From Edward Feser
Suppose you are a Catholic who thinks the death penalty ought never to be applied in practice under modern circumstances. Fine. You’re within your rights. Whatever one thinks of the arguments for that position, it is certainly orthodox. However, that position is very different from saying that capital punishment is always and intrinsically wrong, wrong per se or of its very nature. That position is not orthodox. It is manifestly contrary to scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the consistent teaching of the popes up until at least Benedict XVI. The evidence for this claim is overwhelming, and I have set it out in many places – for example, in and in co-written with Joe Bessette. Attempts to refute our work have invariably boiled down to ad hominemattacks, red herrings, question-begging assertions, special pleading, straw man fallacies, or other sophistries and time-wasters.
So, every Catholic is obliged to affirm, on pain of heterodoxy, the following sentence, which for ease of reference I will label
The Sentence: “Capital punishment is not always and intrinsically wrong.”
If a Catholic wants to add to this sentence – for example by saying “Capital punishment is not always and intrinsically wrong; however, it is better never to use it, for such-and-such reasons” – then, again, that’s fine. But a Catholic who dissents from the proposition conveyed by The Sentence is guilty of heterodoxy, and a prelate who refuses to affirm The Sentence is guilty of failing to uphold orthodoxy – and of course, it is the job of prelates to uphold orthodoxy.
Curiously, though, with , few contemporary prelates seem willing to affirm it. Many keep silent. Many speak ambiguously, or even say things that seem to contradict The Sentence. The latest example is Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who in declared that in light of Pope Francis’s recent revision to the Catechism, “there now exists no loophole to morally justify capital punishment.” (In response, one wag in Dolan’s Twitter feed “looking forward to the USCCB publishing the CCC in the new loose-leaf edition.” Canon lawyer Edward Peters .) In , the cardinal said that a “consistent” Catholic has to be against both the death penalty and abortion, and that it was “hypocrisy” not to be against both.
All of that certainly makes it sound as if Cardinal Dolan thinks that capital punishment is, like abortion, intrinsically wrong – that to execute even a guiltyhuman being is morally on a par with aborting an innocent human being. And that would contradict the clear and consistent tradition of the Church, which distinguishes between the innocent and the guilty. This (rather obvious) distinction is the reason why the Church has for two millennia seen no inconsistency or hypocrisy at all in opposing abortion while permitting capital punishment, any more than there is any inconsistency or hypocrisy in opposing kidnapping while approving of the arrest and incarceration of the guilty.
However, in the same article, Dolan says:
The decision of Pope Francis was not a change in Church teaching, but a development. No Pope can contradict previous Church teaching. He can modify, clarify, strengthen, reaffirm, and expand. That’s development, not alteration. The Pope is the servant, not the master, of God’s revealed Word as preserved and passed on by His Church.
End quote. Now, as the Dominican theologian Fr. Brian Mullady emphasizes in , a true development of doctrine cannot reverse past doctrine. If you say “All men are mortal and Socrates is a man,” and I come along later and conclude from what you said that Socrates is mortal, that would be a development, clarification, or expansion of your claims – a drawing out from them of their implications. But if instead I said that Socrates is not mortal, I would not be “developing” or “clarifying” or “expanding” your claims at all, but manifestly contradicting them.
Similarly, if Cardinal Dolan were to reject The Sentence, he would not be developing or clarifying or expanding on traditional teaching at all, but manifestly contradicting it. So, if the cardinal really is serious about affirming only developments of past doctrine and never contradictions of it, then he will have to agree that capital punishment – unlike abortion – is not intrinsically immoral, in which case therecan be at least some instances in which it is morally justifiable.
So, Cardinal Dolan’s statements are ambiguous. If he were simply to affirm The Sentence, even with a vigorous “However…” annexed to it, the ambiguity would at once be removed. Strangely, he does not do so.
Discussing the U.S. bishops’ proposed alteration to the language of their catechism for adults so as to bring it into conformity with Pope Francis’s revision, Bishop Robert Barron that there is an “eloquent ambiguity” in the pope’s revision insofar as it “doesn’t use the language of intrinsic evil” but also “uses language like… inadmissible, morally unacceptable, etc.” The U.S. bishops’ alteration, we are told, will also avoid speaking of intrinsic evil. However, it seems that neither Bishop Barron nor the U.S. bishops acting collectively in their proposed alteration will utter The Sentence either.
Why not? After all, they don’t explicitlyreject The Sentence. On the contrary, like Cardinal Dolan, Bishop Barron and the U.S. bishops’ proposed alteration insist on “continuity” with past Catholic teaching, even if they leave it unexplained exactlyhow the new language is continuous with past teaching.
Moreover, the whole point of a catechism is to clarify what the Church teaches, whereas ambiguity (“eloquent” or otherwise) entails a lack of clarity about what the Church teaches. Indeed, the whole point of having bishops, and indeed of having a pope, is for them to clarify to the faithful what the Church teaches, not to be eloquently ambiguous about it. For catechisms and bishops to speak ambiguously rather than clearly is, accordingly, simply for them to be derelict in their duty.
Then there is the fact that, as the bishops well know, many Catholics are concerned that the pope’s revision to the catechism marks an implicit rupture with past teaching, and thus threatens to falsify the Church’s claim to preserve the deposit of faith undiluted. Some are having their faith shaken, or even leaving the Church. All the evasion and double talk is underminingtheir confidence, not reinforcing it. There is an extremely easy way for the bishops to help fortify these doubting Catholics, which it is their sacred duty to do. Here it is: Simply utter The Sentence. They can still go on to add whatever qualifiying “However…” they like and passionately oppose capital punishment in practice.
Nor do they lack the authority to utter The Sentence. Like the pope, they are successors to the Apostles with authority to teach the deposit of faith, and they need no special authorization from the popesimply to reiterate what has always and everywhere been taught. Nor would they be contradicting the pope, since he has not explicitly denied The Sentence himself. So why won’t they do it?
Just say the damn sentence already. Like this: “Capital punishment is not always and intrinsically wrong.” See how easy it is?