Three questions for Catholic opponents of capital punishment

When one reads Pope Francis’s statements about the death penalty carefully, it turns out to be difficult to interpret them in a way that would make assent to them binding on Catholics.

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Pope St. John Paul II favored the abolition of capital punishment. However, the catechism he promulgated nevertheless taught that the death penalty can be legitimate “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” Moreover, the pope’s doctrinal spokesman Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI, made it clear that John Paul’s call for abolition reflected a prudential judgment with which faithful Catholics need not agree. In a 2004 memorandum, the cardinal wrote that “if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment… he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion,” and that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty.”

Pope Francis has taken a harder line against capital punishment than his predecessors. He has vigorously and repeatedly denounced the practice in public addresses, and has altered the catechism so that it now declares the death penalty flatly “inadmissible” and calls for “its abolition worldwide.” John Paul II’s exception has been removed. Some Catholic opponents of capital punishment appeal to these developments as proof that all Catholics are now obligated to favor its abolition – that there can no longer be the “legitimate diversity of opinion” spoken of by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. They label those who still support the death penalty “dissenters” and attribute to them disreputable motives, such as bloodlust or a political agenda.

But there are serious problems with this view (apart from the obvious one that the latter accusations are just cheap ad hominem attacks). For one thing, when one reads Pope Francis’s statements about the death penalty carefully, it turns out to be difficult to interpret them in a way that would make assent to them binding on Catholics. For another, if Catholic opponents of the death penalty were consistent in their appeal to these statements, then they would have to accept some further conclusions that it seems few of them do accept – and that it would be difficult for any faithful Catholic to accept. I will explain what I have in mind by setting out three questions that any intellectually honest Catholic has to address before he can claim that all Catholics are obligated to oppose capital punishment:

1. Does Pope Francis’s teaching on capital punishment amount to a doctrinal change or merely a prudential judgment?

There are two possible interpretations of Pope Francis’s teaching on the death penalty. Either he intends to revise the relevant doctrinal principles, or he intends merely to make a prudential judgment about how best to apply existing doctrinal principles to current circumstances. But on neither interpretation can Catholics be obligated to assent to his position (as opposed to merely giving it respectful consideration).

Here’s why. Consider first the suggestion that Pope Francis means to revise the relevant doctrinal principles. Now, the Church teaches that there are limits to what any pope can do by way of such revision. For example, the First Vatican Council taught:

For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.

Along the same lines, Pope Benedict XVI taught:

The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law.  On the contrary: the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word.  He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism…

The Pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church’s pilgrimage.

Now, as even many Catholic opponents of the death penalty acknowledge, it is not open to the Church to teach that capital punishment is wrong intrinsically or of its very nature. The most the Church can teach is that capital punishment is wrong under certain circumstances. The reason is that Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the popes prior to Pope Francis have consistently taught that capital punishment can be legitimate at least in principle. Given the Church’s claims about the reliability of Scripture and of her ordinary magisterium, it is not possible for the tradition to have been wrong for over two millennia about something that fundamental. Indeed, as I have shown in another article, the traditional teaching on the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment clearly meets the criteria for being an irreformable part of the ordinary magisterium. (Joseph Bessette and I set out the evidence for this at greater length in our book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.) So, the most that any pope could do by way of revising the relevant doctrinal principles would be to clarify the circumstances under which capital punishment can be legitimate.

The problem is this. Pope Francis holds that the death penalty should never be used under any circumstances. He does not even concede, as Pope John Paul II did, that there may be rare circumstances where it is justifiable in order to protect others from the offender. Now, if he were saying that it is true as a matter of doctrinal principle that capital punishment must never be used, then it seems he would be contradicting the irreformable teaching of Scripture and Tradition. For how could it be the case that capital punishment ought never to be applied even in principle, not even to protect the innocent, unless it were intrinsically wrong?

Now, no Catholic can be obligated to assent to anything that contradicts Scripture and Tradition – not even if a pope says it. After all, the Church acknowledges that popes are not infallible when not speaking ex cathedra. Moreover, though there is a strong presumption that Catholics ought to assent even to the non-infallible teachings of a pope, the Church also acknowledges that there are cases in which this presumption can be overridden and deficient magisterial statements respectfully criticized. The most obvious cases would be precisely those in which a pope appears to be contradicting irreformable doctrine. There is extensive teaching on this matter both from recent ecclesiastical documents and from tradition, which I have set out at length in another article. For example, the instruction Donum Veritatis, issued under Pope John Paul II, states:

The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule.  It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions…

If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian’s part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented.

Note that the document teaches that it can sometimes be a duty to raise respectful criticisms. Donum Veritatis even goes on to say that a faithful theologian who feels compelled to raise such issues with the Magisterial authorities can be said to “suffer for the truth.” The document also explicitly distinguishes the raising of such difficulties from the “dissent” associated with heterodox theologians who want to reverse the Church’s traditional teachings.

This is not some novel teaching of the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that though the faithful have no authority to punish a wayward prelate, there can be circumstances in which they ought to correct a wayward prelate, even publicly, as long as this is done respectfully. And he offered an example that makes it clear that this includes popes:

[F]raternal correction is a work of mercy.  Therefore even prelates ought to be corrected…

It must be observed… that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly.  Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith, and, as the gloss of Augustine says on Galatians 2:11, “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects.”

A later example would be the case of Pope John XXII, who was rebuked by the theologians of his day for contradicting traditional teaching on the postmortem state of the soul, and who recanted this error on his deathbed. If Pope Francis were teaching that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong, then we would be in a similar situation, and would have a clear case in which the teaching of Donum Veritatis and of St. Thomas would apply. We would have a case where Catholics need not assent, indeed must not assent.

But again, there is an alternative interpretation of Pope Francis’s teaching. He can be read, not as intending to revise the doctrinal principles relevant to capital punishment, but rather as merely making a prudential judgment. Now, making a prudential judgment is a matter of applying doctrinal principles to concrete circumstances. Popes and other churchmen often lack any special expertise concerning such circumstances, which is why their prudential judgments about them are not binding on the faithful. A standard example would be the prudential application of Catholic just war doctrine. The Church teaches that for a war to be just, it must meet certain conditions. For example, the cause must be just, the harm posed by the aggressor must be grave, the military action proposed must have a good chance of succeeding, and so forth. Now, churchmen certainly have the authority to require Catholics to assent to these criteria. But they have no special knowledge of at least some of the information needed to apply the criteria. For example, they have no special expertise about military strategy and tactics. So, to the extent that applying just war doctrine to concrete circumstances requires such expertise, churchmen cannot make prudential judgments about them that are binding on the faithful. That is why the Catechism teaches that “the evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good,” namely governmental authorities. If a pope teaches that it is immoral to violate just war criteria, all Catholics are obligated to assent to that teaching. But if a pope were to make a judgement about the likelihood of success of a certain specific proposed military operation, Catholics are not obligated to assent.

Now, if Pope Francis is making a prudential judgment when he says that the death penalty should never be used anywhere, then what he is saying is that in his estimation, the purposes that the Catechism says are served by punishment – such as redressing the disorder caused by the offense, ensuring the safety of the public, and promoting the correction of the offender – are, in every country in the world today, more likely to be secured by a criminal justice system that has abolished capital punishment altogether than by one that keeps it on the books.

But this judgment makes crucial assumptions about matters on which popes have no special expertise. For example, does the death penalty have significant deterrence value? Are some violent offenders likely to pose a significant danger to the lives of other prisoners or of prison personnel? Are some organized crime figures likely to order murders from behind prison walls? Do some undeveloped countries lack adequate means effectively to imprison the most dangerous offenders? Does keeping the death penalty on the books provide prosecutors with a valuable bargaining chip by which offenders can be encouraged to inform on other dangerous criminals? Are a significant number of offenders likely to be moved to repentance precisely by the prospect of execution? Is an understanding of the principle that a punishment ought to be proportional to the gravity of the offense likely to disappear in a society in which no one is ever executed, no matter how horrific his crimes? An affirmative answer to one or more of these questions would give reason to conclude that the purposes of punishment are not best served by abolishing the death penalty.

Again, popes and other churchmen simply have no special expertise about such matters. Rather, social scientists, prosecutors, and police are the ones who have the necessary expertise, and many of them judge that the death penalty is still essential to realizing such purposes of punishment as securing public safety. (In our book, Joseph Bessette and I provide a detailed survey of the arguments and evidence.) Of course, the experts disagree among themselves about these matters, but disagreement among experts is true of almost every area in which prudential judgments are required. Moreover, precisely because churchmen themselves lack special expertise about the matters in question, they also lack any special competence to determine who are the best experts.

Now, as the Catechism explicitly acknowledges, it is public officials rather than churchmen who ultimately have the responsibility for making prudential judgments concerning how to apply just war criteria. So how could it fail to be true that it is also public officials rather than churchmen who ultimately have the responsibility for making prudential judgments about the application of the death penalty? After all, waging war is a far graver matter than executing an offender. It involves intentional killing of aggressors on a much larger scale, and also a risk of killing the innocent on a much larger scale. If the Church nevertheless teaches that final decisions about these matters are in the hands of public officials rather than churchmen, then as a matter of logic she has to teach the same thing about capital punishment. By the same token, if faithful Catholics can legitimately disagree with papal prudential judgments about the one, then they can legitimately disagree with papal prudential judgments about the other.

Indeed, in his 2004 memorandum, then-Cardinal Ratzinger explicitly linked the two issues together, writing that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty.” He explicitly contrasted this with abortion and euthanasia, about which he said there can be no legitimate diversity of opinion among Catholics. The reason is that the Church teaches that abortion and euthanasia are intrinsically evil, whereas waging war and inflicting the death penalty are not intrinsically evil. No prudential judgement is required when deciding whether to perform a direct abortion or to euthanize someone. You simply must never do it, period. But prudential judgment is required where waging war and applying capital punishment are concerned, because these things may be done under certain circumstances. Nothing Pope Francis has said makes this any less true now than it was in 2004. Hence, if Pope Francis is merely making a prudential judgment when he says that capital punishment should never be used, then what then-Cardinal Ratzinger said in 2004 appears to apply today as well. And what he said, again, is that “if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment… he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion,” and that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty.”

The bottom line, then, is this. When Pope Francis says that capital punishment should never be used, then either he is making a doctrinal change that contradicts the teaching of Scripture and Tradition, or he is merely making a prudential judgment. If he is doing the first, then faithful Catholics should not agree with him. If he is doing the second, then faithful Catholics need not agree with him. Either way, they are not obligated to agree with him.

If Catholics who oppose capital punishment don’t like this conclusion and insist on claiming that Catholics are obligated to oppose capital punishment in all cases, then they need to explain exactly what is wrong with the argument I’ve just set out. Mere foot stomping and flinging of ad hominem attacks will not do.

But this is only the beginning of the grave problems facing these opponents of capital punishment. Let us move on to the other questions.

2. Do you agree with Pope Francis that life sentences should be abolished?

The standard positon of Catholic opponents of capital punishment has for decades now been that the practice is unnecessary, insofar as dangerous offenders can be incarcerated for life instead. Hence the U.S. Catholic bishops have said that “one alternative to the death penalty is life without the possibility of parole for those who continue to pose a deadly threat to society.”

However, Pope Francis has consistently condemned life sentences as well as the death penalty, and has said that they are objectionable for the same reasons. That is to say, in Pope Francis’s view, if you oppose capital punishment, then to be consistent you should also oppose life imprisonment! For some reason, those who defend the pope’s views on the death penalty rarely call attention to this aspect of his position. They have not loudly demanded that all Catholics work for the abolition of life sentences, the way they have loudly demanded that all Catholics oppose capital punishment.

But the pope himself has been clear. Here are some of his remarks on the subject. In an address on October 23, 2014, the pope said:

All Christians and men of good will are thus called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty… in all its forms, but also in order to improve prison conditions, with respect for the human dignity of the people deprived of their freedom. And I link this to life imprisonment. A short time ago the life sentence was taken out of the Vatican’s Criminal Code. A life sentence is just a death penalty in disguise.

In a March 20, 2015 letter, Pope Francis said:

Life imprisonment, as well as those sentences which, due to their duration, render it impossible for the condemned to plan a future in freedom, may be considered hidden death sentences, because with them the guilty party is not only deprived of his/her freedom, but insidiously deprived of hope. But, even though the criminal justice system may appropriate the guilty parties’ time, it must never take away their hope.

In an interview in November of 2016, the pope stated that “if a penalty doesn’t have hope, it’s not a Christian penalty, it’s not human” and that life imprisonment is a “sort of hidden death penalty.” In August of 2017, the pope compared life imprisonment to “torture.” And in a December 17, 2018 address, Pope Francis stated:

The Magisterium of the Church holds that life sentences, which take away the possibility of the moral and existential redemption of the person sentenced and in favour of the community, are a form of death penalty in disguise.

Let’s note several things about these remarks. First, again, the pope claims that life sentences are morally on a par with the death penalty, and suggests that to oppose the latter requires opposing the former as well. Second, he says that the way they are similar is that they both deprive the offender of “hope” and of the possibility of “redemption.” Third, he has raised this issue repeatedly and in formal addresses, and not merely in an off-the-cuff remark or two. Fourth, he has invoked “the Magisterium of the Church” when speaking on this issue, rather than presenting it as a mere personal opinion.

Fifth, and remarkably, the pope seems to object not only to life sentences, but to any sentences of an especially long duration. For in his March 20, 2015 letter he criticizes “life imprisonment, as well as those sentences which, due to their duration, render it impossible for the condemned to plan a future in freedom” (emphasis added). Pope Francis appears to be saying that it is wrong to inflict on any offender a sentence that is so long that it would prevent him from returning eventually to a normal life outside of prison.

Now, the implications of all this are quite remarkable, indeed shocking. Consider, to take just one out of innumerable possible examples, a serial murderer like Dennis Rader, who styled himself the BTK killer (for “Bind, Torture, Kill”). He is currently in prison for life for murdering ten people, including two children, in a manner as horrific as you might expect from his chosen nickname. If Pope Francis is right, then it is wrong to have put Rader in prison for life. Indeed, if Pope Francis is right, then Rader should not be in prison for any length of time that might prevent him from being able to “plan a future in freedom.” Rader is 74 years old, so that would imply that Rader should be let out fairly soon so that he can plan how to live out the few years remaining to him. And if the pope is right, the same thing is true of other aging serial killers. Perhaps the pope would put conditions on their release, such as realistic assurances that they are not likely to kill again. But his words certainly entail that it would be wrong to deny at least the possibility of parole to any of them, no matter how heinous or numerous their crimes.

But even this doesn’t really capture the enormity of what Pope Francis is saying. Consider the Nuremberg trials, at which many Nazi war criminals were sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Pope Francis’s view would imply that all of these sentences were unjust! Indeed, Pope Francis’s position seems to entail that, had Hitler survived the war, it would have been wrong to sentence him to more than about twenty years in prison! For Hitler was in his fifties when he died, so that if he had been sentenced to more than that, he could not “plan a future in freedom” – as a greengrocer or crossing guard, perhaps. Pope Francis’s views imply that the Nuremberg judges should have been at least open to the possibility of letting Hitler off with such a light sentence and letting him return to a normal life – despite being guilty of the Holocaust and of fomenting World War II! Perhaps Pope Francis would shrink from these implications of his views. One hopes so. But they are the implications of his views.

Now, are Catholics obligated to agree with Pope Francis that life sentences should be abolished? I would argue they are not obligated, and for the same reasons they are not obligated to agree with Pope Francis about capital punishment. For once again, the pope is either making a claim about doctrinal principle or he is merely making a prudential judgment, and once again, in neither case can Catholics be obligated to agree with him.

Consider first the suggestion that Pope Francis is claiming that life sentences are intrinsically wrong, wrong as a matter of doctrinal principle. Such a claim would be seriously theologically problematic. The first problem is that it would clearly conflict with traditional Catholic teaching. For as I have already noted, the traditional teaching of the Church is that it is not intrinsically wrong to inflict a penalty of death. But if it is not intrinsically wrong to inflict a penalty of death, then it can hardly be intrinsically wrong to inflict a lesser penalty, such as life imprisonment.

A second problem is that to claim that it is intrinsically wrong to inflict a penalty of life imprisonment, or even a very long imprisonment, would also conflict with the traditional teaching of the Church that “legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense” (as the Catechism states). Now, certain crimes are manifestly so grave that nothing short of life imprisonment would be proportionate to their gravity – for example, serial killing and genocide. To say that not only the death penalty, but life imprisonment or even long imprisonments, must never in principle be inflicted, would be to strip the principle of proportionality of all meaning.

A third problem is that the pope’s claim that the death penalty and long imprisonments deprive the offender of hope seems to presuppose a secular rather than Catholic understanding of hope. In Catholic theology, hope is a theological virtue. It has nothing to do with looking forward to pleasant circumstances in this life. As St. Paul wrote, “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (I Corinthians 15:19). Rather, hope has to do with the desire for eternal life and trust in God to provide the graces needed to attain it. Now, neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment are contrary to hope in this sense. On the contrary, as the Catechism teaches, “when [punishment] is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation.” And the possibility of expiation for sin is precisely a reason for hope. Accepting the penalty of death or life imprisonment as one’s just deserts can mitigate the temporal punishment one would otherwise have to suffer in purgatory.

