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Two thousand years of error? Pope Francis moves closer to calling death penalty intrinsically evil
Diane Montagna

ROME, March 1, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) — Pope Francis has moved closer to calling the death penalty intrinsically evil but stopped short of doing so explicitly. 

In a video-message delivered this week to the 7th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, taking place at the European Parliament in Brussels from February 27 - March 1, Pope Francis hardened further his opposition to the death penalty, once more seeming to imply that this is always and everywhere wrong, contrary to Catholic teaching prior to his pontificate.

Sponsored by ECPM (Together Against the Death Penalty), in collaboration with the World Coalition against the Death Penalty, the conference is part of an organized effort to universally abolish the death penalty through public campaigns and government lobbying at both national and international levels.

Addressing conference organizers and participants on Wednesday, the Pope argued that the death penalty is “a serious violation of the right to life that every person has.” 

“Human life is a gift we have received, the most important and primary, source of all other gifts and all other rights. And as such it needs to be protected,” he told conference participants. “Moreover, for the believer the human being has been created in the image and likeness of God. But for believers and non-believers alike, every life is a good and its dignity must be guarded without exception.” 

Pope Francis continued:

Quote:The Church has always defended life, and her vision of the death penalty has matured. For this reason, I wanted this point to be modified in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. For a long time the death penalty was taken into account as an adequate response to the gravity of some crimes and also to safeguard the common good. However, the dignity of the person is not lost even if he has committed the worst of crimes. No one can be killed and deprived of the opportunity to embrace again the community he wounded and made suffer. 

He called the goal of abolishing the death penalty worldwide a “courageous affirmation of the principle of the dignity of the human person” and of “the conviction that humankind can face crime, as well as reject evil, by offering the condemned person the possibility and time to repair the damage done, think about his action and thus be able to change his life, at least inwardly.”

“It is in our hands to recognize each person’s dignity and to work so that no more lives are taken away but are won for the good of society as a whole,” he said.


Prominent philosopher weighs in

Renowned Catholic philosopher Edward Feser, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California, is one of the foremost contemporary writers in the Thomistic tradition, and a leading expert on the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. 

He is the author of such works as The Last SuperstitionScholastic MetaphysicsFive Proofs of the Existence of GodBy Man Shall His Blood Be Shed (with Joseph Bessette) and the forthcoming Aristotle’s Revenge.

By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed is a study and defense of the perennial Catholic teaching on the death penalty as legitimate in principle and often advisable in practice even in contemporary social conditions.

In comments to LifeSite, Feser said: “For the most part, Pope Francis’s latest statement on capital punishment just repeats things he has said before, but there is one element that is not only new but possibly even more problematic than his previous remarks.”

“The Pope says that the death penalty is ‘a serious violation of the right to life that every person has,’” Feser noted. “That obviously gives the impression that capital punishment is a species of murder, and thus always and intrinsically evil rather than wrong only under modern circumstances.” 

“And that claim would flatly contradict scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and every pope who has spoken on this subject prior to Pope Francis,” he added.

Dr. Feser explained:

Quote:To take just one example, Pope Pius XII explicitly said that a murderer “has deprived himself of the right to live,” so that the state does no wrong in executing him.  Francis seems to be directly contradicting Pius XII, as well as, again, other popes such as St. Innocent I, Innocent III, St. Pius V, St. Pius X, and even St. John Paul II, who acknowledged that capital punishment can at least in rare cases be legitimate.

The co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed continued:

Quote:The First Vatican Council solemnly taught that popes have no authority to invent new doctrines, even when speaking infallibly, and the Second Vatican Council solemnly taught that the Church is the servant of scripture and not its master. Yet the Pope’s remark appears to be a new doctrine and one that contradicts scripture. Popes sometimes make such doctrinally problematic statements when not speaking infallibly, though it is extremely rare.  The best known cases are Pope Honorius I and Pope John XXII.  John XXII recanted his erroneous teaching on his deathbed, whereas Honorius was condemned by his successors.


Comments from a Dominican theologian 

An anonymous Dominican to whom LifeSite spoke worried about the consequences for all doctrine and the Church’s teaching authority in light of the approach Pope Francis is taking to the death penalty.  

“By saying that the Church’s ‘vision’ of capital punishment has ‘matured’, Pope Francis is apparently attempting to conceal the fact that his personal opinion about capital punishment, which he is attempting to impose upon Catholics, is contrary to what the Church has always taught and believed. 

Countering the Pope’s claim that the death penalty is an intrinsic offense against human dignity, the Dominican theologian argued: “Capital punishment does not ignore what remains of human dignity in the criminal, nor does it deprive him of his opportunity to repent. It takes his dignity seriously by inviting him to recognize the gravity of his crime.” 

“It arguably makes repentance more likely by concentrating his mind on the thought of his imminent death,” he said.

