Religious Calvinball

My first reaction to the Pope changing the Catechism on capital punishment was pretty much a yawn. It’s only slightly to the left of my own, though its reasoning differs much from mine.

But now I’m thinking I was wrong, and that it is a big, big deal because it repudiates earlier church teaching. Repudiates, not clarifies.

Consider first that the Church teaches that Scripture is divinely inspired and cannot teach error on matters of faith and morals. Yet there are a great many passages in Scripture that teach the legitimacy of capital punishment. For example, Genesis 9:6 states: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” Romans 13:4 teaches that the state “does not bear the sword in vain [but] is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.” Many other passages could be cited. The Fathers of the Church understood such passages to be sanctioning capital punishment, and the Church has for two thousand years consistently followed this interpretation. The Church also teaches (for example, at the First Vatican Council) that Catholics are obliged to interpret Scripture consistent with the way the Fathers understood it, and consistent with the Church’s traditional interpretation. Taken together, these teachings logically entail that the legitimacy of capital punishment is regarded by the Church as a divinely revealed doctrine.

Every pope who has addressed the subject of capital punishment up to Benedict XVI has reaffirmed this traditional teaching. For example, Pope St Innocent I taught that the state’s right to execute offenders has been “granted through the authority of God,” and that to condemn capital punishment in an absolute way would be to “go against the authority of the Lord.” Pope Innocent III made acceptance of the legitimacy of capital punishment a matter of Catholic orthodoxy when he required the Waldensian heretics to affirm its legitimacy as a condition of their reentry into the Church. The Roman Catechism issued under Pope St Pius V solemnly taught the legitimacy of capital punishment, as did the catechism issued under Pope St Pius X. Pope Pius XII affirmed the legitimacy of capital punishment on several occasions, and taught that a murderer has, by virtue of his crime, “deprived himself of the right to live.”

Even Pope St John Paul II explicitly reaffirmed in the Catechism he promulgated that “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” under certain conditions. It is true that John Paul thought that capital punishment was in practice best avoided, but this was a non-binding prudential judgment rather than a doctrinal matter. Cardinal Ratzinger, John Paul II’s doctrinal spokesman and later to become Pope Benedict XVI, made this clear when he stated in 2004 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. While the Church exhorts civil authorities… to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to…have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty. [Emphasis added]

Edward Feser, last October when a change was foreshadowed..

But it gets worse. The attempted change of doctrine on capital punishment doesn’t stand alone:

It’s important for Catholic advocates for LGBT equality to take note of this change because for decades Catholic opponents of LGBT equality argued that it is impossible to change church teaching. They often pointed to the fact that condemnations of same-sex relationships were inscribed in the Catechism, and so were not open for discussion or change. Yet, the teaching on the death penalty is in the Catechism, too, and, in fact, to make this change in teaching, it was the text of the Catechism that Francis changed.

Frances DeBernardo. DeBernardo is not a doom-and-gloomer from the fringes of the Catholic Right. He’s a gay rights activist within the Church, as his opening implies.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is not impressed:

(Calvinball explained if you are among the uninitiated.)

Since I recognize my tendency to be a glass-half-empty kind of guy, let me point out the silver lining in this cloud. If Pope Francis prestidigitates a similar change in the Catechism on sodomy, we Orthodox will have been handed high trump for the next time some Catholic triumphalist gloats that we have changed 2000 years of doctrine (on contraception, particularly).

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