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September 10, 2021 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

Q. I want to know if Pope Francis’ statement that the death penalty is against the Gospel can be considered just his opinion since he did not declare it infallibly from the Chair of Peter. — D.B., North Carolina.
A. What Pope Francis did was to change paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which originally said that the death penalty was permissible “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” but added that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent’” (citing Pope John Paul’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, n. 56).
In revising that paragraph, Pope Francis said that “recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.”
But now, he said, because of “an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes,” and because “more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption…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 last part of that statement comes from Fratelli Tutti, the Holy Father’s October 3, 2020 encyclical. He also said in that document that “all Christians and people of good will are today called to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal, in all its forms, but also to work for the improvement of prison conditions out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their freedom. I would link this to life imprisonment. . . . A life sentence is a secret death penalty.”
In a letter to the bishops of the world, Luis Cardinal Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that the change in the Catechism “expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the magisterium,” including those of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Ladaria said that the revision takes into account “the new understanding of penal sanctions applied by the modern state” and desires to “favor a mentality that recognizes the dignity of every human life and, in respectful dialogue with civil authorities, to encourage the conditions that allow for the elimination of the death penalty where it is still in effect.”
To answer your question, this change was not proclaimed infallibly as part of the extraordinary Magisterium of the Church. But it was not merely the Pope’s opinion, either. It was rather an authoritative statement of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church. The response of the faithful to such a non-infallible statement requires “a religious assent of soul,” according to Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium). The document went on to say:
“This religious submission of will and of mind must be shown in a special way to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra [infallibly]. That is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme Magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known chiefly either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking” (n. 25).
This was further explained in the Catechism (n. 892).
“Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the Apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter and, in a particular way, to the Bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a ‘definitive manner,’ they propose in the exercise of the ordinary magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals.”

Q. At a recent audience, Pope Francis said that he does not observe the Ten Commandments as “absolutes.” Can you explain what the Holy Father meant? — F.A., via e-mail.
A. Talking about St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, Pope Francis said that “the Commandments exist, but they do not justify us. What justifies us is Jesus Christ. . . . And what do we do with the Commandments? We must observe them, but as an aid to the encounter with Jesus Christ.” He said that “it will do us good to ask ourselves if we are still living in the period in which we need the Law, or if instead we are aware that we have received the grace of having become children of God so as to live in love. How do I live? In fear that if I do not do this I will go to Hell? Or do I also live with hope, with that joy of the gratuitousness of salvation in Jesus Christ?. . . Do I disregard the Commandments? No, I observe them, but not as absolutes because I know that what justifies me is Jesus Christ.”
Trying to explain the meaning of a statement by Pope Francis is not always easy, as we have learned over the years of his pontificate. He is correct that, in the words of the Catechism (n. 1992), we are justified “by the Passion of Christ who offered himself on the cross as a living victim, holy and pleasing to God, and whose blood has become the instrument of atonement for the sins of all men.”
But the Catechism (n. 1989) also says that conversion from sin comes before justification “in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ [Matt 4:17]. Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high.” The Catechism quotes the Council of Trent as having said: “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man.”
Isn’t that saying that, first, we must observe the Commandments before we can be justified by Jesus, who told us that “if you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15)? And who said that He had not come to “abolish the law or the prophets . . . but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter nor the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place” (Matt. 5:17-18)?
Might the Holy Father’s statement that he does not observe the Commandments as absolutes lead people to think that they don’t have to observe them totally either? Is not the prohibition against murder absolute? Or the prohibition against adultery? Isn’t a healthy fear of Hell if we disobey the Commandments a good thing? Sure, it is better to avoid sin out of love for God, rather than fear of Hell. But isn’t fear of the Lord, in the sense of being afraid of turning away from God and losing out on Heaven, one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit?
Don’t you long for the clarity of St. John Paul II? For example, in his 1993 encyclical on The Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Splendor), the late Holy Father said:
“Jesus tells the young man: ‘If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments’ (Matt. 19:17). In this way, a close connection is made between eternal life and obedience to God’s commandments: God’s commandments show man the path of life and they lead to it. From the very lips of Jesus, the new Moses, man is once again given the commandments of the Decalogue. Jesus himself definitively confirms them and proposes them to us as the way and condition of salvation.
“The commandments are linked to a promise. In the Old Covenant, the object of the promise was the possession of the land where the people would be able to live in freedom and in accordance with righteousness (cf. Deut. 6:20-25). In the New Covenant, the object of the promise is the ‘Kingdom of Heaven,’ as Jesus declares at the beginning of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ — a sermon which contains the fullest and most complete formulation of the New Law (cf. Matt. 5-7), clearly linked to the Decalogue entrusted by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. This same reality of the Kingdom is referred to in the expression ‘eternal life,’ which is a participation in the very life of God” (n. 12).

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