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Has Capital Punishment Always Been “A Mortal Sin”?

May 31, 2017 Frontpage No Comments

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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.

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