I was asked for a quote by a journalist when the story broke; it was used by LifeSite here. I paste my full statement below.
'Catechisms are not usually regarded as magisterial documents in their own right, but as systematic summaries of magisterial documents. Their value lies in their accuracy as reflections of the Church’s perennial teaching. With this change by Pope Francis, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has become less accurate than it was before, since it is clear from both the teaching and the practice of the Church over two millennia, and the clear and consistent message of Scripture, that capital punishment is not incompatible with the dignity of the criminal, nor with his redemption.
‘The text recently published also appeals to contingent historical circumstances, such as the modern penal system. Such considerations, which apply in any case to some countries more than to others, are irrelevant to the question of whether capital punishment is always and everywhere wrong.
‘This development brings to a head the troubling question of whether the Holy Father’s theological advisers see themselves as bound by the definitive statements of past popes, including the well-known account of capital punishment given by Pope Pius XII. If they are not bound by past popes, there is no reason why future popes should be bound by this statement, and indeed the authority of Pope Francis over Catholics today is called into question.’
(See also my post about the death penalty here.)
The people online and in the media saying 'Well I've never liked capital punishment so I'm fine with this' are like the people who say, when there's a military coup and the rule of law is suspended and people are rounded up for imprisonment without trial, 'Well I never liked those people so I'm fine with this'. They are conceding something of permanent, strategic significance for something of transitory, tactical significance. They are selling their birthright for a mess of pottage.
Maybe they think that the wrongness of the Death Penalty is of fundamental significance, but even so it should be obvious that this way of winning the argument is not only self-defeating but is destructive of any possible future use of the prestige of the Papacy to win any argument inside or indeed outside the Church about anything. If Pope Francis openly contradicts Pope Pius XII, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith as recently as 2004, Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, and the entire Tradition, then the statement of a Pope, given a permanent place in the documents of the Church both in a speech recorded in L'Osservatore Romano and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ceases to have serious weight. Catholics and non-Catholics alike will cease to assume that such a statement is an authoritative emanation from an age-old tradition with normative force for the world's Catholics. It may as well be described as a passing, personal, political, foible. That is what I mean by the loss of the Papacy's prestige.
But wait! some will say: Aren't you going to see if the statement really is in contradiction with the immemorial teaching of the Church? No, that is neither necessary nor possible. Allow me to explain. Here is the money-quote of the new statement:
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”
The previous version of the Catechism told us:
the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty. Since the new wording is not a simple grammatical contradiction of the old wording (as 'the traditional teaching of the Church excludes recourse to the death penalty' would be), then those so inclined may seek to interpret the new statement in some way which is not strictly incompatible with the old. So we have people saying things like this: what the new wording means is that in modern conditions the death penalty can never be used, and not that it is, like murder, per se malum ('evil in itself').
This is not the natural reading of the text, but one might argue that since it is purporting to represent the teaching of the Church we must read it if humanly possible in accord with previous authoritative statements of that teaching. On the other hand, bishops and theologians supposedly friendly to Pope Francis are loudly saying that the natural reading is the correct one: what modern conditions reveal is simply that the death penalty is never licit, never morally possible, because it contradicts human dignity.
We've been here before, have we not? This is the well-worn strategy of Amoris laetitia, and indeed of a lot of things since the Second Vatican Council. Flat contradictions with previous statements are avoided in official documents, but trumpeted by theologians and applied in practice by bishops, who are seldom corrected. This is no accidental ambiguity: it is a design feature. In this case the mouse-hole of ambiguity conservative Catholics need to crawl through to maintain the continuity between the two editions of the Catechism is humiliatingly small. When they have crawled through it, moreover, they will be ignored.
The argument about whether the new statement can be read in continuity with the old is, therefore, not something which can be settled: the ambiguity is inherent to the statement. What is clear is that this statement has been given the form of an official teaching of the Church, rather than just a prudential judgment, and that the purpose and effect of its promulgation is the undermining of belief in the binding and irreformable teaching of the Church that the death penalty is licit in some circumstances.
It is not necessary to settle the question of the precise meaning of the new statement, because whether it is read in a natural way or as being ambiguous makes no difference: in either case, Catholics must accept the constant teaching of the Church, the teaching well expressed in many documents of the Church over the centuries, not very well expressed in the old Catechism wording, and not expressed at all in the new wording.
In the meantime, as I have said, it is the prestige of the Papacy which is undermined. Whereas papal statements once had weight even outside the Church because they visibly expressed an ancient tradition, and could remind us all of truths which modernity was eager to forget, this is clearly no longer necessarily the case. Once we have digested this statement, there is nothing which the Pope will not be able to say to overturn other teachings, a corollary which those who reject other teachings of the Church have already pointed out. If the Papacy's prestige is totally destroyed, of course, it will not even be necessary for a pope to contradict statements made by his predecessors, because those statements will already have lost their force.
So that's fine and dandy, isn't it? If the power of the teaching of the Church is undermined, those things which that teaching have, however feebly, been holding back, such as theft, say, will be left unrestrained. It hardly matters that future liberal popes will not be taken very seriously when they say that theft is licit in certain subjective circumstances, if the old statements saying that it is never licit have themselves lost their power. If, as I have pointed out, liberalism is above all a negative, destructive, doctrine, then this is a win for liberalism. The things liberalism wants to destroy will be effectively undermined, and the positive, constructive project of conservatism will be crippled.
I think a lot of political strategy works by a kind of instinct, by habits of mind and associations of ideas. So I don't think this is necessarily the conscious plan of Pope Francis or anyone around him. What is clear is that he is not worried by the issue of visible continuity of teaching in the way almost all of his predecessors were. He's not worried about it because he's not worried about the consequences of obscuring this continuity, consequences those predecessors regarded as disastrous. He regards those consequences either as indifferent or positive.
This way of looking at things makes it harder for me to respond to the sincere and bewildered question: does all this mean that the Pope is a heretic, or even that his has lost his office? It is harder because I am not attributing to him clear-cut heretical intentions or indeed statements. But two things are clear. The first is that we have to continue to believe the teaching of the Church as authoritatively expressed down the ages. The second is that we have to continue to regard Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope for practical purposes unless and until some consensus or assembly of those with hierarchical authority in the Church declares that he has in some way 'deposed himself', in accordance with various theological theories on the subject. And no, that hasn't happened and is extremely unlikely to happen.
The confusion of this papacy cannot be wished away. Our task is to hold fast to the truth.
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