Catholic professor: Why I can never teach Pope Francis’ new teaching on death penalty
October 3, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – It’s hard to believe that the change to the Catechism, which caused such a tempest at the time, happened only two months ago. The inexorable whirl of events under this pontificate has already buried the subject in the news cycle and in people’s minds. It’s just one more milestone in the long forced march towards the Church of Tomorrow. But we should not make the mistake of letting our interests be dominated by the latest news, such that we cease to ponder “the method to the madness.”
Consider the difference between the new Catechism text and the speech of October 11, 2017, on which it was based and to which it refers (as the only cited source for the revision). In the speech, the Pope spoke his mind freely:
It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which—ultimately—only God is the true judge and guarantor.
Here, the Pope claimed that the death penalty in and of itself, in principle, is contrary to the Gospel, which must mean contrary to divine law or natural law or both, and therefore intrinsically immoral. This is formal heresy, and we can be sure the Pope knows this—but he also knows how few Catholics know enough theology to be able to identify a heresy even if it sprang up and hit them in the face. Moreover, he knows that most of the officials who surround him are either cowards or climbers, so he will get no challenges from that quarter.
The new Catechism text, however, features cleverly crafted language: “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’” (citing the same speech). Inadmissible. A vague, fuzzy, roundabout word that has no pedigree in moral theology, which speaks of that which is moral or immoral, right or wrong, or right in some circumstances and wrong in others.
As its author knew it would, “inadmissible” sent Catholics scuttling in all directions to try to figure out what it means. Is it a practical or a theoretical claim? A prudential limitation or a principled exclusion? And the apologist network begins cranking out its predictable “explanations” to show that, once again, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, in spite of contradictions everyone can point to, nothing has really changed and everything is all right! The more earnest kept scratching their heads, demanding endless clarifications and signing endless petitions and producing endless talmudic commentaries to show how to square the circle.
Dr. Joseph Shaw put it well: “In this case, the mouse-hole of ambiguity conservative Catholics need to crawl through to maintain the continuity between the two editions of the Catechism is humiliatingly small. When they have crawled through it, moreover, they will be ignored.”
Meanwhile, in spite of such efforts (and even, in a way, due to them), the pope’s overarching goal—to transmit the signal that Catholic doctrine is perpetually debatable and developable into new and unforseen evolutionary forms, malleable and adjustable to the Zeitgeist—has already been triumphantly achieved in the minds of the vast majority of Catholics and non-Catholics.
Fr. Hugh Somerville Knapman points to the harm of this way of thinking:
Looking at this more contextually, perhaps an even greater concern is the phenomenon of change itself. Since the middle of the twentieth century the Church has suffered a constant, and often quite bewildering and ultimately unnecessary, series of changes to teaching and liturgy. Large-scale change leads to an expectation of more. And more. Everything is perceived, often wrongly, as open to change. When change is valued for its own sake, nothing is safe. Recently Professor Stephen Bullivant, and other commentators, have noted how the negative reaction to Humanae Vitae in 1968 was conditioned by the widespread expectation of change in Church teaching on artificial contraception, an expectation fostered and exacerbated by the dizzying changes unleashed on the Church in the 1960s. Thus, this change to the text of the Catechism appears as a regrettable perpetuation of a culture, a hermeneutic, of change. It is not what we need right now.
And yet, it is deliberately what we have been given. The Lord’s rhetorical questions—“What man is there among you, of whom if his son shall ask bread, will he reach him a stone? Or if he shall ask him a fish, will he reach him a serpent?” (Mt 7:9–10)—have, alas, been answered in a non-rhetorical manner.
I would like to make this clear: I will never teach to anyone—my children, my friends, my students, my readers, my audiences—the stuff that Francis has commanded to be put into the Catechism. I will gladly teach that capital punishment is often not the best solution; I’m willing to admit that it may deserve to be curtailed in modern Western democracies. But I cannot, in good conscience, declare that capital punishment is “contrary to the dignity of man” or ruled out by “the light of the Gospel.” I could not do this without rejecting revelation and the Catholic faith. It is in the name of obedience to the Lord of life and death, the divine author of the State and the source of its punitive authority (cf. Rom 13), that I refuse my consent to this false teaching, and I sincerely hope that such refusal will be the norm rather than the exception.
Now is not the time for obsequious ultramontanism, which would be like pouring gasoline on a fire. Now is the time for saying “enough is enough.” As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord in the Catholic Faith to which thousands of catechisms have borne unanimous witness for centuries.
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