Unraveling a marvelous tapestry?

Once upon a time, I believed all that was necessary for salvation was a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  Knowing that He loved me, died for me, paid the price for my sins was and is Good News.  I knew some things from experience,  and the rest of the Bible, the rest of what any Christian leader had to tell me, I set in reserve until I came to understand, usually the hard way.

Then, I grasped what St. Anselm was getting at when he said, “Credo ut intelligam”  I believe in order that I may understand.  And I realized it was important to believe the  Apostolic faith.  Where could I find it?

Around this time, I also became involved in attending, then serving on the Alpha Course that are designed to give a Mere Christian  introduction to the Christian faith by teaching the essentials, or the “first order” teachings most Christians agree on, and avoiding those “second order” teachings that have resulted in so much division in the Christian world.  So matters such as whether infant Baptism is appropriate were avoided; also discussions of Mary, since I was involved in Protestant Alpha courses.

Then, I started to attend Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a parish of the Traditional Anglican Communion.  I began to learn about sacraments such as Holy Orders and why our original parish members had left the Anglican Church of Canada over the ordination of women.

As my grasp of the Catholic faith grew and grew, I began to see how holistic the Catholic faith is, how connected every part is to the whole, how 2,000 years of pondering the meaning of Scripture and the writings of the doctors of the Church and the saints, have led to a way of looking at all truths in relation to each other and not in isolation.  I came to see the error of such things as forming a new Christian denomination out of one passage of Scripture, because of a failure to take into account the whole of Scripture, or how the Church interpreted it in light of Tradition.

It was then in dawned on me there are no second-order teachings in the Catholic faith.  That, yes, for the purposes of evangelization, you can focus on the big picture items, but such things as Holy Orders, if you start changing the teaching say to include women, teasing the thread loose, thinking you can do so without harming the big picture, you’ll find a lot more starts unraveling, from the Genesis account of God’s creating us male and female, the the Nuptial Mystery of the Mass, to Christ as Bridegroom, and so on and so on.

So, I’m looking at the controversy over Pope Francis’ change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty, and I’m concerned that what might seem to be a sixth or seventh order teaching and an unpopular one at that, is connected to some key threads forming the central picture in the tapestry.

That central picture is of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the Cross at Calvary, that once-and-for-all death we enter into in the holy sacrifice of the Mass.  The threads have to do with judgment and retribution and how our understanding of justice leads to an understanding of God.  These threads also have to do with the relationship of the God of the Old Testament to the God of the New Testament.

If there is no divine judgment, only mercy, why did Jesus have to die?  If we are not all sinners under a death sentence, why did Jesus offer His life to pay the debt for our sin?  And if he was a nice guy who got killed by mean people who misunderstood his message of kindness and mercy, then let’s just start singing John Lennon’s song Imagine.

Does anyone believe in sin or hell or redemption and the need for a Savior anymore?

There has been much debate about the Catechism change online, including this piece by Edward Feser at Catholic World Report and a response by Robert Fastiggi. 

In other words, there are responsible people with theological training who disagree on this matter.   As I have written earlier, on a personal opinion level regarding the death penalty, I could say I agree with the Pope’s decision, but I am mindful of the criticism of those who are knowledgeable about Church history and that gives me pause.

I also found this piece by Michael Brendan Dougherty over at National Review interesting:

He writes:

I agree that the test of one’s obedience to authority is whether you submit when you don’t agree. And if you had asked me point-blank about my opinion on the death penalty when I joined the Church, I would have said I thought it necessarily cruel and unjust, but that I defer to the Church. Gradually I did my homework and came to accept and appreciate how the Church’s thought on this fit with its other propositions. However, I never really thought it a pressing topic. Ideally, I believed, we would raise the standard for imposing the death penalty from “beyond a reasonable doubt” to moral certainty, and reserve it for the worst of the worst: murder, rape, and perhaps treason. However, given the iniquities of our justice system, ambivalence seemed justified, too. Even a civil moratorium had a certain prudential logic to it. The only part of the death-penalty argument I’ve ever taken up is to urge the abolition of lethal injection as an “unusual” punishment, corruptive of medicine.

Read the whole piece.   He comes around to this, in discussing not only Pope Francis’ revision but that of St. Pope John Paul II before him:

The second thing to say about these three different positions is that each revision drains the previous one of more of its supernatural content. The first presumes and has confidence in a living and just Judge that greets human souls after death, one capable of saving any soul He desires to see in heaven no matter what we do with the convict’s life on earth. Whereas the first position offers assertions about God, the last one offers assertions about the current social conditions. “More effective systems of defense have been developed,” it says. As if the only criterion by which the death penalty was judged to be legitimate before was merely about the quality of prisons.

