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‘Doctrinal error’: Catholics react to Pope Francis’ new teaching against death penalty

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VATICAN CITY, August 2, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Catholics around the world learned today the news that Pope Francis has altered the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching on capital punishment. Numerous Catholic theologians, historians, and philosophers who are faithful to perennial Catholic doctrine have reacted to the Pope's new teaching with alarm.

The Argentinian pontiff has replaced passage n. 2267, which preserved the perennial teaching that legitimate authority may, in limited circumstances, use capital punishment, with new paragraphs, one including a statement that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

According to the Pope, a “new understanding” of the significance of “penal sanctions imposed by the state” has emerged that allows the Church to now state that  “the death penalty is inadmissible.”

READ: Pope Francis changes Catechism to declare death penalty ‘inadmissible’

Many have noted that the replaced teaching appears to fly in the face of established Catholic teaching that legitimate civil authority has the right to use capital punishment. Even St. John Paul II, who was personally opposed to the death penalty, upheld magisterial teaching on this issue.

Respected critics have pointed out that the option of capital punishment is supported by the scriptures, the unanimous agreement of the Fathers of the Early Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas and the writings of several popes, most notably  Pope Pius X and Pope Pius XII.

Mainstream media ran headlines blaring “Pope Francis changes Catholic Church teaching.”

The new teaching caused concern to many faithful Catholics. Some were quick to suggest Pope Francis may have committed heresy. Others attempted to interpret the “new understanding” proposed by the Pope in light of previous Catholic teaching.  

Noted liturgist Dr. Peter Kwasniewski called Pope Francis’ novel doctrine “the boldest and most reckless move to date in a pontificate that was already out of control and sowing confusion on a massive scale.”

Writing this morning for LifeSiteNews, Kwasniewski said that only the College of Cardinals has the right to judge if Francis is a formal heretic, but that they must not permit this doctrinal error to go unopposed.

“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,” he wrote. 

“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.”

Dr. Joseph Shaw of Oxford University told LifeSiteNews that Francis’ change to the Catechism has made it “less accurate” and thus less valuable.

“Catechisms are not usually regarded as magisterial documents in their own right, but as systematic summaries of magisterial documents,” Shaw stated by email.  

“Their value lies in their accuracy as reflections of the Church’s perennial teaching. With this change by Pope Francis, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has become less accurate than it was before, since it is clear from both the teaching and the practice of the Church over two millennia, and the clear and consistent message of Scripture, that capital punishment is not incompatible with the dignity of the criminal, nor with his redemption.” 

Shaw noted that the text published today appealed to “contingent historical circumstances” like the modern--and hardly universal--penal system, which considerations are “irrelevant” to the question as to whether capital punishment is “always and everywhere wrong.”  More seriously, it casts doubt on Pope Francis’s advisors’ loyalty to the magisterium of the Church: 

“This development brings to a head the troubling question of whether the Holy Father’s theological advisors see themselves as bound by the definitive statements of past popes, including the well-known account of capital punishment given by Pope Pius XII,” Shaw wrote.  

“If they are not bound by past popes, there is no reason why future popes should be bound by this statement, and indeed the authority of Pope Francis over Catholics today is called into question.’

Carl Olson, the editor of Catholic World Report, told LifeSiteNews that the new text made him wonder what other novelties are in the works.

"If this can be changed--something that is clearly part of at least the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church--what else can be changed or tweaked?” he asked.  “And I think that is a big part of the plan here." 

This opinion was seconded by a Church historian who spoke under condition of anonymity. 

“What [Francis] wants to do is overthrow the principle that Catholic doctrine is unchanging,” he told LifeSiteNews. “He wants a Hegelian principle of constant change. That’s what his master [Cardinal Walter] Kasper believes, and so [this change] is a test case.”  

In 1967, Walter Kasper wrote that the idea of a changeless God was “an offense to man” and a false idol:

The God who is enthroned over the world and history as a changeless being is an offence to man. One must deny him for man’s sake, because he claims for himself the dignity and honour that belong by right to man…. We must resist this God, however, not only for man’s sake, but also for God’s sake. He is not the true God at all, but rather a wretched idol. For a God who is only along side of and above history, who is not himself history, is a finite God. If we call such a being God, then for the sake of the Absolute we must become absolute atheists. Such a God springs from a rigid worldview; he is the guarantor of the status quo and the enemy of the new.”

The Church historian told LifeSiteNews what Francis was “really attacking” was the First Vatican Council’s anathema against claiming that advances in knowledge could change the meaning of Church teachings, something he seems to do in his new text when he talks of “a new understanding.” 

Vatican I pronounced, “If anyone says that it is possible that at some time, given the advancement of knowledge, a sense may be assigned to the dogmas propounded by the Church which is different from that which the Church has understood and understands: let him be anathema.”

Dr. Michael Sirilla, professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, told LifeSiteNews via email that the new passage was “ambiguous” enough to avoid contradicting Church teaching directly.

“The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and more recently Dr. Edward Feser have shown that the Church definitively teaches that capital punishment is not intrinsically immoral,” Sirilla wrote. 

“The recent CDF document and the changes to the [Catechism] are ambiguous enough to avoid explicitly contradicting definitive Church teaching by their use of the term ‘inadmissible’ with respect to capital punishment,” he continued. “Notably, they do not say that it is ‘intrinsically immoral’ and thereby avoid contradicting prior magisterial teaching.”  

Sirilla noted, however, that the change was likely to lead to confusion and called for a clarification.

“... the ambiguity of the term ‘inadmissible’ will likely lead most faithful Catholics to think erroneously that capital punishment is intrinsically immoral,” he said.  “What we need now is a clear and precise magisterial clarification of exactly what is meant by the term ‘inadmissible’ – which is not a term used in any formal sense by Catholic moral theologians.” 

In his definitive book on the Catholic theology of the death penalty, By Man Let His Blood Be Shed, Dr. Edward Feser wrote that human dignity was the reason God gave human authorities the right to execute murderers: “Whosoever shall shed a man’s blood, his blood shall be shed: for man was made to the image of God” (Genesis 9:6). 

In an article he wrote for Catholic World Report this January, Feser asserted that the death penalty is legitimate in principle and that “not even a pope can reverse this teaching.”

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