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Capital Punishment and Newman’s Development of Doctrine

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The following was a college essay written by Sam Agra. It has been edited and approved by Paul Gillett. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.

By Sam Agra, St. Louis University

There are few questions of more importance in the post-conciliar age of Catholic theology than those regarding the development of Christian doctrine. While the question’s major treatment can be traced to Newman in the 19th century, it became of huge importance with the onset of the nouvelle theologie movement and the calling and promulgation of the Second Vatican Council. The notion of development itself is now co-opted to support everything from the role and authority of the papacy and intercession of the saints to Catholic use of contraception or the ordination of women. The former two have been defined or addressed in ecumenical councils while the latter two are both positions condemned by recent teachings. The question immediately comes to mind: what distinguishes legitimate from illegitimate development? Which uses of “development” are correct and which are mere coverups to silence dissident questioning? As questions of development fundamentally touch upon the teaching authority of the Church itself, finding a solid foundation for distinguishing development from corruption is a vital task, a task well suited for the world’s next great theologian.

The development related task I intend to carry out in this work is much more modest. I limit my area of inquiry to Church teaching regarding the legitimacy of the death penalty under Pope Francis, a teaching which can appear markedly different from that only twenty years ago under the papacy of St. John Paul II. I intend to show the manner in which one can conceive of this difference as an authentic development. Specifically, I will argue that there exists an interpretation, tenuous though it may be, of Pope Francis’s teachings which constitute an authentic development according to Newman’s criteria. I will give an overview and summary of the teaching of St. John Paul II and then examine the writings of Pope Francis before giving two interpretations. The argument will then turn to an explanation of Newman’s criteria before a final application of these to the two interpretations of Francis.

I. John Paul II: An Overview of His Teaching

I begin with the teachings set forth under St. John Paul II.[1] With this pope, there are three major sources to study: his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor (VS), his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (EV), and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) published in 1992, though the official Latin text was promulgated by him in 1997. However, since VS does not touch directly upon capital punishment, we will consider it last. The English title of EV, “The Gospel of Life,” is St. John Paul II’s response to what he coined as the modern “culture of death,” a culture which in many ways no longer acknowledged the sanctity or dignity of human life. EV’s teaching on the death penalty can be summed as wary, even at its most affirmative. Dr. Fesser notes that the previous pope “was famously opposed to applying capital punishment in practice.”[2] However, we will see that this opposition is a practical, and not universal or theoretical one.

St. John Paull II calls “growing public opposition” to capital punishment a sign of hope. Our hope is increased when this opposition is combined with the fact that “[m]odern society has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless with [recourse to execution].”[3] In the chapter discussing the decalogue precept “Thou shall not kill,” the previous pope states that though the primary purpose of state punishment is to redress the disorder caused by the crime, “Public authority… ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words: when it would not be possible to defend society.”[4] From the teaching of EV, we can draw two principles. First, the death penalty is not a preferrable recourse; it is a good thing to generally oppose the use of the death penalty to other ways of lessening crime and rendering criminals harmless. Second, though state-enforced punishment is primarily retributive by nature, this punishment “ought not” be execution unless it is not possible to defend society otherwise.

The Catechism promulgated by St. John Paul II instructs along similar lines. Paragraph 2266 states

the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty. The primary effect of punishment is to redress the disorder caused by the offense…[5]

First, the reader again sees the notion that the primary purpose of punishment is the redressing of the evil. This principle is an important one for the paper and deserves further clarification. Above I referred to punishment in this sense as having a retributive nature. Simply, this means that as a precept of justice a punishment should fit the crime. It is just that a lesser crime has a lesser punishment and a worse crime a worse punishment. It follows from this principle that the most severe crimes, such as murder, ought to have the most severe punishments.

Second, and in support of the “primary” and essential idea of retributive justice, a reader observes that the state has the duty to punish crimes with penalties appropriate to the evils committed. Where the crime be severe enough, the appropriate punishment may in fact be death. If we are to read CCC 2266 in line with the second principle of EV above, that capital punishment ought not to be used unless necessary for defense, some interpretation is necessary. As both documents were under the direction of St. John Paul II over the short course of two years, they ought to be read in continuity with each other. To read the documents in continuity, one can read “defend society” in a broad sense, including the act of instructing the populace that acts of extreme evil are not to be tolerated. The law of a state has a pedagogical nature, and the punishing of crime helps to educate the people in what is acceptable or not. In this sense, the death penalty displays the gravity of certain crimes. By executing people guilty of these heinous crimes, then, the state reinforces the conscious of its people and defends them from assenting to or accepting similar acts.