Once again, then, reading Pope Francis as introducing a doctrinal novelty would have implications that no Catholic can accept. It is better, then, to interpret his remarks about life imprisonment as merely a prudential judgement which Catholics need only respectfully consider but need not agree with.

In any event, the question we should ask any Catholic who appeals to Pope Francis’s teaching as proof that all Catholics must favor the abolition of capital punishment is this: Do you also believe that all Catholics must favor the abolition of life imprisonment? Because Pope Francis teaches that they are morally on a par. Hence, to be consistent, any Catholic who concludes that the pope’s views on life imprisonment are merely a prudential judgment with which Catholics may disagree ought also to admit that the same thing is true of the pope’s views about the death penalty.

3. Do you agree with Pope Francis that executing a murderer is worse than what the murderer himself did?

Though it might be hard to believe, Pope Francis has said things that are even stranger than his remarks about life imprisonment. In the 2015 public letter quoted above, he wrote:

For a constitutional state the death penalty represents a failure, because it obliges the State to kill in the name of justice. Dostoyevsky wrote: “To kill a murderer is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself. Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by a criminal”. Justice is never reached by killing a human being.

Now, the most startling words here are the ones the pope attributes to Dostoyevsky. But he quotes them approvingly, and he does so in a formal letter that he had time to think through rather than in impromptu remarks. The quoted sentences are also followed by a sentence of the pope’s own that flatly states that justice is “never” achieved by capital punishment, and the letter also contains other remarks that seem to imply that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong. Nor does the pope say anything to qualify or correct the view he attributes to Dostoyevsky. So it is hardly unreasonable to think that the pope might agree with that view.

But the view in question is extremely problematic. For one thing, its implications are absurd. Someone who seriously believed that capital punishment is worse than what was done by the murderer who is executed would have to say, for example, that the quick death by electrocution inflicted on Ted Bundy was worse than the acts of murder, rape, torture, and necrophilia of which Bundy was guilty. He would have to say that what the Allies did in hanging Nazi war criminals was worse than the sorts of things the Nazi war criminals did. And so on. Such conclusions are not only absurd, they are obscene. Now, surely Pope Francis himself would not want to draw these conclusions. But they do follow from the view he appears to endorse in the letter, even if he does not realize it.

For another thing, since murder is intrinsically wrong, then if capital punishment is “incomparably worse” and “immeasurably more terrible” than murder – as the quote from Dostoyevsky claims – then it would follow that capital punishment must be intrinsically wrong too. But again, the claim that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong is incompatible with Catholic orthodoxy.

A defender of Pope Francis might respond that the pope was here speaking merely rhetorically and imprecisely, and that we cannot take such extreme remarks to have any doctrinal significance. I think that is exactly right. But it is also precisely the problem. The pope’s various statements over the years about capital punishment are in general extremely imprecise. When he speaks on the subject, he tends both to say things that imply that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong, but also to say things that might be taken to imply that it is wrong only under modern circumstances. Yet he gives no indication about exactly how these sets of remarks are supposed to be reconciled with one another, or exactly how the more extreme remarks are to be understood if they are not meant to imply that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong.

For example, take the remarks Pope Francis made in his Angelus address of February 21, 2016, where he said that “a spreading opposition to the death penalty, even as an instrument of legitimate social defence, has developed in public opinion, and this is a sign of hope” (emphasis added). He went on in the same address to say that the commandment against killing “has absolute value and pertains to the innocent as well as the guilty” and that “even a criminal has the inviolable right to life” (emphasis added). Now, John Paul II used some similar phrases in Evangelium Vitae, which evidently influenced Francis. However, Francis made some crucial changes to his predecessor’s wording. John Paul wrote that the commandment against killing “has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person,” and spoke of the “inviolable right to life of every innocent human being” (emphasis added). Francis has altered these phrases to include “the guilty” and the “criminal” within their scope, alongside the innocent. It is hard to square all this with St. John Paul II’s view that execution of the guilty can be legitimate at least in rare cases as an instrument to defend society. On a natural reading, Francis’s remarks in his Angelus address imply that execution of the guilty is always and intrinsically wrong, even when there is no other way to protect society against the offender.

Or take the statements Pope Francis made in the October 11, 2017 address wherein he first announced his intention to alter the Catechism. He said there 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.” Notice that he did not say that the death penalty is inadmissible because there are other ways to protect the innocent. He said that it is inadmissible because “it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” The natural interpretation of this is that capital punishment is intrinsically or of its nature contrary to human dignity, not contrary to human dignity merely if there are other ways to protect the innocent. This is reinforced by a further statement in the address, to the effect that capital punishment is “per se contrary to the Gospel” – which means that it is as such or of its very nature contrary to the Gospel.

On the other hand, in the very same address the pope claims that “here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching.” That sounds reassuring – until you read the rest of the sentence, which says that the reason the pope’s statements are consistent with past teaching is that “the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively.” The trouble with this is that it cites only part of past teaching. It completely ignores all the statements from Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and previous popes that explicitly affirm that capital punishment is not intrinsically wrong. What needs to be explained is how Pope Francis’s statements about capital punishment can be reconciled with that part of past teaching, and on that question the pope is silent.

The same problem afflicts the pope’s change to the Catechism. On the one hand, the text of the change refers to “more effective systems of detention” that are available in modern societies, and to what is called for “today” by way of criminal justice. That part makes it sound as if the death penalty is not intrinsically wrong, but merely unnecessary in modern times. On the other hand, the text also says that what makes a change necessary “today” is, specifically, that “there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes,” and that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” That part makes it sound instead like capital punishment has always been wrong, and that we are only now coming to realize it. It gives the impression that it is not merely that “systems of detention” have improved. It is that the Church’s traditional understanding of human dignity was defective and needs to be revised. To be sure, the cover letter from Cardinal Ladaria which announced the change insists that the revision to the Catechism “is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.” But it never explains how it can be reconciled with prior teaching. Exactly how can capital punishment fail to be intrinsically wrong if it is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”? For if it is at least in principle legitimate to execute an offender under certain circumstances, then he cannot be inviolable in that respect.

What all of these examples illustrate is this. The problem with the claim that Catholics are obligated to assent to the pope’s teaching on capital punishment is that it is never made clear exactly what we are expected to assent to. Yes, Pope Francis clearly says that capital punishment should be abolished. But when his critics say that his teaching is unclear, they don’t mean that that part is unclear. What they mean is that it is unclear whether the pope’s opposition to capital punishment reflects a doctrinal change or merely a prudential judgment. Like the remarks he quotes approvingly from Dostoyevsky, Pope Francis’s statements about capital punishment are often so extreme that, if taken at face value, they seem to contradict traditional teaching – in which case no Catholic should accept them. Whereas if the pope’s statements are not taken at face value, but instead as merely overheated rhetoric that is not meant to conflict with traditional teaching, then it is hard to see in them anything more than a reiteration of Pope John Paul II’s merely prudential judgement that capital punishment is legitimate in principle but better avoided in practice – a judgment with which, as then-Cardinal Ratzinger taught, Catholics are not obligated to agree.

Either way, as I have argued, Catholics are not obligated to agree. Those who insist otherwise have failed to see the dilemma that Pope Francis’s imprecision poses for them. On their side they have only muddled thinking and ad hominem attacks. Arrayed against them are Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, all the popes prior to Pope Francis, and basic logic.


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About Dr. Edward Feser 10 Articles
Edward Feser is the author of Five Proofs of the Existence of God and co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, both published by Ignatius Press.

148 Comments

  1. Fulton Sheen said that the refusal to punish is not mercy, but cowardice. I agree. You cannot have mercy without justice, which presupposes conversion and repentance for our sins, as the good thief Dismas acknowledges while he hung on the cross next to Our Lord (Luke 23: 40-43).

    • Yes Johann, This brilliant piece of writing by Edward Feser, (especially the paragraph, half-way through, that starts: ” ” But this judgment makes crucial assumptions about… . ” ) leaves me scratching my head saying ” What’s the matter with Pope Francis head? “

    • Thank you, Johann, for reminding us of the brilliant and Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. The Church desperately needs to hear more of his thought in our confused society.
      Cordially,
      John A. Lombardi

    • St. Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas both state the need for the death penalty when the person in question, is a continued determent to society. The authorities have an obligation to keep people safe. Vigilante law is not allowed.

      Until Francis , the popes have confirmed the right of the death penalty. It is not to be used freely, but with great care.

  2. “They” (opponents of capital punishment) forgot to eliminate this section of the catechism.
    Catechism #2260
    “The covenant between God and mankind is interwoven with reminders of God’s gift of human life and man’s murderous violence: For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning:
    Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image. Gen 9:5-6. The Old Testament always considered blood a sacred sign of life. Cf. Lev. 17:14. This teaching remains necessary for all time.”
    ——
    And then how do “they” get around this direct quote from Jesus Christ in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

    Matthew 18:6 – “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

    Would this not refer to abusive clergy and the bishops who protected them?

    • I think ‘they’ get around it by noting that Jesus never told his disciples to go and tie millstones around peoples’ necks. Why do people always use this passage? When Jesus said that it “would have been better [had Judas] never been born”, do you honestly think He is softly condoning abortion?

      I may not fully agree at times about the ‘principal’ of the Pope’s remarks about capital punishment; however it is without a doubt that it is overwhelmingly used to kill poor people or community scapegoats the world over (and especially the US, whose long history of fraudulent death sentences negate almost any moral credibility for its practice here).

      Like, who is Dr. Feser’s audience for his book? People who love the death penalty? How far are you willing to go to advocate that the state should kill some black man because of a false rape/murder accusation from 60 years ago?

      • “Like, who is Dr. Feser’s audience for his book? People who love the death penalty? How far are you willing to go to advocate that the state should kill some black man because of a false rape/murder accusation from 60 years ago?”

        Red herrings. Straw men. Nonsense. Snark. Idiocy.

        • Mr. Olson:

          While the above writer expressed his opinion in a ham fisted fashion, he is right in that there are serious (even deadly) levels of inequality in the US justice system. Two points:

          1) a robust defense of the death penalty MUST offer a stronger call for justice reform that truly addresses the injustices in the system that disproportionately impact the poor, mentally ill/disabled and people of color.

          2) All executions should be stopped until those injustices are dealt with (i.e. fully funding public defenders etc). At present, the chance of executing an innocent person is far too high.

          To be frank, I don’t see a call for the full and proper funding of the justice system which ensures that ALL people get a full and vigorous defence equal to that which private money can buy from death penalty advocates. How monstrous would it be to be comfortable with a two-tiered justice system when a human life is on the line?!

          If Dr. Feser truly believes in the legitimacy of the death penalty he will surely agree that it must applied justly and fairly with the removal of all barriers to receiving a truly proper defence. This means, in part, a complete reform of the justice system including the billions of dollars needed to be perpetually injected into the system to ensure proper and fair defence on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.

          To argue for the death penalty and ignore these real injustices whilst cheaping out on peoples’ natural and God given right to a vigorous defence, which is the present situation, rightly relegates arguments for the death penalty to the realm of the vengeful and death obsessed.

          • “To argue for the death penalty and ignore these real injustices whilst cheaping out on peoples’ natural and God given right to a vigorous defence, which is the present situation, rightly relegates arguments for the death penalty to the realm of the vengeful and death obsessed.”

            The argument over death penalty, especially as it has been documented here at CWR, is not about a particular country or specific situation but, rather, about theology, doctrine, authority, and related matters. No reasonable person (and Dr. Feser is very reasonable) denies that there are real injustices that take place. But it should also be acknowledged that perfect justice does not exist this side of the eschaton, and that, in fact, injustice can cut both ways. In other words, criminals who deserve stiff or severe punishments often serve little or no time. But, again, the debate here is really, ultimately, about magisterial authority and the Church’s perennial teaching on this matter—regardless of historical or social context.

          • Andrew,

            What you say implies not only that we should stop the death penalty for a time while we fix its usage, but also that ALL PRIOR usage in all prior cultures and systems was bad and it should never have been used in the past. For, as bad as it is now, our system is incomparably better at protecting the innocent today than it has ever been in any prior state or culture. De facto, it implies that only angels could ever be trusted to appl it, because no society man has ever had could be trusted to use it properly.

          • Andrew:

            It appears that you have been sucked into believing anti death penalty nonsense and, then, you failed to fact check vet it.

            Race:

            White murderers are twice as likely to be executed as are black murderers and are executed at a rate 41% higher than black death row inmates.

            Class

            99.8% of poor murderers have avoided execution. It is, solely, dependent upon ones definitions of “wealthy” and “poor”, as to whether wealthy murderers are any more or less likely than 0.2% to be executed, based upon the vast minority of capital murders that are committed by the rich, as compared to the vast majority committed by the poor.

            Innocents at Risk

            Innocents are more at risk when we allow murderers to live.

            Since 1977, death sentenced cases may have a 0.4% error rate in convicting the actually innocent. The have all been released. Very likely it is the most accurate of sanctions, as we would expect.

            The death penalty protects innocents, in three ways, better than does life without parole: Enhanced due process, enhanced incapacitation and enhanced deterrence.

            Since 1973, about 21,000 innocents have been murdered by those KNOWN murderers that we have allowed to murder, again – recidivist murderers.

        • Mr. Olson,

          Fair enough. Capital punishment is licit in theory…now what?

          The reality of the system in which the death penalty is applied makes all the difference in terms of ethics and justice. The fact that Dr. Feser doesn’t address that reality is the major weakness of his argument. It’s just ivory tower stuff without looking at the reality on the ground.

          Moreover, the “no system is perfect this side of heaven” argument doesn’t wash when someone’s life is at stake. In fact, it’s an appallingly glib defense when one considers the consequences of wrongfully convicting someone of a capital offence. Yes, people are let out of jail too early…that can be reformed. Yes, innocent people are imprisoned…they can be set free. What can’t be undone is executing an innocent person.

          • I suggest you consider reading Dr. Feser and Dr. Bessettes’ book, which directly addresses (and refutes) the common charges that the capital punishment system in the United States results in the execution of the innocent and discriminates against minorities and the poor.

          • Andrew:

            You don’t know the reality of the death penalty system.

            You are just parroting anti death penalty nonsense and you have failed to fact check/vet any of it, as I have identified throughout.

      • Regarding the audience for Prof. Feser’s book:

        In his book “Class: A Guide Through the American Status System”, Prof. Paul Fussell points out that one of the great social divides is between those who read to be surprised, and those who read to have their notions confirmed.

      • Joe, shame, why do you troll for the adversary? No one is talking about abuses that have happened in the God’s command of capital punishment – or justifying them, rather, not denying or contradicting God’s command of capital punishment. With your logic, since these same evils have happened in lesser criminal and moral cases, the whole court and justice system would have to be done away with simultaneously as inadmissible as well.

        Please be truthful. Blessings!

          • The redress can never be complete, however.

            An innocent man who spent 20 years in jail for a erroneous conviction until new evidence emerges is never going to get those 20 years of his life, and all the opportunities and joys they represent, back.

            Now, he is still alive, so *some* redress is possible. But it will fall considerably short of full justice, no matter *what* the state does. Not even if it awards him $10 million! A serious injustice will remain, no matter what – at least in this world.

          • Andrew:

            As detailed, earlier, innocents are much more at risk when we allow murderers to live.

            We may have proof of an innocent executed as recently as 1915.

          • Andrew:

            5000 persons die in US criminals custody, every year.

            On average, we execute 33.

            It is much more likely that an innocent, not on death row, will die, prior to their innocence being discovered.

            In addition, in three ways, innocents are better protected by the death penalty than with LWOP: enhanced due process, enhanced incapacitation and enhanced deterrence.

            You have everything backwards.

      • “Like, who is Dr. Feser’s audience for his book?”

        Possibly, Catholics who take the Church’s teaching, and its intrinsic coherence and consistency over time and in all places, seriously, and want to understand this latest development in a way that takes that coherence and consistency seriously.

        Perhaps – just perhaps – assuming the worst motives on the part of your interlocutors is not always the most effective or most charitable move.

  3. Personally, I preferred JP 2’s formulation. It recognized the theoretical need for the death penalty BUT also noted that such need is “practically non-existent” in the modern world (there is no need for it in the USA).

    My objection to the death penalty is far more practical.

    I do not trust a fallible justice system to render permanent, irrevocable sentences in the form of death. We know that innocent people have been found guilty of capital crimes they did not commit. Banning the death penalty is a reasonable limit on state power (i. e. State can’t kill its citizens).

    Why would we give government the power to kill when other means of punishment and community protection are available to us?

    If one thinks about it, capital punishment is the ultimate expression of “big government”.

    PS: has anyone looked at the list of countries that still use capital punishment? Apart from a few exceptions it is not an enviable list to be on. This should give Americans at least some pause as to why they find themselves in the company of North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia on a human rights issue.

    • “PS: has anyone looked at the list of countries that still use capital punishment? Apart from a few exceptions it is not an enviable list to be on. This should give Americans at least some pause as to why they find themselves in the company of North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia on a human rights issue.”

      *********

      Perhaps North Korea, China, & Saudi Arabia get this one right in principle but not in application? It’s really more about how & when the death penalty’s applied, not whether it remains an option on the law books.
      I’d like to see it a seldom to never used option, but an option all the same. Sometimes “other means of punishment and community protection” fall short.

    • Andrew:

      The notion that the current state of criminal justice systems, because they are so safe, we therefore have no need for the death penalty, is absurd and has been a factuallu wrong teaching since EV in 1995

      Inconsistent and irresponsible criminal justice systems allow violent criminals to conduct crimes in prison, after escappe , after improper release and, very often, fail to restrain them at all, resulying in countless innocents being harmed and murdered, every day.

