Pope Francis on the Death Penalty:  Reversing the Constant Teaching of the Church?

Pope Francis on the Death Penalty: Reversing the Constant Teaching of the Church?

by Christopher A. Ferrara
October 12, 2017

The very credibility of the Magisterium, the teaching office of the Holy Catholic Church, depends upon its universality and constancy down through the Christian centuries, being based, as it is, on the Deposit of Faith: i.e., divine revelation, including the Gospel and the Commandments of God as explicated by the same Magisterium. The famous formula of St. Vincent of Lerins captures this essence of the Magisterium, describing it as: “quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (“what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all”). Like God who does not change His mind, the Magisterium cannot reverse itself to suit the views of a particular Pope. The Pope himself is bound to the Church’s constant teaching.

There is no question that the Church has taught constantly, from her beginning and through the reign of John Paul II, that civil authorities may have recourse to capital punishment for the gravest crimes. I have presented the proofs of this here, in an article I wrote for Crisis magazine. Not even John Paul II, who clearly disfavored the death penalty, went so far as to declare it per se immoral in any binding pronouncement, for that would involve a radical contradiction of the Magisterium by “the Magisterium,” which is impossible.

To the contrary, the Catechism that John Paul II promulgated (in § 2267) declares that “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.” As for the phrase “only possible way of effectively defending human lives,” civil authorities and legislators, not the Pope on some case-by-case basis, are the ones who make that determination.

What, then, are we to make of the assertion in Amoris Laetitia — uttered in passing, moreover — that the Church “firmly rejects the death penalty,” which assertion is in turn based on nothing more than the manipulated Synod’s final relatio, literally foisted upon the Synod Fathers for an up or down vote on less than a day’s notice? And what are we to make of Pope Francis’ recent comment that the Catechism should be amended to state that capital punishment “is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of whom, in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor”?

How can this view possibly be squared with clearly contrary “traditional teaching of the Church” affirmed in the Catechism? Clearly, what Pope Francis thinks and what the Church teaches are at odds. Consider the unequivocal teaching of Pius XII precisely on the matter of how one who commits a capital crime has forfeited his right to life in civil society:

“Even when it is a question of someone condemned to death, the state does not dispose of an individual’s right to life. It is then the task of public authority to deprive the condemned man of the good of life, in expiation of his fault, after he has already deprived himself of the right to life by his crime.” (AAS, 1952, pp. 779 et. seq.)

Now, reasonable arguments can be made about how the death penalty ought not to be applied for prudential reasons in today’s societies. One such reason is the significant number of those who have been wrongly convicted of capital crimes. But that is a far cry from simply declaring that the death penalty is per se immoral.

So, whom are we to believe? Francis or every Pope before him, as well as the Council of Trent, with whose constant teaching he evidently disagrees? If the Magisterium means anything, it cannot be subjected to reversal based upon the views of a single Pope. Nor can such a reversal be passed off as a “development” of doctrine. The Magisterium would have no credibility whatsoever if it could teach for centuries, up to and including the pontificate of John Paul II, that the death penalty is morally permissible only to turn ‘round and declare exactly the opposite as a “development” of its teaching.

Therefore, here, and in so many other instances during this most unusual pontificate, we can only be dealing with the personal opinion of a particular Pope which, as such, cannot be part of the authentic Magisterium. This pontificate is, in fact, a case study on what the Magisterium is and what it is not. And what it is not is a vehicle for enshrining as Church teaching the views of one Pope as against the teaching of all his predecessors. For if the Magisterium were really reversible on such a basic moral question, it would be no Magisterium at all but rather an uncertain trumpet whose every teaching would sooner or later be subject to change, and the Church would not be a divinely guided institution, teaching constantly and infallibly over the centuries in matters of faith and morals.

May Our Lady of Fatima deliver the Church from the confusion that afflicts her human element today.

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2 comments on “Pope Francis on the Death Penalty:  Reversing the Constant Teaching of the Church?