The following Catechism paragraph also fits to this interpretation. The text reads, “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means…”[6] Certain prison arrangements, though currently unlikely due to the prevalence of violence and sexual assault in prisons, may render state level executions for defending peoples against an aggressor obsolete. Defending someone from an aggressor is not the same as defending society, hence the following clauses regarding protecting public order and the safety of persons. Protecting public order and the safety of persons requires upholding a law where justice exists, where grave crimes come with grave punishments. It may be said that this interpretation of CCC 2267 and EV 56 are a stretch. Even if that be the case, it is a necessary stretch to read them in continuity with CCC 2266, unless one wants to suppose that CCC 2267 was written to immediately contradict the preceding section.

The final bit of evidence that must be examined to understand the St. John Paul II-era teaching on capital punishment is Veritatis Splendor. Against certain moral theologies, such as proportionalism, which claimed that moral acts were determined not by their essential character but only through intention or circumstance, the previous pope reaffirms the existence of acts malum in se; those which are always wrong in and of themselves, regardless of circumstance or intention. Quoting Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes the pope gives an extended list of these acts, divided into the categories of acts which are “hostile to life itself,” “violate the integrity of the human person,” “offensive to human dignity,” and “degrading conditions of work.”[7] However, in none of these categories does the Pope, who as seen in EV is no fan of capital punishment, is capital punishment listed as a malum in se, and intrinsically evil act. It may be inadvisable or even reprehensible in certain circumstances, but unlike homicide, torture, or prostitution, capital punishment is not evil in itself. There are circumstances or intentions in which its use would be just.

To sum Church teaching on capital punishment in the era of St. John Paul II, we can draw three principles. The death penalty is to be avoided whenever other means can procure justice and safety. Retributive justice is the primary essence of punishment and grave enough crimes may justly warrant execution. The death penalty is not an intrinsically evil act.

II. Pope Francis: Two Interpretations of His Thought

Now the argument must turn to the current pope, Francis, and his teachings on the topic. The texts in question here are his encyclicals Amoris Laetitia (AL), Fratelli Tutti (FT), and the editorial change made under his reign to CCC 2267. The timeline of these teachings begins with AL, CCC, and only within the last year, FT. For clarity’s sake here, I will reference the important texts together before giving an extended interpretation. In AL, with reference to a 2015 synod of bishops, the pope states that “the Church not only feels the urgency to assert the right to a natural death, without aggressive treatment and euthanasia, but likewise ‘firmly rejects the death penalty.’”[8] On August 1st, 2018 Cardinal Ladaria, current head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, announced in a letter to the bishops of the world that Pope Francis had approved the CDF’s proposed change to CCC paragraph 2267. It would now read “Recourse to the death penalty…was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.” Due to an increasing awareness of the dignity of the criminal, a new understanding of penal sanctions, and systems which protect citizens without deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption, “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.”[9]

Finally, Francis’s most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti presents his most recent teaching on capital punishment. In paragraph 263 Francis writes, “Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible,” again citing his own 2017 public address. The following paragraph reaffirms the CCC position that “legitimate public authority can and must ‘inflict punishments according to the seriousness of the crimes.” In later sections he argues that, “‘it is impossible to imagine that states today have no other means than capital punishment to protect the lives of other people from the unjust aggressor,’” this time citing his own 2014 public address. Finally, he calls on “all Christians and people of good will” to work “for the abolition of the death penalty,” and similar actions to support human dignity.[10]

Prima faciae there seems to be a stark difference between the teaching of the two popes; an interpretation is required. The main hermeneutic strategy to interpreting the current pope’s teaching, what I will call the interpretation of discontinuity, seems to be the majority and popular view and fits well with a straightforward reading of the texts. This view is that espoused by popular sources such as America magazine which sum Francis’s teaching as stating “[b]oth abortion and the death penalty violently negate the inherent dignity of every human being,” and Catholics “will no longer be able to cite the Catholic catechism as justification for [prudential and rare use of the death penalty.]”[11] This view sees Francis as changing, updating, or “developing” the teachings of St. John Paul II. Where the earlier teaching allows capital punishment when no other option is available, Francis in AL states that the church now “firmly rejects” it. Where retributive justice once allowed the gravity of certain crimes to be met with the grave punishment of death and though the state still retains the power and duty to inflict punishment commensurate to crime, now according to the new CCC, capital punishment is now “inadmissible” due to an increased awareness of the dignity of the criminal and systems which can protect the populace without depriving the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Where the death penalty in 1993 was not an intrinsically evil act, it is now, according to AL, the CCC, and FT, “inadmissible.” The Church of contemporary times, according to the change hermeneutic, has carried the implications of St. John Paul II’s teachings forward and developed them.

