Today, the Vatican released a letter from Luis Cardinal Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, informing the bishops (and the world) that Pope Francis has approved a change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, holding that the death penalty is “inadmissible.” To keen observers of Francis’s public statements, this was no surprise. Francis, in an address about a year ago, signaled his view that the death penalty was “inadmissible” and his desire to change the Catechism to reflect his views. At the time, we were writing a column for First Things, and we addressed Francis’s comments there. You may find that column here, if you are so interested; we recede from none of our comments. Despite the fact that we had a year’s warning, many Catholics, especially Catholics on Twitter, reacted to Francis’s changes with great dismay and alarm.
It is hard to know how to respond to the dismay and alarm of so many of our friends and brothers and sisters in the Faith. One could, if one were inclined, parse the revised Catechism text closely. It is a string of non sequiturs culminating in a declaration of “inadmissibility.” None of the three paragraphs seems logically connected to any one of the other two, much less both of them. It is unclear what the reasoning is, and it is unclear what “inadmissible” means in the context of an incoherent argument. One could also, if one were inclined, discuss how Francis’s statement is not really a radical departure from what John Paul II said in Evangelium vitae. If one were a glutton for homework, one could also explain how the inclusion of a statement in the Catechism does not add magisterial weight to the statement itself; that is, a statement’s weight is determined on its own terms. One could conclude by pointing to the International Theological Commission’s document on the sensus fidei and suggest that one could withhold one’s assent to the new teaching and appeal to the universal magisterium.
Our initial impulse was to explain how bizarre the new Catechism text is in light of Thomas Aquinas’s normative teaching on the death penalty, as set forth in ST II-II q.64 a.2 and SCG III.146. The note that came from Cardinal Ladaria mentions, albeit in a confused way, the development of doctrine. However, it is unclear how the Thomistic arguments in favor of the death penalty could develop at all, much less develop in such a way that the death penalty is made inadmissible. This argument is relatively easy, and it points to all sorts of ideas, including the common good and an understanding of human dignity that is not altogether present in the Catechism text or Cardinal Ladaria’s letter. Anyway, excellent thinkers like Ed Feser will no doubt intervene decisively to demonstrate the profoundly un-Thomistic nature of the new text and the explanation that comes with it.
We also thought about reading the Vatican tea leaves. For example, a sharp friend of ours observed that this might be one of the reasons why Francis was so eager to fire Cardinal Müller. As Francis’s first quinquennium has come and gone, we had expected, under the principle he articulated when firing Müller, to see a whole raft of dismissals. No one needs to be in the Curia longer than five years, especially when the judgment of the hierarchy is as suspect as it is now, in the wake of the disturbing revelations about Archbishop McCarrick and about Pennsylvania. Such dismissals have not been forthcoming—shock of shocks! So, we see Müller ousted on grounds that seemed to have been invented to oust Müller. Perhaps his resistance to this, in addition to his evident unhappiness with Amoris laetitia and his exclusion from Francis’s court more generally, was a factor. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, he says.
However, there are other valid takes. If one were trying to get a lot of traffic from traditionalist blogs and Twitter accounts, one could discuss the great canonist Franz Xavier Wernz, S.J., who discussed in his great Ius Canonicum, volume 2, numbers 453 and 454, the process by which the Church can declare that a heretical pope has deposed himself. Note that such an argument is not conciliarism—that is, one need not hold that a general council is competent to judge a pope and deprive him of office. Instead, Wernz holds that the pope effectively deprives himself the papacy by teaching error and that the general council merely declares the fact of the error. We are a little surprised that such takes have not been forthcoming in greater quantity. How soon we have forgotten the bruising battles over Amoris laetitia! Not two years ago, everyone was an expert in Cardinal Bellarmine and John of St. Thomas and the Canon Si Papa.