Readers will recall that, last August, two weeks after Pope Francis ordered that the teaching on capital punishment in the Catechism of the Catholic Churchbe revised, a group of 75 clergy, lay scholars and prominent public intellectuals took the unprecedented step of issuing an open appeal to the College of Cardinals, urging them to tell Pope Francis to teach the authentic Catholic doctrine on the death penalty. 

Titled An Open Appeal to the Cardinals of the Catholic Church, the letter was published in First Things.

Its 75 signatories include Fr. George Rutler and Fr. Gerald Murray of the Archdiocese of New York, respected theologian and writer, Fr. Brian Harrison, and Fr. Andrew Pinsent, a physicist and member of the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford University. 

Also numbered among the signatories are professors of philosophy, theology, law, and history from Catholic institutions across the globe, including Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, noted authors of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty (Ignatius Press, 2017). 

Recalling the scholars’ appeal last August, the theologian said in comments to LifeSite: “It is urgently necessary that the cardinals respond to the appeal that was made to them last year to advise the Pope that he must put an end to this scandal and teach the word of God, not his personal opinions.”

 
Perspective from a Catholic historian

A British Catholic historian based in the United States has also questioned the defensibility of the Pope’s latest statement on the death penalty.

Dr. Alan Fimister is an Assistant Professor of Theology and Church History at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, and Director of the Dialogos Institute, which encourages debate on legitimately disputed theological questions among Catholics. 

In comments to LifeSite, Dr. Fimister suggested that, taken in a certain in way, Pope Francis’s judgement may not be contrary to Catholic teaching, but noted the judgment is not his to make. 

Fimister explained: “In order to employ the death penalty two conditions must be fulfilled: the criminal’s offense must be sufficiently grave to deserve death, secondly the application of the death penalty must be necessary to defend human life.” 

The Catholic historian further noted: “The infliction of grave and irreparable harm on a victim of crime always undermines the rule of law and thus public safety, because the temporal power cannot adequately redress the harm with non-lethal measures. It is in these circumstances that the two aforementioned conditions are usually fulfilled. The Roman Catechism mentions in this regard murder and rape.” 

He further explained that: “The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to the commandment which prohibits murder.”

Noting that “the end of the commandment is the preservation and security of human life, Fimister said “the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage [i.e. rape] and violence.” 

It is because both these conditions are required that society historically has not executed all criminals guilty of capital offences, the Catholic historian added.

Commenting on the Pope’s video-message, Fimister told LifeSite: “Clearly Pope Francis does not consider the second of the conditions (i.e. that the application of the death penalty is necessary to defend life) to be fulfilled at this time.” 

“As an individual he is obviously entitled to make that judgement, but it is the laity — who properly wield the temporal power — to whom that judgement belongs in an official capacity,” he noted.

“To seek to take that judgment from them is a form of (no doubt inadvertent) clericalism,” he said.

Dr. Fimister said what is more “theologically problematic” is “the denial that the death penalty is legitimate in principle, for to make this assertion would be contrary to the unbroken teaching of the Church from Scripture all the way down to Benedict XVI.”

“Insofar as Pope Francis’s words are open to this interpretation that is unfortunate, the Catholic historian said, adding: “When people, even clerics, feel strongly about political questions of great moment they often omit to distinguish clearly between matters of principle and prudential (but very important) considerations.”
He has already called it contrary to the gospel. This was just a remark he made however and in no way binding.
(03-01-2019, 10:25 PM)For Petes Sake Wrote: [ -> ]He has already called it contrary to the gospel. This was just a remark he made however and in no way binding.

Just because it isn't binding doesn't mean it can just be ignored. A lot of Catholics are going to assume it's binding, or they're going to assume it's heresy and start questioning the Church. And if this can 'change', what's next? Contraception? Divorce? Abortion? Women priests? Salvation outside the Church?

You'd think that, if capital punishment really were contrary to morality, our Lord might have said so. Especially, you know, considering He was executed by one of the more horrible forms of it we've come up with. Guess it took Pope Francis 2000 years to figure it out.

But then, like St John Eudes said, we get the Pope and clergy we deserve. And God has to be very angry at us for what we've done during the past century.
(03-01-2019, 10:25 PM)For Petes Sake Wrote: [ -> ]He has already called it contrary to the gospel. This was just a remark he made however and in no way binding.

I know what people mean when they say that the remarks by clergy are "in no way binding," but let's be honest here: that may have been true 100 years ago (and further back) when perhaps just a few people were around to hear a person's words. But today, within literally seconds of the Pope uttering these phrases, billions of people around the world hear and read them. The average person just assumes that what the Pope says is true or represents a new teaching. And Francis knows this, so that's how he operates. It's a huge problem obviously when the leader of the Church starts spouting out his own personal thoughts contrary to Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium.
(03-02-2019, 12:45 AM)Paul Wrote: [ -> ]
(03-01-2019, 10:25 PM)For Petes Sake Wrote: [ -> ]He has already called it contrary to the gospel. This was just a remark he made however and in no way binding.

