Philosopher Ed Feser recently authored a defense of traditional Church teaching on capital punishment, By Man Shall His Blood be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.
At Catholic World Report he takes a look at the recent comments of Pope Francis condemning capital punishment:
There simply is no way to make an absolute condemnation of capital punishment consistent with past scriptural and papal teaching. The only way out of the mess is for Pope Francis to issue a clarification that reaffirms traditional teaching.
Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all popes before Pope Francis have consistently taught that capital punishment can in some circumstances be legitimate. In some recent remarks, Pope Francis appeared to suggest that this traditional teaching ought to be overturned, and that capital punishment is always and intrinsically wrong. In a recent article in Catholic Herald, I analyzed the pope’s remarks, noting that some of them do indeed appear to propose such a reversal, though others seem to point in the opposite direction.
I also noted that if this is what the pope is proposing – and it is not certain that it is – then he would be flirting with doctrinal error, something that is possible when a pope is not speaking ex cathedra, though it is extremely rare. For the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is an irreformable or unchangeable teaching of the Church. Joseph Bessette and I assemble what we claim to be conclusive evidence to this effect in our recent book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment. (A few of the salient points are briefly summarized in an earlier Catholic World Report article of ours.)
The pope’s remarks have been controversial. For example, theologian Eduardo Echeverria has noted some of the problems with them in an article at Catholic World Report, as has P. J. Smith at First Things. But the pope also has some defenders. Interestingly, however, it turns out that they do not agree on why or how the pope’s remarks are defensible.
On Twitter, Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh responded to my Catholic Herald piece with the remark: “This betrays a hugely deficient understanding of development of doctrine. It doesn’t even quote relevant parts of pope speech on topic [sic].” Ivereigh does not explain exactly what is deficient (“hugely” or otherwise) about my understanding of the development of doctrine (though of course, he could hardly have done so in a mere tweet). I quoted a number of key magisterial texts which illustrate how the Church teaches that a genuine “development of doctrine” can never be a reversal or overturning of doctrine. How Ivereigh would reconcile these texts with an overturning of traditional teaching on capital punishment, we are not told.
However, the “relevant parts” of the pope’s speech to which Ivereigh thinks I paid insufficient attention include, I would speculate, papal remarks like:
Here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively.
Ivereigh’s idea, perhaps, is this: The Church has always taught the dignity of human life, and the pope’s proposal is that this dignity absolutely rules out capital punishment under any circumstances. There is no contradiction between the claim that human life has dignity and the claim that capital punishment is always wrong, so that to draw the latter conclusion from the former is a genuine development of doctrine and not a contradiction of it.
But if this is Ivereigh’s reasoning, it is fallacious. For a genuine “development of doctrine” has to take account of the entire body of the Church’s traditional teaching, not just some part of it considered in isolation. For example, in hammering out the doctrine of the Trinity, the Church considered both the truth that there is only one God and the truth that the divine Persons are distinct. The Trinitarian conception of God is precisely a reconciliation of these ideas. Hence if the Church were to deny the distinctness of the Persons in the name of respecting the teaching that there is only one God, this would not be a “development” of past teaching but a rejection of it. It would be a matter of pitting one part of the deposit of faith against another, rather than preserving the whole. Indeed, the very term “heresy” derives from the Greek word hairesis, which means the “choosing” or “taking” of one part of orthodox doctrine while rejecting other parts.
Similarly, while the Church has always affirmed the dignity of human life, she has also always taught that an offender guilty of the gravest crimes can in some cases legitimately be executed. That these truths are perfectly compatible is obvious when we remember that there is a crucial moral distinction between the innocent and the guilty. Thus did Pope Pius XII teach that a murderer has, by virtue of his crime, “deprived himself of the right to live.” Thus did even Pope St. John Paul II, who was no fan of capital punishment, explicitly reaffirm even in the 1997 revision of the Catechism he promulgated that “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” under certain conditions. Thus did even he qualify his claims about the dignity of human life in Evangelium Vitae, teaching that “the commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person.” Such qualifications are necessary if we are to do justice to the whole of the deposit of faith.
(I am not, by the way – and contrary to what some critics of my Catholic Herald piece seem to think – suggesting that capital punishment is as central to Catholic doctrine as the Trinity is. That is not the point of the analogy. I am merely using Trinitarianism as an illustration of how a genuine development of doctrine works.)
Go here to read the rest. There is no way that Pope Francis is right on capital punishment without the Church having been completely wrong on capital punishment for twenty centuries.