Friday 22nd June 2018

Home » Frontpage » Currently Reading:

Has Capital Punishment Always Been “A Mortal Sin”?

May 31, 2017 Frontpage No Comments

Image result for electric chair

By FR. BRIAN W. HARRISON, OS

In a homily preached at Domus Sanctae Marthae on May 11, Pope Francis made some observations about the ethical status of capital punishment. In this article I wish to explain how his teaching here is seriously at variance with the doctrine of all his Predecessors and two successive universal catechisms, and to consider how faithful Catholics should respond to it.
First, what exactly did the Pope say? The original Italian-language report of the homily can be found here:
http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/it/cotidie/2017/documents/papa-francesco-cotidie_20170511_in-cammino.html
As is usual in the official reportage of these “meditations” given at weekday papal Masses (which are also published in the Vatican’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano), the Pope’s own words are not reproduced in full. Instead, his main points are either cited or paraphrased. The next three paragraphs are an unabridged translation of the relevant part of the Vatican’s report of Pope Francis’ May 11 homily, with italicization added in order to bring out the content that needs emphasis here.
The paragraph divisions are those found in the original report, and the words in single quotation marks are those it cites as being those of the Holy Father himself:
“[The historical development of doctrine], the Pope explained, enables us ‘to understand more deeply the person of Jesus, to deepen our faith’, thanks to ‘the Holy Spirit whom Jesus has left with us’. He added that this also enables us ‘to understand morality, the commandments’. In fact, he pointed out, ‘something that formerly seemed normal, and not sinful’ is today considered a ‘mortal sin’: in reality ‘it was a sin, but that historical period did not allow it to be perceived as such’.
“For a better understanding of this concept, Francis gave some examples, beginning with slavery: ‘When we went to school’, he recalled, ‘they told us what people used to do to slaves: they were transported from one place and sold in another; in Latin America they were bought, they were sold’. That is considered ‘mortally sinful’ today, but it wasn’t back then. ‘Indeed, some used to say that it was legitimate to do such things, because those people didn’t have souls!’ Obviously, ‘it was necessary to go forward in order to understand the faith better, to understand morality better’. It’s not that today there are no more slaves: ‘There are more than ever, but at least we know that it is mortally sinful’.
“The same process has taken place in regard to ‘the death penalty, which in former times was something normal. And today we say that it is inadmissible’. Or again, think of the ‘wars of religion’: today, said the Pontiff, ‘we know that this is not only mortally sinful, it is truly sacrilegious, a form of idolatry’.”
A clear message emerges from the above three paragraphs: Pope Francis is teaching that some practices formerly accepted by Christians as morally legitimate — and he gives as examples slavery, capital punishment and “wars of religion” — are now, thanks to the Holy Spirit’s ongoing influence in the Church, recognized as having been in reality (i.e., objectively) sinful, and indeed, mortally sinful.
I would respectfully suggest that bracketing slavery and ‘wars of religion’ together with the death penalty in this context with is theologically and historically superficial and misleading. However, in this brief article I will not attempt to explain why I see no relevant parallel between what Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium have said about the first two issues and what they have said about capital punishment. I will confine my observations to this last issue.
The fact that the present Holy Father has expressed strong disapproval of the death penalty is not in itself surprising. For in his address to the U.S. Congress in September 2015 he called for its abolition, and several months later, in article 86 of his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, he asserted, “The Church . . . firmly rejects the death penalty”. However, these brief assertions are not altogether clear in their implications. They are compatible with the view that the Church does not exclude capital punishment in principle, but that under modern circumstances — that is, taking into account recent social and cultural developments, advances in criminology, law enforcement, rehabilitation, the need for a clearer witness against today’s ‘culture of death’, etc. — she holds that this extreme penalty is now rarely if ever justifiable, and so should be legally abolished.
Now, that kind of teaching would be a contemporary prudential judgment that remains in harmony with traditional Catholic doctrine. It would be essentially identical to Pope St. John Paul II’s judgment in his 1995 Encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the relevant article of which (no. 56) is cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2267).
And as then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger pointed out in a 2004 letter to the U.S. Bishops, respectful disagreement with the current Pope’s prudential judgments regarding such questions as when the death penalty should be applied, and the justice of a given war, can be legitimate for faithful Catholics. Such disagreement, said the then-Prefect of the Vatican’s doctrinal Congregation, does not exclude one from the sacraments and should not be placed on a par with dissent from truly doctrinal teachings such as the intrinsic immorality of direct abortion and euthanasia.
However, in bluntly calling the death penalty “inadmissible” without linking this judgment to modern circumstances, and above all by teaching that capital punishment has always been objectively mortally sinful, but that former historical conditions prevented Christians from recognizing this (“in realtà ‘era peccato, ma il momento storico non permetteva che lo percepisse come tale’”), Pope Francis is audaciously taking a step — or rather, a giant leap! — further than any of his Predecessors.
What he says amounts to a brand-new doctrinal judgment to the effect that capital punishment is intrinsically and gravely evil. That is, the Holy Father is contradicting Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter by putting the judicial killing of those guilty of grave crimes and the killing of the innocent on the same ethical level — the level of mortal sin. However, as we shall see, it is not merely the Prefect of a Vatican dicastery who is being contradicted by the present Pontiff.