Just because it isn't binding doesn't mean it can just be ignored. A lot of Catholics are going to assume it's binding, or they're going to assume it's heresy and start questioning the Church. And if this can 'change', what's next? Contraception? Divorce? Abortion? Women priests? Salvation outside the Church?

You'd think that, if capital punishment really were contrary to morality, our Lord might have said so. Especially, you know, considering He was executed by one of the more horrible forms of it we've come up with. Guess it took Pope Francis 2000 years to figure it out.

But then, like St John Eudes said, we get the Pope and clergy we deserve. And God has to be very angry at us for what we've done during the past century.

What he said was heretical and I'm not defending him. I support the use of the death penalty.
(03-02-2019, 10:45 AM)For Petes Sake Wrote: [ -> ]What he said was heretical and I'm not defending him. I support the use of the death penalty.

I know you're not. It's just sort of sad that we have to keep saying "it's not binding" with so many things the Pope says. The Pope's supposed to preserve and guard the faith, not reshape it to his own opinion. He's the head of the Church, and Catholics have to keep telling each other to ignore him.
The Pope seems to have a Catholic mind frame on this subject. One definition of Catholic is open minded. No offence and I'm not trolling just can't understand how his view is not a catholic notion.
(03-02-2019, 05:46 PM)Suggestions Wrote: [ -> ]The Pope seems to have a Catholic mind frame on this subject.  One definition of Catholic is open minded.  No offence and I'm not trolling just can't understand how his view is not a catholic notion.

"Catholic" doesn't mean "open-minded"; it means "universal.

As to the death penalty, read this, from First Things:


POPE FRANCIS AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT

by Edward Feser
8 . 3 . 18

In a move that should surprise no one, Pope Francis has once again appeared to contradict two millennia of clear and consistent scriptural and Catholic teaching. The Vatican has announced that the Catechism of the Catholic Church will be changed to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” given the “inviolability and dignity of the person” as understood “in the light of the Gospel.”

There has always been disagreement among Catholics about whether capital punishment is, in practice, the morally best way to uphold justice and social order. However, the Church has always taught, clearly and consistently, that the death penalty is in principle consistent with both natural law and the Gospel. This is taught throughout scripture—from Genesis 9 to Romans 13 and many points in between—and the Church maintains that scripture cannot teach moral error. It was taught by the Fathers of the Church, including those Fathers who opposed the application of capital punishment in practice. It was taught by the Doctors of the Church, including St. Thomas Aquinas, the Church’s greatest theologian; St. Alphonsus Liguori, her greatest moral theologian; and St. Robert Bellarmine, who, more than any other Doctor, illuminated how Christian teaching applies to modern political circumstances.

It was clearly and consistently taught by the popes up to and including Pope Benedict XVI. That Christians can in principle legitimately resort to the death penalty is taught by the Roman Catechism promulgated by Pope St. Pius V, the Catechism of Christian Doctrine promulgated by Pope St. Pius X, and the 1992 and 1997 versions of the most recent Catechismpromulgated by Pope St. John Paul II—this last despite the fact that John Paul was famously opposed to applying capital punishment in practice. Pope St. Innocent I and Pope Innocent III taught that acceptance of the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is a requirement of Catholic orthodoxy. Pope Pius XII explicitly endorsed the death penalty on several occasions. This is why Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as John Paul’s chief doctrinal officer, explicitly affirmed in a 2004 memorandum:

Quote:If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment … he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities … to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible … to have recourse to capital punishment.

Joseph Bessette and I document this traditional teaching at length in our recent book. For reasons I have set out in a more recent article, the traditional teaching clearly meets the criteria for an infallible and irreformable teaching of the Church’s ordinary Magisterium. It is no surprise that so many popes have been careful to uphold it, nor that Bellarmine judged it “heretical” to maintain that Christians cannot in theory apply capital punishment.

So, has Pope Francis now contradicted this teaching? On the one hand, the letter issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announcing the change asserts that it constitutes “an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.” Nor does the new language introduced into the catechism clearly and explicitly state that the death penalty is intrinsically contrary to either natural law or the Gospel.

On the other hand, the Catechism as John Paul left it had already taken the doctrinal considerations as far as they could be taken in an abolitionist direction, consistent with past teaching. That is why, when holding that the cases in which capital punishment is called for are “very rare, if not practically non-existent,” John Paul’s Catechism appeals to prudentialconsiderations concerning what is strictly necessary in order to protect society.

