Death in question

The mild Sydney winter seems to help me get my rant on. Ranting via a tablet, however, leads to many a typo. Swings and roundabouts I guess…

The last 24 hours we’ve been hearing about the change to the text to the Catechism of the Catholic Church proposed by Rome to reflect the current papal attitude to the death penalty.

To be frank, this does not particularly worry me per se. Church moral teaching once encompassed slavery, now it definitively rejects it. Church teaching has encompassed capital punishment hitherto, but the recent magisterium has not looked positively on it. My approach to capital punishment is conflicted. For example I can see a case for capital punishment to ensure public protection from a violent, murderous offender whose guilt is incontrovertible. Likewise, genocide seems to merit the ultimate sanction. Again, guilt should be incontrovertible.

This leads into my own doubts about capital punishment. The execution of an innocent person is a grave wound to society and its trust in the law. The old maxim that it is better that the guilty go free than the innocent be condemned seems to have been totally forgotten. Public clamour for the death penalty in individual cases had little to do with justice and much to do with vengeance. Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. Our Lord rejected the prevailing principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

None of this is to reject the theological possibility of capital punishment per se. My fear is that the proposed changes to the Catechism go too far and say too much, and in terms too narrow. It seems more prudent to hold the modern understanding in a thought-provoking tension with the traditional teaching in the Catechism’s text.

Looking at this more contextually, perhaps an even greater concern is the phenomenon of change itself. Since the middle of the twentieth century the Church has suffered as constant, and often quite bewildering and ultimately unnecessary series of changes to teaching and liturgy. Large scale change leads to an expectation of more. And more. Everything is perceived, often wrongly, as open to change. When change is valued for its own sake, nothing is safe. Recently Professor Stephen Bullivant, and other commentators, have noted how the negative reaction to Humanae Vitae in 1968 was conditioned by the widespread expectation of change in Church teaching on artificial contraception, an expectation fostered and exacerbated by the dizzying changes unleashed on the Church in the 1960s. Thus, this change to the text of the Catechism appears as a regrettable perpetuation of a culture, a hermeneutic, of change. It is not what we need right now.

This morning, at Berkelouw Books (a Sydney institution) I secured a copy of Greg Sheridan’s God is Good For You: A Defence of Christianity in Troubled Times. The introduction deals with the decline of Christianity in the West and the intolerance western society manifests towards it and indeed all religious faith that is not affirming of the secular agenda. His introduction’s relatively brief and sweeping statistical analysis of the decline in the West is a useful appetiser to Professor Bullivant’s forthcoming book Mass Exodus, which will offer a rigorous, detailed and academic statistical analysis of the Western decline of Catholicism in particular. But Mr Sheridan also neatly summarises the historical milestones in the gradually increasing marginalisation of Christianity in western culture since the Renaissance.

Mr Sheridan predicts that faith will not die but that it will become a more personalized, more isolated phenomenon:

God will not be dead to individuals, but he will be hiding in our society, banished from public consciousness. Rumours of his presence, reported sightings—firing glimpses—will persist, but the public culture will be inattentive at best, abusive at worst. (p2)

This is not the tragedy it appears at first to be. Many date the decline in the evangelical and prophetical vitality of the Christian faith and the Church to the establishment of Christianity in the Roman empire by Constantine. Establishment is not necessarily a good thing for Christianity. It should be in the world but never of the world. It should be, and indeed is, radically countercultural. Christians should never feel at home in the world, should feel that in this life we have no abiding city other than in the Church and its supernatural mission and promise. As the world hated Christ so it must hate us, for the servants are not greater than the Master.