Francis claims that his novel doctrine against capital punishment has now emerged through the Holy Spirit’s assistance to the Church as she gradually “deepens” her understanding of morality and the Commandments. But the orthodox understanding of doctrinal development under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, as expounded by great theologians such as Blessed John Henry Newman, is that any new theological thesis that contradicts previous Church teaching, rather than explaining it more fully, is a corruption, not a true development, of Catholic doctrine. And unfortunately, a contradiction of the previous firm and constant teaching of the universal and ordinary Magisterium is what we see here.
Consider, for instance, the Church’s response to the mediaeval Waldensians, a pacifist sect with heretical ideas about the sacraments and certain other Catholic doctrines. They taught precisely what Pope Francis is now teaching, namely, that the death penalty is “mortal sin”; and Pope Innocent III condemned this error in 1210 by adding the following declaration to a 1208 profession of faith to be made by the said sectarians as a condition for being received back into the Church:
“Regarding the secular power, we assert that it may without mortal sin exercise the death penalty, provided this is imposed through justice, not hatred, and proceeds after due consultation, not incautiously.” (De potestate saeculari asserimus, quod sine peccato mortali potest iudicium sanguinis exercere, dummodo ad inferendam vindictam non odio, sed iudicio, non incaute, sed consulte procedat. DS 795 = Dz 425, emphasis added.)
Thus, we are now faced with the troubling spectacle of a Successor of Peter whose doctrine, in the eyes of many of his own Predecessors, would not have even allowed him admission to the Catholic Church, let alone the Throne of Peter! Indeed, this novel teaching implies that the Church founded by Christ, and endowed with the promise of His Spirit to guide her into all truth and to bind and loose in Heaven what she binds and looses on earth, actually received less enlightenment from the Holy Spirit in the 13th century than a small heretical sect.
For if Pope Francis is right, she not only censured its members for telling the truth about a grave matter regarding criminal justice, but required them to formally profess a false doctrine — to approve a mortally sinful practice — as a condition for membership in the Christ’s Church! Would not such a shocking scenario assail the credibility of the Catholic Church’s fundamental claim to be the unique authentic herald and interpreter on earth of the Gospel and Law of Christ? Isn’t the Holy Father, therefore, now undermining his own magisterial credibility — sawing off the branch on which he sits?
After several more centuries of unanimous and unwavering endorsement of capital punishment by Popes and bishops, their supposedly false doctrine was enshrined in the Roman Catechism (of the Council of Trent), which for four more centuries became the gold standard for the sound doctrinal formation of Catholics round the world until it was replaced by the post-Vatican II CCC. (This too, as we have seen, upholds the traditional doctrine on capital punishment.) In expounding the Fifth Commandment the Roman Catechism asserts that, in justly executing criminals, “[magistrates] are not only not guilty of murder, but eminently obey this law which prohibits murder,” for they are thereby “giving security to life by punishing and thus repressing audacity and outrage” (Part II, Ch. VI, Q. 4).
Pope Francis, in his recent homily, also implies (unwittingly, please God) that Sacred Scripture is in error — and in passages endorsing the death penalty that are certainly recorded “for the sake of our salvation” (cf. Genesis 9:5-6; Romans 13:3-4, and Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 11). Indeed, what could be more quintessentially relevant to our salvation than whether a certain kind of act is or is not mortally sinful? Thus, even those modern biblical critics who claim (mistakenly) that according to Vatican II all biblical affirmations can be grouped into two subsets, salvifically relevant and salvifically irrelevant, and that only the former subset is guaranteed to be free from error, would have to admit that Francis is implicitly contradicting Vatican II’s teaching on the truth of Scripture.
The error about capital punishment expressed by the Holy Father on May 11 seems to me even more serious than that expressed in the notorious homilies preached by Pope John XXII in the 1330s, affirming that after death the saints must wait until the Day of Judgment to enjoy the beatific vision. For these homilies were preached before the Magisterium of Peter’s See had clearly intervened to clarify and settle this question. The open opposition and criticism that Pope John aroused among orthodox theologians, leading him to retract his error shortly before he died, was based rather on the strong (though not unanimous) consensus of the great Fathers and Doctors, who had long interpreted Scripture as teaching that the souls of the saints in Heaven are already enjoying the direct vision of God. Moreover, a mistake about the post-mortem condition of saints at least does not unleash or encourage any unjust suffering here on earth.
But if the present Pope is right about capital punishment, the true Church of Christ, for almost two millennia, has been calamitously responsible for blessing and fostering with her constant and authoritative magisterial teaching the unjust shedding of the blood of hundreds of thousands of men and women.
We must surely believe that the Holy Spirit could never allow that to happen. On the contrary, Pope Francis, in branding capital punishment as such “mortally sinful” and “inadmissible,” is mistakenly reviving a doctrinal thesis already explicitly rejected by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of all his Predecessors and Catholic bishops, as well as by approved theologians and catechisms.
At least this deplorable error was made in an intervention of very low magisterial weight. Indeed, the Vatican website doesn’t even grant the Pope’s remarks at his semi-private weekday Masses the status of “Homilies”. They are accessed separately from the latter through a button further down the home page entitled “Daily Meditations”. This particular erroneous “meditation” must be resisted and corrected, just as the aforesaid 14th-century theologians resisted and corrected Pope John XXII.