  1. What if the Pope Does “Change the Church’s Teaching” on Capital Punishment?

    by Christopher A. Ferrara
    October 16, 2017

    In my last column I discussed the Pope’s astonishing declaration that capital punishment is “in itself contrary to the Gospel,” uttered in the face of the Church’s constant teaching, based on the Gospel itself, that capital punishment is within the legitimate authority of civil rulers and is even obligatory in cases where the protection of society necessitates its imposition.

    Of further concern, from the same address, is the suggestion that the Catechism promulgated by John Paul II should be “revised” to reflect Francis’ view of the death penalty. According to Francis, this would not involve “a contradiction with the teaching of the past, because the defense of the dignity of human life from the moment of conception to natural death has always found in the teaching of the Church a coherent and authoritative voice.” But that same voice has always coherently and authoritatively defended precisely the morality of capital punishment. Indeed, the Catechism of John Paul II states that “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty…” Thus, it would be utterly incoherent to declare a reversal of that teaching.

    Even more alarming is Francis’ remark — involving a caricature typical of his speech — that “Tradition is a living reality and not only a partial vision that can be thought of as a ‘deposit of the Faith,’ as something static. The word of God cannot be preserved in mothballs as if it were an old blanket to protect against parasites. No, the Word of God is a dynamic reality, always living, which progresses and grows because it is drawn toward a fulfillment that men cannot stop.”

    Ridiculing the deposit of the Faith — a traditional term of the Magisterium — as something in mothballs does not bode well for the doctrinal integrity of this pontificate. And it is hardly growth and legitimate progress of the doctrine on capital punishment to declare that what the Church has always affirmed to be morally licit is now immoral in every case! The claim is absurd on its face.

    Even worse is Francis’ resort to the what he calls “the happy formula of St. Vincent Lerins: ‘annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate'” — i.e. that doctrine “progresses, consolidating with the years, developing with time, deepening with the age.” Doctrinal progress, consolidation and deepening means a more developed expression of the same truth, not its outright repudiation by a currently reigning Pope. Francis himself concedes that Saint Vincent is speaking of “the peculiar condition of the revealed truth in its being transmitted by the Church” and that this “does not mean at all a change of doctrine.” Yet a change of doctrine is precisely what Francis purports to announce at the same time he denies that there would be any change! And, quite tellingly, he ignores the more well-known formula of St. Vincent respecting the nature of Catholic doctrine and dogma: “quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all).”

    Finally, leaving no doubt of what he would like to do with the Catechism and the Church’s entire teaching in this regard, Francis declared: “You cannot preserve doctrine without making it progress or tie it to a rigid and immutable reading without humiliating the action of the Holy Ghost.” But a doctrine whose reading is mutable according to supposed inspirations of the Holy Ghost is changing doctrine, which is the essence of Modernist heresy that doctrine evolves over time. Yet even the concept of evolution cannot embrace an outright reversal of the Church’s constant teaching so that what was deemed moral for 2,000 years is suddenly declared immoral.

    So what would happen if Francis succeeded in imposing his opinion, via a revision of the Catechism, to declare a “development” of traditional Catholic teaching on the morality of the death penalty according to which the death penalty is now deemed immoral in every case? That attempted “reversal” of the Magisterium would have to be viewed as utterly void and of no effect. The faithful simply could not accept it.

    If it were otherwise, then literally every moral teaching of the Church, including her constant condemnation of contraception, would be subject to reversal in the name of “doctrinal development.” And that would mean — if it were possible — the end of the Church’s absolutely authoritative voice on moral questions. As the philosopher Edward Feser has so acutely observed of this latest explosive development with Francis: “This would completely undermine the authority of the Church, and of Pope Francis himself. For if the Church could be that wrong for that long about something that serious, why trust anything else she says? And if all previous popes have been so badly mistaken, why should we think Pope Francis is right?”

    Given the notion of “doctrinal development” that Francis espouses, the Church would become, in effect, just another Protestant denomination whose teachings change according to the sentiments of the day. Indeed, Francis suggests as much when he contends that the teaching on capital punishment must reflect “the changed awareness of the Christian people, who reject a consensual attitude towards a punishment that greatly undermines human dignity.”

