Friday, August 3, 2018
Pope Francis and capital punishment
Pope Francis has changed the Catechism’s teaching on capital punishment so that it now flatly rules out the practice as “inadmissible” on doctrinal, and not merely prudential, grounds – apparently contradicting two millennia of clear and consistent teaching to the contrary. I comment on this development in an article at First Things.
That capital punishment can be legitimate at least in principle is a teaching that clearly meets the criteria for being an infallible and irreformable doctrine of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church, for reasons I set out at length in a recent article at Catholic World Report. The evidence is set out in even greater depth by Joseph Bessette and I in our book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.
To contradict this traditional teaching is a doctrinal error, pure and simple – something possible when a pope is not speaking ex cathedra, albeit most popes bend over backwards to avoid even the appearance of such a thing. However, on several issues – marriage and divorce, worthiness to receive Holy Communion, contraception, capital punishment, and more – Pope Francis has repeatedly made statements that appear to contradict traditional Catholic teaching, and has persistently refused to respond to respectful requests for clarification made by members of the hierarchy and prominent theologians. Moreover, he has done so not only in offhand comments during interviews and the like, but in official magisterial documents, such as Amoris Laetitia, and now the Catechism.
This is, to put it mildly, a highly unusual situation. These are not normal times in the Church. It was providential that the CDF under Pope St. John Paul II made it explicit, in Donum Veritatis, that Catholic theologians have the right and sometimes even the duty respectfully to raise criticisms of deficient magisterial documents. As I showed in a recent article, this teaching is by no means a novelty, but has deep roots in the tradition of the Church – for example, in Aquinas’s discussion of the right and duty of the faithful to correct errant prelates, even publicly. There can be no reasonable doubt that the norms set out by Donum Veritatis, by Aquinas, and by this neglected part of Catholic tradition in general, are by no means of merely theoretical interest. They have urgent contemporary practical application.
Defenders of the change to the Catechism will no doubt be trotting out the (sometimes shrill and poorly argued) critiques of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed that appeared last year. Here are links to my replies to the most significant of these critiques:
Hot Air vs. Capital Punishment: A Reply to Paul Griffiths and David Bentley Hart, Catholic World Report (November 28, 2017)
Traditional Catholic Doctrine on Capital Punishment is Irreversible: A Reply to E. Christian Brugger, Public Discourse (November 19, 2017)
St. John Paul II Did Not Change Catholic Teaching on Capital Punishment: A Reply to E. Christian Brugger, Public Discourse (November 20, 2017)
Capital Punishment, Catholicism, and Natural Law: A Reply to Christopher Tollefsen, Public Discourse (November 21, 2017)
On capital punishment, even the pope’s defenders are confused [A reply to Robert Fastiggi, Austen Ivereigh, Christian Brugger, and Mark Shea], Catholic World Report (October 21, 2017)
Catholic theologians must set an example of intellectual honesty: A reply to Prof. Robert Fastiggi, Catholic World Report (October 30, 2017)
Yes, traditional Church teaching on capital punishment is definitive [A further reply to Fastiggi], Catholic World Report (November 21, 2017)
Capital punishment and the infallibility of the ordinary Magisterium, Catholic World Report (January 20, 2018)