are absolutely safe… for now) And if anyone says anything just say “mercy”

5 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Pope Francis, the Lérinian legacy of Vatican II, and capital punishment - Catholic Crossing
  2. Pope Francis, the Lérinian legacy of Vatican II, and capital punishment -
  3. On capital punishment, even the pope’s defenders are confused – Catholic World Report
  4. A Critique of Faggioli’s interpretation of early Ratzinger’s view of Scripture, Tradition, and Authority – Catholic World Report
  5. Is opposition to the death penalty Thomistic? – Catholic World Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*