On the death penalty and the Catechism

In the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus: Providing for Personal Ordinariates for Anglicans Entering into Full Communion with the Catholic Church it says the following:

§5 The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the authoritative expression of the Catholic faith professed by members of the Ordinariate.

So, when on August 2 came news that Pope Francis has changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding capital punishment, I wondered, hmmm, which Catechism must we now believe?   The one we accepted when we came in?  The new one?

I’m half-joking here, as capital punishment is not my hill to die on—in fact, on a personal opinion level I like this change.  However, my personal opinion is not what’s important here, is it?   We’re back now to the debate that has raged over the interpretation of Amoris laetitia on whether the divorced and remarried without annulment can receive Holy Communion.  Underlying that debate is a deeper one over the limits of the development of doctrine, with our beloved Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman being used to defend both limited and expansive interpretations.

Here’s an excerpt from Hannah Brockhaus’ report in the National Catholic Register:

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican Thursday altered the Catechism’s wording on the permissibility of the death penalty, which the Church teaches is legitimate in extreme cases, stating it is “inadmissible,” and its elimination will be sought.

A new draft of paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church was issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith Aug. 2, after Pope Francis approved it in May.

Quoting Pope Francis’ words in a speech of Oct. 11, 2017, the new paragraph states, in part, that “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,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Reasons for modifying the teaching, the paragraph says, include: the increasing effectiveness of detention systems, growing understanding of the unchanging dignity of the person, and leaving open the possibility of conversion.

Here are some of the arguments why this change is not perceived as a good thing over at Catholic World Report, with links to respectable scholars who argue otherwise.

When discussing Church teaching on the death penalty, two questions have to be carefully distinguished. First, is capital punishment legitimate at least in principle, or is it always and intrinsically wrong? Second, even if capital punishment is legitimate in principle, does Catholic teaching allow for it in practice today, and if so, under what conditions? In this article, I will be addressing only the first question. What I will show is that it has been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium of the Church that the death penalty is not intrinsically wrong. Not even a pope can reverse this teaching.

This is a proposition that Joseph Bessette and I defend at length in our book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment. Among our key arguments is the argument from scripture. The Church holds that scripture is divinely inspired and therefore cannot teach error on matters of faith and morals. She also holds that the Fathers of the Church cannot be wrong when they agree about some matter of scriptural interpretation. But as we show in the book, scripture clearly teaches that capital punishment can be legitimate in principle, and the Fathers are agreed that scripture teaches this. It follows that the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is a divinely inspired and thus irreformable teaching.

Some critics of our book resist this conclusion. Catholic theologian E. Christian Brugger has long arguedthat the Church could condemn the death penalty as wrong always and in principle, and defends this position in a response to our book. Catholic theologian Robert Fastiggi also claims that “there is no definitive, infallible teaching of the Church in favor of the legitimacy of capital punishment” and that a condemnation of the practice as “intrinsically evil… is theoretically possible.” Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart argues that, whether or not the death penalty is in principle permitted by natural law, the higher demands of the Gospel nevertheless rule it out absolutely.

As I said earlier, this is not my hill to die on.   But I did come into the Catholic Church accepting that the Truth of Christ is unchanging, that any development of doctrine has to be organic and can’t change the fundamental truths as handed down to the Apostles from their eye-witness accounts of the teachings of Jesus.  In other words, I believe there is objective truth that is not conditioned or changed by history, and that Revelation is not trumped by the latest social science fads or appeals to scientific “research.”  We saw what capitulation to “feminism” did to the Anglican Communion in the destruction of Holy Orders to allow for the “ordination” of women to the priesthood, then later to the episcopacy.

I also believe a Pope’s job is to defend the deposit of faith and to guarantee it.  It is not his job to add novelties or to abrogate the teachings of his predecessors—or else the next pope can abrogate his teachings and we have turned the Church of Christ into a parody of a political entity where one party in power can erase the accomplishments of the previous party and there is no longer any solid rock of Truth handed down from age to age to stand on.

Where I do become concerned is on teachings regarding human identity and sexuality.  Thus, when I read that the term LGBT was put into the working document of the upcoming October synod on youth and vocations, my alarm bells started ringing.  If the end result is a change to the Catechism that implies there are more God-created categories when it comes to sex than male and female, then my assent to that new Catechism will become highly problematic.   It will in effect be the abrogation of natural law, which to me is akin to abrogating the law of gravity.

This article over at The Stream by Jennifer Roback Morse explains why this is of concern:

In its official documents, the Church has distinguished the person, the inclination, and the actions. Homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered, … under no circumstances can they be approved.” Regarding inclination, the Catechism states, “Men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies … do not choose their homosexual condition; for most of them it is a trial.” CCC#2357.

And the person himself or herself? Feelings, and even behaviors, do not define a person. The Church has refrained from using language that suggests otherwise. The Catechism uses “homosexual” as an adjective, not a noun. The word “gay” does not appear in the Catechism. The Church holds that God created us male and female, not “straight” or “gay.”

In contrast to this precision, the politically-correct “LGBT” is a philosophical and scientific mess. The L’s, the “Lesbians,” are at war with the “T’s”, the “Transgenders.” Speaking of “Transgender:” that is blatantly a politicalterm, not a medical or psychological one. The “G” term, “gay,” has no precise and commonly accepted scientific meaning, as I have discussed elsewhere. “Gay” has embedded within it unsupported ontological and scientific claims. Daniel Mattson, a member of the Courage International Catholic apostolate for same sex attracted persons, made these points in his highly acclaimed book called “Why I Don’t Call Myself Gay.”

Given all this, what in the world is “LGBT” doing in a Church document?

Go on over and read the rest.


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