Friday, August 31, 2018
Finnis contra Francis
Prof. John Finnis is the most eminent living “new natural law” theorist, and a longtime opponent of capital punishment. Indeed, like other NNL writers, he regards capital punishment as always and inherently wrong, and believes that the Church could adopt this novel teaching. You might think, then, that he would approve of Pope Francis’s recent revision to the catechism. Not so.
In a recent article at Public Discourse, which is mostly devoted to defending the possibility of a change in teaching, Finnis makes some critical remarks about the recent revision. Finnis believes that the revision did not in fact change Catholic teaching, though he thinks it did “create at least an impression of change.” But he also thinks that it does so “in a form that obscures the one line of development that would, it seems, be authentic.” In other words, though Finnis thinks the Church could change its traditional teaching, even he believes that the specific way that the revised language suggests such a change is not an “authentic” development of doctrine.
About Pope Francis’s address of October 11, 2017, wherein the pope first proposed a change to the catechism, Finnis has some harsh words:
[T]hat address is replete with untethered calls for doctrinal progress, and with assurances about consistency with “past teaching” that all ring hollow, offering quasi-arguments that seem at best question-begging and more likely just incoherent and unserious. Behind such arguments, moreover, there becomes more and more evident an intent to smother key elements of the Church’s most constant and apostolic understanding of its moral teachings, elements reaffirmed most weightily only twenty-five years ago in Veritatis Splendor.
Thus [among] the main effects of the revision, given its ambiguities and, strictly speaking, unfruitfulness in doctrinal substance, seem likely to be [that]… widely felt uncertainties about the Church’s seaworthiness in faith and integrity of life will be exacerbated.
End quote. One of Finnis’s objections to the revision, and to the CDF cover letter that announced it, concerns their “unwarrantable confidence” in certain empirical claims about what is sufficient in order to defend society. Another and more important objection is that the documents put too much emphasis on human dignity and too little on “God’s absolute lordship over life and death.” And that they do so in a way that seems to reflect secular rather than Catholic thinking. Finnis writes:
By focusing all but exclusively on human dignity… this pair of documents arouses or reinforces, yet again, a serious misgiving. Is Christ’s Church coming to heel behind atheist or pantheist secular globalist powers, and agendas, that it would do well to desist from flattering? Does the adoption of these new formulations, silent about the teaching’s true sources (reverence for life, purity of intention, and divine lordship), prejudice the Church’s own dignity and authority and, worse, the integrity of its doctrine and life?
For we should be under no illusions: the organs of the European Council, the United Nations, and the European Union, unconcerned to exclude from human society all intent to kill, and disdainful of God’s lordship over life and death, are devoted to the opaque language of dignity. They deploy it constantly, bureaucratically, to promote their rejection of capital punishment but equally their indulgence towards euthanasia, suicide, and the many forms of anti-marital sex, and the radically unjust promotion of gender fluidity and same-sex parodies of marriage. And the educational institutions and programs they promote are nearly unanimous in denying or ignoring the justice of retribution, with its attention to the continuing and often justly decisive relevance of past deeds to present entitlement and conduct, attention and relevance essential to the truth of the Christian faith.
End quote. When your apparent change to the Church’s teaching on capital punishment manages to outrage even those who have long wanted to change the Church’s teaching on capital punishment, you’ve got a problem.
Finnis, with the late Germain Grisez, authored an appeal to Pope Francis to correct doctrinal errors that Amoris Laetitia appears to encourage. Like all the other sober, respectful, and scholarly petitions that have been directed toward the pope over the last few years, it has been completely ignored by him.
I will have more to say about Finnis’s article in a forthcoming article of my own, which responds to the things Finnis says in criticism of my own views.