Last weekend the Catholic Herald published a letter of mine on the Death Penalty.
Greg Whelan (Letters, 14th Sept) claims to be ‘mystified’ by the widespread concern of Pope Francis’ reversal of the teaching of the Church on the subject of the Death Penalty.
He reminds us that the Church has ‘changed its mind’ about the best punishment for various offences. However this is hardly the matter at issue. The crimes he mentions, such as fornication, are still condemned by the Church as grave sins. What Pope Francis appears to be claiming is the discovery of a new grave sin, that of using the death penalty, even when it might be considered most appropriate.
The penal code found in the Old Testament was in force only for a specific group of people for a specific period of time. Other times and circumstances require other legal solutions. It is preserved for us in Scripture, however, because it teaches us about the seriousness of the crimes it condemns and the importance of the search for justice. Among other things, as St Paul reiterates (Rom13:4), it makes clear that the Death Penalty can rightly be used.
Perhaps we live in such a blessed age that it is no longer necessary. If so, we should be glad, but not imagine God erred when he included the Death Penalty in the Bible’s judicial system.
It was unfortunate timing that the letter of concerned academics and pastors to Cardinals setting out their grave concerns about Pope Francis' claims on the Death Penalty was immediately overshadowed by the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, which has been followed by an unending stream of scandal. It remains important, because it represents the most open example yet of an attempt to reverse a teaching of the Church established in Scriptures, the consensus of the Fathers, and the Ordinary Magisterium.
Of course, like Steven Long one can take the view that the Pope doesn't mean to change the teaching at all, but has simply expressed himself very badly. But the letter to which I was responding in the Catholic Herald was taking the more usual view, that he was. If Pope Francis wanted to affirm Pope John Paul II's view that the Death Penalty was unnecessary and best not used in the circumstances of today, he's gone about it in a very strange way.
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