Sandro Magister enlists the late Cardinal Dulles to explain why the Pope’s attempt to change doctrine on the death penalty flies in the face of twenty centuries of Church teaching:
The decision of Pope Francis to rewrite the Catechism of the Catholic Church in regard to the death penalty has ignited lively discussions.
The change was in the air, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been foretelling it for some time. In the letter of the prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith that accompanies the rescript, Cardinal Luis F. Ladaria says that “the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.”
But this is precisely the point that is raising the greatest controversy. For many, the contradiction with the previous teaching of the Church is there. And it amounts not to a “development” but to a real and proper rupture.
Also striking is the “historicist” nature of the motivations that Francis adopts: new awareness concerning the dignity of the person, new understanding of the meaning of penal sanctions, new and more effective prison systems, etc. From here would arise, “in the light of the Gospel,” the new current teaching of the Church on the absolute inadmissibility of the death penalty.
Given this precedent – as many hope, or on the contrary fear – what can prevent a pope from changing the doctrine of the Church on any other issue? Breaking not only with the previous magisterium, but with the Sacred Scriptures themselves?
To facilitate an understanding of the debate, the following are two useful elements of documentation.
The first is a comparison of the old article of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty and the new article rewritten at the behest of Pope Francis.
THE OLD ARTICLE
2267. The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.
If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today are very rare, if not practically non-existent’ [John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56].
2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” , and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
 Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.
The second element of documentation offered here is an extract from an essay published in 2001 in “First Things” by Cardinal Avery Dulles (1918-2008), a Jesuit and one of the greatest North American theologians of the twentieth century, highly esteemed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
The complete text of the essay:
To begin with, Dulles focuses on what the Sacred Scriptures say regarding the death penalty:
“In the Old Testament the Mosaic Law specifies no less than thirty-six capital offenses calling for execution by stoning, burning, decapitation, or strangulation. Included in the list are idolatry, magic, blasphemy, violation of the sabbath, murder, adultery, bestiality, pederasty, and incest. The death penalty was considered especially fitting as a punishment for murder since in his covenant with Noah God had laid down the principle, ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image’ (Genesis 9:6). In many cases God is portrayed as deservedly punishing culprits with death, as happened to Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16). In other cases individuals such as Daniel and Mordecai are God’s agents in bringing a just death upon guilty persons.
“In the New Testament the right of the State to put criminals to death seems to be taken for granted. Jesus himself refrains from using violence. He rebukes his disciples for wishing to call down fire from heaven to punish the Samaritans for their lack of hospitality (Luke 9:55). Later he admonishes Peter to put his sword in the scabbard rather than resist arrest (Matthew 26:52). At no point, however, does Jesus deny that the State has authority to exact capital punishment. In his debates with the Pharisees, Jesus cites with approval the apparently harsh commandment, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’ (Matthew 15:4; Mark 7:10, referring to Exodus 2l:17; cf. Leviticus 20:9). When Pilate calls attention to his authority to crucify him, Jesus points out that Pilate’s power comes to him from above-that is to say, from God (John 19:11). Jesus commends the good thief on the cross next to him, who has admitted that he and his fellow thief are receiving the due reward of their deeds (Luke 23:41).
“The early Christians evidently had nothing against the death penalty. They approve of the divine punishment meted out to Ananias and Sapphira when they are rebuked by Peter for their fraudulent action (Acts 5:1-11). The Letter to the Hebrews makes an argument from the fact that ‘a man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses’ (10:28). Paul repeatedly refers to the connection between sin and death. He writes to the Romans, with an apparent reference to the death penalty, that the magistrate who holds authority ‘does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer’ (Romans 13:4). No passage in the New Testament disapproves of the death penalty.”
Dulles then goes on to examine how the Fathers of the Church and Catholic theologians expressed themselves over the centuries, coming to this conclusion:
“Turning to Christian tradition, we may note that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are virtually unanimous in their support for capital punishment. […] And throughout the first half of the twentieth century the consensus of Catholic theologians in favor of capital punishment in extreme cases remained solid”.
He points out, however, that already in 1977 a theologian of good repute had taken a position in “L’Osservatore Romano” in favor of the inadmissibility of the death penalty, giving voice to the “objections” of “a rising chorus of voices in the Catholic community”:
“Some take the absolutist position that because the right to life is sacred and inviolable, the death penalty is always wrong. The respected Italian Franciscan Gino Concetti, writing in ‘L’Osservatore Romano’ in 1977, made the following powerful statement: ‘In light of the word of God, and thus of faith, life-all human life-is sacred and untouchable. No matter how heinous the crimes… [the criminal] does not lose his fundamental right to life, for it is primordial, inviolable, and inalienable, and thus comes under the power of no one whatsoever’.”
And from here on Dulles discusses precisely this radical thesis, a forerunner of what Pope Francis has now decided.
Here are a few passages from his argumentation, written in 2001 but still perfectly relevant:
“To warrant this radical revision – one might almost say reversal – of the Catholic tradition, Father Concetti and others explain that the Church from biblical times until our own day has failed to perceive the true significance of the image of God in man, which implies that even the terrestrial life of each individual person is sacred and inviolable. In past centuries, it is alleged, Jews and Christians failed to think through the consequences of this revealed doctrine. They were caught up in a barbaric culture of violence and in an absolutist theory of political power, both handed down from the ancient world. But in our day, a new recognition of the dignity and inalienable rights of the human person has dawned. Those who recognize the signs of the times will move beyond the outmoded doctrines that the State has a divinely delegated power to kill and that criminals forfeit their fundamental human rights. The teaching on capital punishment must today undergo a dramatic development corresponding to these new insights.
“This abolitionist position has a tempting simplicity. But it is not really new. It has been held by sectarian Christians at least since the Middle Ages. Many pacifist groups, such as the Waldensians, the Quakers, the Hutterites, and the Mennonites, have shared this point of view. But, like pacifism itself, this absolutist interpretation of the right to life found no echo at the time among Catholic theologians, who accepted the death penalty as consonant with Scripture, tradition, and the natural law.
“The mounting opposition to the death penalty in Europe since the Enlightenment has gone hand in hand with a decline of faith in eternal life. In the nineteenth century the most consistent supporters of capital punishment were the Christian churches, and its most consistent opponents were groups hostile to the churches. When death came to be understood as the ultimate evil rather than as a stage on the way to eternal life, utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham found it easy to dismiss capital punishment as ‘useless annihilation.’
Go here to read the rest. The Pope’s attempted doctrinal change has bupkis to do with Catholicism and everything with this Pope’s constant attempt to splash with Holy Water the current beliefs and prejudices of the chattering classes of the West. The Pope has made himself the chaplain of the current zeitgeist.