Pic of Pope Francis reading a book

Ambiguity? What Ambiguity?

Fatima Perspectives #1222

Most of the commentators on Pope Francis’ attempt to declare the death penalty immoral per se recognize that his utter novelty is a blatant contradiction of Sacred Scripture (both the Old and New Testaments) and the constant teaching of the Church for two millennia. 

A few, however, such as this one, argue that Francis’ revised § 2267 of the Catechism of John Paul II is merely “a distressingly ambiguous text which will certainly tend to create an impression of rupture,” but that “it need not be read that way.”

Really? But where is the ambiguity? According to Francis, quoting only himself among all the Popes, “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’, [footnote to a lone address by Francis] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

While the word “inadmissible” is curious — not even Francis would dare to say “immoral” lest the contradiction be all too apparent — there is no ambiguity whatsoever in the claim that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

Note well:  Francis declares the death penalty “inadmissible” because it is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”  According to the plain meaning of the words, the death penalty could not suddenly have become such in modern times, but always was such.  As Francis would have it, “the Church” had not condemned before what was wrong from the beginning only because she had not yet achieved the supposed “increasing awareness” of  the human dignity of the criminal and the “new understanding… of the significance of penal sanctions.” 

But that arrogant claim implies a failure of the Magisterium which would call into question every doctrine it teaches.  As Sandro Magister observes:  “Given this precedent… what can prevent a pope from changing the doctrine of the Church on any other issue? Breaking not only with the previous magisterium, but with the Sacred Scriptures themselves?”

Indeed, Francis’ unambiguous condemnation of the death penalty as “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” pits him against not just the Magisterium but God Himself, for it was He who specifically decreed the death penalty for murder and other grave offenses in Genesis 9 and Leviticus 20. 

Magister cites a 2001 essay by Cardinal Avery Dulles, who was hardly a “radical traditionalist,” for the undeniable propositions that “In the Old Testament,” according to Divine Revelation, “the death penalty was considered especially fitting as a punishment for murder since in His covenant with Noah God had laid down the principle, ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image’ (Genesis 9:6),” whereas “In the New Testament the right of the State to put criminals to death seems to be taken for granted” and “At no point… does Jesus deny that the State has authority to exact capital punishment.”  Quite the contrary, “Jesus commends the good thief on the cross next to him, who has admitted that he and his fellow thief are receiving the due reward of their deeds (Luke 23:41).”

It is impossible for Francis to condemn as immoral what God has prescribed as a just punishment for certain offenses. But Francis does not seem to care what God has said on the matter. Or does he think that God in the Scriptures is merely a literary voice expressing only the author’s personal views, which are subject to change over time?

Dulles reminds us, moreover, that the abolitionist position on capital punishment is an old heresy that Francis is now attempting to pass off as Church teaching: “This abolitionist position has a tempting simplicity. But it is not really new. It has been held by sectarian Christians at least since the Middle Ages. Many pacifist groups, such as the Waldensians, the Quakers, the Hutterites, and the Mennonites, have shared this point of view. But, like pacifism itself, this absolutist interpretation of the right to life found no echo at the time among Catholic theologians, who accepted the death penalty as consonant with Scripture, tradition, and the natural law.”

In fact, says Dulles, total opposition to the death penalty is an artifact of liberalism and the consequent “decline of faith in eternal life. In the nineteenth century the most consistent supporters of capital punishment were the Christian churches, and its most consistent opponents were groups hostile to the churches.”

Only this explains why the same post-Christian nations that have abolished the death penalty for guilty murderers have also legalized and even subsidized the mass murder of innocent children in the womb.

There is no ambiguity here.  Francis seeks to impose upon the Church a tenet of post-Enlightenment liberalism, which bans capital punishment while legalizing abortion, and for the same underlying reason: social apostasy from God and rebellion against His law. Tellingly, aside from a few isolated remarks condemning abortion, Francis has done exactly nothing to work for its worldwide abolition as he does with respect to capital punishment, respecting which his purported revision of the Catechism declares: “she [the Church] works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Our duty is not to contrive an ambiguity that “saves” Francis’ novelty, but rather to oppose it for what it is: a void attempt to contradict the true teaching of the Church, and yet another sign of an ecclesial crisis that surely is reaching a terminal stage in which dramatic events are in store for both the Church and the world.


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photo credit: Catholic Church (England and Wales) Pope Francis via photopin (license)

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