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The Revised Catechism Section 2267 . . . What The Latin Text Actually Says

January 3, 2019 Frontpage No Comments

By FR. GEORGE WELZBACHER

(Editor’s Note: Fr. George Welzbacher taught Ancient Mediterranean History for 21 years at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. This article first appeared in The Catholic Servant, December 2018, and is reprinted here with the kind permission of its publisher, John Sondag.)

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This past August at Pope Francis’ command section 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was officially revised. This is the section that deals with capital punishment. On August 2, 2018, the Holy See’s Press Office announced that the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Luis Cardinal Ladaria, SJ, had issued a Rescriptum from an audience of the Most Holy Father introducing the revision of section 2267. The text of the Rescriptum was published the next day in L’Osservatore Romano in Italian, while the text’s formulation both in Latin and in other major modern European languages was concurrently released.
The English translation, like its French and German counterparts, lends itself unfortunately with extraordinary ease to misinterpretation, to the inference that the Church, with this revision, has repudiated a basic moral teaching that she had vigorously defended for the past two thousand years, a teaching, moreover, deeply rooted in Scripture, to the effect that the state’s authority to impose the penalty of death for particularly vicious crimes is sound.
The New Testament affirms this judgment implicitly in Acts 5:11 and 25:11, together with John 19:10-11, and emphatically in Romans 13:1-4 with St. Paul’s warning that, for the punishment of the wicked and the defense of the just, the state wields the sword. Nor can one shrug away the fact that, from Genesis to the Books of Maccabees, the Old Testament is replete with endorsements of punishment by death.
Therefore, if the inference plausibly drawn from the wording of these modern language renderings is correct, one is faced with a contradiction, an incompatibility between the revisionist assertion that capital punishment “is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and the Church’s age-old acceptance of the penalty as just.
Fortunately a close examination of the pre-eminent Latin text shows that it does not support such rejection of the past. The critically important sentence in section 2267’s new wording reads as follows, given here first in the Latin formulation and then in its English rendering:
Ecclesia . . . docet “poenam capitalem non posse admitti quippe quae repugnet inviolabili humanae dignitati.”
The Church . . . teaches that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
Those, sadly a dwindling number, who can still command a bit of Latin will no doubt take note of two important divergences from the Latin in the proffered English translation. A third, though comparatively minor, divergence appears in the translation of “quippe quae” as “because.” The more accurate translation would be “to the extent that” or “inasmuch as.”
The first of the two major divergences is the gratuitous “upgrading” of the governing verb repugnet (could be an attack upon) from the Latin subjunctive to the English indicative’s “is an attack on.” The second substantive divergence has to do with a lexical impropriety that contributes to the perception that the Latin text is saying what in fact it doesn’t say. All of which calls for comment.
Standing front and center in the first of the two major divergences is the Latin verb repugnet. Repugnet is the third person singular of the present subjunctive active of the verb repugnare: to clash with, to be at war with, to launch an attack upon. In Latin the distinction between the subjunctive repugnet as it appears here and the corresponding indicative form repugnAt is the difference of a single letter, the difference between the subjunctive’s “e” and the indicative’s “a.” But the difference in meaning is huge.
In all the major European languages, ancient and modern, the indicative mode is the form of the verb that expresses established fact, the way things are. The subjunctive, by way of contrast, expresses not what is but what might be, what could be. Its world is the world of aspiration and fear, not that of present actuality. In its deliberate choice of the subjunctive in preference to the indicative what the Latin is accordingly telling us is something quite different from what the English translation conveys. “Could be an attack” is not the same as “Is an attack.”
The subjunctive, while it recognizes that the penalty of death could readily constitute a violation of human dignity, leaves the door open for possible exception, for possibly justifying exception, such as, for example, the incursion of superseding needs of the common good that could conceivably outweigh the individual’s claims.
The indicative, however, makes no such concession. Its assertions are flat-out, “this is the way it is,” categorical. They slam the door in exception’s face.
The point is that the subjunctive, precisely because of its tolerance of exception, accommodates the Church’s traditional teaching.
The Church, after all, looks upon the legitimate use of capital punishment as a punishment restricted to the unusual crime, a crime that strikes at the foundation of the common good. While the subjunctive leaves room for so exceptional a response to so special a crime, and thus does not contradict tradition, the indicative, with its unqualified judgment that capital punishment is always of itself an assault on human dignity, does not make provision for such exception and thus does contradict traditional Church teaching. “Is an attack on” gets it wrong; in its openness to exception repugnet gets it right.
At the center of the second major divergence is a lexical impropriety: the use of an English adjective that paints, so to speak, with a broader brush than does the Latin verb that it purports to translate. The English adjective is inadmissible; the Latin verb is admittere, appearing here in the present passive infinitive form admitti in the phrase non posse admitti (cannot be allowed to take place). Admittere restricts itself to a narrower range of meaning, at least in its normal, idiomatic use, than does inadmissible. Inadmissible is equally at home in judging either the impropriety of an action — Given our treaty obligations, so radical a change of policy is inadmissible — or the impropriety of a comment on the enduring nature of a thing — that the human fetus is nothing more than a clump of tissue is, from the point of view of science, inadmissible.
Inadmissible has, if you will, dual citizenship. It can speak either to nature or to use. Admittere, by way of contrast, confines itself to giving the “go ahead” for a course of action. Admittere does not in its usual denotation offer comment on the nature of a thing. Its focus is not nature but use. Admittere contents itself with giving a “Thumbs up!” or, with a negative modifier, a “Thumbs down!” to a specified procedure.
The older Lewis and Short and the new Oxford Latin Dictionary provide abundant illustration.
The problem is that where Section 2267’s new Latin wording states that capital punishment’s use is henceforth forbidden — non posse admitti (“it can no longer be allowed”) — the English translation’s “…capital punishment is inadmissible” suggests to an English-speaker’s ear that inadmissible’s other domain of meaning is in play here, with the consequent misperception that the Latin text is issuing a judgment on the nature, rather than just on the use, of capital punishment.
Accordingly, the English­speaking reader who has little or no Latin will conclude that 2267’s new wording is condemning capital punishment as inherently wrong, as intrinsically a violation of due order. That is not what the Latin says.
What we do not have in 2267’s new Latin wording is a dogmatic assertion that capital punishment is henceforth to be considered intrinsically evil. What we have instead is a prudential judgment with a consequent ruling based on the supposition, as is made clear in the revision’s own words in the paragraph preceding the sentence with which we have been engaged, that, given today’s improved conditions of imprisonment — “His temporibus…rationes efficientioris custodiae” — alternative forms of punishment, judged now to be sufficient to provide society with due protection, are henceforth exclusively to be employed. The use of capital punishment is now forbidden — non posse admitti — to all who heed the papal voice.
Even that, of course, is a major step beyond previously prevailing jurisprudence, and as the fruit of a prudential judgment shaped by the particular circumstances of a particular time and place — and frankly of questionable validity with respect to the conditions of imprisonment prevailing in many countries even today — it leaves itself open to future challenge.
All of which being said, one may safely conclude that the Latin text of this remarkable revision does not contradict the Church’s traditional teaching. That is what the normative text, the Latin text, carefully considered, tells us.

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