      The Church, as well as any vaguely interested persons, are very aware of that, as detailed:

      see fn 4 and the entire text

      Catechism and State Protection
      https://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2014/10/catechism-state-protection.html

  4. First, may I here publicly repent not simply for ever having been a doubting Thomas but for ever in my life doubting Thomas (Aquinas). Count me a Thomist (final answer!)

    Second, the change/non-change in Church teaching with respect to capital punishment (and life imprisonment?) is really about making ever more acceptable the institution of a truly “new church” while simultaneously stating…”nothing has changed.” In short, not only Church Teaching and Tradition are being undermined, redefined but reason and reality.

    Yes, the new church’s definition of “hope” itself will become (is already becoming) a purely secular, worldly “hope” with a materialist, this-worldly “more spiritual” option for pantheism not that far away.

    Ultimately, who will be worshiped? Man? Mother Earth? Or Antichrist?

  5. Excellent and comprehensive.

    Of course, Faggioli will reply but not answer.

    Especially, the crisis-inducing problem of the previous twenty centuries of not having the right answer and where was the Holy Spirit, if ‘inadmissible’ is equivalent to ‘intrinsic.’

  6. Question#1 I am sure it is the Holy Father’s prudential judgment that the death penalty should be abolished. Do I think that all are required to believe the abolition is necessary to remain in communion? No I don’t think that. I will say though that I cannot see how one can support the death penalty in good conscience. But that is just my feeling.

    Question#2 I do agree with the Holy Father that the imposition of a life sentence is very harsh. It should be reserved for only the most hardened of criminals. Locking someone up and throwing away the key seems to me to be more about revenge than justice or keeping the public safe.

    Question#3 I do agree that executing the criminal is worse than the crime he committed. The state, in my name, executes a criminal. There by making me a murderer. I need no help from the state in sinning. I do a pretty good job of that all by myself.

    Morevere, supporters of the death penalty ignore the finality of the punishment and dismiss the possibilities of wrongful conviction of an innocent person. Joseph O’Dell was executed in 1997 in Virginia. There is ample evidence that he did not commit the crime he was punished for. The Commonwealth has steadfastly refused to examine that evidence. If prosecutors are so certain they convicted the right person why would they oppose testing the evidence? Of course it would not look good if it was determined they executed an innocent man

    • Re #2-So we determine he’s a hardened criminal after release and new crime? This time we’ll put him away for good?

      Re #3- Not all death or killing is murder.

    • “Joseph O’Dell was executed in 1997 in Virginia. There is ample evidence that he did not commit the crime he was punished for.”

      ********

      I have family in VA & this case sounded familiar. I looked back for VA newspaper articles & found this.
      Again, I don’t like capital punishment, I think it’s something that has been way overused & misused but it does stop repeat offenders like Mr. O’Dell:

      “O’Dell, a Roanoke native who grew up in Norfolk’s Ocean View, has spent most of his life in prison. In 1965, he was sentenced to 20 years for the murder of a fellow inmate.

      Out on parole in 1975, he was charged with the robbery, assault and abduction of a 23-year-old Florida Zippy Mart clerk. The clerk, Donna Doyle, testified that he put a gun to her head, beat her with it and threatened to rape her.

      “The difference between Helen Schartner and me was, I was lucky,” said Doyle, now 44 and living in Florida. “Nothing more than that. I was lucky.

      “If death penalty opponents are looking for a poster boy for their cause, they sure picked the wrong guy.”

      O’Dell was convicted in the Florida case and sentenced to 114 years in prison. But 10 years later, out on parole again, he was arrested for the Schartner killing…”

      https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/VA-news/VA-Pilot/issues/1997/vp970316/03160053.htm

  7. Andrew: “Personally, I preferred JP 2’s formulation.”

    ***********

    Me too.
    I’d agree that the need of capital punishment is “practically non-existent” in the modern world but I don’t think the US should be excluded from that rule. It should be “virtually” non-existent.

    If homicidal criminals were actually locked up & the key thrown away, that would be one thing. But the our system doesn’t always work like that. Criminals are released early on parole, they may escape prison or can commit violence in prison against other inmates.
    Plea bargaining allows shorter sentencing for lesser crimes & criminals are then released to prey upon new victims.
    At my previous employment one of our clients turned out to be a serial killer. His first homicide had been plea bargained down to manslaughter. He claimed his victim died during a consensual act gone wrong. That allowed him to move out of state to kill & mutilate several other women. Manslaughter apparently does not show up in criminal background checks to exclude one from employment because at the time he was arrested for multiple, Jack the Ripper type murders he was busily employed delivering appliances to women who were often home alone. And it would have only been a matter of time before he returned to his old ways. Happily a DNA test caught him first.
    I don’t like executions & I don’t really trust the state to make those decisions properly, but there do seem to be occasions when lives might be saved by rendering the assailant harmless.

    • I’m so sorry that happened, but I would say address the problem regarding revolving door sentencing etc. and not compound it with the death penalty (your story actual illustrates how inept the system is and would not be able to deal with the grave responsibility of dealing death sentences out to people).

      Americans should note that almost all of their first world peers have done away with the death penalty and all of them have lower crime and recidivism rates when compared to the USA.

      I don’t trust government enough to give it the power to kill its citizens. I’m surprised my fellow conservatives would be so relaxed about giving government the power to kill you whilst not trusting it to do much smaller and less important things. Like I said, the death penalty is the ultimate expression of “big government”.

      Besides, there are far too many inequalities in the present system to argue that the death penalty can be fairly applied. Check out organizations that help the wrongly convicted. Wrongly conviction is very common.

      Sure, the death penalty is licit in theory under very particular circumstances. In reality, it’s an ugly and messy thing that is highly prone to abuse and unjust application. It’s also not necessary in the modern world.

      I do agree though that Pope Francis’ wording on the issue and means of promulgation was both sloppy and confusing. JP2’s wording on the issue reflected the perfect balance between theory and practice.

      • Andrew:

        I seems that nearly all countries that have no death penalty, such is the fault of the government and not the will of the people, the majority of whom seem to favor the death penalty for some crimes.

        For example, Western Europe is the most active and vocal group of anti death penalty governments (EU), yet the majority of the population supported the execution of Saddam Hussein.

        I believe Asian countries have the highest percentage of death penalty countries, collectively, with the lowest crimes rates.

    • The foundation of safe criminal justice systems is false, as I have detailed. As that cannot be used to limit or end executions, it negates EV and amended 2267s.

      Our criminal justice systems have been no more safe, over the last 60 years, than have children within the Church priest sex scandal horrors.

  8. “Question#3 I do agree that executing the criminal is worse than the crime he committed. The state, in my name, executes a criminal. There by making me a murderer. I need no help from the state in sinning. I do a pretty good job of that all by myself.”

    And yet the state does not execute you or sentence you to life in prison. Because you are a complicit part of the State team and you are exempt from being punished, you are not also punished???..OR because…you are actually NOT a murderer???

    If the executed had killed 20 children…his state execution would still be “worse” than his crimes…though you claim to be referencing “conscience” and “feeling?”

    BTW is the person who has revised the catechism with regards to capital punishment (and maybe eventually life in prison?) is he the same Bergoglio calling for a “Global Pact” to be signed in at the Vatican on May 14, 2020 by politicians and religious leaders to create “a new humanism” to “have the courage to place the human person at the center” and the same Bergoglio who states, “A global educational pact is needed to educate us in universal solidarity and a new humanism.” (Diane Montagna/LifeSite News).

    Is this same Bergoglio “the Vicar of Christ?” Or simply a globalist, maybe a heretic or apostate?

  9. Thank you, Dr. Feser, for another comprehensive analysis of the deeply problematic pronouncements of Pope Francis on capital punishment. I now have reached the point, however, where I cannot give respectful consideration to the leftist political agitprop disguised as magisterial teaching coming from this Papacy. Whether the subject is capital punishment, immigration, global warming or economics, nothing coming from this man and his supporters can be trusted. On capital punishment, it is the bible, the doctors of the church, and every pope, up to and including, Benedict XVI versus Francis and modern church progressives. This is not a close call.

    • Capital Punishment is the ultimate deterrent to whom it is applied.

      With only twenty-five executions in 2018 and more than 2500 people on death row, the claim that the punishment is frequent and does not deter goes nowhere. The never-ending appeal process that, on average, lasts more than two decades prevents effective deterrence.

      To abolish the death penalty on the one innocent man theory would apply to other government agencies as well…notably, the police.

      The Law of Moses had retributive justice. Was it intrinsically wrong?

      How can anyone claim that capital punishment is never right in the service of genuine justice?

  10. Andrew,
    Thank you for your comments.
    I expect most every nation struggles with their justice system just as we do in the States.
    Just as some may be scandalized by our use of capital punishment-and I would agree that it’s overused, Americans are shocked at the leniency of sentencing for violent crimes in other countries.
    I’m no fan of the death penalty but I can imagine there will always be the rarest instance where it might be the only way to protect society.I believe we need to keep that window open just a crack.
    And yes, folks are wrongly convicted from time to time. Simply having the means to retain decent legal counsel can make all the difference. Which is a terrible shame.
    The other side of the story though is that repeat offenders may be wrongly convicted of one crime but can be legitimately guilty of many more. I understand in the case of capital punishment that’s a serious miscarriage of justice, but for lesser offences, justice may end up being served in a roundabout way.
    I hate to sound cynical or unChristian but if you spend any time with seasoned offenders you do see a pattern.

    • While I disagree, I appreciate your polite and reasoned response. That is something that is often missing when it comes to on-line discussions. Thank you. 🙂

    • You are correct.

      We solve 25% of our crimes and we have a 70% criminal recidivism rate, which based within that 25%, means that recidivism is much higher.

      The proven rate of “exoneration”, meaning cases wherein the convicted party has, later, proven that they had no connection to the crime, is in a range of 0.016%–0.062%

      Overstating America’s Wrongful Conviction Rate? Reassessing the Conventional Wisdom About the Prevalence of Wrongful Convictions (2018), Cassell, Paul G., 60 Ariz. L. Rev. 815 (2018); University of Utah College of Law Research Paper No. 291. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3276185 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3276185

  11. The whole question of what Francis means by the change in the Catechism’s teaching on the death penalty is not too lofty that it can’t be answered. All we need to do is look at the reference given for the change (https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2017/october/documents/papa-francesco_20171011_convegno-nuova-evangelizzazione.html)

    In the speech he gave, he says: “[The death penalty] is per se contrary to the Gospel..” Now, per se is Latin for:
    by or in itself or themselves; intrinsically. So, he actually says the death penalty is intrinsically opposed to the Gospel. Yet how can it be when Christ never condemned the death penalty, for how could He, when His will was to suffer for our sins via a death sentence imposed by the Romans on the orders of the Pharisees? If the death penalty is so contrary to the Gospel, then how could Our Lord have died via death penalty? He would be a hypocrite. And note, nowhere does the Saviour ever state that the State has no power to put evil men to death. In fact, the whole of Scripture is replete with it; indeed, in the Office, Psalm 100 is recited for Lauds on Tuesday of Week 4, in which King David says this: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land: that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord. (v.8). These words were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Are we really to say that the Holy Spirit authored a psalm that praises something contrary to the Gospel?! And lastly, if the death penalty is “intrinsically contrary” to the Gospel, does that make it intrinsically evil? Because if it does, then we have a problem.

    Next he says: “Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.” The problem with this statement is that Francis, with all due respect, seems to be ignorant of the fact that the death penalty was directly commanded by God for certain crimes amongst the Israelites, and earlier, when dealing with Cain, God acknowledges that the death penalty existed amongst mankind, and did not condemn it. As stated above, the Holy Spirit seems perfectly happy to inspire psalms that praise the putting to death of wicked men. Thereby, we can know the mind of God on this.

    Such illustrious teachers as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, amongst others, have provided the true Catholic teaching on the death penalty and its proper use in society, with the latter stating that it can be a cause of conversion of hardened sinners. He even says that if the death penalty isn’t enough to literally frighten them to penance and thus to confession, then there is probably every reason to believe they would never have reformed.

    Sadly, as in society so in the Church, the understanding of justice, punishment and mercy have been perverted.

    • Mark:

      The “per se” must have caused quite the panic, as Francis’ advisors swooped in to advise – “Father, you cannot say that”. That is how reckless Francis is with his speech and, more importantly, with his understanding.

    • I see. So, someone is attempting to murder you child, for example, and you can’t kill him to stop him? Or a country invades yours, and you can’t have an army to defend yourself becuase it would involve killing?

      Oversimplification is not your friend.

      Also, do a little research on the translation.

        • Fastiggi still cannot answer twenty centuries of error on a matter of life and death.

          The state of those who the penalty was applied to died immediately…not with centuries of an ‘evolving’, malleable doctrine.

          Once and for all, Fastiggi,

          Is the term ‘inadmissible’ equivalent to ‘intrinsic’ and is Capital Punishment now always ‘intrinsically evil’???

        • Not quite.

          To bring in ‘accidental’ does not help in the distinction between righteous killing and murder.

          God,of the Old Testament Himself, would be guilty of ‘killing’ without the crucial distinction.

        • From your second link: “For example, in the Priestly Code of Numbers, the word is used twice (35:27, 30) for killing done by the blood avenger, which was considered “legal” in Israelite society (a form of capital punishment).”

          It was a lot more than “considered ‘legal,'”, they’re ordered to kill.

          I really don’t see how you can consider that the commandment applies to “accidental killing.” Accidental means it’s not intentional, and you can’t really say “Thou shalt not do something accidentally.”

        • Robert:

          That appears to be a bit misleading.

          While you can find 4-5 translations of the Hebrew, the Catholic meaning is well know and that is what we are dealing with.

          The bible clarifies the differences between intentional murder and accidental killings, just as our laws do and offers sanctions less than death for accidental killings.

          Numbers 35:31-33 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

          31 Moreover you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death; but he shall be put to death. 32 And you shall accept no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the high priest. 33 You shall not thus pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of him who shed it.

          In addition, we Jesus goes call for deaths in cases less than murder.

    • No offense, but it’s hard to see how the kind bald reading you’re reaching for doesn’t amount to an absolutist pacifism.

      Perhaps it would help if we could fairly understand just what the meaning of the original words in Hebrew In Exodus and Deuteronomy actually was. (Hint: “Kill” may not be the most accurate translation here.)

    • Ernie:

      As the Church and most Christians have known, for about 2000 years, the proper translation is “thou shalt not kill” Such is so well know that the anti death penalty forces within the Church never use that

      You might have considered that Aquinas may have heard of it.

      About half of the 30-49 English bible translations state “thou shalt not murder”, as they all should.

  12. There are multiple problems with Prof. Feser’s article.

    1. He sets up a false dichotomy with his insistence that either Pope Francis’s revision of CCC 2267 represents a doctrinal change or merely a prudential judgment. This either/or does not do justice to the new formulation in the Catechism, which represents a deepening and a development of the moral principles of John Paul II that apply to the prudential order (but is not merely prudential in nature).

    2. Feser falls into the fallacy of begging the question when he insists that a total rejection of the death penalty contradicts “the irreformable teaching of Scripture and Tradition.” This is his position, but I don’t believe he’s proven it to be true. There’s no irreformable teaching of Scripture and Tradition that prevents the Church from judging now that the death penalty is inadmissible in light of a deeper understanding of the Gospel. But even if Feser were persuaded that his position is true, he should abide by what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) teaches in its 1990 document, Donum Veritatis, no. 27: “ the theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions.”

    3. Feser assumes that Pope Francis’s opposition to life sentences is not defensible. In fact, Pope Francis’s position is in line with the top human rights court in Europe, which in 2013 ruled that sentences of life in prison without parole represent inhuman and degrading treatment and violate the European Convention of Human Rights: https://thinkprogress.org/top-european-human-rights-court-deems-life-in-prison-without-parole-inhuman-and-degrading-d615fc306396/ Feser’s suggests that Pope Francis’s opposition to life sentences represents “a secular rather than a Catholic understanding of hope.” This is a complete non sequitur. To hope for criminals to undergo reform and eventually be released from prison in no way denies hope in eternal life. Feser’s suggestion is gratuitous and insulting to Pope Francis.

    4. Feser speaks of Pope Francis “attributing” a certain position to the Russian author Doystoyevsky. Feser, though, seems ignorant of the source of the Holy Father’s citation. The passage Pope Francis cites is from the novel, The Idiot, and it needs to be read in context to appreciate the profound insight of the Christ-like character, Prince Mishkyn, concerning the death penalty: https://flaglerlive.com/25951/dostoevsky-idiot-death-penalty/

    Pope Francis’s reference to Doystoyevsky is not really central to his arguments against the death penalty. Nevertheless, Feser should not comment on the quote from Doystoyevsky unless he understands the context in which it appears. It should also be noted that Doystoyevsky was once brought before the firing squad to be executed (only to receive a last-minute reprieve to serve five years in Siberia). Doystoyevsky saw a side to the death penalty that few of the living know.

    5. Prof. Feser continues to appeal to a leaked 2004 memo of Cardinal Ratzinger regarding worthiness to receive communion. This memo was not focused on the death penalty, and it was written within the context of the 1997 Catechism on the death penalty. Since the new formulation of CCC 2267 has replaced the version in force in 2004, the brief comment of Cardinal Ratzinger articulated in his 2004 memo no longer applies. Moreover, it’s simply bad theology to cite a document of lesser importance to override a later document of greater importance and authority.