Share Button

2017 The Wanderer Printing Co.

Vikings host ‘LGBTQ summit’ to promote ‘inclusion’ in sports

EAGAN, Minnesota, June 21, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – The Minnesota Vikings are hosting a conference and fundraiser today for “LGBTQ inclusion in sports,” the first of its kind in the National Football League (NFL). The event will include speeches, interviews, and…Continue Reading

Catholic bishops are quick to attack Trump but slow to advise their voters

(RNS) — President Trump had no sooner returned home from his historic photo op with Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in Singapore when he faced condemnation from a host of religious leaders, from Southern Baptists to African Methodists to Catholics,…Continue Reading

Bishop: Deny Communion to Border Agents. It’s a ‘Life Issue.’

Is enforcing U.S. immigration law a moral evil that demands excommunication? Or would a new proposal politicize the Eucharist, strengthen organized crime, and hurt even more migrant children? Roman Catholics must face these questions after Bishop Edward Weisburger of Tucson suggested “canonical…Continue Reading

Argentina steps closer to legalising abortion

Catholic Argentina’s lower house has backed a bill legalising abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy. After a divisive debate lasting more than 22 hours, 129 members of the Chamber of Deputies voted in favour and 125 against while…Continue Reading

Pope Francis rejects German proposal for inter-communion

Vatican City, Jun 4, 2018 / 06:37 am (CNA/EWTN News).- One month after Vatican and German delegates met in Rome to discuss a proposal put forward by German bishops to allow Protestant spouses in inter-denominational marriages to receive the Eucharist…Continue Reading

St. Paul archdiocese settlement is largest-ever in Catholic bankruptcy case

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has agreed to a $210 million settlement with 450 victims of clergy sexual abuse as part of its plan for bankruptcy reorganization, making it the second-largest U.S. payout…Continue Reading

Church’s teaching on male-only priesthood is ‘infallible’: Vatican doctrine chief

ROME, May 29, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) — The head of the Vatican office overseeing Church doctrine has insisted that the Church’s teaching on the male-only priesthood is “infallible,” and has offered a veiled rebuke of a prominent Cardinal who recently claimed the…Continue Reading

The revolt against Humanae Vitae continues to haunt us today

ROME, May 25, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) — As in 2017, 2018 is also a year that is rich with important and significant anniversaries which we need to remember, because the roots of the present are found in the past. The best known…Continue Reading

Cardinal: Communion cannot be shared with non-Catholics like beer or cake

BUCKFASTLEIGH, England, May 25, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) — Protestants who want to receive Holy Communion should become Catholics, Cardinal Francis Arinze said this week, and added that “it is rather serious” to presume marriage can be dissolved for the purpose of…Continue Reading

Speaker Ryan Proposes a Return to Catholic Social Doctrine at Prayer Breakfast

Washington, D.C. – House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) spoke at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast Thursday about how he believed the answer to many of the political problems society faces today, including “moral relativism” and “tribalism,” can be found in Catholic…Continue Reading

Judge rules ‘transgender’ high-schooler should have been allowed opposite-sex bathroom

NEWPORT NEWS, Virginia, May 24, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – A judge has ruled that a Virginia high school should have allowed a gender-confused former student to use the restrooms designated for the opposite sex. Gavin Grimm is a female Gloucester High School…Continue Reading

One of the most ‘liberal abortion regimes’ if vote passes

Ireland will have one of the most liberal abortion regimes in Europe if Friday’s referendum is passed, the No campaign warned during its final press conference on Wednesday. With the broadcasting ban set to come into force on the eve of the…Continue Reading

Untitled 5 Untitled 2

Attention Readers:

  Welcome to our website. Readers who are familiar with The Wanderer know we have been providing Catholic news and orthodox commentary for 150 years in our weekly print edition.


