VATICAN CITY (LifeSiteNews) –– In comments contained in his recent book-length interview, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Gerhard Müller, defended Pope Francis’ changes to the teaching regarding the death penalty.
Müller’s remarks were made to Il Messaggero’s Vatican correspondent, Franca Giansoldati, in the recently published book In Buona fede.
Müller defends death penalty changes
Müller’s comments present a peculiar stance. In the early part of his book, Müller criticized cardinals for citing Pope Francis’ attack on the death penalty as a way to prevent convicted priests from being laicized.
He noted that certain cardinals lobbied to overturn the CDF’s decisions to laicize guilty priests by arguing that “depriving a priest of priestly status is tantamount to condemning him to death.” These prelates argued that “since the death penalty has been removed from the Catechism it would have been an incongruity to execute it in other circumstances.”
However, later in the book Müller nevertheless defended Francis’ controversial pronouncement against the death penalty. Citing this change Francis made to the Catechism in 2018, Müller declared the change was possible “because it was not a matter of divine revelation.”
His comments came in response to a question from Giansoldati about whether the teaching on homosexuality in the Catechism could be changed, along with the issue of same-sex “blessings.” Pursuing this line of questioning, Giansoldati asked how “if from a theological point of view there is no space to change the Catechism in the part about homosexuality, giving the possibility to two Catholic men or women who love each other to live their sexuality without moral condemnation from the Church, what can be done?”
To this Müller replied that “[t]here are things that can be revised, but on this point the profession of faith cannot be changed.”
Continuing, though, he appeared to explain how Catholic teaching on homosexuality could not change, whilst also defending Francis’ position – contrary to Catholic Tradition – attacking the death penalty. Müller stated that:
The Catechism is no longer taught in the version drafted by the Council of Trent, the method of study has changed while its structure has remained intact, the Ten Commandments are intact. The Pope, for example, intervened on the death penalty stating that in the past it was accepted in determined circumstances, while now there is a belief that there are too many innocent people condemned in the world in dictatorial states.
The change was possible because it was not a matter of divine revelation. If it is a matter of social doctrine, theology can also study a different path, adapted to the changing general situation and in the higher purpose of adapting moral principles.
Müller thus posited the teaching on homosexuality in contrast to the teaching on the death penalty, in that he defended the unchanging nature of the Catholic teaching on homosexuality but allowed for a change in the death penalty teaching.
He added that the Catechism’s teaching on homosexuality could not change, since the text was not something which was updated with the changing times: “So it is clear that we cannot change the Catechism on the homosexual issue since it directly concerns the doctrine revealed…The Catechism therefore expresses revealed doctrine and cannot be subjected to the winds of fashion.”
Such a stance is consistent with previous comments which Müller has made on the topic. Speaking with the National Catholic Register in 2019, the German cardinal also presented nuanced views on the matter.
He stated that “theoretically we absolutely cannot deny” the permissibility of the death penalty, even if one is “against executions.” Müller added that the “magisterium is not above the word of God, but under it and serves it (Dei Verbum, 10).”
Müller then noted that Francis’ changes to the Catechism regarding the death penalty were presented as being “justified as a development of dogma.” He took issue with this designation – of the death penalty as part of dogma, and thus subject to “development” – since he said “the death penalty has nothing directly to do with dogma.”
But then, appearing to defend the permissibility of changes to the Catholic position on the death penalty, Müller described the teaching on the death penalty as simply “belonging to the natural ethics of the state.”
“It’s not material related to God’s self-revelation of the truth and the salvation of all,” he stated.
Catholic Tradition on death penalty
The cardinal’s comments are perhaps surprising, given that Pope Francis’ statements against the death penalty are one of the most notable heterodox pronouncements of his pontificate.
Francis made his groundbreaking changes to Pope John Paul II’s and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s catechism in 2018, declaring that the death penalty “is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” He has since repeated the argument on numerous occasions, most recently just last month, when he argued that the death penalty is “always inadmissible since it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”
But in changing the text of the Catechism, scholars argued that Francis went against the consistent teaching of “Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church” which “for 2,000 years have upheld the intrinsic legitimacy of the death penalty for grave crimes against the common good of Church or State.”
The legitimacy of the death penalty is defended in the writings, teaching, and statements of theologians, saints, and the magisterium throughout the history of the Church, as scholars – such as Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, joint authors of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment – have extensively pointed out.
While Müller stated in 2019 that the death penalty was not a part of “dogma,” Feser wrote in the same year that if Francis’ intention was to declare the death penalty as always evil, then it “would be a direct contradiction of Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes, and thus would not be a true development of doctrine but a reversal or corruption of doctrine.” The Pope has since made clearer statements which have supported Feser’s fears.
As Feser notes, the death penalty is defended by the words of Scripture, for in the book of Genesis capital punishment is permitted precisely because murder violates man’s dignity as being made in the image of God: “whosever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed: for man was made to the image of God.” (Gen 9:6)
This teaching is further proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas, who drew from Scripture himself to teach that the common good is protected, and justice preserved, by observing the death penalty. (Summa Theologiae, 2a 2ae, q64, a2 & a3).
Avery Cardinal Dulles stated in 2004 that “the reversal of a doctrine as well established as the legitimacy of capital punishment would raise serious problems regarding the credibility of the magisterium … the previous teaching had been discarded, doubt would be cast on the current teaching as well.”
It’s important to see not only that Francis is wrong, but that he is dangerously wrong, on this subject…when the pope is wrong about something that touches on the judicial and criminal systems of hundreds of nations and on the foundations and ramifications of their God-given authority, one is dealing with a level of wrongness that threatens the good of political society—the common good that Aristotle and Aquinas describe as something divine.
In the book-length interview Diane Montagna conducted with Bishop Athanasius Schneider – Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph over the Darkness of the Age – the bishop taught that:
Those who deny the death penalty in principle implicitly or explicitly absolutize the corporal and temporal life of man. They also deny to some extent the consequences of original sin. Those who deny the legitimacy of the death penalty also implicitly or explicitly deny the need and value of expiation and penance for sins, and especially for monstrous crimes still in this earthly life.
Bishop Schneider further noted how:
God Himself pronounced the first death penalty sentence after Adam and Eve committed the first sin, for through sin death entered the world … Therefore, if someone affirms that the death penalty is in se contrary to the Gospel, he accuses God Himself of being immoral, since God pronounced against Adam and Eve and He still pronounces the death penalty against every human being by the very fact of bodily death.
Indeed, following Francis’ 2018 change to the Catechism on the death penalty, a group of clergy and lay scholars appealed to the cardinals urging them to tell the Pope to teach the true Catholic doctrine on the matter. The signatories noted that, far from being a teaching which can change with the times, the death penalty is “a truth contained in the Word of God, and taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the Catholic Church.”