The three principles proposed before, according to the interpretation of discontinuity, ought to affirm something different under Francis. First, means other than execution can now always (since it is “impossible” to think otherwise) procure justice and safety. Second the notion of retributive punishment remains, yet the death penalty can no longer be admitted. Finally, what was once not malum in se, now called “inadmissible,” is now an intrinsically evil act, or at least very close to it.

There is another view of Francis’s writings which I call the continuous or prudential view. It asserts that Francis has not changed or overturned the previous teachings of St. John Paul II, though some will use the term “development”. The is the view of Dr. Steven Long. He notes that, whether we applaud or lament the Catechism’s update under Francis, the “claim of essential doctrinal change is gravely misleading.”[12] Though he is reserved and worried about the change in the catechism, in a similar way to how St. Newman theologically supported but was prudentially worried about the declaration of papal infallibility of Vatican I, he clearly argues that one cannot interpret this change as the interpretation of discontinuity does. Long lays out three reasons, two of which apply to our situation: the context of interpretation and the prudential nature of the argument.

First, he argues, the teaching of “‘inadmissibility’ is expressly predicated on a composite prudential antecedent judgement (indeed ‘inadmissibility’ is a legal and prudential term.” Of the three reasons the CCC gives for supporting the inadmissibility, two of them, those regarding the “significance of penal sanctions” and “effective” prisons, are clearly prudential matters. While they are the case now, they may not always. As prudential decisions are subject to falsification and circumstance, they cannot be always and everywhere binding. They follow an “if, then” logic. If it is the case that penal sanctions are not significant for moral instruction and that prisons are effective then, and only then, would capital punishment be inadmissible. This is not the same as accusing the death penalty of being an intrinsically evil act.[13]

Second, all Church teaching, he asserts, must be read and interpreted in the context of what has came before. This is the assumed method of belonging to a body with a handed down tradition of teaching. It would be wrong to read Chalcedon as divorced from Nicaea, as it the human nature Christ somehow indicated that He was not consubstantial with the Father. Thus, Long argues, we read and understand Pope Francis’s writings only considering and through those of St. John Paul II and that which comes before. It follows from this interpretive key that Francis’s writings cannot be a break or essential change from John Paul II’s.[14] As the document which announces the catechism change itself notes that it is “following in the footsteps of the teaching of John Paul II,” it follows that Francis and the CDF see this teaching as furthering, not contradicting John Paul II.[15] The teaching of St. John Paul II, as was show above, is that the death penalty, while not advisable, is at least permissible (or admissible) in certain situations for the defense of the individual or society, that is, that capital punishment is not intrinsically evil. Long notes that “Church has taught for two millennia that the death penalty is essentially valid,” including though Scripture, popes, catechisms, the early Fathers, and Aquinas.[16] To call capital punishment intrinsically evil would be to commit heresy, assert that the ordinary moral magisterium is merely a matter of ecclesial will, and create a “nihilistic voluntarism” view which is incompatible with Catholicism.[17]

In Long’s view we must decidedly reject the notion that “inadmissible” is theologically equivalent to “intrinsically wrong.” Rather, we ought to believe that the development that Francis proposes following John Paul II is merely a further restriction of the previous pope’s criteria. While the world was such that the previous catechism allowed for the death penalty in rare circumstances, the universal situation of the world now such that, according to Pope Francis, there is no longer the possibility for the circumstances necessary for the death penalty to be used. As noted above, this is a prudential judgement which is falsifiable. If Pope Francis is, or St. John Paul II was, wrong about the circumstances, if the death penalty is not necessary for the defense of the nation, then their respective conclusions would be invalid. To use one hyperbolic example, if a technology such as teleportation became available so that imprisonment was no longer possible, then Catholics could rightly conclude that the premises of the popes’ prudential judgement were now false and capital punishment could be widely practiced.