  Our daily version offers only some of what we publish weekly in print. To take advantage of everything The Wanderer publishes, we encourage you to su
bscribe to our flagship weekly print edition, which is mailed every Friday or, if you want to view it in its entirety online, you can subscribe to the E-edition, which is a replica of the print edition.
 
  Our daily edition includes: a selection of material from recent issues of our print edition, news stories updated daily from renowned news sources, access to archives from The Wanderer from the past 10 years, available at a minimum charge (this will be expanded as time goes on). Also: regularly updated features where we go back in time and highlight various columns and news items covered in The Wanderer over the past 150 years. And: a comments section in which your remarks are encouraged, both good and bad, including suggestions.
 
  We encourage you to become a daily visitor to our site. If you appreciate our site, tell your friends. As Catholics we must band together to rediscover our faith and share it with the world if we are to effectively counter a society whose moral culture seems to have no boundaries and a government whose rapidly extending reach threatens to extinguish the rights of people of faith to practice their religion (witness the HHS mandate). Now more than ever, vehicles like The Wanderer are needed for clarification and guidance on the issues of the day.

Catholic, conservative, orthodox, and loyal to the Magisterium have been this journal’s hallmarks for five generations. God willing, our message will continue well into this century and beyond.

Joseph Matt
President, The Wanderer Printing Co.

Untitled 1

Interview With Cardinal Burke . . . Discriminating Mercy: Defending Christ And His Church With True Love

Cburke3

  By DON FIER (Editor’s Note: His Eminence Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, Patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta and Founder of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wis., graciously took time out of his busy schedule to grant The Wanderer a wide-ranging interview during a recent visit to the Shrine. Included among the topics…Continue Reading

Developing Lives Of Peace After The Heart Of Mary

By RAYMOND LEO CARDINAL BURKE (Editor’s Note: His Eminence Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke delivered the address below at the 32nd Annual Church Teaches Forum, “The Message of Fatima: Peace for the World,” Galt House, Louisville, Ky., July 22, 2017. The address is reprinted here with the kind permission of Cardinal Burke. All rights reserved. This is part one of the…Continue Reading

Catechism

Today . . .

Cardinal Burke responds to Francis: We hand-delivered dubia letter to Pope’s residence

ROME, June 21, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Speaking with Reuters in an interview which appeared yesterday, Pope Francis criticized Cardinal Raymond Burke and three other cardinals who joined him in begging the Pope for clarification on key issues of faith. The cardinals used the long-standing ecclesial practice of issuing dubia, or questions to the Pope. There were five such questions altogether. But, according to Reuters the Pope said that “he had heard about the cardinals’ letter criticizing him…Continue Reading

GOOD NEWS . . .Fr. Phillips Exonerated

We have confirmation that after several weeks the Congregation of the Resurrection has indeed concluded its hearings and investigation of the accusations directed against Father Phillips. An independent Review Board of three public-spirited leaders from the Chicago area, who are not members of St. John Cantius Church, was constituted. Thereafter, the Review Board interviewed the detractors and several witnesses, persons who personally know the accusers, and other individuals who

Cardinal Brandmüller Questions Francis’ Claim Not to Have Received the Dubia Before Publication

Today, on 20 June, Reuters published a new interview with Pope Francis. Although the interview is making headlines because of the Pope’s criticism of President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, it also contains another controversial assertion: the pope surprisingly now claims that he only heard about the Dubia (concerning his document Amoris Laetitia) “from the newspapers” — a claim that Dubia cardinal Walter Brandmüller has now questioned in comments to OnePeterFive. From the text of the interview: The pope also commented on internal criticism of his…Continue Reading

US Cardinal removed after ‘credible’ allegation he abused a minor

NEW YORK, June 20, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – A high-profile liberal U.S. cardinal has been removed from public ministry for credible and substantiated allegations of abuse of a minor. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, a former priest of the Archdiocese of New York and cardinal emeritus of Washington D.C., “is no longer to exercise publicly his priestly ministry,” says a news release from New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan. “The review board found the allegations credible and substantiated,” Dolan’s statement said. “The Vatican…Continue Reading

