Thursday, August 2, 2018

Pope of Rome changes mind, so entire Church changes mind

If this pope has highlighted anything that the Orthodox (read: me) find unsettling about the pontifical configuration of the Catholic Church, it is that he "speaks ex cathedra, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals." The result of which is that a single man can change foundational Church teaching at will as he just did...

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis has decreed that the death penalty is "inadmissible" under all circumstances and the Catholic Church should campaign to abolish it, a change in church teaching that could influence Catholic politicians and judges in the U.S. and across the globe.

The change, announced Thursday, was hailed by anti-death penalty activists and scorned by Francis' frequent conservative critics, who said he had no right to change what Scripture revealed and popes have taught for centuries.

The Vatican said that Francis had amended the Catechism of the Catholic Church — the compilation of official Catholic teaching — to say that capital punishment can never be sanctioned because it constitutes an "attack" on the dignity of human beings.

Previously, the catechism said the church didn't exclude recourse to capital punishment "if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor." Past popes have upheld that position, though St. John Paul II began urging an end to the practice and stressed that the guilty were just as deserving of dignity as innocents.

The new teaching says the previous policy is outdated because there are new ways to protect the common good, and the church should instead commit itself to working to end capital punishment.

"Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme means of safeguarding the common good," reads the new text.
Today "there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes," it said, adding that society now has effective ways to detain prisoners so they aren't a threat and even provide the possibility of rehabilitation.

"Consequently, the church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide," reads the new text, which was approved in May but only published Thursday.

The death penalty has been abolished in most of Europe and South America, but it is still in use in the United States and in countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. This week Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said the death penalty could soon be reinstated in Turkey, where it was abolished in 2004 as part of its bid to join the European Union.

Within hours of Thursday's announcement, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to introduce legislation to remove the death penalty from New York state law.

Francis' new teaching is also likely to feature in the confirmation process for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a church-going Catholic who, if confirmed, would join four other Catholic justices on the bench.

One of their former Catholic members, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, famously said that he didn't find the death penalty immoral, and that any judge who did should resign.

Sister Helen Prejean, the anti-death penalty campaigner whose ministry to a death row inmate inspired the book and film, "Dead Man Walking," said the pope's new teaching would be more acutely felt in an upcoming planned execution in Nebraska under Gov. Pete Ricketts, who Prejean called "a pro-life Catholic.".

"If we say we are for dignity of all life, that includes innocent and guilty as well," she said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

She said she was "high as a kite" over Francis' decision to close what she said were loopholes in previous church teaching that failed to recognize that when a prisoner is strapped to a gurney, he is rendered completely defenseless before his executioner.

"We can't claim anymore that's the only way you can defend society," she said.

Francis has long denounced the death penalty and even opposes life sentences, which he has called "hidden" death sentences.

He has also made prison ministry a mainstay of his vocation, and on nearly every foreign trip he visits inmates to offer words of solidarity and hope. He remains in touch with a group of Argentine inmates he ministered to during his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

In an accompanying letter explaining the change, the head of the Vatican's doctrine office, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, said the pope wasn't contradicting prior church teaching on capital punishment but was "reformulating" it to express "an authentic development of doctrine."

The Rev. Robert Gahl, a moral theologian at Rome's Pontifical Holy Cross University, agreed.

"With this new text the pope is not rejecting past teaching regarding the death penalty. He's not referring to the inherent morality or immorality of it, but to political expedience within new circumstances to emphasize the possibility of redemption for all, including the most guilty," he said.

In addition to Sister Prejean, other Catholic organizations are active in the anti-death penalty campaign, including the Sant'Egidio Community, which together with Italian authorities always lights up Rome's Colosseum whenever a country abolishes capital punishment.

In a statement Thursday, Sant'Egidio said the change served "as another push to the church and Catholics, based on the Gospel, to respect the sacredness of human life and to work at all levels and on every continent to abolish this inhuman practice."

It was precisely Francis' citation of the Gospel, however, that sparked criticism from some on the Catholic right, who cited Scripture in arguing that Francis had no authority to change what previous popes taught.

"He is in open violation of the authority recognized to him. And no Catholic has any obligation of obedience to abuse of authority," tweeted the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli.

Some on social media questioned the timing of the announcement, given that the Vatican and the Catholic Church are under extraordinary fire over clerical sex abuse and how bishops around the world covered it up for decades. The U.S. church, in particular, is reeling from accusations that one of the most prominent U.S. cardinals, Theodore McCarrick, allegedly abused minors as well as adult seminarians.

"Coming in the midst of the sex abuse revelations, the timing is curious... and more fury is not what the Church needs at this moment," noted Raymond Arroyo, host of the Catholic broadcaster EWTN.

Francis announced his intention to change church teaching on capital punishment in October, when he marked the 25th anniversary of the catechism itself. First promulgated by St. John Paul II, it gave Catholics an easy, go-to guide for church teaching on everything from the sacraments to sex.

Amnesty International, which has long campaigned for a worldwide ban on the death penalty, welcomed the development as an "important step forward."

"Already in the past, the church had expressed its aversion to the death penalty, but with words that did not exclude ambiguities," said Riccardo Noury, Amnesty Italia spokesman. "Today they are saying it in an even clearer way."


  1. Andrew Cuomo = hypocrite. You want to follow the Church's guidance re: capital punishment, but not the far greater evil of abortion? Wow.

  2. He's really put anyone attempting to defend infallibility into an indefensible position- except maybe the sedevacantists, and they are crazy for a whole host of other reasons. Of course, they may eventually decide he was an anti-pope or something.

