Pope Francis is changing the Catechism of the Catholic Church–a summary of Christian belief–to declare that the death penalty is now “inadmissable” for Catholics. Here’s The New York Times:
Pope Francis has declared the death penalty wrong in all cases, a definitive change in church teaching…Francis said executions were unacceptable in all cases because they are “an attack” on human dignity, the Vatican announced on Thursday, adding that the church would work “with determination” to abolish capital punishment worldwide.
This shift in what it means to be an orthodox Catholic has Catholic philosopher Edward Feser crying foul on the grounds of contradiction:
[T]he [pro-death penalty] traditional teaching clearly meets the criteria for an infallible and irreformable teaching of the Church’s ordinary Magisterium….how the new teaching can be made consistent with the teaching of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and previous popes [is not explained]. Merely asserting that the new language ‘develops’ rather than ‘contradicts’ past teaching does not make it so. The CDF [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] is not Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, and a pope is not Humpty Dumpty, able by fiat to make words mean whatever he wants them to. Slapping the label ‘development’ onto a contradiction doesn’t transform it into a non-contradiction.
Two matters at the forefront of Feser’s concern are the demoralization of conservative Catholics and the end of the idea that the Church in key teachings is infallible:
The effect [of prohibiting the death penalty] is to embolden those who want to reverse other traditional teachings of the Church, and to demoralize those who want to uphold those teachings.
If capital punishment is wrong in principle, then the Church has for two millennia consistently taught grave moral error and badly misinterpreted scripture. And if the Church has been so wrong for so long about something so serious, then there is no teaching that might not be reversed, with the reversal justified by the stipulation that it be called a ‘development’ rather than a contradiction. A reversal on capital punishment is the thin end of a wedge that, if pushed through, could sunder Catholic doctrine from its past—and thus give the lie to the claim that the Church has preserved the Deposit of Faith whole and undefiled.
So which will Feser suggest be thrown overboard: “the claim that the Church has preserved the Deposit of Faith whole and undefiled” or Pope Francis himself? Feser’s vote is that Pope Francis should be seen as the fallible one:
If Pope Francis really is claiming that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, then either scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes were wrong—or Pope Francis is. There is no third alternative. Nor is there any doubt about who would be wrong in that case. The Church has always acknowledged that popes can make doctrinal errors when not speaking ex cathedra—Pope Honorius I and Pope John XXII being the best-known examples of popes who actually did so. The Church also explicitly teaches that the faithful may, and sometimes should, openly and respectfully criticize popes when they do teach error. The 1990 CDF document Donum Veritatis sets out norms governing the legitimate criticism of magisterial documents that exhibit “deficiencies.” It would seem that Catholic theologians are now in a situation that calls for application of these norms.
In other words, Feser sees a stark choice: pretend the Catholic Church on key matters has been and is infallible or pretend that popes “not speaking ex cathedra” are.
But there’s another option, isn’t there? Maybe on big issues they’re both fallible; maybe that’s the curtain Professor Feser doesn’t want to look behind. Perhaps the tension is between fallible people in the present feeling morally and intellectually compelled to correct the blind spots, errors, and absurdities of fallible people from the past.