This headline from Religious News Service is typical of many today: “Pope Francis changes catechism to declare death penalty ‘inadmissible’.” The headline isn’t wrong, but it’s possibly misleading. It could give the impression that the pope arbitrarily changed the teaching because popes can do that to any teaching whenever the urge strikes.
It would be better to say that the pope articulated the faith of the church concerning a teaching that has developed and matured over time. To be sure, the RNS article captures some of that nuance, and notes that Pope John Paul II in 1997 changed the catechism to express the evolving understanding that capital punishment could rarely if ever be justified. And I get it that headlines have to be short and catchy (and aren’t usually written by the author of the article).
There is the issue of the morality of capital punishment, and then there is the issue of how doctrine develops. I’m concerned with the latter.
In a very important address last October at a meeting of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, Pope Francis spoke on the development of doctrine. He said in part:
Tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision regards the “deposit of faith” as something static. The word of God cannot be moth-balled like some old blanket in an attempt to keep insects at bay! No. The word of God is a dynamic and living reality that develops and grows because it is aimed at a fulfillment that none can halt. …
Doctrine cannot be preserved without allowing it to develop, nor can it be tied to an interpretation that is rigid and immutable without demeaning the working of the Holy Spirit.
It was in this address that Pope Francis wrote that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” This wording has now been taken over into the Catechism.
The magisterium spoke on the development of doctrine at the Second Vatican Council – especially in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, which Pope Francis draws upon in his address. The point is this: the Catholic Church has solemnly rejected the anti-modernist and historically indefensible position that doctrine has not changed and cannot change. The Second Vatican Council not only admitted to the historical facts on development, but more importantly, expressed the theological conviction that such development is the work of the Holy Spirit.
Very broadly, one could speak of three large attitudes tied to three eras of western and Roman Catholic church history:
- For about 1,500 years, there was massive evolution in the articulation of doctrine in ecumenical councils, teachings of bishops and popes, and writings of theologians (who were understood to be part of the magisterium in the Middle Ages). There was limited awareness of the development ever underway, partly because modern understandings of the historical science had not yet developed, partly because there wasn’t that much reason to think about an issue that hadn’t yet become controversial.
- Defensiveness was the official Roman Catholic response to the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th century, and the political revolutions of the 19th century. Development that had obviously taken place was downplayed, or even denied, and it was increasingly claimed that church teaching (in its most recent articulation) had never changed over the centuries.
- Historical honesty increasingly developed among Catholic theologians in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. This typically met with official condemnation – the low point here is the Syllabus of Errors of 1864 – but also with a bit of openness that was increasing in the decades before the Second Vatican Council, which affirmed development of doctrine.
With the Second Vatican Council, the road splits into two paths. The Catholic Church has, with a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, gone down the path of historical honesty and trust in the Spirit’s continuing presence. A small group (I can’t tell if their numbers are growing) remains committed to attitude #2 above. These are the people who will cry “heresy” at today’s change to the Catechism. They are many of the same people who condemn the reformed liturgy and speak of the Tridentine Mass, against all historical evidence, as if it were the “Mass of the Ages.” These people oftentimes use language suggesting that the old rite is “traditional” but the reformed rite is not “traditional,” which shows that their understanding of tradition is quite different from the Catholic Church’s understanding. They have gone down a different path than that of the Second Vatican Council.
In its most extreme form, this attitude combines an idolatrous attachment to the unreformed liturgy with the worldview of the Syllabus of Errors. The liturgical apex was reached in 1580, the theological apex in 1864, and both should be frozen in time and defended against all modernist innovations and developments.
There are deep interconnections between the Second Vatican Council’s teachings on revelation, its critical openness to the modern world, the development of teaching on religious liberty, the reform of the liturgy, and today’s development of teaching on capital punishment. To be sure, one may take positions of various nuance on such distinct issues. But if one’s position is principled anti-modernist opposition to development, one will have a rough go of it in the Catholic Church.
I would put it this way: the Catholic Church will return to the Tridentine liturgy as the universal standard of its lex orandi the day after it regains the Papal States. That is to say, I think that the road has split and the Catholic Church has decided its path going forward, and there is no going back. The Church’s teachings and directives on liturgy will surely continue to evolve and develop – but down its chosen path, not the other path. The liturgical reform, as Pope Francis has solemnly asserted, is irreversible.
Here’s an interesting addendum. There are hundreds of people executed in the Papal States from the 12th century until the fall of the Papal States in 1870. Among them, in the sixteenth century, are two cardinals. There was a time when popes put cardinals to death.
Featured image: Giovanni Battista Bugatti, executioner of the Papal States between 1796 and 1865, who carried out 516 executions.