Trump Admin Withdraws U.S. From UN Human Rights Council That Pushed Global Right to Abortion

The Trump Administration announced today that the United States is withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Council. That’s good news for pro-life advocates as the so-called human rights organization pushed for a global right to kill unborn children in abortions. According to news reports: The Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the United Nations Human Rights Council, with U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley calling the 47-member council “a protector of human rights abusers, an

Advertisement(2)

But What Happened To The News Coverage? . . . Pope Says Homosexual Couples Are Not A Family

By BILL DONOHUE (Editor’s Note: Catholic League President Bill Donohue on June 18 commented on remarks by Pope Francis that have been censored by the media.) + + + Pope Francis says gay couples cannot be considered a family. The media know he said this but, with few exceptions, they refused to run this story.…Continue Reading

Holy Bashfulness Vs. Shame By ALICE von HILDEBRAND

My dear young friend, Years ago, Cardinal O’Boyle was discussing some sexual matters with a group of men; all of a sudden the cardinal noticed that a young girl had joined the group, and interrupting his talk, he said to her: “Please excuse me.” But he was immediately rudely rebuked by one of the men…Continue Reading

On The Role Of Beauty In The Spiritual Life

By JAMES MONTI In recent years, thanks largely to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, the role of beauty in the sacred liturgy — and the appalling chasm created by its absence — has been a topic of frequent discussion among those concerned with a restoration of the sacred in divine worship — the beauty of the…Continue Reading

Civil Court… Rules Fulton Sheen’s Remains Can Go To Peoria

NEW YORK (CNA/EWTN News) — The Superior Court of New York ruled June 8 in favor of Joan Sheen Cunningham, who had petitioned to move the body of her uncle, Venerable Fulton Sheen, to the Cathedral of St. Mary in Peoria. The body of the late archbishop is currently in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New…Continue Reading

Lindsey Graham’s Unjustifiable Call for War

By TERENCE P. JEFFREY (Editor’s Note: Terence P. Jeffrey is the editor in chief of CNSnews.com. Creators Syndicate distributed this column.) + + + Question: Has North Korea reinvaded South Korea since it signed an armistice 65 years ago suspending the Korean War? Answer: No. Question: Why? Answer: It has been deterred. Question: Would it…Continue Reading

Advertisement

Our Catholic Faith (Section B of print edition)

Catholic Replies

Q. Following up on a recent question about a divorced and remarried non-Catholic adult who converts to the Catholic Church, you said that the conversion would not change the status of the person, that he would still be married to his previous spouse and could not marry again without a decree of nullity or the death of the first spouse.…Continue Reading

None Dare Call It Treason

By DEACON JAMES TONER (Editor’s Note: Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of…Continue Reading

The Glorious St. John The Baptist

By FR. ROBERT ALTIER Solemnity Of The Nativity Of St. John The Baptist (YR B) Readings Isaiah 49:1-6 Acts 13:22-26 Luke 1:57-66, 80 Today we celebrate the birth of a man who is important to us in a variety of ways. St. John the Baptist is, according to our Lord’s own words, the greatest man born of woman. For this…Continue Reading

A Leaven In The World… Will Marriages Outside A Church Keep Couples In The Church?

By FR. KEVIN M. CUSICK The Church makes exceptions to its own rules; this is well known. There are God’s rules, such as the Commandments, exceptions to which cannot be granted by man. And then there are the regulations promulgated by the Church, using the authority given her by the Lord, in order to better facilitate the pastoral work of…Continue Reading

The Sacraments Instituted By Christ . . . Understanding Confession More Deeply

By RAYMOND DE SOUZA, KM Part 33 When Jesus gave the apostles the power to bind and unbind things here on Earth (Matt. 18:18), He gave them authority over His flock. Hence, from the very first century, Popes and bishops passed laws to be observed by the people. Consequently, considering the seriousness of sin, and the risk many take for…Continue Reading

Catholic Heroes… St. Joseph Cafasso

By CAROLE BRESLIN Truman Capote wrote: “Love is a chain of love as nature is a chain of life.” More important, grace is a chain of grace with one grace leading to another. And holiness a chain of holiness as God pours His love through one person to another, as the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mediatrix of all graces, pours…Continue Reading

Catholic Heroes… St. Joseph The Hymnographer

By CAROLE BRESLIN In the late sixth and early seventh century, the glories of Gregorian chant began to develop in Rome. Then, in the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote beautiful hymns to celebrate Corpus Christi and to honor the Real Presence. In the Eastern Church, around Constantinople, they also sang hymns, but it was not until the late ninth…Continue Reading