    6. Feser seems to believe he is justified in not accepting what Pope Francis and the Catholic Church now teach about the death penalty because he finds the arguments unpersuasive. Here Prof. Feser directly contradicts the teaching of the CDF in no. 28 of Donum Vertitatis which explictly says that disagreement with a magisterial teaching “could not be justified if it were based solely on the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable.”

    7. Feser’s rejection of the new teaching of the Church on the death penalty is in direct violation of what Lumen Gentium, 25 teaches about the need to adhere to teachings of the ordinary papal Magisterium “with religious submission of mind and will.” His rejection also violates canon 752 of the 1983 CIC and no. 892 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Feser and his followers do not seem to understand the “argument from authority” that applies to teachings of the ordinary papal magisterium and judgments of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Catholics who support the new formulation of CCC 2267 are being faithful Catholics. Prof. Feser’s attempt to put such faithful Catholics and the Pope on the defensive suggests that he believes he has more authority than the Roman Pontiff. If he has difficulty accepting the Church’s new teaching on the death penalty he should, in a spirit of humility, make every effort to understand the teaching “with an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve his difficulties” (CDF, Donum, Vertiatis, 30). I have no difficulty with the new teaching. I hope and pray that Prof. Feser and his followers will overcome their difficulties.

    • I have replies I might make to each point, but first I simply want to quibble with your (4). I am going to skip over the inexact nature of Pope Francis’ quotation, since, though not word for word, I don’t think he swerves very far from the point Prince Myshkin was making. But I do want to point out that just because Dostoevsky wrote the scene, it is not clear that we can create a perfect identity of Dostoevsky’s views with those of the character Prince Myshkin.

      I *suspect* they are at least similar, but it is always dangerous to associate the understanding of writers with a speech given by some particular character of their creation in a work of fiction.

      As a counterpoint about trying to take this all too literally, Prince Myshkin also argues that such an experience must drive a man mad. If we can say that Myshkin’s views are identical to those of the real life Dostoevsky, is the author declaring that he was himself mad, having been driven mad by his own experience before the firing squad? I’ll just leave that there.

      And, of course, there is still the entire question as to whether Prince Myshkin is right in his conclusions.

      • It is also worth noting the Prince Myshkin’s argument is undercut in part by Dostoevsky’s real-life experience. The “certainty” is what disturbs Myshkin the most, “You will no longer be a man—and that this is certain, certain! That’s the point—the certainty of it.”

        He contrasts this with the victim of a crime, grasping to even the slightest hope: “There are plenty of instances of a man running away, or imploring for mercy—at all events hoping on in some degree—even after his throat was cut. But in the case of an execution, that last hope—having which it is so immeasurably less dreadful to die,—is taken away from the wretch and certainty substituted in its place! There is his sentence, and with it that terrible certainty that he cannot possibly escape death—which, I consider, must be the most dreadful anguish in the world.”

        But, Dostoevsky’s execution was in fact canceled at the last moment, he did escape death (in that instance), and it was not so certain after all.

        I am not trying to make a psychological or theological point of universal application, or saying anything about the statistical probability of death sentences being carried out. I am only showing problems of trying to attribute to Dostoevsky the author, the reasoning of one of his characters in the context of the novel.

    • On (1):

      “a deepening and a development of the moral principles … that apply to the prudential order (but is not merely prudential in nature).”

      I think this needs more clarity before even debating. Doctrine relates to the principles themselves, prudence to applying principles to particular circumstances. You seem to be suggesting some third way that is a “development of moral principles” not related to doctrine, but instead “to the prudential order”. Can you please explain what that is?

    • On (2):

      And you seem to under-appreciate the difficulties of it be “reformable”. For one, if it is truly intrinsically evil, then in the Old Testament God commands evil, and you will have undone all of Christianity.

      If you argue only from the New Testament onward, you still cannot argue that it is “intrinsically evil” (see above), but you can argue that it is wrong by falling short of an higher Christian call to charity. However, if you say that we have just realized this now, in “light of a deeper understanding of the Gospel”—Pope Francis says something very close to this, “I have clearly stated that the death penalty is unacceptable, it is immoral. 50 years ago, no … but there has been a better understanding of morality.”—it implicates a string of Ecumenical Councils and Popes, Doctors and Fathers of the Church, and the Magisterium of the Church in general, all the way up to and including JPII and BXVI, as having taught that something *immoral* (Pope Francis’s word) was moral, and all of these Doctors, Fathers, Popes, Councils, etc. did so precisely because they, both as a group and to a man, had a faulty or shallow understanding of the Gospel. The implications of that are enormous and far reaching.

    • On (2):
      And you seem to under-appreciate the difficulties of it be “reformable”. For one, if it is truly intrinsically evil, than in the Old Testament, God commands evil, and you will have undone all of Christianity.

      If you argue only from the New Testament on, you still cannot argue that it is “intrinsically evil” (see above), but you can argue that it is wrong by falling short of a higher call to charity. However, if you say that we have just realized this now, in “light of a deeper understanding of the Gospel”—Pope Francis says something very close to this, “I have clearly stated that the death penalty is unacceptable, it is immoral. 50 years ago, no … but there has been a better understanding of morality.”—it implicates various Ecumenical Councils and Popes, the Doctors and Fathers of the Church, too many to name of each, and basically the Magisterium of the Church in general, all the way up to and including JPII and BXVI, having taught that something that was *immoral* (Pope Francis’s words) was moral, and doing so because the Doctors, Fathers, Popes, Councils, etc. all had a faulty or shallow understanding of the Gospel. The implications of that are enormous.

      On (3):
      An appeal to the recent rulings of a “top human rights court in Europe” as no weight at all in a question of Church doctrine. One could almost leave that there, but I will say that Pope Francis’ line: “The Magisterium of the Church holds that life sentences, which take away the possibility of the moral and existential redemption”

      Does seem to be doing one of two things:

      1. If it is a reference to Hope in the theological sense, it is plainly wrong, since imprisonment has no ability to do this, as shown by the witness of the Apostles, confessors, and martyrs who have suffered imprisonment, torture, and death over two thousand years. “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

      2. But if it is not this theological sense of Hope, and he means instead, as in his address last week, “Never deprive anyone of the right to start over!” then it *is* hope in a secular sense of the word, but it is not clear why being deprived of this kind of hope “take[s] away the possibility of the moral and existential redemption.” An especially not why the Megisterium of the Church would teach that it does.

      On (5):
      “Moreover, it’s simply bad theology to cite a document of lesser importance to override a later document of greater importance and authority.”

      We agree absolutely here, like when people use speeches given by JPII or Pope Francis, or the very latest revision to an oft-revised paragraph in the Catechism, as justification to overthrow thousands of years of authoritative teaching of Scripture and Tradition.

      On (6):
      He seems to believe he is justified in not accepting what Pope Francis and the Catholic Church “now teach” if what it “now teaches” is to be understood as something contradictory to what it used to teach, since that is impossible. If that is the argument advanced then what we must all, “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints” by “the Father of lights, with whom there is no change, nor shadow of alteration,” revealed by Our Lord “Jesus Christ, yesterday, and to day; and the same for ever.”

      On (7):

      See (6). It simply cannot be that one should submit to some novel “teaching” if that teaching is advanced *against* the existing teachings of Scripture and Tradition, nor that Lumen Gentium should be understood to require it. “Be not led away with various and strange doctrines.”

      (Note, there was some back and forth on comments appearing. Hopefully these are not duplicated.)

    • Re. #3-I guess the Church must adopt their position on abortion and homosexuality as well. It’s this very action of attempting to conform the Church to current popular opinion that makes many Catholics fell insulted by our current pontiff and our “intellectual betters.”

    • As usual, you avoid the elephant in the room: does inadmissible mean intrinsically evil/unjust/illicit? Until you answer that your other claims don’t mean much. You also do not engage in thus demonstrating that the new “teaching” is true, is part of the deposit of faith, part of revelation. Your ultimate appeal is one of positivism and absolutism: because Francis has willed it we must obey, even if we can’t necessarily demonstrate it to be true, can’t demonstrate how it’s a legitimate development, how it’s not a contradiction. Your task as a theologian is to also examine the content of what is being claimed, apart from the declaration of authority. The fact you aren’t focusing on that but ultimately resting on a bald appeal to authority is troubling.

      In addition, if you can’t clearly state what Francis is teaching, i.e. if the DP is now per se evil- and of course, the intrinsic morality of something can’t change- then we do not know the object to which owe assent or obsequium and therefore can’t offer such. And keep in mind the likes of the U.S. bishops have not been able to explain exactly what is being taught and labeled it as “eloquent ambiguity” at the last USCCB meeting.

      I also wonder what you think of Cardinal Gerhard Muller’s argument that the morality of the death penalty is first and foremost of natural law and thus the development of doctrine cannot ultimately be invoked.

    • “Feser assumes that Pope Francis’s opposition to life sentences is not defensible. In fact, Pope Francis’s position is in line with the top human rights court in Europe, which in 2013 ruled that sentences of life in prison without parole represent inhuman and degrading treatment and violate the European Convention of Human Rights:”

      The top human rights court in Europe considers that preventing abortion is a violation of human rights, so I am not even remotely interested in their opinions on basically anything, and I can’t believe that you are using that court’s opinion to bolster your argument.

      “”Feser’s rejection of the new teaching of the Church on the death penalty ”

      Indeed, it is a new teaching, and one that contradicts two millennia of previous teaching.

      “Catholics who support the new formulation of CCC 2267 are being faithful Catholics. Prof. Feser’s attempt to put such faithful Catholics and the Pope on the defensive suggests that he believes he has more authority than the Roman Pontiff.”

      I consider that you are misrepresenting Prof. Feser’s arguments. He is not appealing to his own authority, he is appealing to the authority of all the Popes in history; of Tradition; of previous Catechisms; of Scripture. There is considerable difference.

      “If he has difficulty accepting the Church’s new teaching on the death penalty he should, in a spirit of humility, make every effort to understand the teaching “with an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve his difficulties” (CDF, Donum, Vertiatis, 30).”

      Why do words like “sanctimonious” and “passive aggressive” spring to mind? You admit that it is a new teaching; and then you say that his refusal to accept it means that he doesn’t understand it. I think he understands it quite well.

      “I have no difficulty with the new teaching.”

      So? Professor Feser does, and so do I, and so do a lot of people.

      “I hope and pray that Prof. Feser and his followers will overcome their difficulties.”

      I hope and pray that you will cease denying the obvious fact that the Church has always taught that the death penalty was not intrinsically evil. As, for example,

      “The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thou shalt not kill], such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives.” (Catechism of the Council of Trent)

      The Catechism of the Council of Trent was issued with as much authority as the current Catechism. Manifestly, it stated that capital punishment was not only not intrinsically evil, it was obedience to the Commandment.

      It is a terrible thing to try to force people to believe that a truth is an untruth.

    • No, no, no.

      This is missing the point.

      Either the Church has an Ordinary Magisterium which is protected by God from error, or Catholicism is false.

      Pope Francis has EITHER…
      (a.) articulated a new Infallible Ordinary Magisterium teaching which flatly contradicts the (far-more-firmly-articulated!) teachings of popes, saints, doctors, the fathers, and the Scriptures as understood by popes, saints, and doctors, over 95% of the elapsed history of the Church (teachings which, being far-more-firmly-articulated than anything Francis has said, must be regarded at least equally binding),
      …OR…
      (b.) calculated the prudential considerations a bit differently than John Paul II did, and come out with a slightly differing prudential conclusion than John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

      Those are the options.

      But, if Option (a.) is correct, then that means that the “Infallible” Ordinary Magisterium has contradicted itself. And in that case, it is not Infallible. And in that case, Catholicism is false. And in that case, you can all sleep in next Sunday.

      But Jesus rose from the dead.

      Therefore He is God.

      Therefore His promises to the Church are not false.

      Therefore the Catholic Church is what she claims, and Catholicism is true.

      Therefore Option (b.) is our only logically-coherent option. And since that’s precisely the option that Pope Francis himself insists upon (he is quite firm in stating that this is not a reversal, this is not an innovation, this is a continuation of the teaching of John Paul II, which the CDF under John Paul II clarified as prudential in nature), the words of Pope Francis himself tell us to select Option (b.) over Option (a.).

      And in that case, Professor Feser has not, in any way, ignored some new teaching of the Church. On the contrary: There has been no new teaching to ignore.

      But everyone should be clear about What It Would Mean if there WERE a new teaching.

      In 2,000 years the Catholic Church has never falsified its Magisterial authority by reversing a doctrinal teaching. Can Robert Fastiggi call himself orthodox if he continues to claim that it now has?

    • Fastiggi & Feser;

      It appears you both missed the foundational problem, from EV and both revised amendments to 2267.

      It is, factually, impossible to end the death penalty based upon the “safety” of our criminal justice systems.

      Worldwide, criminals justice systems are, highly, irresponsible, allowing countless innocents being harmed or murdered, every day (1), as detailed.

      This is very well known (1), by the Church and any others concerned about unjust aggressors harming and murdering innocents.

      Over the past 60 years, worldwide justice systems have been every bit as irresponsible as the Church has been in Her priest sex abuse horrors (1), as detailed.

      1) see fn4 and the entire text

      Catehchism and State Protection
      https://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2014/10/catechism-state-protection.html

  13. “This either/or does not do justice to the new formulation in the Catechism, which represents a deepening and a development of the moral principles of John Paul II that apply to the prudential order (but is not merely prudential in nature).”

    That would then be a third category…”not merely prudential” which would be distinct from “doctrinal?”

    “the death penalty is inadmissible in light of a deeper understanding of the Gospel.” At what point and after how many years? It’s a non-issue? that the Church could not have that “deeper” understanding? That “not deeper understanding” does not amount to be “wrong” all those years about the death penalty? And lacking that “deeper understanding” for so many years would mean…?

    What is being lost here is not simply what is being said about the death penalty…but about the Church and Her Teachings.

    What is also NOT being defined is the meaning of “deeper.” What is a “deeper” understanding of anything really? Is “deeper” an univocal term really?

    How does the European Convention of Human Rights feel about euthanasia and abortion and same sex marriage?

    Why should I a Catholic or any Catholic theologian even consider the opinion of Doystoyevsky? Especially if he is “not central” to any arguments against the death penalty? Considering his own turbulent marriages, gambling addiction…while his many personal conflicts empowered his novels, why must I even make reference to him in a discussion of the death penalty? His own nearky being excuted? His quote about what is “worse”…which then gets leveraged into a discussion of the death penalty..though “not central” yet one that still deserves an apreciation of “context” etc.

    How much of this “deeper” understanding is really about the Gospel or Scripture and the Tradition of the Church? If this “deeper” is NOT intrinsic to the Gospels etc, why must canons be invoked extrinsic sources?…because statements are made by a pontiff with the now “deeper” references really outside the Gospel, Scripture and Tradition?

  14. Correction/edit:

    How much of this “deeper” understanding is really about the Gospel or Scripture and the Tradition of the Church? If this “deeper” is NOT intrinsic to the Gospels, or has not been perceived for how long? now canons be invoked to defend sources of “deepening” now suddenly “intrinsic” (or so it seems)…because statements are made by a pontiff, any pontiff? There is absolutely no non-clarity here? These sources/points of “deepening” can be clearly stated? And this “deeper” understanding took just how many years, not that many really, after JPIIs “deeper” understanding (admittedly a prudential judgement?) that needed further “deepening” and found that in the current pontiff?

    BTW the reference to “followers of Dr. Feser and his followers” is for me telling. Perhaps a level of projection? here of the operative categories of the one assigning that phrase.

    I get the colloquial sense of “followers.” But really should even any pope have “followers? ”

    I think the effort being made by Dr Feser and “his followers” is to follow Christ and the Teachings of His Church.

    The current pontiff’s refusal to provide other requested clarifications in faith and moral and praxis is NOT a hoped for non-issue…or an imagined to be already clarified.

  15. Pope Francis has continually and consistently demonstrated contempt for the 2,000 years Teaching of the Church, which is the most absolutely clear and consistent of any spirituality, religion or church ever, and that still attracts conversions from the Jewish, Protestants, atheists, agnostics, etc. He barely escapes the title of total heretic through weaponized ambiguity and by throwing crumbs to some traditonal teaching every now and then.

    His rejection of capital punishment and life sentences, putting the rights of criminals absolutely and totally over that of their victims and all society, has a dark and deep theological reason. Those advocating for such shocking benevolent treatment and unlimited advocay for criminals as the new oppressed saints and martyrs of society is with the purpose of using those criminals as a form of new and cheap self-salvation, self-redemption and self-sanctification. Have you noticed the huge, , overwhelming, tyrannical, holier-than-thou attitude behind it? Who needs Jesus sacrifice on the Cross with the corresponding carrying of our own cross when there is the easy and popular cause of criminals to save and for them to save us by proxy from any and all responsibility?

    Who needs Jesus shed Precious Blood when there’s the horrific suffering and blood of the victims of heinous crimes and the most innocent blood of abortion, which will continue to flow ever more abundantly in our sanctimonious pacifist complicity? Who needs obedience to Jesus Word and Gospel when unlimited advocacy for criminals complicitly absolves us from all sin and makes the reality of sin totally dissapear? The only true bloodlust and bloodfest is from those who follow Pope Francis and his genderless-good-and-evil-hybrid teachings. Only True Catholic Teaching brings true justice and true salvation from God for criminals and all of us, sinners all: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us”, (1 John 1:8). There’s no Truth in Pope Francis and his Catholic-as-bait followers.

