Pope Francis, catechism and the debate on the death penalty

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Pope Francis releases a dove as a symbol of peace during a meeting with the Chaldean community at St Simon Bar Sabbae Catholic Church in Tbilisi, Gerogia, 2016

Photo: ABACA / ABACA / PA Images

Pope Francis has once again put the cat among the pigeons. In a declaration published on the occasion of the feast of the moral theologian and legal thinker Saint Alphonsus of Liguori, Pope Francis approved a modification of the catechism which declares the death penalty “inadmissible”. He bases his argument on three grounds: that our growing understanding of dignity means that we can no longer see the death penalty as a dignified judicial response to evil in light of a biblical call for justice always tempered by mercy, that what we know about how states use these powers should give us pause for thought, and that we now have the means to detain and protect public order such that there can be no proportionate moral reasoning in favor of the death sentence.

News of this likely development has been trailing since at least the Pope’s visit to the United States in 2017 and yet it appears to have caused significant ripples in the Catholic world, particularly but not exclusively in the United States. The development itself, while certainly newsworthy and making headlines predictably, has actually been a gradual shift underway over the previous two papacies. In “Evangelium vitae” and during his visit to the United States in 1999, John Paul II expressed his reservations as to the probable inadmissibility of the death penalty on the grounds that it could no longer be considered as a morally proportionate act. , calling it “cruel and unnecessary.” Pope Benedict had urged nations to move towards abolishing the death penalty as an option. Indeed, a preliminary stage of modifications of the catechism had already been carried out following the document of John Paul II, even if it did not go as far as the announcement of this week. So claims that Francis is an outlier on this issue and represents a fundamental breaking point are not entirely correct.

Nonetheless, two more misunderstandings accompany the current social media commentary around Francis’ actions. The first concerns the nature of the social doctrine of the Church itself. The suggestion is that if Francis changes the teaching of the catechism on the death penalty, the only conclusion a Catholic can draw is that his predecessors taught in error. This is not about quartering hair or placing angels on pinheads to suggest at this point that what Francis is doing is not better viewed as a “teaching change.” Of course, he changed the wording of the catechism and this is an act of great importance for every Catholic. However, in deeper moral terms, its action can be seen as part of an ongoing process of historical discernment mandated by both the Gospel and the Catholic philosophical tradition. It is a bit awkward to suggest that “change” is the best way to think of one’s actions from that angle.

The Thomist tradition teaches that in social and political matters we are called to grasp the relationship between changing means and immutable ends. Our faith compels us to reflect on an unchanging revealed and transcendent truth about our nature and purpose as human creatures. Yet we come to know (and respect what we don’t know or can’t know) this truth through the changing material realities of our lives. And the changing material nature of our lives means that we will necessarily unfold this unchanging truth in historically differentiated ways. It is not relativism but the maintenance of an idea of ​​objective order and natural law in the domain of the finite.

The social and political teaching of the Church Fathers from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas and Vitoria reflects on this relationship of the changing processes of history to a truth that is both our origin and our end: a life of communion with the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It is our “common good“, both in this life and in the next, and it defines the framework of every law and every institution on the face of the earth. Each thinker adds to our understanding of situations in which coercive power might arise as a legitimate moral issue. Whereas before the tradition of the 20th century, these thinkers each concluded that a death penalty could, in very limited circumstances, be considered legitimate, it is clear that this conclusion relates to their historical judgments on the nature of the contingent political order and the conditions of government in their time. It is from their method, not just their conclusion, that we must learn.

In the work of each of these thinkers, the discussion of the use of force is not separate from a conversation about the moral performance of governance (a changing reality) or discernment of the Scriptures. Francis’ three-step case to change the wording of the catechism and therefore the orientation given to Catholics in their contemporary actions can be seen as an act of discernment within the framework of this tradition of Catholic reasoning. This same process was used to “change” the teaching on pacifism and just war, and on democracy and human rights in the twentieth century. The example of the impact of changes in modern weaponry – the development of nuclear capability in particular – on just war education is perhaps a close parallel. It is about the moral use of power and its ends.

We need to be clear about what ‘changes’ here and we need to be clear that the social teaching of the Church, in order to remain a truly Catholic reasoning process, will necessarily require that we be open to declaring something formally. . previously admissible inadmissible. It is therefore also possible that such teaching could be reversed. It is a potentially Catholic thing to do if a convincing case can be made as historical circumstances and scriptures and doctrine show. No error should be implied at first glance.

The question that can therefore be legitimately and usefully posed to Francis’ new orientation is whether the historical discernment enunciated in three stages seems good and just? Does our changing understanding of dignity mean that taking life as an act of criminal justice seems contradictory to that end? Does the fact that the state has the capacity to contain evil, maintain law and order, and pursue forms of restorative justice in ways unprecedented in history mean that we can no longer claim that the public order alone compels us to take a life? Are we worried that the state is going beyond itself and denying the true ends of the common good when it uses retribution or punishment as a basis to justify taking a life? Is there a danger that the State will make of itself an idol and refuse a place for the divine act which turns a life towards its true ends by continuing to make possible the exercise of such draconian power? ?

Which brings me to my second concern regarding the first responses to François’ announcement. The novelty of Francis’ argument as it applies specifically to the death penalty concerns his reflections on the relationship between the state, its use of coercive power, and questions of virtue. The second reason Francis gives – that what we know about the state and its powers of criminal justice enforcement has changed – is what we might want to focus our thinking and thinking on. His commentary is brief but it is deeply suggestive. It seems to me that we quickly get lost in bickering over the breaking up (or not) of a French papacy and failing to pay patient attention to some of the deeper and more reflective questions raised by these developments in social teaching. . During the last two papacies – and now the papacy of Francis – the social doctrine of the Church has become increasingly concerned with the question of the limits of the role of the state in the pursuit of the common good. This line of thinking has focused on welfare and economic issues as much as on war or the use of force. After a post-conciliar period in which elements of the expanded role of the state were cautiously affirmed in the CST, we are witnessing at the turn of the new century a slight evolution towards a reflection on the limits of the action of the State. the state. Let’s be clear: this is not to argue that the state does not have certain powers in principle, but rather a renewed moral argument for the necessary restraint of the state in the use of those powers in the interest of the pursuit of the common good (which includes the duty to preserve individual dignity in each case).

This reflection should cross a lazy interpretation of liberal-conservative Catholic fault lines, giving pause for reflection and the opportunity for reflective discussion. François seems to be consciously adding to a line of thinking that has slowly accelerated; a case for the Church to call on those who hold the law to exercise restraint in the use of the arsenal of cruel powers the state has at its disposal. This is accompanied by renewed calls for the resuscitation of civil, territorial and municipal action to achieve a form of common good which cannot arise from the sole application of the State and a cruel power. The implications of Francis’ discernment on this particular issue may therefore have broader implications for other areas of state action and the use of force where, in particular, liberal states seem increasingly anti-liberal. . The conversation should therefore be as much about the implications of this week’s statement for the Church’s changing thinking on the political order in our time as it is about questions of church method.

Anna Rowlands is Associate Professor of Catholic Social Thought and Practice at Durham University. HFollow her on Twitter .


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