Catechism changes demand the impossible

The new text on capital punishment seems to require Catholics to substitute this Pope’s judgment on this subject for their own.

(Photo of Pope Francis: CNS photo/Paul Haring)

First of all, I would like to thank the Catholic World Report’s Editor-in-Chief, Carl E. Olson, for his kind invitation to participate in this symposium. Thanks also to Thomas Nash, Robert Kennedy, Edward Peters, Fr. James Schall, and Joseph Trabbic, for their contributions. It is a rare thing, and a fine one, to air and exchange views of a matter so significant to the common good of the Church and society in a spirit of amity. I am grateful.

Since I am to share thoughts critical of the changes to the text of the Catechism, it is appropriate that I state my position on the broad issue: I favor a moratorium on the death penalty. While I’ve never had any issue with capital penalty as such, I do think that societies — especially Western societies — can these days afford to be merciful; that Christian societies ought to be merciful; that any society claiming to be animated by Christian principles must try to be merciful.

Any society forbearing to impose capital penalty should make it clear that, in not giving such evildoers as deserve it their just deserts, it is doing its best to be merciful. Many enemies — I think of notorious terrorists like the Boston Marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — will make weakness of any such show of mercy. A Christian society ought to believe nevertheless that to do otherwise would betray greater weakness, and hope that in God’s time such evildoers will come to see in the choice to show mercy an act informed by charity and solicitude for their souls’ salvation.

This is not to deny that some evildoers deserve to die for their crimes, or that the collective moral agent we call human society — including civil and political society — has not the duty, hence the right to punish evildoers, even unto death. Absent a commitment to mercy and the necessary means to protect itself, the only option for a morally sane people is to put down those guilty of capital wickedness, and may God have mercy on their souls.

Until a couple of weeks ago, my position was not heresy. I do not believe it is heresy today.

Here, I intend to address a very narrow subject: the specific change to the text of one paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger — before he became Benedict XVI — explained the nature and scope of the Catechism in these terms:

The Catechism does not claim to present the only possible form of moral theology or even the best systematic form of moral theology—this was not its mandate. It sets out the essential anthropological and theological connections that are to be the components of human moral behavior. Its starting point is found in the presentation of the dignity of the human person, that is at the same time his greatness and the reason for his moral obligation.

The changed text appears to take that point de depart, and turn it into the point d’arrivée of an historical process of development and discovery:

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.

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.

The president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, took to the pages of the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, to assert that the change is “a true dogmatic progress with which the content of the faith is clarified.” His assertion does not perfectly comport with the one found in the letter from the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, SJ, who wrote, “This development centers principally on the clearer awareness of the Church for the respect due to every human life.”

If justice involves giving each man his due, then any “clearer awareness” of “the respect due to every human life” will be a matter of justice. While it may be just to treat a man one way in one time and place, and unjust to treat him in the same way at another time in the same or in another place, what changes is the set of pertinent circumstances, not the nature of the subject receiving the treatment.

More to this, the legitimacy in principle of capital penalty is founded in reason, recognized in Holy Scripture, and asserted by virtually every human society unproblematically and without serious principled objection even in most civil jurisdictions, which have chosen to abolish it. The Holy See only eliminated the penalty completely in 1969.

That the new text of the Catechism is a development of doctrine is thus a problematic assertion—not insuperably problematic, but—enough to make the protestations of continuity suspect and the conspicuously unproblematic assertions of clarity incredible: for one thing, human nature is immutable; for another, papal fiat is not the way that doctrine usually develops.

If the new text does require, as it appears to require, religious assent of intellect and will to a finding of fact regarding contingent and mutable circumstances, then it asks the impossible. The Church cannot have (cannot reasonably be supposed to have) knowledge of circumstances sufficient to make such a judgment. To the extent it is possible, it requires Catholics to substitute this Pope’s judgment in these regards, for their own. If that is what is happening, then it is no legitimate exercise of teaching authority, but moral plagiarism.

With regard to clarity—not to put too fine a point on it—saying does not make it so.

Theologians and pastors continue to debate the substance of the change. If there is no consensus regarding that question, there can be none regarding the matter to which the new formulation commands “religious assent of intellect and will”, i.e. the kind of consent the Catechism requires of the Catholic faithful.

If, as is the case in the present, the thing being proposed for belief is not sufficiently clear on its own—if the content or the “what” of the doctrinal formulation is itself the subject of significant discussion—then we may fairly judge the language being proposed to fail this basic test: it is impossible to assent to a proposition that has no clear meaning on its face.

Whatever Pope Francis intended to do with the change to the text, he has not altered the moral order, nor would he succeed in altering it, did he try. My friend, the learned and excellent Dr. David Franks, has given perhaps the best articulation of the sense of the thing the Pope has tried to do:

Of course, the Pope has not changed natural law (nor can he!). The death penalty has not suddenly become an intrinsic evil…Pope Francis is making a bigger play: to shift our perspective from static analysis of immutable natural law to dynamic embodiment of the providential motion of grace in history.

Franks goes on to say:

The Gospel makes the skeleton of law move according to the canons of grace and mercy. Justice is not abrogated, but it is radically transfigured by the law of the Cross. Pope Francis wants us to measure the world within the providential motion of all-transforming love.

These lines from his peroration are remarkable for their poetic sensibility, theological depth, ecclesial sense, and filial docility:

The great paradox of Christian action: to be agents of law and justice as nothing other than agents of grace and mercy. It means so much in us has to die: our old ways of measuring justice, our old political alliances, our old habits of turning natural-law into a shield against the extravagant claims of grace and its Kingdom.

That is a beautiful vision of the Christian at work in society. It is a better statement of Pope Francis’ goals in making the change than Francis was capable of offering It is a more doctrinally astute expression of the matter than any of the Pope’s advisers offered.

The problem is that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not the place for such a “bigger play.” That document is a teaching instrument, the purpose of which is to offer a clear, concise statement of Church teaching on basic questions of faith and the moral life. The Church does not teach heresy, but there is no guarantee her teaching tools will always be perfect or even adequate. The Pope cannot bind people to error, let alone to garble. What we do in cases like these is look for the sense in which the thing may be true, and assent to that.

Other Essays in the Symposium: 

“Some questions for defenders of capital punishment” by Robert G. Kennedy, who argues that the historical record is less consistent than many suppose and it does not, in fact, support the claim that the Church has committed itself irreformably to the right of the state to kill.”

“Development, not deviation: Evaluating Francis’ modification on the death penalty” by Thomas J. Nash, who writes, “We can reaffirm that state executions are not intrinsically evil, even while we join Pope Francis in working toward the abolition of their social application.”

“The death penalty debate and the Church’s magisterium” by Edward N. Peters, who writes: “I regard the liceity of the death penalty as having been established with infallible certitude by the Church’s ordinary magisterium.”

“On human dignity and the death penalty” by Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. who observes: “Whether human dignity is upheld if we allow no executions remains an open question. As Plato intimated, a case for the execution of certain criminals can be made precisely in the name of their human dignity.”

“Capital punishment: Intrinsically evil or morally permissible?” by Joseph G. Trabbic, who argues that what we appear to have on our hands is a case of interpretive undecidability.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 109 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, writer, and editor based in Rome, Italy. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

1 Comment

  1. I support the death penalty. I have noticed how many on death row turn to God, finally, such as Ted Bundy, Jeffery Dalmer and others.

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