As would be expected by this point, the principles one draws from Long’s understanding of Francis are different from those of the interpretation of discontinuity. First, Long argues, Francis thinks that the death penalty must always avoided because it is the pope’s judgement that current circumstances no longer require it. Second, retributive justice remains the primary focus, yet the situation is such according the pope’s judgment that recourse to execution is not a necessary response of retribution. Third, “inadmissible” does not refer to intrinsic evil, merely to a prudential judgement based upon penal systems and prison effectiveness.

III. Newman’s Tests for Development

Given the two views of the difference between St. John Paul II and Pope Francis, the argument now brings into conversation the locus classicus of doctrinal development, Newman’s On the Development of Christian Doctrine. In this apologetic work, Newman argues for why Rome and not Canterbury or any other place, is the continuation of the church of early Christianity. Development is seen as the continual unfolding of a core idea, creating both ongoing continuity and difference. While Newman wisely gives no hard-set formulas for distinguishing between authentic development and corruption, he does give seven “tests,” rough criteria that are often applied post hoc. These are, in order: preservation of idea, continuity of principles, power of assimilation, early anticipation, logical sequence, preservative additions, and chronic perseverance. The argument at hand will focus upon criteria two, four, and six, the most helpful and simple to apply here. Three and five will be difficult to apply in this specific case; not enough time has occurred for seven to be viable; and one Newman himself notes requires something almost impossible to possess, “an insight into the essential idea.”[18]

The second criterion notes that in all true developments the same principles will apply before and after the development; the destruction of principles is evidence of a corruption. Doctrines are to principles as are mathematical definitions to their axioms and postulates. However, retaining principles alone is not enough for a true development, for “Pagans may have, heretics cannot have, the same principles as Catholics…” A Christian revelation, such as transubstantiation, may be grounded in Aristotelian principles, but it does not follow that the ideas of Aristotelians are authentic developments of Christian thought. Rather, Newman says, a faithful development must “retain both the doctrine and the principle with which it started.”[19] Since transubstantiation follows the general principle that philosophical reason, to an extent, can explain revelation and follows the doctrine of the True Presence, it would be an example of true development.

Newman’s fourth test is early anticipation. This criterion states that one ought to be able to see moments of prefigurements in the history of an authentic development. This is because “developments are in great measure only aspects of the idea from which they come, and all of them are natural consequences of it.” For an analogous example, one may think of how St. Ignatius went from a worldly soldier fighting for the honor of his king and the praise of others to the saintly “soldier” who does all for the greater glory of God. One sees in his desire for martial honor an early example of the zeal he would have in fighting for Christ’s kingdom. Yet, this example falls short in some ways. The early anticipation about which Newman speaks requires a “definite anticipation at an early period in the history of the idea to which it belongs.”[20]  Regarding a definite anticipation, the apologist of papal infallibility may point one to the “Council of Jerusalem” in Acts 15 where James considers the words of (Pope) Peter to be on a near equal standard to the words of the prophets. The binding words of Peter are an example of the early anticipation of ex cathedra papal statements.

The sixth and final test discussed here is that of preservative addition. As development occurs, argues Newman, we ought to expect more teachings, teachings which build upon that which has come before. Transubstantiation does not reject the True Presence, but adds something to it, it adds and preserves. As a true development, it “illustrates” and “corroborates” the truth of the True Presence. This contrasts with a corruption. Corruption “contradicts,” “reverses,” “corrects” and “obscures” that which came before. Matin Luther’s On the Bondage of the Will, as much as the man himself tries to stay faithful to Augustine, ultimately “obscures” his teachings on free will and is thus a corruption of him. In sum, “a developed doctrine which reverses the course of development which has preceded it, is no true development but a corruption.”[21]

Of Newman’s seven tests for development or corruption, we have chosen three. The second test states that developments ought to share the same principles and doctrines as their starting points. The fourth test requires that there be definite anticipation of the new doctrine before the development occurs. The sixth test states that all authentic developments preserve the previous doctrines; anything which reverses, contradicts, or corrects what came before is a corruption.