Pope Francis, by contrast, wants the Catechism to teach that capital punishment ought never to be used (rather than “very rarely” used), and he justifies this change not on prudential grounds, but “so as to better reflect the development of the doctrine on this point.” The implication is that Pope Francis thinks that considerations of doctrine or principle rule out the use of capital punishment in an absolute way. Moreover, to say, as the pope does, that the death penalty conflicts with “the inviolability and dignity of the person” insinuates that the practice is intrinsically contrary to natural law. And to say, as the pope does, that “the light of the Gospel” rules out capital punishment insinuates that it is intrinsically contrary to Christian morality.

To say either of these things is precisely to contradict past teaching. Nor does the letter from the CDF explain how the new teaching can be made consistent with the teaching of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and previous popes. Merely asserting that the new language “develops” rather than “contradicts” past teaching does not make it so. The CDF is not Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, and a pope is not Humpty Dumpty, able by fiat to make words mean whatever he wants them to. Slapping the label “development” onto a contradiction doesn’t transform it into a non-contradiction.

An irony is that John Paul’s Catechism was issued to clarify matters of doctrine, and finally put a halt to post–Vatican II speculation that Catholic teaching was open to endless revision. Yet now we have had two revisions to the Catechism’s own teaching on capital punishment—one in 1997, under John Paul himself, and another under Francis.

Nor is the problem confined to capital punishment. This latest development is part of a by-now familiar pattern. Pope Francis has made statements that appear to contradict traditional Catholic teaching on contraception, on marriage and divorce, grace, conscience, and Holy Communion, and other matters. He has also persistently refused to clarify his problematic statements, even when clarification has been formally and respectfully requested by eminent theologians and members of the hierarchy. The effect is to embolden those who want to reverse other traditional teachings of the Church, and to demoralize those who want to uphold those teachings.

If capital punishment is wrong in principle, then the Church has for two millennia consistently taught grave moral error and badly misinterpreted scripture. And if the Church has been so wrong for so long about something so serious, then there is no teaching that might not be reversed, with the reversal justified by the stipulation that it be called a “development” rather than a contradiction. A reversal on capital punishment is the thin end of a wedge that, if pushed through, could sunder Catholic doctrine from its past—and thus give the lie to the claim that the Church has preserved the Deposit of Faith whole and undefiled.

Not only does this reversal undermine the credibility of every previous pope, it undermines the credibility of Pope Francis himself. For if Pope St. Innocent I, Pope Innocent III, Pope St. Pius V, Pope St. Pius X, Pope Pius XII, Pope St. John Paul II, and many other popes could all get things so badly wrong, why should we believe that Pope Francis has somehow finally gotten things right?

One does not need to support capital punishment to worry that Pope Francis may have gone too far. Cardinal Avery Dulles, who was personally opposed to the practical use of capital punishment, still insisted that “the reversal of a doctrine as well established as the legitimacy of capital punishment would raise serious problems regarding the credibility of the magisterium.” Archbishop Charles Chaput, who is likewise opposed to applying the death penalty in practice, has nevertheless acknowledged:

Quote:The death penalty is not intrinsically evil. Both Scripture and long Christian tradition acknowledge the legitimacy of capital punishment under certain circumstances. The Church cannot repudiate that without repudiating her own identity.

If Pope Francis really is claiming that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, then either scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes were wrong—or Pope Francis is. There is no third alternative. Nor is there any doubt about who would be wrong in that case. The Church has always acknowledged that popes can make doctrinal errors when not speaking ex cathedra—Pope Honorius I and Pope John XXII being the best-known examples of popes who actually did so. The Church also explicitly teaches that the faithful may, and sometimes should, openly and respectfully criticize popes when they do teach error. The 1990 CDF document Donum Veritatis sets out norms governing the legitimate criticism of magisterial documents that exhibit “deficiencies.” It would seem that Catholic theologians are now in a situation that calls for application of these norms.

Edward Feser is co-author of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.
(03-02-2019, 05:46 PM)Suggestions Wrote: [ -> ]The Pope seems to have a Catholic mind frame on this subject.  One definition of Catholic is open minded.  No offence and I'm not trolling just can't understand how his view is not a catholic notion.

A 'open mind'? That's one thing I've never heard Francis accused of! Dictators are not known for being open minded With him it's, 'My way or the highway', which is exactly why he thinks he can foist his heresy o the Church.
(03-02-2019, 06:51 PM)jovan66102 Wrote: [ -> ]
(03-02-2019, 05:46 PM)Suggestions Wrote: [ -> ]The Pope seems to have a Catholic mind frame on this subject.  One definition of Catholic is open minded.  No offence and I'm not trolling just can't understand how his view is not a catholic notion.

A 'open mind'? That's one thing I've ever heard Francis accused of! Dictators are not known for being open minded With him it's, 'My way or the highway', which is exactly why he thinks he can foist his heresy o the Church.

"My way or the highway" could've been grand had it been for the right intentions.
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