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Pope’s new teaching on death penalty appears in revised theological commentary on catechism

Dorothy Cummings McLean Dorothy Cummings McLean Follow Dorothy

Vatican City, June 5, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) – The revised edition of the 1993 Theological Commentary on the Catechism of the Catholic Church will contain Pope Francis’ new doctrine on the death penalty.

Although in recent decades Catholic popes have encouraged civil authorities not to use the death penalty, they did not label it intrinsically evil until 2017 when Pope Francis declared capital punishment to be “contrary to the Gospel.”

In an interview with America magazine, the editor of the revised edition, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, said that Pope Francis’ “intervention” should be seen as an example of the “dynamic nature” of tradition.  

“What is often lost sight of in discussions of this matter is the fact that Apostolic Tradition, or ‘Sacred Tradition’ in the language of Vatican II, is first and foremost living,” Fisichella said.

The editor appeared to take aim at theological conservatives by adding: “Sometimes we are guilty of giving the impression that tradition is an exercise akin to an athletics relay in which the aim is to pass the gold baton of the faith onto the next runner just exactly as it was received. But this conception risks reducing tradition to a fly in amber and ends up negating its very origin and purpose.”

The archbishop said that tradition “has its origin in the Gospel which the living Christ ordered the Apostles to preach and to hand on to their successors, the bishops.”

“It is precisely tradition which allows the Church to confront new situations and evaluate them in the light of the Gospel,” he continued. “To deny this dynamic nature of tradition is tantamount to denying the contemporaneity of the Christian faith.”

Fisichella also said, however, that “each new generation of Christians” is not authorized to change the faith at whim, for “such a vision...would have no basis in the historical development of our faith.”

He believes that “the question of the death penalty and Pope Francis’s intervention must be understood within this dynamic conception of tradition.”

‘Not a true development of doctrine but a reversal or corruption of doctrine’

Professor Edward Feser, author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty, told LifeSiteNews by email that Fischella had sidestepped the question concerning the novelty of Francis’s teaching.

“With all due respect to the archbishop, it seems to me that he has not really answered the question put to him,” Feser wrote.  

“What Catholics who are concerned about the revision to the Catechism want to know, specifically, is whether the revision is meant to teach that capital punishment is always and intrinsically evil, and not just ill-advised under current circumstances,” he explained.

Feser asserted that if this is Pope Francis’ teaching, then it contradicts, not develops, doctrine.

“If that is indeed what is being taught, then that 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,” he said.  

Calling something a ‘development’ doesn't make it a development, otherwise the Church could reverse any teaching at all – concerning the Trinity, the Resurrection, you name it – and simply label it a ‘development’ reflecting a ‘dynamic tradition’ etc.,” he continued.  

“The great Catholic theorists of the development of doctrine, such as St. Vincent of Lerins and Blessed John Henry Newman, are always very clear that a genuine development can never contradict past teaching.”

Feser said that if the pope and the revision to the Catechism do not mean to teach that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, then there would be no contradiction.  

“But then, why do they not just come out and explicitly say that?” he asked.  

“Why doesn't the archbishop say that? It would be extremely easy. You simply say[,] ‘Capital punishment is not intrinsically evil, but at the present time it is best not to use it, for such-and-such reasons.’ That would leave no doubt that there is no rupture with traditional teaching, and would put to rest concerns, among some of the ordinary Catholics that the archbishop was asked about, about a pseudo-’development,’” he continued.

Feser recalled the warning of Pope St. Pius X regarding the changing of doctrine to fit the times.

“It would also be good to know how the archbishop would relate his remarks about tradition not being ‘a fly in amber’ etc. to Pope St. Pius X's stern warning in Pascendi that the Church's dogmas, and the meaning traditionally attached to them, should never be altered in the name of ‘progress’ or ‘development’ or ‘on plea or pretext of a more profound comprehension of the truth,’” he said.

Feser explained that St. Pius X had asserted “that, on the contrary, the Church must always rigidly preserve ‘the same dogma, the same sense, the same acceptation.’”

“The archbishop surely must agree with Pius X about this, in which case, the ordinary Catholics he was asked about would like to know how his remarks relate to Pius’s teaching," the philosopher concluded.

In his America interview, Fisichella said that Pope Francis was “very supportive” of the revised theological commentary and wrote the preface himself. The pontiff had purposely chosen the 25th anniversary of the 1993 Catechism to announce his desire to revise the catechetical teaching on capital punishment found in Paragraph 2267.

According to the Jesuit magazine, in 2010 Fisichella became the first president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. He has served as president of the International Council for Catechesis since 2013. His other qualifications including having taught theology at the Gregorian University for 20 years and having served as an auxiliary bishop of Rome.

However, Fisichella’s move to the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization followed a short (2008 to 2010) and controversial stint as the head of the Pontifical Academy for Life. As president of the Academy, Fisichella critiqued the Brazilian bishop who excommunicated the abortionists and everyone else who encouraged the abortion of twins begotten on a minor child.

In America, Fisichella emphasized that the Theological Commentary is not itself a work of Magisterium and that each of the 42 commentators “takes personal responsibility for his or her own contribution.” The commentators included such left-wing luminaries as Cardinal Schönborn, whose commitment to women’s ordination, blessings for same-sex couples, and other innovations are well documented.

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