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October 13, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — Pope Francis’ recent statements about the death penalty being “contrary to the Gospel” seem to be a departure from previous Catholic teaching, a Catholic professor says. 

“When Pope Francis says that capital punishment is ‘in itself contrary to the Gospel,’ and ‘inadmissible … no matter how serious the crime,’ he seems to be contradicting traditional teaching,” said Dr. Edward Feser, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in California, to LifeSiteNews. 

Pope Francis made his controversial remarks during an October 11 speech to the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, which gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of the Catechism of the Catholic Church promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II (read full speech here). 

Dr. Feser is an expert on the morality of capital punishment. Together with Dr. Joseph M. Bessette, who is an ethicist at Claremont McKenna College in California, he published in March a Catholic defense of capital punishment titled By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed.

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Dr. Edward Feser

“The Church teaches that scripture is divinely inspired, that it cannot teach error where matters of faith and morals are concerned, and that it must always be interpreted in the way the Church traditionally has understood it. But many passages of scripture clearly teach that capital punishment is legitimate, and have always been interpreted by the Church as teaching this,” he said. 

Both the Old and New Testaments indicate that the death penalty can be legitimate. For instance, Genesis 9:6 states: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” Or again, St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans teaches that the state “does not bear the sword in vain (but) is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.”

Feser said previous popes have “consistently” reaffirmed the legitimacy of capital punishment and have “insisted that accepting its legitimacy is a requirement of Catholic orthodoxy.”

One such pope would be Pius XII, who in 1955 defended the authority of the State to punish crimes, even with the death penalty. He argued that capital punishment is morally defensible in every age and culture because “the coercive power of legitimate human authority” is based on “the sources of revelation and traditional doctrine.”  

“Even Pope St. John Paul II taught that capital punishment is not always and absolutely wrong,” said Feser. 

St. Thomas Aquinas, in his classic defense of capital punishment in the Summa Theologica, argued that “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good.” 

The Catholic professor said the Church also has “always taught that popes are obligated to preserve traditional teaching and never to contradict it.” 

“When Pope Francis says that capital punishment is ‘in itself contrary to the Gospel,’ and ‘inadmissible … no matter how serious the crime,’ he seems to be contradicting traditional teaching,” he said.

If that is what he is doing, then he is flirting with doctrinal error, which is possible when a pope is not speaking ex cathedra, even though it is extremely rare. There are only a handful of cases in Church history of popes who are possibly guilty of this, the best known cases being those of Pope Honorius and Pope John XXII,” he added.

Feser said that if Pope Francis is reversing past teaching on capital punishment, then he is “implicitly saying that every previous pope and scripture itself were wrong.”

“This would completely undermine the authority of the Church, and of Pope Francis himself. For if the Church could be that wrong for that long about something that serious, why trust anything else she says? And if all previous popes have been so badly mistaken, why should we think Pope Francis is right?” he said. 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty is morally permissible. 

“The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense … Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” states the Catechism (bold added). 

The Catholic professor said that if what the Pope said is true that he, in the Pope’s own words, is “not in any way contradicting past teaching” and that his statements “in no way represents a change in doctrine,” then he “ought to issue a clarification, so as to ensure the credibility of the Church’s claim to preserve the deposit of faith.”

The Pope said during his speech that he would like the Catechism of the Catholic Church to change, adding that only a “partial vision can think of ‘the deposit of faith’ as something static.”

The “harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth,” the Pope said. 

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