Debate has always been an invigorating and constructive way of defining and refining views, assuming that the debaters have minds of probity and reason. This is increasingly absent in our culture, where subjectivism rules, and where there is only one debater, and his opponent is a straw man of his own construction.
Yet when one reads the “spontaneous remarks” of Pope Francis on various subjects of the day, the quality of reasoning and information of facts is so fugitive, that frustration yields to sheer embarrassment. There is, for example, the Holy Father’s remarks to youth in Turin on a hot June day in 2015: even a Reuters press release said that his smorgasbord of concerns, from bankers to the weapons industry to Nazi concentration camps, was “rambling.” While constrained by respect for the Petrine office, and aware of the strains that imposes, it is distressing to look for a train of thought and find only a train wreck.
That has to be the impression after reading the Pope’s remarks to a Delegation of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty. Pope Francis reiterated his absolutist opposition to the death penalty which, by a singular gesture, he has also ordered be inscribed in the Catechism. Having in the past ruled out life sentences, calling them a form of “hidden death penalty”, he now insists that “the Magisterium of the Church understands that life imprisonment, which removes the possibility of moral and existential redemption, for the benefit of the condemned and for the community, is a form of the death penalty in disguise.” This extreme position must confound many opponents of the death penalty who have cited the possibility of life sentences as an adequate and counter-balancing punishment.
This certainly went far beyond the second edition of the 1992 Catechism, which affirmed the integrity of capital punishment in Scripture and Tradition but added that the cases in which the execution of the offender as an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” By adding to a catechetical text a prudential opinion, John Paul II did something unprecedented and the whirlwind now being reaped in a pontificate less theologically acute, could justify concluding that the insertion of a prudential apostrophe was imprudent.
Pope Francis uses the term ”inadmissible” to describe the death penalty, although it has no theological substance, and by avoiding words such as “immoral” or “wrong”, inflicts on discourse an ambiguity similar to parts of Amoris Laetitia. The obvious meaning is that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, but to say so outright would be too blatant. He also calls all life “inviolable,” a term which applies only to innocent life and has no moral warrant otherwise. Then there is the ancillary and unmentioned consideration of the role of punishment and hell in all this, conjuring a suspicion of universalism, which is the denial of eternal alienation from God.
In 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger explained: “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia” and should a Catholic support the death penalty “he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.” Pope Francis has discarded that, just as he has set aside the entire magisterial tradition of the Church on the kinds of penalties—medicinal and retributive—and their functions. This is no surprise, since an attaché of the Holy See Press Office, Father Thomas Rosica, has said in a statement ultramontane to the point of heresy: “Our Church has indeed entered a new phase: with the advent of this first Jesuit pope, it is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture.”
Exceptional delineations of authentic teaching on penalties were explained by Pius XII in his discourse to the First National Conference of Italian Lawyers in 1949 and the Sixth Internal Congress of Penal Law in 1953. A definitive new study is the book By Man Shall His Blood be Shed by Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette. Professor Feser has logically asked why we should have reverence for a father who has no reverence for the fathers, and warns that by divorcing his teaching from the constant tradition, Pope Francis is cutting off the very branch on which he sits.
Pope Francis justifies himself by invoking a “”progress” in society, but this is a humanistic—even Pelagian—confidence that has no warrant in reality. It also lets loose a cataract of contradictions. For instance, one of the Pope’s men, Archbishop Marcelo Sorondo, praised Communist China for coming “closer to Catholic social teaching” than the United States, although there were 23 executions in the United States last year compared with 1,551 in China, more than all other nations combined.
Pope Francis says that his innovative teaching “does not imply any contradiction” of the Church’s tradition but, one has to say reluctantly, it indeed does. The shift cannot be called a legitimate development of doctrine because it neglects all the classical criteria for authentic development, most especially what John Henry Newman named “preservation of type.” And as capital punishment pertains to natural law, once it is rejected as intrinsically wrong, the same could happen to any aspect of natural law, not least the anthropology of Humanae Vitae or the moral doctrine of Veritatis Splendor. Abidingly conscious of the claims and burdens of the Church’s highest office, that holy seat and high duty is diminished by neglect of its obligations to the perennial teachings of the fathers; and the faithful are at risk when they are offered confusion and superficiality in place of systematic thought. In short, the Vatican has become a theological Chernobyl. We are in dangerous territory.
• Related Reading: “Capital Punishment and the Catechism: A CWR Symposium” (August 18, 2018)
(Editor’s note: The third paragraph of this essay was corrected and revised on December 22, 2018. The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the CWR editors or of any Ignatius Press staff.)
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