And then, finally, this to ponder:

The fourth thing to say about the new Catechism, and the one that probably explains the level of anger and resistance to this teaching, is the way it smuggles a Whig interpretation of history and morality into a document that is supposed to expound upon the faith once delivered to the saints. “Recourse to the death penalty . . . was long considered an appropriate response,” it asserts. Notice the passive voice and the lack of subject. Are we talking about previous popes and church authorities? Are we talking about the men and women of the Bible? Or just human society in a long epoch before today? Then the next paragraph: “Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” Whose awareness is increased? Are we saying that the world or the Church only recently stumbled on the idea of human dignity? Also, the previous teaching never held that by committing serious crimes, criminals lost all their human dignity. They were still owed justice. It was still impermissible to carry out their sentences in a spirit of vindictiveness and bloodlust. Their salvation was still to be sought. And, in fact, many of the Church’s theologians believed that a criminal’s acceptance of his just punishment conduced to his salvation.

That formulation — “It was long considered to be thus, but now there is an increased awareness of something else” — is a kind of rhetorical acid that must inevitably eat away at the Church’s claims to be an institution trustworthy to teach authoritatively on faith and morals. It is an invitation for any Church teaching that has lost popularity in the Western world to be chucked. And it is a prejudice toward Western norms. None of the theologians who want to see the Church’s doctrine “developed” to say its opposite are thinking of the beliefs that are unpopular in Africa. No one proposes that “It was long considered that marriage should be between one man and one woman, but now there is a fuller understanding that polygamous men have not forfeited their dignity, by adding wives to their household.”

It is hard not to think that the insertion of a Whiggish interpretation of history and morality is actually more important to the people cheering on this change than the endorsement of death-penalty abolitionism itself. The application of this “once upon a time, but now” logic to all the Church’s teachings that offend liberal sensibilities is obvious. That it fatally undermines the Church’s claim to authority on these questions is almost a bonus for them. Not only does this Whig interpretation now have an air of authority, but it is being used to overturn nearly two millennia of the Church’s thought. By doing this, the pope has declared open season on the Church’s moral teaching. Hunt and fire away with new “awareness” that descends from . . . somewhere.

The big concern I see on the change, even by people like me who would happily see the death penalty abolished, is this idea that history, experience, new scientific studies can trump Revelation, and that the Catechism of the Catholic Church becomes a moving target, constantly changing with the times.

What are your thoughts, considering it is the Pope who has mandated this change?

3 thoughts on “Unraveling a marvelous tapestry?

  1. “The fourth thing to say about the new Catechism, and the one that probably explains the level of anger and resistance to this teaching, is the way it smuggles a Whig interpretation of history and morality into a document that is supposed to expound upon the faith once delivered to the saints. ”

    But one could say the same of the old wording. The sentence relating to the circumstances in which the death penalty was an absolute necessity (and thus not excluded) started “Today, in fact,…” – and whilst Mr Dougherty does express concerns about the position of the last three Popes on this rather than just the current one, most of the current debate is around the ‘Today, however’ which has replaced the ‘Today, in fact’. Both are judgements about the current state of society; and as such there is in fact nothing to prevent a future Pope drawing a different conclusion about the state of society, should there be a deterioration back to a state in which the death penalty is again absolutely required. The ‘today’ phrasing is not in fact that uncommon in the Catechism.

    The Catechism does deal with the application of doctrine to our times; so its phrasing about those times necessarily will change if times change. That doesn’t mean the doctrine changes; but the way in which is it realised may need to do so.

    I’m not sure the judgement is actually right on this – I think there may well still be war-torn and impoverished areas of the world in which the civil society, such as it is, is genuinely incapable of protecting society without recourse to the death penalty.

    The debate on this is mainly – indeed almost entirely – focused in the USA, though, and that is not, and hasn’t been for a long time, a marginal and uncivilised country where the death penalty could have been justified under the old wording. I believe those who paid lip service to the old version of the Catechism whilst supporting it within the USA are wriggling hard to preserve their position.


    • There are, to be sure, some very real problems with capital punishment — not the least of which is wrong convictions by juries of under-educated citizens who fail to understand the concept of “proof beyond all shadow of doubt” — that is, the same sort of absolute, rigorous proof that one requires in the disciplines such as mathematics and philosophy. The founders of our country — the United States — espoused the belief that it is better for a hundred innocent people to go free than for one innocent person to be deprived even of liberty, let alone life. Of course, the more flagrant problem arises in totalitarian dictatorships that make political opposition to the regime a capital offense.

      But, having said that, how does one deal with a brute who, while already serving a sentence of life without parole, persists in assaulting prison guards who have the duty of escorting him or her to the exercise yard, medical personnel who attempt to care for him or her, and other staff at the prison? Those personnel also have a right to safety in the course of performing their duties.



      • I’d suggest that the first thing is to ask prison authorities in places which manage to handle just that sort of issue without the death penalty how they do it; for when the death penalty ha ceased to exist across most of the civilised world, there is plenty of expertise to draw upon and learn from!


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