The Corner


Catholic Teaching on the Death Penalty ‘Develops’ — and That’s Okay

Pope Francis waves duriong a visit to Maggiore Square in Bologna, Italy, October 1, 2017. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

Bracket for a moment the question whether the death penalty is ever legitimate or necessary for the preservation of the common good. We can all rehearse many of the main arguments for and against. I’d like to address briefly a precise objection that some American Catholics are raising against the Vatican’s decision, announced yesterday, to revise the Catechism. There the death penalty is now declared to be outright “inadmissible.” In the superseded text, it was, though discouraged, permitted under certain circumstances — which were, however, called “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

The formal announcement that the text has been altered came in the form of a letter, to the world’s bishops, from officials of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Cardinal Luis F. Ladaria and Archbishop Giacomo Morandi explain that the change to paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is in response to a public request made by Pope Francis last October, when in an address to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization he

asked that the teaching on the death penalty be reformulated so as to better reflect the development of the doctrine on this point that has taken place in recent times. This development centers principally on the clearer awareness of the Church for the respect due to every human life. Along this line, John Paul II affirmed: ‘Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.’”

Those who are distraught at this news from Rome are correct that, for centuries, the Church had held that civil authorities had a right to impose the death penalty. The rationale for that teaching included the need to protect the public from the possibility that the criminal would inflict further harm; to provide an example that would deter others from going down the same path he went; and to enable the criminal to expiate his wrongdoing and meet an objective standard of justice.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II promulgated the new Catechism. Embedded in the hundreds of thousands of words were a few terse lines indicating a clear shift in the emphasis and tone of official teaching on the right of the state to take human life in capital cases. Anyone with his finger on the pulse of the institutional Church would have already registered the trend: away from defending the death penalty, and toward defining the limits of its legitimate application, and toward the conclusion that it could be justified in theory if hardly ever in practice.

A few years later, John Paul II lent his moral authority to that wariness shading into plain rejection. In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of life, 1995), he discussed the death penalty in connection with abortion and euthanasia. While taking care to draw the pertinent distinctions among them, he did join all three practices under the umbrella of a “culture of death.”

Traditionalist Catholics will say that they’ve been watching that routine all their lives, since the Second Vatican Council: Defend the doctrine, to placate the conservatives, but do so without enthusiasm. At the same time, change the tune of the Church’s preaching and teaching, to encourage a corresponding adaptation of the substance. Be subtle. Above all, be patient. After a few generations, the thinking and conduct of the great majority of Catholics, in the chanceries and rectories as well as in the pews, will come around. And we will call that new consensus the sensus fidelium. The step from that to changing the letter of the law to conform to the facts on the ground will then be short. It’s the Catholic version of Marx’s dictum that practice precedes theory, not vice versa.

I would agree that Francis appears to be following that script with an eye toward relaxing Church teaching on marriage, priestly celibacy, and many points of traditional Catholic sexual morality: Suggest and insinuate. Raise questions, worded vaguely. Float trial balloons. Meanwhile, find a canon lawyer to throw the conservatives a lifeline: an ambiguous statement that, if they squint at it just so, they can interpret as a paraphrase of longstanding doctrine. Make sure it’s a thin reed, though, not an anchor. By the time it breaks, those who haven’t already given up the fight will have given up the ghost. They’ll have had plenty of time to move through Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, from denial all the way to acceptance, or at least resignation.

For conservatives who now think that the Church has pulled that play with respect to the death penalty, Saint John Paul II looks like the author, the man who laid the groundwork decades ago. It’s a difficult position for most Catholics to be in, given the reverence and esteem — the love, really — in which he’s been held in the Church since his election to the papacy 40 years ago.

Many conservative Catholics will be cornered into arguing that John Paul is to be honored for preserving the legitimacy of capital punishment in theory — and that Francis is to be blamed for snipping what remained of that flimsy ribbon linking ancient to present-day Catholic teaching. Some traditionalist Catholics, however, will not hesitate to assign half the blame to John Paul. Those are the ones who have long regarded him as a sort of evil genius. They think he advanced the Church’s drift into modernism while posing as a conservative. In their view, he was to “the Spirit of Vatican II” what Eisenhower was to the New Deal, or what Nixon was to the Great Society: a quiet enabler.

Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, but Church teaching isn’t. A lot of it changes. In some cases it’s just abandoned. The wish to believe otherwise leads Catholics to take one of at least two positions.

In the case of a teaching that’s been abandoned, we say that it was never a doctrine but only a prudential judgment, perhaps valid in the moment but not for all time — and we know that it was never valid for all time because it’s not valid now. See, e.g., the Church council and papal letters recommending that Jews wear “badges” or “distinctive dress.” We now say that was a matter merely of “discipline” (an important term of art in these debates) as opposed to a doctrine that was dictated in scripture or sacred tradition.

In the case of a teaching that is accused of being novel, we reverse-engineer arguments for its antiquity and infallibility. We attempt to show how it was always latent in the Bible, the Church Fathers, or the allocutions of popes down through the ages. It only needed these intervening centuries to unfold, like the petals of a slow-blooming flower. That is, it “developed” — another term of art.

Conservative Catholics who oppose Rome’s new, definitive denunciation of the death penalty take neither of those positions, of course. They take the opposite tack. They begin by noting that the Church defended the death penalty until it didn’t. In their noble, Catholic instinct for precedent and antiquity, they set forth arguments based on their preference for the authority of our elders over that of our nearer contemporaries. The question is whether the disagreement between elder and contemporary is over a dogma of the faith. Or is it over a prudential judgment related to affairs of state instead? I think it’s the latter.

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