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  4. Father, I hope you don’t mean to imply above from your commentary that capital punishment is “foundational church teaching.” Because it sounds like you do, but I hope I’m mistaken and you refer only to the authority of the Catholic catechism which he has single-handedly revised.

    1. I mean a foundational teaching for the Catholic church. Something very clear in their catechism.

  5. Every Catholic theologian agrees this was not an solemn doctrinal definition. Thus, your citation of Pastor Aeternus is rather irrelevant. It is true that his teaching is authoritative as a prominent bishop and patriarch, as it would be for any other prominent ecclesial figure, and for one whose teaching is supposed to represent and facilitate communion among the College of Bishops, but the Pope is not God nor does he have unlimited doctrinal authority. Even in this case, the specific teaching he promulgated requires our submission, like we would to any teaching of a bishop, but it isn't the end of the story.

    1. If a moral exhortation in the official Catechism, meant to be "a sure norm" (per Pope John Paul II) for the entire Catholic Church, does not constitute a solemn doctrinal definition, then nothing does. The new entry even says, "The Church teaches, in light of the Gospel..." For a magisterium that's supposed to clarify the faith and dispel doubts, it's mighty slippery.

    2. "...the specific teaching he promulgated requires our submission..."
      Sounds like papalotry.
      Reminds me of Pope Pius IX's insane quote: "I am Tradition!"

    3. Mr. Zheng: there are specific conditions for a solemn definition, and it is commonly acknowledged by Catholic theologians that these are not met by the Catechism. Just because you think the Catechism is an infallible declaration of a Pope does not mean the Catholic Church believes it is. A 'sure norm' is not a solemn doctrinal definition. You may go look at the encyclical which declares the Immaculate Conception for an example of a solemn doctrinal definition which everyone agrees is such; it the same in form to what an ecumenical council would use to define some doctrinal matter.

      Unknown: submission of intellect and will is what you should do for the teaching of any pastor of the Church. If your Orthodox bishop teaches that X is our moral duty as Orthodox Christians, then you always have a (defeasible) duty to submit to his teaching. That just follows from him being a qualified pastor of the Church of Christ and you or me not being such. His whole job is to teach Christian doctrine. Submission of intellect and will is what we do to be open to the teaching of any rightful religious authority. This is the lowest degree of submission to a teaching in official Catholic theology.

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  7. "He's not referring to the inherent morality or immorality of it, but to political expedience within new circumstances to emphasize the possibility of redemption for all, including the most guilty," writes the moral theologian. Meaning there is no substance to this declaration but simply political posturing. In my life the D. P. was the gold standard and proof for the sacredness of life.


  9. While I have my own problems with the administration of the death penalty corrupted as it is by matters of race, class, ambition and ignorance. Still, there is no doubt that the state has the authority to administer the death penalty if it so chooses.

    Paradoxically, after watching the movie "Dead Man Walking" years ago I was strengthened in my belief concerning the efficacy of the death penalty and that it should NOT be abolished. The movie showed clearly that facing death was the ONLY thing that led the murderer to any contrition. That despite the clear bias against the death penalty by the author and film makers.

    We can hope and pray that his contrition was enough for his salvation.

    My take on the Pope and the RCC from the outside has pretty much been that the Pope is the only Catholic or at least the only one that matters on most things. He is even more important than Jesus Christ in the existential reality of things.

    But, if the Pope suddenly declared that the RCC is in schism and has been since AD 1054 and needs to repent and return to the Orthodox Church what would happen?

    That is the only ex-cathedra statement I would be interested in. But would that be an ex-cathedra statement since he would be abrogating the doctrinal foundation for that type of authority?

    They have painted themselves into quite a corner I think. But over emphasis on external doctrine and the building of elaborate dogmatic edifices tends to do that to all of us.

    Seek God only. Know Him in humility an love. Repent, give alms in mercy, pray, worship in Spirit and Truth in His living presence as a sacramental community bearing one another's burdens.

    But that is a gift to the heart and inter-relationship with the living Incarnate God. Fully God and Fully man. Risen and victorious.

    The Pope has no authority over that.

  10. I have two basic questions for the author and then a response to Michael above:

    1) How is this pronouncement by Pope Francis an ex cathedra statement? I am a Catholic and I do not see how this fulfills the extremely strict (and rare) requirements to be ex cathedra. We can discuss what those are, but I do not see how this would fit into that framework.

    2) Is there consensus amongst the Orthodox Churches on this issue? If so, what is it?

    3) Michael, I'm assuming you are a fellow Catholic. You write: "the specific teaching he promulgated requires our submission, like we would to any teaching of a bishop, but it isn't the end of the story." My understanding is that we are only required to submit if a teaching is authentically promulgated by the Magisterium. PF's new 'decree' contradicts long established Church teaching on this matter, which is primarily based on the witness of the Holy Scriptures. My understanding is that the Pope's view may in fact be heretical and could end up getting him removed in the near future. Steve Skojec at OnePeterFive has a number of articles addressing this. Edward Feser also has an interesting book out defending the Church's long-standing position on the death penalty "By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment".

  11. Also, the title of this post is misleading. The entire Church has not and cannot change her mind on this topic, as the matter is not one of discipline but Doctrine. A deviant pope with a political agenda does not have the power to change Church teaching. He may only safeguard what has been handed on by the Apostles.

    1. When you change the catechism you do a bit more than give voice to a single episcopal opinion.

  12. This was NOT an ex cathedra pronouncement. Further, the Catechism is not, in itself, an infallible document. Jimmy Akin gives the best explanation here:

    1. As if every catholic, unsure of what the church teaches, doesn’t just go to the catechism and treat it as authoritative and binding.