    But which “Christian people” does Francis have in mind: the majority of nominal Catholics, who exhibit a “changed awareness” regarding numerous Church teachings they no longer accept, including the teaching against contraception and even abortion, or the dwindling remnant who hold fast to every moral teaching of the Magisterium, including that on capital punishment? Perhaps by “the Christian people” Francis means the majority of nominal Catholics, who, according to polls, agree with him concerning the death penalty, which is the execution of convicted murderers, while also approving of abortion “at least in some circumstances,” which is the execution of innocent children in their own mothers’ wombs. As for Catholics who defend the Church’s traditional teaching entirely, including her teaching on capital punishment, they would be excluded from the papal equivalent of polling “the Christian people” for purposes of doctrinal “development” on the capital punishment “issue.”

    Sophistry about “doctrinal development” amounting to outright doctrinal reversal cannot possibly belong to the authentic Magisterium. It belongs instead to that system of errors Pope Saint Pius X condemned as “the synthesis of all heresies”: i.e., Modernism, whose proponents in the Church, he warned, “put their designs for her ruin into operation not from without but from within; hence, the danger is present almost in the very veins and heart of the Church, whose injury is the more certain, the more intimate is their knowledge of her.”

    And such is the final phrase of the great ecclesial crisis from which Our Lady of Fatima will rescue the Church when its leaders finally obey Her requests at Fatima.

  2. The Pretend Capital Punishment “Reversal”: The Role of John Paul II

    by Christopher A. Ferrara
    October 17, 2017

    My last two columns have discussed the seeming intention of Pope Francis to purport to alter Church teaching to declare, contrary to her teaching for the past 2,000 years, that capital punishment is immoral “in itself” and “inadmissible… no matter how serious the crime committed…” Any attempt to impose this novelty as “Church teaching” would be a blatant abuse of papal authority that could not possibly pertain to the authentic Magisterium. The moral principles expounded by the Magisterium down through the centuries, including its constant defense of the morality of capital punishment as a matter of revealed truth (cf. Rom. 3:14), cannot be “repealed” as if they were mere civil legislation.

    But here the preparatory role of John Paul II cannot be overlooked. While the Latin definitive edition of his Catechism, published in 1997 (English translation here), affirms (§ 2267) that “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty,” it immediately strays into the realm of contingent factual assessments clearly beyond the competence of the Magisterium as such. To quote the pertinent passage in full:

    “[T]he 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 with 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 non-existent.’” [quoting Evangelium Vitae, 56]

    Note the proliferation of vague and ambiguous phrases providing no clear moral guidance but only intimations that capital punishment is to be avoided. According to what criteria can civil authorities be sure that capital punishment is “the only possible way of effectively defending humanlives” or that “non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety”? None are provided. What meaning does “concrete conditions of the common good” convey? None that I can see.

    And if capital punishment is consistent with, and moreover warranted by the defense of human dignity, as the Church has always taught, what does it mean to say that a lesser punishment is “more” in conformity with human dignity? How much more? Is there a morally imperative difference in this undefined quantum of greater conformity to human dignity? As for the question of human dignity, as I noted in Crisis magazine, this involves the supernatural dignity of man and life eternal, not merely his biological existence on this earth, and “who can say that convicted killers languishing in prisons which are sinkholes of immorality are more likely than a condemned man to receive the grace of final penitence?”

    Most objectionable is the claim that “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… the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent”? What possibilities? Essentially there is only one besides capital punishment: life imprisonment, which has always been available to the state. But Pope Francis, throwing off all Magisterial restraint, has even railed against life sentences as a “hidden death penalty.” Apparently, even mass murderers would eventually have to be released according to this strange opinion.

    At any rate, as a purely factual matter, prisons quite often fail, and fail miserably, to render a prisoner “incapable of doing harm,” as we see with the frequent killings of one prisoner by another or of guards by prisoners, or of innocent members of the general population by escaped convicts. The claim is demonstrably false.

