The Reversible Magisterium Is No Magisterium
Fatima Perspectives #1221
Pope Francis has evidently decided that he can “reverse” the Church’s constant teaching on the admissibility of capital punishment, rooted in the words of Christ Himself to Pilate, the teaching of Saint Paul, and the pronouncements of popes and councils throughout Church history, as discussed here, in an article I wrote for Crisis magazine.
Today, August 2, the Vatican has published an announcement that “The Supreme Pontiff Francis” (notice how the humble “Bishop of Rome” becomes “the Supreme Pontiff” whenever the need arises) has approved “the following new text of the n. 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ordering its translation in the various languages and inserted in all editions of the mentioned Catechism.”
Here is the new text in full:
The death penalty
2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, 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.
This purported “reversal” of all prior Church teaching is absurd on its face.
First of all, it reduces the constant teaching of the Magisterium that the death penalty is permissible for the gravest offenses, above all murder, to the phrase “was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes…”
Long considered? Considered by whom, exactly? The man on the street? The Encyclopedia Britannica? The results of a Gallup poll? There is no reference whatsoever to the Church’s bimillenial teaching, which is treated as if it never existed. There is only a single footnote to a lone address by Francis to “Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization…”
Secondly, the text offers no rationale for the “reversal” beyond mere assertions of contingent fact as opposed to universal moral principles:
- “an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes …
- “a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state …
- “more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens…”
Are we expected to believe that the Magisterium lacked a full awareness of the human dignity of criminals before the arrival of Jorge Bergoglio from Buenos Aires?
And since when is human dignity inconsistent with a condign (fitting) punishment for a crime such as murder? On the contrary, a defense of human dignity might well require the death penalty. As the Catechism of the Council of Trent teaches, alluding to the revealed truth in the teaching of Saint Paul: “The use of the civil sword, when wielded by the hand of justice, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this commandment which prohibits murder.”
Four centuries later, Ven. Pope Pius XII echoed this constant teaching: “Even when it is a question of someone condemned to death, the state does not dispose of an individual’s right to life. It is then the task of public authority to deprive the condemned man of the good of life, in expiation of his fault, after he has already deprived himself of the right to life by his crime.” (AAS, 1952, pp. 779 et. seq).
What does Francis mean by “a new understanding… of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state”? Absolutely nothing. This is empty verbiage camouflaging his personal opinion.
As for the allegation of “more effective systems of detention,” what does that have to do with the moral legitimacy of capital punishment for capital crimes, which involves just retribution and expiation of fault, not mere confinement for public safety? Moreover, many nations have completely inadequate “systems of detention,” so that pretext goes out the window.
And what of prisoners who kill fellow prisoners or prison guards even in the most modern “systems of detention”? That gaping hole in an already feeble rationale is not even addressed.
Based on literally nothing but what Francis thinks, the new text concludes: “Consequently, 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.”
No, “the Church” cannot suddenly teach the opposite of what she has always taught respecting capital punishment. Francis, and Francis alone, does.
Here we see yet again the wisdom of Father Gruner’s observation, based on reason and common sense, that the Magisterium cannot contradict itself and that any actual contradiction of what the Magisterium teaches cannot, for that very reason, belong to the Magisterium.
If it were otherwise, there would be no Magisterium at all but only an Oracle of Rome who would periodically announce “new teachings that contradict completely teachings that the Magisterium had taught since Apostolic Times…”
And by the way, when will Francis announce the absolute inadmissibility of abortion — a mass death penalty for the innocent — in keeping with the Church’s infallible moral teaching, and then declare in the Catechism that the Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide”?
We know the answer to that question. The same Pope who calls for the worldwide abolition of capital punishment for the guilty has never called for the worldwide abolition of the murder of innocents in the womb, not even when it is about to be legalized in once Catholic Ireland.
Francis has plainly exceeded his authority in a way the Church has never seen before. And this in the very midst of the worst corruption of morals the Catholic hierarchy has ever exhibited.
Such is the ever-worsening crisis of faith and discipline it now seems only Heaven can resolve with the most dramatic of interventions.
photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) Cardinal leads delegation of Muslim leaders to Rome to meet Pope Francis and dialogue with the Holy See. via photopin (license)