  16. On (3):

    An appeal to the recent rulings of a “top human rights court in Europe” as no weight at all in a question of Church doctrine. One could almost leave that there, but I will say that Pope Francis’ line: “The Magisterium of the Church holds that life sentences, which take away the possibility of the moral and existential redemption.”

    Does seem to be doing one of two things:

    1. If it is a reference to Hope in the theological sense, it is plainly wrong, since imprisonment has no ability to do this, as shown by the witness of the Apostles, confessors, and martyrs who have suffered imprisonment, torture, and death over two thousand years. “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor might, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    2. But if it is not this theological sense of Hope, and he means instead, as in his address last week, “Never deprive anyone of the right to start over!” then it *is* hope in a secular sense of the word, but it is not clear why being deprived of this kind of hope “take[s] away the possibility of the moral and existential redemption” much less that the Magisterium of the Church would teach that it does.

  17. Since JPIIs prudential judgement, what are the specific new? terms/sources of the Church’s “deepened” understanding of the Gospel and capital punishment?

    Is a canonical appeal to “authority” related to a change in personnel ( a new Pope?) sufficient to validate a “deepening” in the Church’s Teaching on capital punishment (and any other teaching?), one which a relatively short time prior was presented as a “deepened understanding” yet prudential judgment? Must a Pope clarify the specific terms of this “deepening” or simply reference his own authority?

    “I have no difficulty with the new teaching.”

    Great. Please define “inadmissible” and why the current Pontiff chose this particular word which will shortly apply to life imprisonment?

    Would a “faithful Catholic” be able in good conscience to sit on a jury where the defendant is sentenced to life without parole for murdering two people?

    Can Catholics who support capital punishment still in good conscience go to Communion? Can they be “accompanied” like the divorced and remarried?

  18. My priest explained the development of moral doctrine on this thing like this….in principle the Church has both the right and duty to deal with heretics.

    However, we now teach quite clearly that it is completely “inadmissible” to turn them over to secular authorities to be imprisoned and burned at the stake despite what a myriad of previous Popes and saints said in approval of the practice.

  19. Some people have questioned what I said in my previous observations. I can’t respond to all of these questions, but I’ll offer the following cooments on four issues that have emerged:

    A) 2,000 year old tradition
    I dispute the claim that there is a definitive 2,000 year Catholic tradition regarding the death penalty. I’ve already written on this topic: https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2017/11/10/is-there-really-a-definitive-teaching-of-the-church-on-capital-punishment/ . If time permits, I’ll write an even longer article on this topic in the future. I have reviewed the various magisterial teachings of the past on capital punishment, and I don’t believe any of them qualify as a definitive, irreformable judgment.

    Let me give an example. Feser and Bessette cite the letter of Pope Innocent I to the Bishop of Toulouse (A.D. 405). In this letter Innocent I not only supports the right to carry out the death penalty but also torture (PL 20, 499). It’s important, though, to note that, after being asked whether it’s permissible for Christians to administer torture (tormenta) or a capital sentence (capitalem … sententiam), Innocent I says: “About these matters we read nothing definitive from the forefathers” (De his nihil legimus a majoribus definitum; PL 20, 499). This one simple sentence shows that there was NOT a definitive magisterial tradition upholding the legitimacy of the death penalty in the early Patristic Age.

    Innocent I’s allowance in 405 for the use of torture and the death penalty was hardly definitive. In his letter to the Bulgarians of 866 A.D. Pope Nicholas I states that, “neither divine nor human law” allows such torture (Denz.-H, 648). Pope St. John Paul II, in Veritatis Splendor no. 80, lists torture among acts that are intrinsically evil. Since Innocent I’s approval of torture was not considered definitive by the Church neither should his approval of the death penalty be considered definitive.
    In his 866 A.D. Letter to the Bulgarins, Pope St. Nicholas also tells the Bulgarians: “….without hesitation and in every possible circumstance (omni occasione), 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). Since the lives of criminals on death row can be saved, executing them would be as inadmissible for Pope St. Nicholas I (r. 858–867) as for Pope Francis.

    Much more can be said, but I hope these historical examples show why I believe it is incorrect to say that Pope Francis is going against what the Church has always taught. This is simply not true.

    B) The meaning of inadmissible.
    The actual Latin for the new formulation of CCC 2267 is “poenam capitalem non posse admitti” (capital punishment cannot be admitted). The meaning of this is quite clear. Capital punishment, according to the teaching of the Church, cannot be allowed, permitted, or justified. Whether this means it is intrinsically immoral seems open to question. Some actions, however, are worthy of severe condemnation even if they are not intrinsically evil. For example, amputations are not intrinsically evil, but they would be very evil if done without necessity. It’s important to look at prior magisterial examples of inadmissible or “not admitted.”

    Pius XI in a discourse of September 6, 1938 said:
    “No, no, I say to you it is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissible (inammissibile). Through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually, we are all Semites.”

    Catechism of the Catholic Church 2296:
    “It is furthermore morally inadmissible (nequit moraliter admitti) directly to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons.”

    Letter of Innocent III to Bishop Henry of Strasbourg of January 9, 1212; Denz.-H 799):
    “Although among secular judges common trials are used, such as those of cold water or hot iron or duels, the Church does not admit (Ecclesia non admisit) these kinds of trials, since it is written in the divine law: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test [Deut 6:16; Mt 4:7].”

    Innocent III did not declare these types of trials to be intrinsically evil, but his meaning was quite clear: the Church does not believe such forms of trial can be allowed or justified.

    C) Can Catholics who support capital punishment still receive Holy Communion?

    I would say yes if they sincerely have difficulty with the teaching, and they are not obstinately and publicly resisting the teaching. Catholics who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not permitted to receive Holy Communion (1983 CIC canon 915). Catholics who are conscious of grave sin cannot receive Holy Communion without prior sacramental confession (canon 916).

    The new formulation of CCC 2267 does not represent an infallible teaching of the Church, but it does represent an authoritative teaching worthy of religious submission of will and intellect (Lumen Gentium, 25). Because the Church’s teaching against the death penalty has not been infallibly taught, denial of the teaching is not as serious as the denial of a manifestly infallible teaching such as the condemnation of abortion. This does not mean it is permitted to reject authoritative teachings that require religious assent. A seminary professor, for example, who continues to tell his students that Pope Francis is wrong about the death penalty, could be justifiably asked by his superiors to stop such public resistance to a teaching of the ordinary magisterium. If he persists in publicly defying the magisterial teaching, he could be guilty of a mortal sin of disobedience and, therefore, not be eligible to receive Holy Communion. The professor, however, might not be conscious of grave sin because all three conditions for moral sin do not apply in his case (cf. CCC 1857).

    D) If the Church’s teaching against the death penalty can be changed, then why not her teachings about abortion and homosexual marriage?

    Some teachings of the Church are subject to change and others are not. The Church’s teachings against abortion and homosexual marriage are definitive and infallible whereas prior teachings allowing the death penalty were not. It is the Church’s magisterium guided by the Holy Spirit that ultimately needs to decide which teachings are infallible and which are not. Because some teachings are subject to revision does not mean that all teachings are subject to revision. To claim otherwise is to fall into the fallacy of composition, which falsely claims that what is true of the part is true of the whole.

    I hope these comments are of some use. Oremus pro invicem. San Gennaro, prega per noi.

    • Again, I am willing to entertain for a second that the Latin teaching concerning capital punishment is not definitive and that there is nothing from Natural Law to instruct us here. But if it is not definitive, then any consequent teaching cannot be said to be a mere presentation of what Tradition holds. Rather, it must be a conclusion of moral theology, and if that is true, the pope himself has no divinely-given competence with respect to sound moral theology, and any appeal to his authority to uphold this teaching as “Catholic” is exactly an appeal to authority.

    • “I dispute the claim that there is a definitive 2,000 year Catholic tradition regarding the death penalty. I’ve already written on this topic:”

      Yes, you have; at length, and unconvincingly.

      “Can Catholics who support capital punishment still receive Holy Communion?
      “I would say yes if they sincerely have difficulty with the teaching, and they are not obstinately and publicly resisting the teaching. Catholics who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not permitted to receive Holy Communion (1983 CIC canon 915). Catholics who are conscious of grave sin cannot receive Holy Communion without prior sacramental confession (canon 916). “

      What a vicious, spiteful, and manipulative thing to write. Agree with me, or at any rate shut up, or you’re sinning gravely and shouldn’t receive Communion.

      “The new formulation of CCC 2267 does not represent an infallible teaching of the Church, but it does represent an authoritative teaching worthy of religious submission of will and intellect “

      Not if it contradicts the constant teaching of the Church, which it does.

      “Some teachings of the Church are subject to change and others are not. The Church’s teachings against abortion and homosexual marriage are definitive and infallible whereas prior teachings allowing the death penalty were not. It is the Church’s magisterium guided by the Holy Spirit that ultimately needs to decide which teachings are infallible and which are not. Because some teachings are subject to revision does not mean that all teachings are subject to revision. To claim otherwise is to fall into the fallacy of composition, which falsely claims that what is true of the part is true of the whole.”

      It is attitudes like this that lead to the sad mess we have of people who believe firmly that the Church’s teachings on homosexual behavior and “marriage,” divorce and remarriage, abortion, priestesses, etc., will change if they kick up enough of a fuss and wait long enough, thinking “It’s infallible until the Pope decides it isn’t.” That the death penalty is not intrinsically evil has, despite your arguments to the contrary, been blatantly clear throughout the history of the Church. In a previous reply I posted the relevant section of the Catechism of the Council of Trent; then there’s the Catechism of Pope St. Pius X, which says “3 Q. Are there cases in which it is lawful to kill?
      A. It is lawful to kill when fighting in a just war; when carrying out by order of the Supreme Authority a sentence of death in punishment of a crime; and, finally, in cases of necessary and lawful defence of one’s own life against an unjust aggressor.” To claim otherwise is sloppy thinking.

      In any event: Pope Francis speaks confusingly. I don’t understand him, and so the sensible thing for me to do is to read what previous Popes have written, much more clearly. I know that Pope Francis will not (and cannot) change Church teaching, so I am not missing anything.

      • Dear Leslie,

        I believe you are overreacting and misinterpreting what I said about the reception of Holy Communion. I was simply summarizing what canons 915 and 916 say about the worthy reception of the Eucharist. The question is whether it is grave matter to resist publicly and obstinately a teaching of the ordinary magisterium. I believe it is, but I willingly concede that most Catholics are not aware of this so they are not conscious of grave sin and may, therefore, receive Holy Communion. There is a difference between raising respectful questions about certain magisterial teachings and public and obstinate resistance. I am well aware of the right of Catholics to manifest their opinion on matters that pertain to the good of the Church (per canon 212.3), but I also believe such opinions should be expressed according to the guidelines laid out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in “Donum Veritatis” (1990).

        • Actually Mr. Fastiggi the problem here is the Pope is not being in anyway sufficiently clear. That is self-evident.

          As it stands Ratzinger/Benedict’s memo was public as I remember when he became Pope he had his CDF chief issue the same clarification(you can oppose the Pope on the DP and still be admitted to communion and opposition to the Pope on the DP is not morally in the same category as opposition to him on abortion and euthenasia etc) and it is self evident the current CDF and Pope has neglected to clarify weather or not this memo is correct or not. Cardinal Dulles of happy memory was aware of Benedict’s memo and agreed with it & I note Dulles also opposed the Death Penalty.

          I am the last person who would EVER condone disobedience to the clear instruction or teaching of ANY POPE even if it was a Pope of the likes of Alexander VI or Sergus III or John XI or worst.

          But it is self evident what the Pope has done here is not clear and until he clarifies it as far as I am concerned I am well within my rights to disgree with him on the Death Penalty and I do until further notice. Note I absolutely will obey when clarification is handed down.

          Also I noticed you have admitted the following “Whether this means it is intrinsically immoral seems open to question. Some actions, however, are worthy of severe condemnation even if they are not intrinsically evil. For example, amputations are not intrinsically evil, but they would be very evil if done without necessity. It’s important to look at prior magisterial examples of inadmissible or “not admitted.”END QUOTE

          Can we all agree even those who interpret Francis to be maximally against the death penalty even to the point of restricting Catholics from advocating it that the Death Penalty is not intrinsically evil and Francis teachings and change in the CCC may not and must not be interpreted in such a way?

          Can we all agree on that? Because as has been said before to say the DP is intrinsically evil is to make God command what is intrinsically evil. God can command the DP in the OT and by extra-ordinary public divine revelation even command the extermination of whole populations including women and children as he did to the Canaanites and Midianites but God could not commmand the Canaanite women and children be raped to death or sodomized to death as those acts are intrinsically evil.

          Can we all agree the Death Penalty is NOT intrinsically evil and start from that position?

    • ‘Open to question’

      You still won’t answer definitely on ‘intrinsic evil’ but claim ‘inadmissible’ is everything but…

      It doesn’t matter if there was not an infallible definition prior when you’re claiming there now is.

      Once again, Fastiggi, how did the Church that Christ founded not know the truth of the life/death retributive justice – but the Law of Moses did – but only now it knows in the cowardly use of ‘inadmissible’ in a useful ‘evolving’ doctrine?

      Was it ‘intrinsically evil’ for all Capital Punishment executions prior to Francis or just the ones following his words?

  20. “For example, amputations are not intrinsically evil, but they would be very evil if done without necessity.”

    Yes, and they would not simply be “amputations” but… “mutilations.”

    Is “inadmissible” being used in an univocal way in every Papal reference proposed to clarify “inadmissible” as applied to the death penalty? Would that not also depend on the moral issue regarded as “inadmissible” in contexts, as a unity?

    A Catholic in good conscience can receive Communion if “they sincerely have difficulty with the teaching, and they are not obstinately and publicly resisting the teaching” regarding capital punishment.

    Can a Catholic in good conscience receive Communion if “they sincerely have difficulty with the teaching, and they are not obstinately and publicly resisting the teaching” regarding anti-semitism, mutilation to save a life, etc.? If not, why not especially if they can commune in good conscience with respect to the “inadmissible” death penalty? What would this suggest regarding the current changed? “deepened” teaching on the death penalty and the nature of the death penalty itself? If the Church itself or many members? practiced anti-semitism was it ever actually considered “admissible” as a Church teaching and then revised?

    Crickets on “life imprisonment.” Would it be possible to declare “life imprisonment” as “inadmissible?” If so, why? An argument from “authority?” If not, why not?

    Could one make the case though not stated in various Papal references, that though not declared “intrinsically evil” these other moral issues…one could substantiate their being “intrinsically evil” and implicitly so but that in the case of capital punishment whether or not the death penalty is “intrinsically evil” is NOT as readily substantiated? There was really no Church Teaching on capital punishment ever?

    To say that “intrinsically evil ” is not directly stated in papal statements does not allow one to simultaneously state the meaning is “understood” and that “intrinsically evil” is also not really the point; it seems that such a view does indeed depend on a tacit sense of “intrinsically evil” though denied.

    One cannot insist/pretend that the term “amputation” is simply and always a neutral moral term made good or bad by necessity? purpose?…where a medically necessary “amputation” contrasts with “an unnecessary amputation” that is actually morally a “mutilation” even if done by surgeon with precision. This is the manner of thinking which also allows “murder” to be equated with “capital punishment.” At my convenience I can apply or not apply conditions/predicates to terms for the sake of desired conclusions disregarding or equating moral realities, identities as needed.

    Can someone who criticizes this papacy on this forum receive Communion in good conscience? Can the signers of the Open Letter receive Communion in good conscience?

  21. Fastiggi

    “Moreover, it’s simply bad theology to cite a document of lesser importance to override a later document of greater importance and authority”

    What is this document of greater authority than Genesis, Trent, and various official statements made by other popes?

    • Dear Wes,

      We need to understand that there is a living magisterium in the Church. The Council of Trent did not pronounce on capital punishment. The Catechism of the Council of Trent did, but its teaching on the subject was not irreformable or infallible. Professors Feser and Bessette offer their interpretation of Gen 9:6, but their interpretation is not definitive or universally accepted. In the Penitential books of the early Middle Ages, those guilty of homicide were usually given seven years of penance (though it might be more if they slayed a monk or a cleric). They were not directed to turn themselves over for execution, which would follow from a literal interpretation of Genesis 9:6. The meaning of Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Magisterium not private individuals (see Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 12). The same goes for evaluating the binding status of prior magisterial documents. Our Lord gave Peter and the apostles the power of binding and loosing (Mt 16:19 and 18:18). Pope Francis and the bishops in communion with him possess that authority today as much as their predecessors of the past.

  22. Me, Fastiggi

    Apologies for my previous snarky comment about you supplying no reason. I had not yet seen your second post which adds some. But I still can not understand how we could have been so wrong for so long on such an important issue. Presumably the Church knew at least as much you on what the Fathers thought regarding capital punishment.

    And I just can’t understand how we aren’t allowed the ability to protect society, with certainty, from documented murderers and rapists who are likely to continue. Who are we to ignore the innocent? What do you suggest we do with a Hitler or Ted Bundy or the many other examples of monsters? Nobody really answers that.

  23. If Francis, liberals in general, the European courts, etc all get what they want on punishment, then in fifty years or so when the average prison sentence for murder is equivalent to the average sentence for aggravated robbery today, and therefore when the average sentence for aggravated robbery (in fifty years) is equivalent to today’s average sentence for large dollar theft, then sentient folks (fifty years from now) will begin to understand that criminals seem to be taking innocent life a lot less seriously than they used to.

