Speaking in Rome on October 11th, 2017 (55th anniversary of the opening of Vatican Council II), at a conference promoting the ‘New Evangelization’, Pope Francis made known his will for the Catechism of the Catholic Church to be revised so as to condemn capital punishment as absolutely immoral in principle. He declared the death penalty to be “in itself contrary to the Gospel” (“in sé stessa contraria al Vangelo”).
In an effort to reassure Catholics of the orthodoxy of such a dramatic about face from two millennia of biblical, magisterial and approved catechetical teaching, the Pope added:
“Here we are not in the presence of any kind of contradiction with the teaching of the past, because the defense of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception until natural death has always found its coherent and authoritative voice in the teaching of the Church. The harmonious development of doctrine, however, requires us to cease defending arguments which now appear decisively contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth”.
With all due respect, this is a jawdropping travesty of logic. The Holy Father doesn’t seem to comprehend the law of non-contradiction, the first principle of all rational thought, and, therefore, an essential foundation of the very possibility of a rationally credible body of revealed truth. In a seemingly calm, routine, business-as-usual discourse to Roman prelates and scholars, Christ’s own Vicar on earth has effectively laid the axe to the root of coherent Christian belief.
If the above comments seem too presumptuous or severe, dear reader, please bear with me for a few moments to consider just what is at stake here.
The Church, in line with Sacred Scripture, has always taught firmly, clearly, and consistently that capital punishment is, under certain circumstances, morally acceptable (even though John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae issued a prudential judgment restricting those circumstances very drastically under modern circumstances). Pope Innocent III even excluded from communion with the Catholic Church certain medieval sectarians who, like Pope Francis, believed and taught that it is never morally acceptable (cf. DS 795 = Dz 425). For further discussion, see my recently published article on this subject here.
Now, I suspect any eighth-grade child of average intelligence will be able to see that this Proposition (P), “Capital punishment is always contrary to the Gospel”, contradicts Proposition P1, “Capital punishment is not always contrary to the Gospel”. Yet Francis denies the reality of this clear doctrinal contradiction. He asserts that P, which he now wants to impose on the universal Church as a new and supposedly harmonious doctrinal “development”, is not “in contradiction with the teaching of the past” (i.e., with P1, which he knows has been unanimously taught by all his predecessors in Peter’s See). And he attempts to justify this assertion by pointing out the irrelevant fact that P is in harmony with a quite different and much broader doctrinal proposition which the Church has always taught, namely, P3: “The dignity of human life from the first moment of conception until natural death is always to be defended.”
This amounts to a syllogism of the following nonsensical form:
Major: Doctrine X is true;
Minor: Doctrine X is in harmony with Doctrine Y;
Conclusion: Therefore Doctrine X is in harmony with Doctrine non-X.
A moment’s further consideration of this sophism reveals that the Pope’s appeal to P3 above is not only logically irrelevant, but begs the very question at issue, namely, Does the (undoubted) dignity of all human life from conception onwards imply that it is always immoral for the State to impose the death penalty? And how ironic it is that this question is already answered in the negative by the most authoritative source possible, divine revelation! For while Pope Francis asserts baldly (without argument) that human dignity implies the immorality of capital punishment, God tells us in the first book of the Bible the exact opposite, namely, that it is precisely because of human dignity that capital punishment is legitimate: “If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has man been made” (Genesis 9: 5-6, emphasis added). For a full philosophical, theological and criminological discussion of this issue, see the excellent new 420-page book by Professors Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: a Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017).
What further implications are there for other Catholic doctrines in the transparently fallacious argument used by the Holy Father to condemn capital punishment in principle? Several decades ago, in the aftermath of Humanae Vitae, progressivist dissenters were fond of saying sardonically, “When the Church finally comes round to allowing contraception, the papal document announcing this change will begin with the words, ‘As the Church has always taught, . . . ‘.” They meant this, of course, as a joke.
Alas, it is no longer a joke. In today’s Church, Ridiculous is the new Real. Peter’s Successor is seriously and openly proposing to reverse a rock-solid bimillennial doctrine while simultaneously claiming that it is not in “contradiction with the teaching of the past”. With exactly the same kind of “logic” – papering over the crack between two contrary teachings with a smooth and uncontroversial generality – almost any real contradiction of existing doctrine could be portrayed as a “harmonious development” thereof. If the present Catechism is indeed revised so as to condemn capital punishment unequivocally, then once that precedent is set we might well hear the following kind of argumentation from the Vatican a little further down the road: “As of the first Sunday of Advent, 2020, in accordance with the Apostolic Letter Motu Proprio Homophobia Deplorabilis, those living in same-sex relationships may no longer lawfully be denied sacramental absolution and Holy Communion simply because of that relationship. However, this development, which is the fruit of the Church’s gradually deepening discernment and recognition of the positive values of love and faithfulness that are evident in so many same-sex relationships, is by no means to be seen as a contradiction of past Catholic teaching; for the Church has always clearly recognized that those with same-sex attraction are truly loved by God and enjoy the same human dignity as their heterosexual brothers and sisters”.
Or again: “In accordance with the Apostolic Constitution Sexismi Discriminatorii Denuntiandi, the 2022 edition of the Code of Canon Law will be amended so as to allow women to receive ordination to the diaconate and ministerial priesthood. By no means, however, should this development of doctrine be seen as a contradiction of past Catholic teaching; on the contrary, it is the harmonious flowering and maturation of the Church’s constant traditional teaching, based firmly on Sacred Scripture, that both man and woman are created equally in God’s image and enjoy equal dignity in his sight.”
Will our church leaders now recognize Pope Francis’ spurious “doctrinal development” on capital punishment for the sophistry it is, and have the courage to resist it accordingly? Because if not – that is, if our Catholic bishops, cardinals, scholars, universities, religious orders and establishment Catholic newspapers and websites all nod their heads wisely in grave, sycophantic admiration of the naked emperor’s latest New Clothes – we can have little confidence that in the near future they will resist still more blatant papal sacrifices of Catholic orthodoxy on the altar of ‘enlightened’ modernity.
The Rev. Brian W. Harrison, O.S., M.A., S.T.D., a priest of the Society of the Oblates of Wisdom, is a retired Associate Professor of Theology of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico in Ponce, P.R. In 1997 he gained his doctorate in Systematic Theology, summa cum laude, from the Pontifical Athenæum of the Holy Cross in Rome.
Since 2007 Fr. Harrison has been scholar-in-residence at the Oblates of Wisdom Study Center in St. Louis, Missouri, is well-known as a speaker and writer. He is the author of three books and over 130 articles in Catholic books, magazines and journals in the U.S.A., Australia, Britain, France, Spain and Puerto Rico.