    What is one to make of the phrase “very rare, if not practically non-existent”? No Pope can claim the right to survey the justice systems of the entire world and declare that the cases in which capital punishment is warranted are — always and everywhere — “very rare.” And how rare is “very” rare? As for “practically non-existent,” how does practical nonexistence differ from nonexistence simpliciter? Here we see how the authentic Magisterium, whose teaching is clear and universally applicable, does not comport with adjectival hedging of a moral principle. As if the Church could somehow impose upon the faithful the nonsensical belief that an act she has always defended as morally legitimate according to the Gospel is nonetheless never, or almost never, allowed!

    To be frank, the phrase “very rare, if not practically non-existent” is essentially meaningless. It cannot serve as a universally applicable moral principle. But it does serve as a linguistic gloss employed to suggest a kind of virtual immorality of capital punishment while not daring to declare it outright, as Pope Francis now does.

    Another, even deeper, problem: The quoted passage from the 1997 Catechism suggests, without explicitly saying so, that the only moral ground for capital punishment is the protection of others from future aggression by the convicted killer. Yet, the previous section of the same Catechism states: “Legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation.” Indeed, the Good Thief’s resignation to the just penalty for his crimes — death — was a manifestation of his justification in the grace of the Savior in whom he believed.

    A punishment that fits the crime, redress of wrongs, and expiation for one’s offense are no less grounds for the capital punishment of murder than they are for the lesser penalties imposed for lesser crimes. It has always been so, yet the drafters of the Catechism attempt to carve out an exception for capital punishment based on nothing more than the plainly mistaken notion that modern prisons render murderers harmless. There is no real moral distinction here, but only an emotional rather than a rational rejection of the death penalty based on the prevailing liberal sentiments of our day. Francis derides adherence to the Church’s traditional teaching on capital punishment as “penal populism,” but it is precisely penal populism that demands leniency for convicted murderers but death for the innocent unborn.

    In his Catechism, John Paul II affirmed the unchangeable moral principle that capital punishment is morally licit, but he undercut the principle with demonstrably dubious factual contentions that cannot belong to Catholic doctrine. Exploiting that opening, however, Francis now proposes to contradict the moral principle itself by declaring to be immoral what the Church has always defended as consistent with the Gospel and indeed with the defense of human dignity against violent criminals who deprive innocent people of their lives and thereby (to recall the teaching of Pius XII reflecting all of Tradition) justly forfeit their own.

    Here, too, however, John Paul II paved the way. In a sermon he gave at Saint Louis on September 27, 1999, he too seemed to attack the moral principle itself:

    “The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 27). I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”

    At least John Paul II attempted to hedge his opinion with the factual contention — clearly false — that “modern society has the means of protecting itself” against murderers by confining them in prisons, which is hardly an option peculiar to “modern society.” As for the statement that today there is an “increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil,” it is impossible to take that claim seriously in a society that condones, legally protects and even subsidizes the mass murder of innocent children in the womb while bleeding heart liberals demand the “right to life” for even the most hardened killers. And how could John Paul II denounce as “cruel and unnecessary” — thus immoral — a form of punishment the Church had never failed to defend as morally legitimate, even in his own confusingly hedged Catechism?

    The “diabolical disorientation” of which Sister Lucia spoke in light of the Third Secret has manifested itself in many ways over the half-century that has elapsed since Pope John suppressed the Secret in 1960. One of the ways is the encroachment into normally lapidary conciliar and papal documents, during and after Vatican II, of obiter dicta involving sociological observations, open-ended ambiguities, dubious factual claims and even plainly personal opinions which, on close examination, are seen to have no doctrinal weight at all. With this linguistic corruption, there has also been a truly absurd elongation of papal documents to the length of books — books that almost nobody reads.

    One of the happy results of the Consecration of Russia, once it is finally done, will be the return of the simple expression and crystal clarity that radiate impressively in the entire body of papal teaching before the current confusion began. May the good God hasten the coming of that blessed restoration.

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