The Pope Did What?
Many Protestants and ecclesiastically distant Catholics might be confused by the widespread concern over Pope Francis’ August 1st revision of the Catholic Catechism. Before August 1st, section 2267 of the Catechism stated that “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
After the change, the same section now states “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… more effective systems of detention have been developed… 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.”
According to a letter to the Bishops from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith this change was justified in light of the traditions of the Catholic Church, but to many Catholics this justification was not enough, and the change from “some recourse” to “inadmissible” has raised concerns that Pope Francis’ is changing traditional and infallible Doctrine or Dogma, while rejecting the saints and popes who supported the death penalty, like St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.
If the Pope were to change the infallible teachings or traditions of the church, it would be nothing other than a corruption, or a descent into heresy. The Catholic Church holds its doctrines to be either revealed by God, or realized through the communion of the faithful with the Holy Spirit; therefore, to teach directly against the Church’s Magisterium, or the teaching authority of the Church, would be to teach against the truth of God himself. Pope Francis, however, is not. To understand why, it is necessary to fully understand what is and is not considered an infallible doctrine or dogma of the Catholic Church.
Jimmy Akin, senior apologist at Catholic Answers, wrote an in-depth article on the difference between Dogma, Doctrine, and Theology at the National Catholic Register. The easiest definable term for the Church is Dogma. According to Cardinal Avery Dulles, Dogma presently means “a divinely revealed truth, proclaimed as such by the infallible teaching authority of the Church, and hence binding on all the faithful without exception, now and forever.” In order to be a Dogma, a teaching or truth must be formally recognized by the Catholic Church’s authority, and be divinely revealed. At present, it is enough to say that the Church’s teaching on the death penalty were never divinely revealed, but rested upon the Church’s tradition. The teaching on the death penalty that came before Francis was therefore not dogma.
What was the doctrine, then? This is the question that complicates things. According to Akin there are really two kinds of doctrine. Those doctrines that are infallibly pronounced by the Magisterium of the church, and those that are not. Doctrine can be infallible when it is claimed Ex Cathedra by the Pope, which Francis has not done, or if it is universally agreed upon by all Bishops. Lumen Gentium n. 25 states, referencing the ‘Code of Canon Law, can. 749 §2’, that “Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ's doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed… [by] authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held."
Despite the Church’s tradition of supporting the death penalty as a civil power, and the countless popes and saints who have argued as theologians for it, there has never been a universal agreement between all the bishops on how or why the death penalty was part of the civil power. Some popes and theologians believed it should be used to maintain justice, some believed it should be used as an eye for an eye, some even further believed it could only be used when there were no other means available. The Catechism’s teaching before August first, then, cannot be considered an unalterable, infallible teaching of the Magisterium. This is because there has never been a universal consensus among all the bishops the Church on the use or reason for the use of the death penalty. Dr. Kevin Miller, Assistant Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, elaborated in a CNA article that “there has been a lively debate among some Catholic thinkers as to whether the teaching that the death penalty can be morally licit even in cases in which it isn’t needed to prevent, say, a convicted murderer from murdering again – is a definitive one. My reading of Scripture and subsequent Magisterial teaching is that it’s unlikely to be definitive.”
If this alteration by the Pope, which according to him is in line with tradition, weren’t, it still wouldn’t constitute any alteration in the infallible teachings of the Catholic Church. So what’s the real problem? The real problem is the atmosphere the change has created, both because of the lack of clarification on the Pope’s part, in regards to the Catechism’s change, and the reaction of the faithful. This event is being viewed over and over again by the media and some of the faithful as a change in the infallible Doctrine or Dogma of the Magisterium of the church. Because of this, some people are calling for changes elsewhere in the Church’s teachings, such as here. To say that all teachings of the Church must be infallible is to misunderstand the nature of the Church, but to say that a perceived alteration of a non-infallible teaching given to the faithful constitutes a turn away from sacred tradition and the Magisterium does more harm than good.