Speaking of Amoris laetitia, one could get a few laughs by constructing an argument, as some have already done, that, whatever the objective norm against the death penalty may be, concrete circumstances must be taken into account. It may not be possible, in the light of such concrete circumstances, for a country, while recognizing that the death penalty is objectively inadmissible, to live up to the norm immediately. Instead, the country must be accompanied by the law of gradualism to execute fewer and fewer of its citizens until it can live more fully in keeping with the inadmissibility of the death penalty. Surely the country that prefers to execute its murderers is no less entitled to pastoral accompaniment than a person who has divorced and remarried a few times. Times are tough all over.
The thought that we find hardest to shake is this: the Catechism plays basically no role in our life. Whenever we have a question about the Faith, we turn first to Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, then to other works by Thomas, then to commentaries on Thomas’s works, then to magisterial documents like the acts of Trent or the Vatican Council, and then to papal documents, and finally to trusted commentators. Also, candidly, the old Catholic Encyclopedia is an excellent resource, especially if we do not know where to begin. The Catechism is only useful when we are looking for a prooftext when in dialogue with someone who seems like they would find the Catechism an important source. If no one had told us that the Catechism was changed on this point, we never would have found out.
The Catechism is the summit of the consensus John Paul II forged. It cites, insofar as we can tell, scripture, the acts of the Second Vatican Council, and John Paul’s magisterium, almost to the exclusion of anything between the death of the last Apostle and 1963. The Catechism represented the idea that history had ended within the Church: we could finally say that there was a definitive compendium of Catholic teachings. Yet this end of ecclesiastical history in the Church required John Paul’s force of will to maintain the consensus. And as soon as John Paul went on to his reward, that consensus crumbled. Benedict XVI backed away from it, beginning with the Christmas address to the Curia, and definitely with Summorum Pontificum. And Francis has backed away from it even more decisively. As we have noted elsewhere, history has begun again in the Church.
Of course, it is unclear that the collapse of the John Paul II consensus really needed Benedict’s or Francis’s help. The recent revelations about Archbishop Theodore McCarrick have rocked the Church in the past few weeks. Indeed, they led McCarrick to resign the cardinalate and the Vatican has ordered him to solitude and prayer while a canonical investigation and trial against him proceeds. Among the revelations is the fact that individuals claim that they warned Rome about McCarrick’s infamous behavior prior to his translation from Newark to Washington, D.C., under John Paul II. This has the potential, we think, to lead to a serious reappraisal of John Paul’s reign, especially as it relates to the administration of the Church. Indeed, we have seen signs of such a reappraisal over the last few weeks. At the very least, it raises awkward questions about how such reports were handled—questions that have appeared under Francis’s watch, too.
Moreover, as we noted above, it seems strange to have a discussion about the Catechism changes outside the context of Amoris laetitia, Gaudete et exsultate, the protestant communion fight, and any number of more or less formal papal statements. It is clear that Francis wishes, to the extent possible (which is a bigger caveat than you’d think), to move doctrine leftward. He has not been able to do so with any great success, and he has produced a bunch of borderline incoherent statements, the new Catechism text among them. While one can give thanks that the Holy Spirit has protected Francis and the Church so well, one can also note that there have been doctrinal controversies since 2013 before now. However, it is obvious that most of these changes seem to be motivated by Francis’s desire to abandon the John Paul consensus and return to the debates that John Paul put on hold and kept on hold during his pontificate.
While the Catechism has been a helpful resource in the Church for many, we are told, it is a sign of a consensus that no longer exists. The doctrinal disputes putatively settled by the big green book have re-emerged, with as much ferocity as they had in August 1978. Indeed, it seems significant that we are only a few days away from the fortieth anniversary of Paul VI’s death on August 6. The clock has been rolled back to August 2, 1978 in many ways. Seen in this light, Francis’s change to the Catechism, whatever its merits in doctrinal terms, is as good a sign of the current state of the Church as the Catechism itself was in its day. What remains to be seen is the course of history in the Church, now that it has so clearly begun again.