IV. Newman’s Tests Applied to the Two Interpretations of Francis

The argument will now compare Long’s prudential interpretation of Francis and the interpretation of discontinuity considering the teaching of St. John Paul II and Newman’s tests. The previous pope’s teaching asserted that the death penalty is to be avoided when the state can fulfill its duty of justice and safety by other means. The interpretation of discontinuity holds that since other means can always procure this justice and safety and so the death penalty is no longer needed. The prudential interpretation asserts that capital punishment ought to be avoided because the pope has judged that contemporary circumstances do not require it. Note that by inserting the clause “by the pope’s personal judgement” into the discontinuous interpretation, an addition which does not substantially change the meaning of that interpretation we have two interpretations of Francis which are markedly similar. Both assert that Francis thinks that the world is now in a place where the goods secured by capital punishment can be secured by other means. The principle and doctrine of circumstantial licitness present in St. John Paul II’s teaching remains. In the previous pope, there is definite anticipation for the prudential inadmissibility of the death penalty, insofar as his case against its use was based upon circumstantial criteria. Finally, the interpretations of Pope Francis preserve the previous teaching that circumstances can limit the application of capital punishment. On this point, both are true developments

The second distilled teaching of the previous pope is that retributive justice is the primary point of punishment, and this justice sometimes requires the grave punishment of execution. The discontinuous interpretation affirms that retributive justice is exists and is primary yet asserts that the death penalty cannot be used. The prudential interpretation also affirms the primary focus of retribution and holds that Francis has circumstantially determined that the contemporary world does not require this gravity of retribution. Here we have a real difference between the two interpretations. Both retain John Paul II’s principle of retributive justice. Yet neither the discontinuous interpretation, nor Francis himself, explain how retributive recourse to the death penalty is now no longer legitimate. The prudential interpretation comes close to failing this test as well, insofar as Francis’s circumstantial determination may be incorrect. However, since nothing prevents a pope from being incorrect in this manner, the prudential interpretation barely passes this test. When one assumes the possibility that Francis’s fallible judgement that retributive execution may be incorrect, the prudential interpretation can also pass the fourth and sixth tests. Insofar as we see neither definite anticipation of a divorce between retributive punishment and execution nor do we see in the discontinuous interpretation the preservation of the connection between retribution and execution present in John Paul II’s teaching, according to Newman, we must reject the discontinuous interpretation on this front.

The third teaching of St. John Paul II is that legitimate execution is not an intrinsically evil act. The discontinuous interpretation holds a very close connection between “inadmissible” and intrinsically evil, possibly equating the two.[22] Long’s prudential position argues that inadmissible merely refers to a prudential judgement based upon penal systems and prison effectiveness. Regardless of principle, naming something equivalent to intrinsically evil which was not before is not a continuity of doctrine. Further, John Paul II’s specifically does not call the death penalty an intrinsic evil, so there is no definite anticipation. Finally, even if inadmissible only means something close to intrinsically wrong, this would certainly qualify as obscuring if not contradicting or reversing what came before. On the other hand, and similar to the application of Newman to second teaching of St. John Paul II immediately above, insofar as Francis’s “inadmissible” is a prudential judgement about which he can be incorrect, Long’s prudential interpretation passes as a legitimate development.

According to Newman’s criteria, we are left with rejecting the discontinuous view and just barely accepting the prudential view as it allows for Pope Francis to be incorrect on several prudential and circumstantial matters. I will readily admit that I do not find this conclusion satisfying, and yet it is the one with which I am left and to which the argument has led. An acceptance of authentic development which so strongly hinges its argument on the existence fallible and merely prudential judgements of the pope, and which seems to read against the prima faciae sense of the text is a tenuous acceptance at best.

I see at least further three possible paths for discovering the truth. First, another scholar may see things which I have missed and wish to reapply Newman’s tests to his understandings of the teachings of Francis in relation to St. John Paul II. While I readily admit that I may have missed important points, I find it difficult to see how a satisfying resolution may be given per Newman to two teachings which seem so in contrast, especially in the sense of the retributive possibility of execution and that the death penalty was previously not an intrinsically evil act. Second, we may reject Newman as an authority and create our own criteria. A possible if daunting task. How one will be able to create a system which accounts for the doctrinal developments thus far, including that of Francis, while also avoiding the notion that magisterial truth is merely an ever changeable expression of ecclesiastical will is beyond my imagination, let alone capacity. I expect this task, if it is ever to be resolved, to be given a resolution by the next doctor of the church. Thirdly, we may hope for a clarification from Rome which solves the issue of development by means of something other than a claim of development asserted by fiat, a hope, which for now, sadly remains only a hope.