  24. I am interested in understanding, through reason, why civil authorities are not allowed to remove permanently from society the most vicious monsters among us. It’s just not good enough to point to statements made by one or two men as compared to 1,500 year Church teaching. Presumably if the next pope reverses Francis, Fastiggi would be equally as vociferous in his defense of capital punishment?

    • If a future pope revises the current teaching on capital punishment, I will accept it. I try my best to be faithful to the magisterium of the Catholic Church.

      • Robert,
        But there is a financial benefit to every Catholic professor who has your concept of obedience….you can never lose money through being fired for example by speaking up with lonely courage about how three Popes in a row have never mentioned deterrence and murder rates especially in the non death post Catholic area that stretches from Brazil to Mexico. China with a two year appeals death penalty averages less than 11,000 murders a year while Brazil recently reached 63,700 with 1/7th of China’s population.
        Both areas have millions of poor unlike non death penalty Europe,Vermont, Luxembourg.
        Nor was even the previous catechism truthful about prison safety worldwide. Google Brazil and Mexico prisons….the two largest Catholic populations…riots in Brazil prisons kill many per decade with many decapitations by rival gangs. The Popes glanced at non gang infested Euro prisons and then implied that was relevant worldwide. If Lumen Gentium 25 implies that Catholics have to obey politically correct and porous thinking then its no wonder it is rarely quoted by either side. You as a professor had to take an oath of religious submission that omits even the ameliorating conditions of LG25. But Catholic professors are saved by that from ever being fired for courage. Karl Rahner urged laity to pray, study and seek counsel on Humanae Vitae but dissent if sincere after those steps…and Pope John Paul II much later wished him happy birthday in the Vatican related newspaper when Rahner was 84. Both knew LG 25.

        • That should read in line 5:
          “murder rates especially in the non death penalty, post Catholic area that stretches from Brazil to Mexico.”

          • Bill:

            The Asian group of countries have the highest percentage of death penalty countries, with the lowest collective murder rates.

            As you know, I don’t measure deterrence by murder rates.

      • Continuing with the thought experiment, if Francis II reverses Francis I on this issue, is your position that:

        1. The death penalty was right all along, and Francis I was wrong that it was wrong.

        2. The death penalty was right before Francis I, wrong under Francis I, but right again starting with Francis II.

        ?

      • So Professor Fastiggi will try his best to adjust his current thinking on capital punishment once a future pope reverses Francis’s update to the Catechism. The good professor seems to be an actual papolator. A pope is not free to change doctrine on a whim or to bring Church teaching into conformity with his own ideology. Furthermore, there is no reason not to treat this modification to the Catechism as a prudential judgement. Encyclicals and other official Church documents of recent decades contain a number of assertions that cannot possibly be binding: calls for direct government to government foreign aid, creation of world government structures, condemnations of climate change “denialism”, demands for Western countries to accept high levels of immigration, drastic expansions of the welfare state, etc. Thank goodness that being Catholic does not require one to check his brain at the door.

  25. But Professor Fastiggi, when the ordinary teaching of one pope fundamentally contradicts the previous accumulated ordinary teaching of the entire Church, and we then are obliged to believe the new fundamentally different teaching, how do I find comfort I am in the bosom of Truth? That the Church is not currently teaching me that a certain thing is good that will in fact turn out to be sinful or that a certain thing is evil that will later be taught as good? It seems there is no such assurance and perhaps I have been immature and be naive in my faith in the Church. If one believes the death penalty is immoral, one must also believe the Church was wrong about it for an incredibly long time and erroneously taught something as moral that in fact was the opposite.

    I just can’t wrap my head around this idea – truly battling this and don’t understand how I am now to take without reserve certain non “tier one” dogmatic teachings. Must I always wonder in the back of my mind if the Church will reverse course fundamentally on these matters in 100 years?

    As mentioned above, if a future pope corrects Francis on this, would you also defend the future pope and cite quotes of previous popes and Church Fathers expressing support of capital punishment? If the answer isn’t “yes”, how can this be?

    Can you explain why the Church’s sexual and bioethics teachings are on more solid ground than its previous teaching on capital punishment? I read a length scholarly essay once noting how much richer was the Church’s teaching on the morality capital punishment as compared to its teaching on the immorality of contraception. If that’s true, that’s another very serious teaching that I may be following that my children may not. I just don’t know how to remove from my mind now that this stuff in theory can now all be reversed.

  26. But Professor Fastiggi, when the ordinary teaching of one pope fundamentally contradicts the previous accumulated ordinary teaching of the entire Church, and we then are obliged to believe the new fundamentally different teaching, how do I find comfort I am in the bosom of Truth? That the Church is not currently teaching me that a certain thing is good that will in fact turn out to be sinful or that a certain thing is evil that will later be taught as good? It seems there is no such assurance and perhaps I have been immature and naive in my faith in the Church. If one believes the death penalty is immoral, one must also believe the Church was wrong about it for an incredibly long time and erroneously taught something as moral that in fact was the opposite.

    I just can’t wrap my head around this idea – truly battling this and don’t understand how I am now to take without reserve certain non “tier one” dogmatic teachings. Must I always wonder in the back of my mind if the Church will reverse course fundamentally on these matters in 100 years?

    As mentioned above, if a future pope corrects Francis on this, would you also defend the future pope and cite quotes of previous popes and Church Fathers expressing support of capital punishment? If the answer is “yes”, how can this be? Would you not follow a pope off the proverbial cliff as well?

    Can you explain why the Church’s sexual and bioethics teachings are on more solid ground than its previous teaching on capital punishment? I read a length scholarly essay once noting how much richer was the Church’s teaching on the morality capital punishment as compared to its teaching on the immorality of contraception. If that’s true, that’s another very serious teaching that I may be following that my children may not. I just don’t know how to remove from my mind now that this stuff in theory can now all be reversed.

    • Thank you for your good questions. This article might be helpful regarding the development of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty:https://wherepeteris.com/death-penalty-continuity-or-hardness-of-heart/

      When it comes to claims of infallibility by virtue of the ordinary and universal magisterium, we need to consider not just quantity but also quality, i.e. whether the manner of speaking communicates one position as definitively to be held. With regard to abortion and euthanasia, we have clear affirmations by John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae 62 and 65 of the definitive nature of the Church’s teaching against these moral evils. With regard to sexual morality, we have clear affirmations by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1975 and 1986 of the grave immorality of fornication and homosexual acts. Many Scriptures and other magisterial documents can be also cited in support of Catholic sexual morality. With regard to the death penalty, we find prior catechisms, canonical texts, and occasional statements by popes affirming its liceity, but I don’t find in any of these a clear affirmation of one position as definitively to be held. I know of the articles by Prof. Christian Washburn on this subject. He’s a good scholar, but I think he makes his case through quantity rather than quality. Moreover, he accepts the new formulation of the CCC 2267 as an authoritative intervention in the prudential order. The Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for various infractions, but the Church recognizes that the Old Testament contains things that are “incomplete and temporary” (Dei Verbum, 15). The New Testament texts used to support the death penalty (e.g. Mk 7:10, Lk 23:39-43, and Rom 13:4) are inconclusive and ambiguous. In the Gospel texts, there’s simply an affirmation of the current mindset rather than a clear endorsement of capital punishment. Rom 13:4 can be understood as simply an affirmation of the penal authority of the State (which is how Pius XII understood it). Pope Francis has referred to Mt 5:44 as an argument against the death penalty. If Jesus commands us to love our enemies, we need to ask how intentionally executing them is an act of love.

      I am sure people will disagree with me. That’s fine. It’s not about me. It’s about giving religious assent to ordinary magisterial teachings.

    • This article might be helpful regarding the development of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty:https://wherepeteris.com/death-penalty-continuity-or-hardness-of-heart/
      When it comes to claims of infallibility by virtue of the ordinary and universal magisterium, we need to consider not just quantity but also quality, i.e. whether the manner of speaking communicates one position as definitively to be held. With regard to abortion and euthanasia, we have clear affirmations by John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae 62 and 65 of the definitive nature of the Church’s teaching against these moral evils. With regard to sexual morality, we have clear affirmations by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1975 and 1986 of the grave immorality of fornication and homosexual acts. Many Scriptures and other magisterial documents can be also cited in support of Catholic sexual morality. With regard to the death penalty, we find prior catechisms, canonical texts, and occasional statements by popes affirming its liceity, but I don’t find in any of these a clear affirmation of one position as definitively to be held. I know of the articles by Prof. Christian Washburn on this subject. He’s a good scholar, but I think he makes his case through quantity rather than quality. Moreover, he accepts the new formulation of the CCC 2267 as an authoritative intervention in the prudential order. The Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for various infractions, but the Church recognizes that the Old Testament contains things that are “incomplete and temporary” (Dei Verbum, 15). The New Testament texts used to support the death penalty (e.g. Mk 7:10, Lk 23:39-43, and Rom 13:4) are inconclusive and ambiguous. In the Gospel texts, there’s simply an affirmation of the current mindset rather than a clear endorsement of capital punishment. Rom 13:4 can be understood as simply an affirmation of the penal authority of the State (which is how Pius XII understood it). Pope Francis has referred to Mt 5:44 as an argument against the death penalty. If Jesus commands us to love our enemies, we need to ask how intentionally executing them is an act of love

  27. “The meaning of Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Magisterium not private individuals (see Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 12). The same goes for evaluating the binding status of prior magisterial documents. Our Lord gave Peter and the apostles the power of binding and loosing (Mt 16:19 and 18:18). Pope Francis and the bishops in communion with him possess that authority today as much as their predecessors of the past.”

    We agree on all of that, but I always thought the current pope must stay in his lane and not contradict the previous Magisterium. At least as I became a serious Catholic, the books I read taught me this. Or must the pope only not contradict the previous Magisterium with respect to the obviously dogmatic truths? Outside the dogmatic truths, we could in theory go back and forth on the other important moral teachings each successive papal administration?

  28. “Our Lord gave Peter and the apostles the power of binding and loosing (Mt 16:19 and 18:18). Pope Francis and the bishops in communion with him possess that authority today as much as their predecessors of the past.”

    Does Fastiggi assume the impossibility of a heretical pope? For primarily canonical/procedural reasons? Or Biblical reasons?

    Is the power to “bind and loose” sins the same as declaring what is a sin and what is not a sin? Is that verse in Scripture primarily about teaching or the absolution of sins?

    Does Papal infallibility create the Magisterium or serve the Magisterium even in “developments?” Can the Magisterium ever be truly “revised?”

    Is “binding and loosing” the authority to teach anything apart from the Magisterium?

    “Salus animarum supemus lex esto” — ”the salvation of souls must be the supreme law in the Church.” Canon Law 1752

    • I tried to reply to your blogspot, but my comments were rejected for being too long.
      Here is my reply below:

      Dear Professor Feser.
      I am honored you would give so much attention to my comments regarding your recent article in Catholic World Report. I will now respond to the points you raised to my numbered comments:
      1. You seemed to miss what I said. The third alternative would be that the revision of CCC 2267 represents both a doctrinal development/change and a prudential application. To my mind, you did set up a false dichotomy.
      2. I think you do beg the question because you state your opinion at times as if it were an established fact.
      3. Pope Francis has not articulated his position against life sentences with the same insistence as he has against the death penalty. Perhaps it is only a prudential judgment. Behind every prudential judgment, though, are certain principles that are worthy of respect. I provided the example of the European court of human rights to show that Pope Francis’s position against life imprisonment without parole is held by many respectable people. The authority of Pope Francis’s position comes from his authority as the Roman Pontiff not from the European court.
      Here is what you said about Pope Francis’s view of hope:
      “A third problem is that the pope’s claim that the death penalty and long imprisonments deprive the offender of hope seems to presuppose a secular rather than Catholic understanding of hope. In Catholic theology, hope is a theological virtue. It has nothing to do with looking forward to pleasant circumstances in this life. As St. Paul wrote, “if in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable” (I Corinthians 15:19). Rather, hope has to do with the desire for eternal life and trust in God to provide the graces needed to attain it.”
      My point was that hope for life outside prison does not deny a Catholic understanding of hope. I am glad you now accept that point. It wasn’t clear in your article. In fact, you took it upon yourself to quote 1 Cor 15:19 as if the Holy Father needed to be reminded of this Scripture.
      4. I am glad you are aware of the context of the Dostoyevsky quote. It’s not central to the Holy Father’s argument, but it’s something worth considering. Since the reference is not so central, I wonder why you gave it so much attention. I suspect it’s because you want to make Pope Francis look bad. But it doesn’t really make him look bad. The insight on the death penalty provided in the novel, The Idiot, is something we all need to contemplate.
      5. You completely miss my point on the 2004 memo of Cardinal Ratzinger. First of all, the Cardinal in the memo never says that the teaching of John Paul II on the death penalty was merely prudential. The word “prudential” does not appear in the text. The 1997 version of CCC 2267 left open the possibility of applying the death penalty if it were “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” This is why Cardinal Ratzinger could say in 2004 that the death penalty could still be applied and there might be a legitimate diversity of opinions about applying the death penalty. Since Cardinal Ratzinger was one of the major editors of the 1997 Catechism we must assume that the legitimate diversity of opinions corresponded to the very limited possibilities for the use of the death penalty in that edition of the CCC. Because Pope Francis ordered a revision of CCC 2267, the more authoritative text is the revised text of 2018. This text supersedes the 1997 version and has more authority now. You are simply wrong to claim that we are dealing with two documents of “equal magisterial weight.” The 2018 version supersedes the 1997 version just as the 1997 version superseded the earlier 1992 version. Because the 2018 version does not allow for the very limited possibilities of applying the death penalty found in the 1997 version, it is bad theology to cite a 2004 memo of Cardinal Ratzinger to override the authority of the later revised version of CCC 2267. This revised version was ordered by the Roman Pontiff and supported by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It clearly supersedes the authority of the leaked 2004 memo, which is now outdated with respect to the death penalty.
      6. I am afraid you also miss my point here. It is quite clear that you disagree with the revised text of CCC 2267, which carries magisterial authority because it was ordered by the Roman Pontiff. Here is what no. 28 of Donum Veritatis says:
      “Such a disagreement could not be justified if it were based solely upon the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable. Nor, furthermore, would the judgment of the subjective conscience of the theologian justify it because conscience does not constitute an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine”

      Now it’s quite clear that you believe Pope Francis’s teaching on the death penalty is not evident and the arguments for the opposite position are more probable. The CDF, though, specifically says that your disagreement is not justified on such grounds. The claim that the Church does not require assent to authentic teachings of ordinary magisterium is nowhere supported by the CDF in Donum Veritatis. The document does make room for raising questions “regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions” (no. 24). Respectfully raising questions is not the same as public dissent from a magisterial teaching. As I explained above, I do not believe the revised text of CCC 2267 is merely prudential. A prudential judgment applies principles to concrete cases. Here is the revised teaching of CCC 2267:

      “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.”

      How is this teaching merely prudential? The “light of the Gospel” is not merely prudential but normative. The “inviolability and dignity of the person” is not a prudential judgment but a theological principle by which to make moral judgments. Your claim that this teaching is merely prudential does not correspond to the text and, therefore, must be rejected. Moreover, even with respect to interventions in the prudential order, Donum Veritatis never says that such interventions only require “respectful consideration rather than assent.” This is your inference, but it’s not to be found in the text itself. Nowhere does Donum Veritatis ever justify dissent. Instead it speaks of dissent as a “problem.”
      7. You completely fail to respond to my point here. It’s quite clear to me that you do not adhere to the teaching of the revised text of CCC 2267 with religious submission of will and intellect. In spite of your attempts to justify your dissent, the fact remains that you do dissent from the teaching. Your reasons justifying your dissent fail because Donum Veritatis, no. 28 specifically says that disagreement with a magisterial teaching “could not be justified if it were based solely upon the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable.” Your appeals to the Church Fathers and “two millennia of popes” are all open to challenge. At the end of the day, all you can offer are your own reasons for justifying your dissent. But who’s to decide whether your reasons for dissent are sufficient to justify your resistance to a clear magisterial teaching? It seems that you are assuming the authority that belongs to the magisterium itself. You certainly have the right to make known to the magisterial authorities your difficulties with the revised version of CCC 2267. In the final analysis, though, it’s up to the magisterium to decide the issue not you. So until the magisterium decides to revise the text of CCC 2267, I will abide with what the magisterium teaches and not Dr. Feser.

      • “Your appeals to the Church Fathers and “two millennia of popes” are all open to challenge.”

        It isn’t much open to challenge what has been *taught*. The overwhelming voice is that the Popes, Doctors, and Fathers have all taught it was licit. What has been challenged is whether that teaching is of an infallible nature.

        I do not know of anyone who claims infallibility for Pope Francis’ recent change, so the two types of “challenge” are already different in kind.

        And while it *seems* pretty clear what his ultimate aim is, it isn’t beyond debate what (if any) magisterial intervention has actually occurred by changing the CCC. Even the attached letter to the change insists nothing of substance has changed.

        If some sort of magisterial intervention truly has occurred, it is not at all obvious that it is of a higher weight than all the previous magisterial interventions on this same subject but with opposite conclusions. The only thing it has going for it is that it is _newer_; but in doctrine, “new” and “different” are quite rightly an invitation to more, not less, scrutiny.

