What if the Pope Does “Change the Church's Teaching”
on Capital Punishment?
by Christopher A. Ferrara
October 16, 2017
In my last column I discussed the Pope's astonishing declaration that capital punishment is "in itself contrary to the Gospel," uttered in the face of the Church's constant teaching, based on the Gospel itself, that capital punishment is within the legitimate authority of civil rulers and is even obligatory in cases where the protection of society necessitates its imposition.
Of further concern, from the same address, is the suggestion that the Catechism promulgated by John Paul II should be "revised" to reflect Francis' view of the death penalty. According to Francis, this would not involve "a contradiction with the teaching of the past, because the defense of the dignity of human life from the moment of conception to natural death has always found in the teaching of the Church a coherent and authoritative voice." But that same voice has always coherently and authoritatively defended precisely the morality of capital punishment. Indeed, the Catechism of John Paul II states that "the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty…" Thus, it would be utterly incoherent to declare a reversal of that teaching.
Even more alarming is Francis' remark — involving a caricature typical of his speech — that "Tradition is a living reality and not only a partial vision that can be thought of as a 'deposit of the Faith,' as something static. The word of God cannot be preserved in mothballs as if it were an old blanket to protect against parasites. No, the Word of God is a dynamic reality, always living, which progresses and grows because it is drawn toward a fulfillment that men cannot stop."
Ridiculing the deposit of the Faith — a traditional term of the Magisterium — as something in mothballs does not bode well for the doctrinal integrity of this pontificate. And it is hardly growth and legitimate progress of the doctrine on capital punishment to declare that what the Church has always affirmed to be morally licit is now immoral in every case! The claim is absurd on its face.
Even worse is Francis' resort to the what he calls "the happy formula of St. Vincent Lerins: 'annis consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate'" — i.e. that doctrine "progresses, consolidating with the years, developing with time, deepening with the age." Doctrinal progress, consolidation and deepening means a more developed expression of the same truth, not its outright repudiation by a currently reigning Pope. Francis himself concedes that Saint Vincent is speaking of "the peculiar condition of the revealed truth in its being transmitted by the Church" and that this "does not mean at all a change of doctrine." Yet a change of doctrine is precisely what Francis purports to announce at the same time he denies that there would be any change! And, quite tellingly, he ignores the more well-known formula of St. Vincent respecting the nature of Catholic doctrine and dogma: "quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est (what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all)."
Finally, leaving no doubt of what he would like to do with the Catechism and the Church's entire teaching in this regard, Francis declared: "You cannot preserve doctrine without making it progress or tie it to a rigid and immutable reading without humiliating the action of the Holy Ghost." But a doctrine whose reading is mutable according to supposed inspirations of the Holy Ghost is changing doctrine, which is the essence of Modernist heresy that doctrine evolves over time. Yet even the concept of evolution cannot embrace an outright reversal of the Church's constant teaching so that what was deemed moral for 2,000 years is suddenly declared immoral.
So what would happen if Francis succeeded in imposing his opinion, via a revision of the Catechism, to declare a "development" of traditional Catholic teaching on the morality of the death penalty according to which the death penalty is now deemed immoral in every case? That attempted "reversal" of the Magisterium would have to be viewed as utterly void and of no effect. The faithful simply could not accept it.
If it were otherwise, then literally every moral teaching of the Church, including her constant condemnation of contraception, would be subject to reversal in the name of "doctrinal development." And that would mean — if it were possible — the end of the Church's absolutely authoritative voice on moral questions. As the philosopher Edward Feser has so acutely observed of this latest explosive development with Francis: "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?"
Given the notion of "doctrinal development" that Francis espouses, the Church would become, in effect, just another Protestant denomination whose teachings change according to the sentiments of the day. Indeed, Francis suggests as much when he contends that the teaching on capital punishment must reflect "the changed awareness of the Christian people, who reject a consensual attitude towards a punishment that greatly undermines human dignity."
But which "Christian people" does Francis have in mind: the majority of nominal Catholics, who exhibit a "changed awareness" regarding numerous Church teachings they no longer accept, including the teaching against contraception and even abortion, or the dwindling remnant who hold fast to every moral teaching of the Magisterium, including that on capital punishment? Perhaps by "the Christian people" Francis means the majority of nominal Catholics, who, according to polls, agree with him concerning the death penalty, which is the execution of convicted murderers, while also approving of abortion "at least in some circumstances," which is the execution of innocent children in their own mothers' wombs. As for Catholics who defend the Church's traditional teaching entirely, including her teaching on capital punishment, they would be excluded from the papal equivalent of polling "the Christian people" for purposes of doctrinal "development" on the capital punishment "issue."
Sophistry about "doctrinal development" amounting to outright doctrinal reversal cannot possibly belong to the authentic Magisterium. It belongs instead to that system of errors Pope Saint Pius X condemned as "the synthesis of all heresies": i.e., Modernism, whose proponents in the Church, he warned, "put their designs for her ruin into operation not from without but from within; hence, the danger is present almost in the very veins and heart of the Church, whose injury is the more certain, the more intimate is their knowledge of her."
And such is the final phrase of the great ecclesial crisis from which Our Lady of Fatima will rescue the Church when its leaders finally obey Her requests at Fatima.