Bibliography

Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text of John Paul II. 2nd ed., Washington DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1997.

Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. “New Revision of Number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Death Penalty.” Vatican City Press, May 11th, 2018.

Fesser, Edward. “Pope Francis and Capital Punishment.” First Things Online. August 3rd, 2018.

Francis, Pope. Amoris Laetitia [Encyclical Letter on Love in the Family]. Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2016.

Fratelli Tutti [Encyclical Letter on Fraternity and Social Friendship] (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2020),

John Paul II, Pope. Evangelium Vitae [Encyclical Letter on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life]. Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1995.

Veritatis Splendor [Encyclical Letter on the Splendor of Truth] (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1993), 80.

Long, Stephen A. “Magisterial Irresponsibility.” First Things 286 (October 2018): 41-45.

Newman, John Henry. An Essay on the Development of Doctrine. 2nd ed. London: Cross Reach Publications, 2018.


[1] The question of an authentic development from the pre-conciliar era to that of St. John Paul II, though an important question which will be touched upon indirectly, is well beyond the scope of this paper.

[2] Edward Fesser, “Pope Francis and Capital Punishment,” First Things Online (August 3rd, 2018).

[3] Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae [Encyclical Letter on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life] (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1995), 27.

[4] John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 56.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church: Revised in Accordance with the Official Latin Text of John Paul II, 2nd ed. (Washington DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1997), 2266.

[6] CCC, 2267.

[7] Pope John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor [Encyclical Letter on the Splendor of Truth] (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1993), 80.

[8] Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia [Encyclical Letter on Love in the Family] (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2016), 83.

[9] Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, “New Revision of Number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Death Penalty,” Vatican City Press, May 11th, 2018. The quotation at the end of the Catechism’s section comes from a public address Pope Francis gave in 2017.

[10] Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti [Encyclical Letter on Fraternity and Social Friendship] (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2020), 263-4, 267-8

[11] See “Development on the Death Penalty” and Kevin Clark, “Pope Francis Revises Teaching: ‘No Exceptions’ on Catholic Rejection of Death Penalty,” both in America 219, no. 4 (August 20, 2018) page 9 and 16-17 respectively.

[12] Stephen A Long, “Magisterial Irresponsibility,” First Things 286 (October 2018): 42. While Long’s arguments pertain to the Catechism, they apply equally well to Francis’s AL and TF.

[13] Long, “Irresponsibility,” 42.

[14] Long, “Irresponsibility,” 42. Though a good principle, Long’s lack of greater nuance leaves him open to arguments which advocate change by considering the Church’s teaching on slavery (such as Noonan’s A Church that Can and Cannot Change), usury, or other similar areas.

[15] Congregation, “New Revision,” paragraph 7.

[16] For a discussion of past teaching see Christian E Brugger, Capital Punishment and the Roman Catholic Moral Tradition (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014) and Edward Fesser and Joseph Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood be Shed: a Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017). Brugger argues for the death penalty as malum in se while Fesser and Bessette, like Long, think that the licetness of capital punishment in itself is an irreformable part of the Ordinary Magisterium.

[17] Long, “Irresponsibility,” 42.

[18] John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Doctrine, 2nd ed, (London: Cross Reach Publications, 2018), chapter 1, section 3, paragraph 2.

[19] Newman, Essay, chapter 1, section 3, paragraphs 3-4,

[20] Newman, Essay, chapter 1, section 3, paragraph 6.

[21] Newman, Essay, chapter 1, section 3, paragraph 8.

[22] Proponents of this position usually avoid the usage of morally absolute language, and so deciphering them may be difficult. One exception is Christian Brugger who argues that the teaching of John Paul II implicitly denotes capital punishment as intrinsically evil. See his book mentioned in note 16 or “Rejecting the Death penalty, Continuity and Change in Roman Catholic Moral Tradition,” Heythrop Journal 49. No. 3 (May 2008): 388-404.

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2 Responses

  1. It’s interesting that Scripture does not restrict the use of the death penalty only to the state; but it can also be used by individuals: and for crimes other than murder.
    God told Noah and his sons: “And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man” (Genesis 9:5-6).
    In Numbers 25:7-12, after Phinehas thrust his javelin into two people in a single thrust because of idolatry, God rewarded him with the covenant of peace.

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