        No appeal to papal office helps here, since, Vatican I quite clearly notes that “The Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.”

        No do appeals to suddenly deeper understanding of the Gospel, since, “May understanding, knowledge and wisdom increase as ages and centuries roll along, and greatly and vigorously flourish, in each and all, in the individual and the whole Church: but this only in its own proper kind, that is to say, in the same doctrine, the same sense, and the same understanding.”

        This is where I think you seriously misunderstand LG and DV as well, which aimed at preventing theologians from advancing pet theories and novelties against the long-standing–but not necessarily extraordinarily defined–teachings of Holy Mother Church. Your reading would actually have the novelties silence the Tradition, so long as the novelties gained the ear of the pope. Card. Schonborn advanced a quite similar idea in arguing we had to re-read the teachings of the Church, and even the Gospels themselves, in light of AL, not read AL in light of the perennial teachings of the Church. What he argued for AL, you are arguing for this CCC change, but quite simply, that is a completely topsy-turvy understanding of how Scared Tradition works.

      • Prof. Fastiggi,

        Hello again. I have replied to these latest comments of yours in an update to the post over at my own blog. Follow the link and then scroll down:

        http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2019/09/fastiggi-on-revision-to-catechism.html

        If you decide to respond to these replies, it would be easiest if you did so in the comments section over at my blog. If your comments are too long for a single post, just break them up into a series of smaller comments.

  29. “If Jesus commands us to love our enemies, we need to ask how intentionally executing them is an act of love.”

    We have known Jesus said these words for 2,000 years.

    • New Natural Law theorists and the professor do not understand that any punishment as form of correction can also flow from love of the one being corrected; correction is not intrinsically opposed to love, though it can be motivated by intentions other than love.

  30. Will just respond to a few of Dr. Fastiggi’s points…since it’s The Weekend…not a book by a Russian novelist or The European Court but one of “the Forms.” BTW he seems to have no opinion or need to respond to a raised question regarding the possibility of a heretical pope (which apparently he takes care of? with #7 of his reply?)

    BTW we need to thank Dr. Fastiggi for letting us know: “I am honored you would give so much attention to my comments…” You have a certain simpatico with the current pontiff’s own plausibly denied? sensibilities (cautiously not provided with more specific characterizations here) towards even those who sincerely seek clarifications or make “welcome” criticisms. As a “faithful Catholic” unlike the signers of the Open Letter or at this juncture Dr. Feser? and myself?…he can do that. No attempt here on my part to attenuate my own feelings…but I’ll give him this: at least he does respond beyond just being “honored” or “welcoming” criticism…

    1. “The third alternative would be that the revision of CCC 2267 represents both a doctrinal development/change and a prudential application. To my mind, you did set up a false dichotomy.”

    First the phrase “To my mind” it is well-chosen.

    Is this the “eloquent ambiguity” Bishop Barron spoke of at the end of a Bishop’s conference? This is the teaching the current pontiff has “made clear” (like so many other teachings yet to clarified…or have they been clarified?)

    Why does Dr. Fastiggi himself NOT refer to Bishop Barron’s “eloquent ambiguity?” Barron is indeed “an apostle” in communion with the current pontiff, “a faithful Catholic” with a not-too-long ago provided for “clarification” after lengthy discussions regarding the death penalty. To my knowledge, Dostoyevsky and the European Court are NOT in communion with the current pontiff…except in the theology of Karl Rahner (not Thomas).

    #2. Dr. Feser “beg(s) the question.” He makes not enough references to Scripture, Church Tradition? He does not source a Russian novelist or a group of “respectable people” (European Court) who are basically atheistic? agnostic? who also support euthanasia, abortion and same sex marriage? Dr. Feser is promoting “his” history of opinions vs that of a novelist and the European Court? But here’s the reality” the “myth” of any Church Tradition regarding the death penalty. Surprise he didn’t recycle that here…but later….

    #3. “Pope Francis has not articulated his position against life sentences with the same insistence as he has against the death penalty. Perhaps it is only a prudential judgment.”

    So, and at this juncture are we at the point of a kind of faux-undecided? a kind of coquetry?

    #3B. Yes, Fastiggi never begs the question by subsuming the “hope” issue under the current status of like imprisonment…but he does NOT address Dr. Feser’s response to that concerns at all!

    “My point was that hope for life outside prison does not deny a Catholic understanding of hope. ”

    That the current pontiff himself does not integrate a reference to hope as a theological virtue..again not crickets here from Fastiggi…but a failed attempt to deflect with a sort of “humble” misleading reply.

    #4. I am glad you are aware of the context of the Dostoyevsky quote. It’s not central to the Holy Father’s argument, but it’s something worth considering. Since the reference is not so central, I wonder why you gave it so much attention. I suspect it’s because you want to make Pope Francis look bad. But it doesn’t really make him look bad. The insight on the death penalty provided in the novel, The Idiot, is something we all need to contemplate”

    Just read this a few times out loud. Let the absurdity speak for itself. At this point, I feel sorry for Dr. Fastiggi that he would even post this…especially since he knows the current pontiff feel “honored” and “welcomes” etc…

    Make the current pontiff “look bad?” How much fear of that does the current pontiff have of that? Daneels, McCarrick, Zanchetta, Maradiaga, Coccopalmerio…

    Yes, we should also consider the current pontiff’s fear of making anyone else “look bad” and emulate him: “there are problems there” (best said with hushed tones, eye rolling optional) “Pharisees” (works every tine, Jesus used this word) “neurotics” (used by many Argentine psychoanalysts) “Pseudo-schismatics” (yes, but nothing beats a real Made in Germany schismatic!)…way back in 2016 towards “irresponsible journalism” (media or anyone who might criticize his papacy but not towards me, please): and still the winner, “coprophagia.” But let’s recall here: the “authority” to say these things…

    #7 “But who’s to decide whether your reasons for dissent are sufficient to justify your resistance to a clear magisterial teaching? ”

    Yes the “eloquent ambiguity” Bishop Barron stands in apophatic wonder of…discussed at greater length in his book: “Dare We Not Really Know..”

    Yes, still no response to the possibility of a heretical pope…and yes various appointments, chosen close associations with the current pontiff…irrelevant here…

    Perhaps Fr. Rosica’s plagiarized characterization of the current pontiff was not simply correct about “a Jesuit pope” but Rosica was unwittingly defining (maybe Dr. Fastiggi would agree ?) “authority” and papal infallibility better than anyone had ever done before..

  31. Correction/edits:

    BTW we need to thank Dr. Fastiggi for letting us know: “I am honored you would give so much attention to my comments…” He has a certain simpatico with the current pontiff’s own plausibly denied? sensibilities (cautiously not provided with more specific characterizations here) towards even those who sincerely seek clarifications or make “welcome” criticisms. As a “faithful Catholic” unlike the signers of the Open Letter or at this juncture Dr. Feser? and myself?…he can do that. No attempt here on my part to attenuate my own feelings…but I’ll give him this: at least he DOES respond beyond just being “honored” or “welcoming” criticism…

    #3. “Pope Francis has not articulated his position against life sentences with the same insistence as he has against the death penalty. Perhaps it is only a prudential judgment.”

    So, and at this juncture are we at the point of a kind of faux-undecided? a kind of coquetry?

    #3B. Yes, Fastiggi never begs the question by subsuming the “hope” issue under the current status of life imprisonment…but he does NOT address Dr. Feser’s response to that concerns at all!

    “My point was that hope for life outside prison does not deny a Catholic understanding of hope. ”

    That the current pontiff himself does not integrate a reference to hope as a theological virtue?..again not crickets here from Fastiggi…but a failed attempt to deflect with a sort of “humble” misleading reply. He projects onto Dr. Feser the current pontiff’s own begging the question of hope..but really…the secular hope IS the “hope” the current pontiff served up…: why did the current pontiff NOT integrate a theological “hope” is a non-issue/not question for Dr. Fastiggi…the “worse” sin is not seeing the current pontiff did not deny theological “hope?” In the Dr. Fastiggi playbook and the current papacy: yes. It is worth mentioning: in very early Rahner, “omission” of statement was indeed a form ofr heresy…the very early Rahner..

  32. I dispute the claim that there is a definitive 2,000 year Catholic tradition regarding the death penalty.

    Dr. Fastiggi here makes use of an equivocation. Furthermore, while he might have once accidentally made use of it, this equivocation HAS been pointed out before, and he here ignores that correction.

    “Definitive” is the equivocal term. On the one hand, the Church teaches many things without teaching them in a definitive act that raises them to an irreformable teaching. For example, for 1900 years the Church taught that Mary had been assumed into heaven, but She had never (before 1950) taught it by a definitive teaching act that raises the teaching to a manifestly irreformable teaching, i.e. either by solemnly affirming it in an Ecumenical Council, or by an ex cathedra declaration by the pope. Those are the two kinds of “definitive” acts by which the Church can raise up a teaching to be manifestly irreformable, in that both kinds of definitive acts are protected by the Church’s gift of infallibility. Before 1950, all of the specific individual events where the pope of the time, or a bishop, repeated the teaching that the early Church had handed down, while being acts of the Teaching Church (i.e. the Magisterium), were not definitive acts of placing the teaching as infallible, i.e. what we call “definition”. Such acts are “definitive”.

    Yet it is entirely possible (nay, probable) that the teaching was already irreformable and an infallible teaching before 1950. It had been taught so consistently, and so universally, throughout the Church’s history, that it probably satisfied the criteria for being taught infallibly as by the Ordinary Magisterium, in her ordinary acts of teaching throughout the world and down the centuries. In such infallible teachings, you cannot locate any specific individual acts which authoritatively define the teaching, thereby raising it to a teaching manifestly infallible – the whole point of distinguishing these kinds of teachings as infallible under the Ordinary Magisterium is that there are no such solemnly defining acts, and yet the teaching has already become irreformable in spite of such lack. They are “definitive” in their irreformability, without the aid of specific solemn “definitions.”

    Dr. Fastiggi is correct that there have been no such formal definitions raising up the immemorial teaching that the death penalty as regards its nature is morally licit, no solemn definition in an Ecumenical Council, no ex cathedra statement by a pope. But saying so does not address Dr. Feser’s assertion, which is that it has already been made an irreformable and an infallible teaching by the Ordinary Magisterium.

    In earlier discussions, Dr. Fastiggi appeared (to me, and to some others) to attempt to be a fence-sitter on THAT thesis, i.e. on whether the immemorial teaching had satisfied the criteria for being a teaching proposed infallibly by the Ordinary Magisterium. He seemed to acknowledge that there was some reasonable weight of evidence indicating that the teaching might have satisfied the relevant criteria, without his expressing determinately whether the criteria had been satisfied, or had not. Here, however, Dr. Fastiggi seems (again, to me) to resolve that fence-sitting, in favor of saying that the teaching had not satisfied the criteria of infallibility via the Ordinary Magisterium.

    What is odd here is that he does so not on the basis of any new data that unambiguously addresses the issue: the only thing even slightly applicable seems to be the new paragraph 2267 of the CCC, (which, by the way, is not new but is merely a quote from the pope’s 2017 address to some people), which he ALSO seems to be unwilling to admit to saying that it definitively specifies that the DP as regards its nature is not morally licit. That is to say, the money quote of 2267 is ambiguous, and while it might mean that the DP is morally illicit in its nature, it might not. And yet Dr. Fastiggi seems to be willing, now, to state determinately that the Church by the Ordinary Magisterium has never made the immemorial teaching infallible and irreformable.

    The root of the problem here is squarely this: the nature of the irreformability and infallibility of such Ordinary Magisterium teachings is to make their certainty and infallibility, “soft”, for want of a better term. It is naturally true that the main reason the Church would be motivated to make the SPECIFIC effort of going into a defining act, i.e. a solemn definition such as via an ex cathedra declaration, is that the teaching is being called into question. Not only being called into question, but being attacked with some appearance of at least partial success, i.e. some people are being persuaded or at least made to doubt, and this typically happens when the attacks on the truth have some appearance of reasonability. Hence the natural motivation to raise up an immemorial teaching by a solemn definition is from conditions that LOOK LIKE there is reasonable doubt whether it has already been taught infallibly by the Ordinary Magisterium. (For if there is, manifestly, no reasonable doubt on this, the attacks would wither away without even temporary success, and would not require the effort of a defining act). But in the concrete, such attacks will inevitably include arguments seemingly raising up points suggesting that the Church has not been of one single voice on the matter in the past.

    In reality, if a teaching has had absolute and complete uniformity of teaching throughout all prior ages, then of course there is no NEED to solemnly define it. She only bothers with things that have been raised up as doubts and disputes, which (naturally) means that Christians have not absolutely spoken with one voice on it.

    In examining this teaching on DP, I would argue that if the DP teaching in the Church before 1970 had not already satisfied the criteria of being taught infallibly by the Ordinary Magisterium, then arguably NO OTHER teaching by the Church has ever satisfied the criteria, nor ever will. The universality of the DP teaching, its breadth and depth of support both by popes and bishops and theologians with one voice from the time of Innocent I forward to 1970, is difficult to exceed by any other teaching that is immemorial but not taught by a solemn definition. And if the criteria of such infallibility via the Ordinary Magisterium has never been met and can never be met, then the category is an empty set and the concept is an empty theory.

    But the concept of such category of teachings is part and parcel with the position on the religious assent that we owe to the ordinary teachings by the bishops. If the former is empty of meaning, that attacks the latter as well.

    I invite Dr. Fastiggi to do the following: evaluate whether the teaching on Mary’s Assumption was already infallible before 1950, and if so, how its satisfying the criteria of “infallible via the Ordinary Magisterium” stacks up against the Church’s teachings (before 1970) that the DP is morally licit as regards it nature. (In my readings, what I have found is that the DP teaching is actually much stronger, but I admit that my information on the Assumption teaching is incomplete. Similarly, E. Christian Brugger made as strong a case as I have ever seen that the pre-1967 teaching against contraception was already irreformably and infallibly taught by the Ordinary Magisterium, but his evidences for the point simply pale in comparison to the evidence in favor of the Church’s teaching that DP is morally licit as to its nature.)

    I also invite Dr. Fastiggi to suggest some other teaching that has an immemorial character and that manifestly satisfies the criteria for having been taught infallibly by the Ordinary Magisterium, but has not been solemnly defined, on which he would stake his professional reputation and standing that it has been taught infallibly and we can be completely confident (i.e. without reservation) it has this status.

    • Tony, you make an excellent point. If 1,500 year of consistent teaching by the Ordinary Magisterium does not point to it being infallible, then what is ever infallible outside a few of the big dogmatic statements?

    • Tony, your point about the Assumption is a good one. It seems to me that a parallel to this case would be if, in 1950, after all the centuries of teaching that Our Lady was assumed into heaven, instead of declaring that the Assumption is dogma, the Pope had said “It’s inadmissible to believe in the Assumption.”

  33. As a proof of concept, does anyone know of a consistent but reformable teaching that has been completely reversed in the proposed way of DP here?

      • SOL
        That was what I thought would be the first proposal. Even the infamous usury (and contraceptive among other things) apologist John Noonan admitted that the usury doctrine still holds. One can point to the catechism revision as a (supposed) magisterial act revising the teaching. No such magisterial document exists for usury.

        • I agree that the traditional teaching on usury is still valid, true, and applicable. I can’t think of what else defenders of Francis might use.

          • Since the Church has been silent on the doctrine of usury for some hundreds of years (the word appears here and there but no real doctrinal articulation), what do you take to be still true, valid and applicable?

        • I believe that the strongest claim is the old teachings in favor of the right of the state to use torture. There are various papal and council affirmations of it, but both VII and JPII castigated it as “intrinsically evil” IIRC. This is pertinent because many who oppose the DP generally think that it is very similar in moral category to torture.

          There are some qualifiers that may be applied both to the Church’s (older) support of it, and to modern denunciations of it, but when all is said and done they don’t seem as solid as one would like in order to escape the charge of “change of doctrine”.

  34. Some readers will have noticed that Prof. Fastiggi has responded above to the reply to him that I gave in a post over at my own blog. I have now updated that post with replies to his most recent comments. Interested readers can follow the link below and scroll down:

    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2019/09/fastiggi-on-revision-to-catechism.html

    Prof. Fastiggi, if you opt to respond to this latest batch of replies from me, it would be easiest if you did so in the comments section of my own blog. (It’s confusing to jump back and forth between the comments section here at CWR and my own blog.) If your replies are too long to put into a single comment, you can just break them up into a series of comments.

    • Dear Professor Feser,

      If time permits, I’ll reply on your blog. The key issue to me is that you are trying to justify your dissent from a teaching of the ordinary magisterium. You seem to think that if the teaching is prudential dissent is allowed.

      Below is what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in its 1998 Commentary on the Concluding Forumla of the Profession of Faith. Please pay attention to the final sentence. Dissent from teachings of the prudential order can still be qualified as “rash or dangerous and therefore ‘tuto doceri non potest’ (cannot be safely taught).” So even if you consider the revised teaching of CCC 2267 to be prudential, your dissent from it can still be qualified as rash or dangerous and unable to be safely taught. I hope and pray you’ll stop dissenting from Pope Francis on the death penalty, which in the revised text of CCC 2267 is also presented as the teaching of the Church. I don’t doubt your sincerity, but you don’t seem to realize the seriousness of dissent.

