August 2, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – In the boldest and most reckless move to date in a pontificate that was already out of control and sowing confusion on a massive scale, the Vatican has announced Pope Francis’s substitution, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, of a new doctrine on capital punishment.
Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium of the Church for 2,000 years have upheld the intrinsic legitimacy of the death penalty for grave crimes against the common good of Church or State. There had never been any doubt in the minds of anyone on this subject. It was not a point of contention in the Schism between East and West, or in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, or in the period of the Enlightenment—in short, it was one of those rare subjects on which agreement could be found not only within the Church, but with nearly everyone.
The reason is simple: according to the natural law and Scripture alike, the rulers of a State, acting as representatives of divine justice and as custodians of the common good, may exercise an authority over life and death that they do not possess as private persons. In other words, it is God, always God, who has the right of life and death, and if the State shares in His divine authority, it has, at least in principle, the authority to end the life of a criminal. That the State does share in divine authority is the constant dogmatic teaching of the Church, found most explicitly (and repeatedly) in the Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII.
Lest there be any doubts on this matter, Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette published a comprehensive overview of the subject: By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017). In this hard-hitting book, Feser and Bessette present the natural law arguments in favor of capital punishment, furnish a veritable catalogue of citations from Scripture, Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and Popes that uphold its legitimacy, and mount a critique of the logical fallacies and doctrinal contradictions—be they those of American bishops, or even of the Bishop of Rome—who attempt to wiggle out of this unanimous witness of faith and reason.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, like Feser and Bessette’s book, frequently quotes authoritative witnesses to Catholic doctrine from a period of 2,000 years (and more, if we add Old Testament references). It is hardly surprising, on the other hand, that the new Catechism text imposed by Francis cites but one source: a speech that Francis himself gave to participants in a meeting of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization on 11 October 2017. Francis, creating doctrine ex nihilo, has only himself to cite.
Some may say that Francis is not being revolutionary here, since Pope John Paul II was also opposed to capital punishment. But there is a crucial difference. John Paul II never questioned the admissibility of the death penalty as such; indeed, he could not have done so, because there is no way to reject this penalty without repudiating the foundations of Catholic Social Teaching. Instead, John Paul II recommended favoring the approach of detention, clemency, and rehabilitation. About such prudential issues, Christians and Catholics can indeed disagree with one another, presenting various arguments pro and con.
The matter at hand could not be more grave. If Pope Francis is right, only one conclusion follows: “the Church was wrong in a major issue literally of life and death,” as a blogger wrote this morning:
If such a certain doctrine of the Church (of the possibility of the death penalty at least in some situations), affirmed by Christ Himself in Scripture—when, confronted by Pilate who affirmed his right to inflict capital punishment, told him, “You would have no authority over Me if it were not given to you from above,” affirming that it is a power granted to the State in its authority, even if, as all governmental powers, it can be exercised illegitimately and unjustly—can be changed, then anything can be changed. A “development” of doctrine may bring about anything: from the end of the “intrinsic[ally] disordered” nature of homosexuality to the priestly ordination of women, from the possibility of contraception in “some” cases to the acceptance of the Lutheran understanding of the Real Presence in the Eucharist as a possible interpretation of what the Church has always believed—and so on.
With this move, Pope Francis has shown himself to be openly heretical on a point of major importance, teaching a pure and simple novelty—“the boldness of a personal opinion becoming a completely new and unprecedented ‘teaching’ of the Church,” as Rorate Caeli stated. “The current Pope has far exceeded his authority: his authority is to guard and protect the doctrine that was received from Christ and the Apostles, not to alter it according to his personal views.”
Francis may be banking on an assumption—false at least for the United States—that most Catholics are already (more or less) opposed to the death penalty, and therefore, that it is an obvious place to commence the official program of “renovating” the Church’s morality, while not ruffling too many feathers. He sees that if this change to the Catechism is accepted, it will be relatively easy to proceed to the other issues mentioned above: a change in the Catechism on homosexuality, a change on contraception, a change on conditions for admission to Holy Communion, a change on women’s ordination, and so forth.
Whether Francis is a formal heretic—that is, fully aware that what he is teaching on capital punishment is contrary to Catholic doctrine, and proves pertinacious in maintaining his position in spite of rebuke—is a matter to be adjudicated by the College of Cardinals. No doubt exists, however, that orthodox bishops of the Catholic Church must oppose this doctrinal error and refuse to use the altered edition of the Catechism or any catechetical materials based on it.
May St. Alphonsus Liguori, patron saint of moral theologians, whose feast is celebrated on August 1st and August 2nd, intercede for the Pope and for the entire Catholic Church, that the Lord in His mercy may quickly end this period of doctrinal chaos.