      From the CDF’s 1998 Commentary:

      10. The third proposition of the Professio fidei states: “Moreover, I adhere with religious submission of will and intellect to the teachings which either the Roman Pontiff or the College of Bishops enunciate when they exercise their authentic Magisterium, even if they do not intend to proclaim these teachings by a definitive act.” To this paragraph belong all those teachings ¬ on faith and morals – presented as true or at least as sure, even if they have not been defined with a solemn judgment or proposed as definitive by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Such teachings are, however, an authentic expression of the ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff or of the College of Bishops and therefore require religious submission of will and intellect.18 They are set forth in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of revelation, or to recall the conformity of a teaching with the truths of faith, or lastly to warn against ideas incompatible with these truths or against dangerous opinions that can lead to error.19

      A proposition contrary to these doctrines can be qualified as erroneous or, in the case of teachings of the prudential order, as rash or dangerous and therefore “tuto doceri non potest”.20

      • Prof. Fastiggi,

        If you are going to keep accusing me of dissent, I am going to ask you one more time the question I’ve now asked twice already at my blog, but to which you have yet to provide an answer: Exactly what is the proposition you think I am dissenting from? Is it:

        (a) The death penalty is inadmissible because it is intrinsically an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the human person,

        (b) The death penalty is inadmissible because it is given such-and-such modern circumstances an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the human person,

        or some third proposition (and if so, exactly what is that proposition)?

        Unless you can tell me exactly what the proposition is that I am both obligated to assent to and yet refuse to assent to, it is unjust and uncharitable of you to accuse me of dissent from obligatory teaching.

        • Dear Prof. Feser,

          I replied on your blog. We need to give assent to the 2018 CCC 2267 as it is written. It doesn’t quite fit your either/or categories. Ultimately, the Church does not want Catholics supporting the death penalty. It is considered inadmissible.

      • “The key issue to me is that you are trying to justify your dissent from a teaching of the ordinary magisterium. You seem to think that if the teaching is prudential dissent is allowed.”

        The key issue to me is that you are trying to justify dissent from a teaching of the ordinary magisterium, including two millennia of papal teaching, Tradition, Scripture, Catechisms.

      • A proposition contrary to these doctrines can be qualified as erroneous or, in the case of teachings of the prudential order, as rash or dangerous and therefore “tuto doceri non potest”.20

        “Can be qualified as” does not imply “IS”. Suppose, for example, the pontiff states, in the form of a teaching to which religious assent is required. Suppose, further, that it happens to be in error (as is possible in teachings which are reformable and not protected by strict infallibility). In such a case – which has in fact occurred in the history of the Church, such as with John XXII – a proposition that is “contrary to this doctrine” is NOT erroneous, the teaching itself is erroneous. Hence the expression “can be qualified as erroneous” does not carry the meaning “is erroneous”.

        Furthermore, because theologians and bishops went to John XXII to correct him, and we believe they were right to do so, and we believe John XXII was right to be swayed by them and correct his mistake, nor can the expression “can be qualified as erroneous” imply a kind of procedural determination that the propositions that contradict the teaching are to be HELD as erroneous as a matter of principle, regardless of the content of them and where actual truth lies. Thus the import of the term “can” in “can be qualified” is to be understood as that of possibility, or contingency: the contradicting proposition might be erroneous.

        Therefore, in the case of prudential determinations, the expression “as rash or dangerous” follows on with the same possibility or contingency.

        As to the final expression, “tuto doceri non potest”, or (roughly) “cannot be safely be taught”, it is difficult to make out how to treat it. On the one hand, when you are proposing a proposition that directly contradicts the Pontiff’s prudential teaching, you are certainly going out on a limb in some sense. On the other hand, if the bishops and theologians were right to go to John XXII and correct him directly, holding the contrary of what he taught, (on a matter that required religious assent, a higher standard than the “respect” that is owed to prudential determinations), it is inconceivable that in, say, classrooms, they were not only free but obliged to teach what John XXII had proposed without major caveats – surely one must agree that if they had taught their students that holy people who die do not receive the Beatific Vision until the Final Judgment, simply because John XXII was saying so, they would have been engaging in something rash and dangerous, because they knew that prior doctrine had already taught otherwise. So, it would have been unsafe to teach the prior doctrine, and unsafe also to teach John’s (erroneous) teaching to their students. But also unsafe to merely say “there is no safe opinion to hold on the matter” without clarification to their theology students; they would have been obliged to at a minimum explain WHY both options were “unsafe”. So, imagine a theology professor being confronted by a student who says “you’re telling us that both sides are ‘unsafe’ yet you yourself felt sufficiently secure in holding to the older teaching as to approach the Pontiff and say to him ‘with respect, Your Holiness, you’re wrong on this’? How is that again?”

        And, again, this is in regards to a teaching requiring religious assent, a higher demand than that accorded to prudential determinations.

        The critical feature of non-infallible teachings is that “religious assent”, comprising an assent with reservation, can come in degrees: it is subject to a matter of degree based on both the “mind of the teacher” in how firmly he proposes it, and also on 1001 other factors such as (especially) how long and how universally the Church as a whole has proposed it. All the more so are prudential determinations. If a Catholic were to disagree with the Pope on his prudential determination about the frequency which rightly is applied to the DP, he would not be forbidden to receive Communion, hence it could not be objectively a grave matter to so disagree.

  35. Professor Fastiggi,

    I think at least some of this back and forth between you and Dr. Feser could be cleared up if you were to elaborate more on the *precise content* of the current teaching. I would definitely be interested in reading your take on *what precisely* is taught.

    One confusion I’ve had is that the paragraph seems to commit one to a judgment that some particular conditions have been met. And that since they have, the death penalty is now inadmissible everywhere. Yet, whenever such conditions are enumerated and specified, we can point to places around the world where such conditions are manifestly not met.

    I’d love to read more about how to properly understand the content of the current teaching (whether you’ve written about it or somewhere else you would point).

    Thanks,
    John

  36. In light of the massive fiasco of the clerical abuse crisis, does the Catholic Church have any credibility to lecture anyone about criminal justice? With the level of clerical recidivism during the crisis, with there being a fair amount of catch and release, the Church and the mental health profession have been poor judges of character. Many of the offending clergy were pretty much given 70 X 7 forgiveness, and huge amounts of mercy, to little good effect. The thing that was lacking was a sense of justice for the victim and for future victims. Mercy without justice is just as bad as justice without mercy. A balance is needed. There has been such an unbalanced tilt towards mercy that one can wonder if it is possible to talk about the mercy killing of justice.
    *
    I would suggest that the Pope look to the sequoia size log in the Church’s eye before he lectures society about any log in the criminal justice system’s eye.

    • I think the reason for all the the failings of this Pontificate is Francis embracing a false form of Mercy that excludes the need for repentance, the need for conversion and most of all excludes justice. It’s the reason for his absolutist rejection of capital punishment and life imprisonment, even for unrepentant incorrigible violent recidivists. It the reason for his decision to open up communion to those living in adultery, and openness to intercummunion with non-Catholics. It the reason for his stating that God wills a diversity of religions (as opposed to the necessity of conversion and belonging to the Catholic faith as a requirement to be saved). It’s the reason for his tolerating heterodoxy among his inner circle (his refusal to discipline Sosa, Marx and Kasper in particular). And it’s the reason for his soft touch approach to dealing with sexual abusers and those cover up for them (many of whom are his closest friends and advisors).

  37. Just for a reality check, I urge readers to google “List of Countries by intentional homicide” wiki. It will bring you to the UN figures for the murder rates of 230 countries and substantially Catholic northern Latin America is the most murderous region on earth and is non death penalty by secular law from Brazil then west and north to Mexico (rare use Belize). 5 Catholic non death penalty countries or post Catholic countries are in the top 7 worst. Non death penalty El Salvador is 50% Catholic is #1 worst murder rate country on earth. Venezuela is 96% Catholic and is non death penalty and is #3 worst murder rate on earth. Honduras is 46% Catholic, non death penalty and is #5 worst murder rate on earth. Lesotho (Africa) is 39% Catholic, rare use death penalty (1995) and is #6 worst murder rate on earth. Belize is 40% Catholic, rare use death penalty and #5 worst on earth.

    The UN world regions list is as follows:

    Safest as to non war homicide:

    Asia is #1 safest at a murder rate of 2.9 per 100,000.
    Oceania and Europe tied for #2 at a murder rate of 3.0 per 100,000.
    Africa and the Americas are 4 times worse at 12.5 rate and 16.3 rate respectively. The Americas rate is skewed highest in the world largely due to northern Latin America since the USA rate is 5.3 and Canada has a rate of 1.8.

    Asia is the big tell. If you google “capital Punishment by country” wiki, there is a color coded map that tells the whole story. Two things prevent murder roughly speaking…the death penalty or reasonable incomes as typical…Asia (death penalty dominant with much poverty) or Europe (no extensive poverty ghettos holding millions). Three popes give no evidence of having even looked closely at this area nor at the area of world prison safety. Google “Brazil prison riots decapitations by inmates”.
    The worst murder rate areas on earth are Africa and northern Latin America and both are non death penalty. Europe will need the death penalty if her poverty population grows from African migrations but can live without it if that does not happen…because most physical murders do not come from the affluent…as the USA figures show (50% happen in the ghettos).
    Are Chinese simply superior in manners and morals? They had 20 to 30 million killed in their Taiping rebellion in the mid 19th century while the total of US soldiers killed in all wars is less than 2 million. They had an opium problem and did away with it by severity. Their murder rate is now .60 per 100,000 and Brazil’s is 30.5 per 100,000. Brazil, non death penalty, the largest Catholic population, has 50 times the murder rate of China. Do you think China can easily convert to Catholicism as it looks at the murder mess that is Brazil from whence it buys much of its material goods? Brazil had 63,895 murders in 2017 and China had 7,990 adult murders in 2017 with 7 times Brazil’s population. China abortions are about the New York City rate and are monstrous therefore but that is a different area.

  38. Latin theologoumena concerning the papacy lead Vatican I and all of these prescriptions and warnings from the CDF concerning the ordinary magisterium of the pope (or maybe not the ordinary magisterium, just prudential judgements which were not explicitly mentioned by Vatican I but do result from a maximalist view of the bishop of pope as having some sort of supratemporal authority in temporal matters), this is the mentality in which Professor Fastiggi is caught and from which he cannot be extricated. Rather than making a clear statement about how his opinion stands in relation to “authoritative” statements from previous Pope’s, Francis’s defenders (or just defenders of a Latin view of the papacy) are caught in this endless intellectual game to preserve papal pretensions and trying to make sense of what appears to be a clear break that has very little with respect to a well-argued theological explication. Indeed, Francis is a necessary rebuke to Latin views of the papacy before there can be a reconciliation with the separated Apostolic Churches.

    • “Rather than making a clear statement about how his opinion stands in relation to “authoritative” statements from previous Pope’s”

      Here I am referring to Francis and his utterances on capital punishment, etc.

    • If I understand you correctly, I THINK you are saying that a Latin ecclesiology committed to certain teachings on the papacy necessarily sets itself up for these quandaries. I tend to agree. From a CATHOLIC standpoint, since we take to be what revealed to be in itself most certain, to the extent we hold certain doctrines, we MUST logically hold (given the premises Catholicism requires about papal authority) to hold to either the seemingly ad hoc view that God simply will not allow X to happen, OR if He did, there must be some way to reconcile the teachings, no matter how convoluted and suspect. I am Catholic, BUT I agree this is a fair assessment (if it is the one being made). But I understand that from a non Catholic perspective, their is the option to not accept certain doctrinal premises, and thus completely accept that Popes could in fact commit contradictions with prior established teaching. I could go on to explain why I have chosen to accept the Catholic perspective nonetheless, but that would take the conversation too far astray. But I think the point you make, from a broader not necessarily Catholic perspective, is a fair one (once again, IF I understand you correctly).

  39. I have come to this conclusion: that the revision of the death penalty by Bergoglio is simply one step towards having those who adhere to the Traditional Magisterium of the Church being declared “dissenters” and “schismatics.”

    In the “new Church” heretics and apostates will become the “true believers.” If Bergoglio basically sides with “the world” and a secular sense of faith…that’s where the money is.

  40. Interestingly, I just checked the Catechism on the Vatican website:

    “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
    http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm

    Not an “inadmissible” in sight.

  41. “Whether the death penalty is intrinsically immoral is an important question, but it’s not necessary to decide this question to come to the conclusion that we should oppose capital punishment.” Dr. Fastiggi

    Well, then the question of whether or not it is intrinsically moral or not is NOT really an important question…anymore. Why even say it is? For the sake of nostalgia?

    And so, as the Church depends less and less on notions of intrinsic morality, revamps the JPII Institute (“Yes, it’s important…but no longer essential?”) and we realize? down the line that we never really had a traditional Church teaching on X, Y, or Z…

    Is the German “synodal path” any wonder or the Amazon synod?

    Again, what is the possibility of a heretical pope (yet unaddressed by Dr. Fastiggi in this discussion?). Irrelevant to this discussion? I think not insofar as a longstanding teaching has indeed been reversed?… “developed” or else one asserts that there was NEVER any longstanding teaching and that is just a “myth?” An assertion that could also apply to …? There is nothing that “important” or concerning about the status of the Church as Teacher in such a statement? that such a view was really a “myth” all along?

    What are the limits of papal infallibility?

    Is Sosa the head of the Jesuits correct to state that the Devil is “symbolic” and could conceivably assert that the Church never really had a “definitive” teaching on Satan? Any need for the current pontiff to correct Sosa? If no need for the Vatican to correct Sosa…what must anyone believe about anything including the death penalty?

    Should Bishop Barron be corrected for referring to this “development” on the death penalty as an “eloquent ambiguity?” Or made a cardinal?

  42. Foundational Errors: EV & 2267 Amendments

    The is no foundation, for either the EV or the amendments to 2267, to end or have limitations on the death penalty based upon the current status of inconsistent and irresponsible criminal justice systems, as detailed (1).

    As the Church well knows, the world’s criminal justices systems have been no more responsible, over the last 60 years, than has the Church, with Her priest sex scandal horrors, as detailed (1).

    see fn4 and the entire text

    Catechism and State Protection
    https://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2014/10/catechism-state-protection.html

  43. Lots to tackle here. Let me begin with some comments on the first part. I would think that Catholic doctrine on the indefectibility of the faith would require us to maintain that, in principle, no formal teaching would ever be allowed by God which would clearly contradict prior teaching. There might be some wiggle room regarding the status of the catechism, but if we proceed on the view that it does in fact provide authoritative teaching (though I know it itself is not the source of the teaching, but the report of what the teaching is–at least as I understand it), then we would have to say that where things in the catechism clearly seem to contradict established teaching, we must find a way to reconcile it with established teaching. (One might try to go the other way, and say prior teaching my be reinterpreted to fit it, but there is no plausible scenario for doing this outright in this case, which returns us to the first point above). Now, I realize that is what Dr. Feser is doing.

    It seems to me that the use of the word “inadmissable” is intentional precisely because it does not fit normal usage for theological documents. The teaching cannot say it is intrinsically evil (though one gets the feeling it would like to say that), which is why we must take it as a prudential judgment. So then the question becomes as to whether we can be bound to particular prudential judgments.

    THis point is very tricky, it seems to me. To be sure, we can invoke the idea that the catechism is intended to express GENERAL principles, and not make particular judgments. BUT, does that mean that IF it does so, it can essentially be disregarded? Is there anything in Catholic teaching that permits this? I realize one can go back to teaching to say the Church teaches prudential judgments are left to competent authorities (e.g. government), or there can be room for theological dissent (though does this apply to catechetical teaching), but this raises the question of the authority of the Pope to determine what is and is not reconciliable and permissible under Church teaching.

    This takes us all the way back to my first point. Must we hold that the Pope would never insist, in his judgment regarding the catechism as a matter of juridical discipline (as opposed to me personal opinion), that a catechetical teaching be taken in a way that clearly goes against established? Or, would we have to go the route that if he did, the teaching on papal authority and primacy of juridical authority requires us, in spite of all ordinary judgment, to hold that SOMEHOW his take is to be regarded as consistent with previous teaching?

    Here, it seems to me to be a bit too simple to just say, well ,if we can tell that he is using prudential judgment where it is not called for, we can appeal to Church teaching (prior) to dismiss it. I would need to know details, but I would think that there is an obligation to recognize a Pope’s authority to make juridical decisions insisting that his view, and what is added to the catechism, fits with prior teaching, even when it seems clearly not to. In other words, is there a clear teaching which seems to permit the Pope to do this? (Of course, we could bank on that it would never reached the stage of being formally juridical–e.g., could he order to excommunicate anyone who did not assent to his view, etc.)? Or, are we once again left with simply holding, by faith, that there is a clear teaching that he has such authority, and thus God would simply never permit it to be used this way?

    The challenge for me is find someway to weave all of these concerns in a coherent, highly delicate balance. I have some thoughts on how we might do this, but I will save them for a follow up post.

  44. Here is a follow up on the life sentence thing. It seems there is a way this could be worked out. if we emphasize that life sentences, as will teaching in the past on capital punishment, are justified in cases where it is the only reasonable way to protect society, then we can simply add this caveat: if a person ever indicated practically undeniable reform of character and non threat to society, the possibility (hope) of release could never be ruled out in principle. But with this conditional, it is clear that there are many cases of hardened criminals where this almost certainly never occur, and thus would never need to be put into effect.

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Three questions for Catholic opponents of capital punishment -
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  3. PopeWatch: Make the Punishment Fit the Crime – The American Catholic
  4. This IS Our Faith Lesson #20 – On God's Payroll

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