The modern marginalisation of Christianity in an ever more overtly and aggressively secularized western society, and in a wider world context of a resurgent and no less aggressive Islam, offers us an opportunity. God will not die, nor will faith. Instead nominalism in religious identity will die. To identify as Christian will be to court the world’s contempt and to undertake a lonelier, purer, more radical, more total commitment to Christ and his Body. It will require the witness of a closer following of Christian teaching, of a more comprehensive sincerity, of a gentle but unyielding refusal to compromise truth. It will require sanctity, the sanctity that comes from the Cross, of martyrdom, be it the red martyrdom of violent persecution or the white martyrdom of social opprobrium. It will require the recovery of the essentials that were jettisoned in the largely, and tragically, misguided attempt to woo modern western society and culture that has further scarred the Body of Christ from the mid-twentieth century onwards.

More and more I am becoming reconciled to the decline of Christianity in the West, not as something desirable in itself but as something necessary in our context. The insecurity of our modern situation will provide fertile soil for a more vigorous and more honest evangelism and witness. Christian faith will cease, has ceased, to be a consoling socio-cultural inheritance and become, again, a challenging and costly commitment demanding radical witness and radical worship.

Christianity is, by definition, intrinsically countercultural in a fallen world, and in this fallen world it should never be, can never be, at home, until the world has become a new creation, the New Jerusalem.

Be gentle on the typos; it’s late.


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  1. “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. Our Lord rejected the prevailing principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Did He? He was surely inviting His followers to suffer evil for the world’s redemption, but He was not altering laws which uphold justice. God’s sun indeed shines on the just and the unjust – but His plumb line sharply distinguishes the latter from the former. It’s apt to quote His word on vengeance, but not to imply blurring of justice, but to stress that justice is done through the legal system, never by personal retaliation. Primarily, that was what Jesus here was addressing: the widespread sin of vengeance, vendetta, ‘rendering evil for evil’.

    1. In a world when the instruments of justice were fewer and more flawed its execution was more localised, more devolved, more inconsistent and more prone to excess and abuse, the Jewish principle indeed was a call to proportionality in justice so that it would not become injustice, a new crime and an infringement on the sovereign rights of God. That seems to me the proper context for understanding our Lord’s teaching.

      The death penalty does not “uphold justice” at all; it is a particular application of justice which he calls his disciples to move beyond. Witness the woman taken in adultery.

      But this is straining at gnats. I do not reject the traditional teaching out of hand. Add I did I’m conflicted regarding it. But its advocates in modern society far too often speak from a position of vengeance not justice, and the media enables a larger and louder mob. We live in a society in which the instruments of justice are more pervasive and more accessible. They are certainly not perfect of course. But that capital punishment is intrinsic and essential to justice, be it civil or divine, had yet to be proved to my satisfaction. Note to that of recent popes it seems.

      Of course, my point was not about capital punishment per se, and you seem to have ignored that. Your prerogative, of course, I guess.

  2. How casually you write of changes in the Church’s moral teaching. How exactly did “Church moral teaching once encompass[] slavery?” Was it binding magisterial teaching? If you’re right, what comfort is there in Christ’s promise to be with us to the end of the age? I don’t believe the change to the CCC is magisterial, but it’s getting harder and harder to see the truth, and you’re casual treatment of the matter isn’t helping.

    1. Kate, do your own homework and look up the history of the Church’s approach to slavery, which was to tolerate and moderate it rather than approve it. Capital punishment is on the same level of teaching. It is not of dogmatic weight in Church teaching. To say I write casually of it is absurd. Do not mistake brevity for casualness. Do not mistake my apparent disagreement with you as casualness. If that is so then you must accuse Benedict XVI and St John Paul II of casualness as well.

      And given Christ’s approach to capital punishment in both word and action, to equate the teaching on capital punishment with his promise to remain with his Church to the end of time reflects a real trivialisation of the Lord’s promise and a deification of capital punishment that are a far greater affront to both faith and reason.

      I’m far from perfect but you might try to do what I was trying to do in my post: seeking not to confuse my personal opinion with timeless Church teaching. Furthermore, tag the rest of the post and take note of the point I was actually trying to make.

      1. And given Christ’s approach to capital punishment in both word and action, to equate the teaching on capital punishment with his promise to remain with his Church to the end of time reflects a real trivialisation of the Lord’s promise and a deification of capital punishment that are a far greater affront to both faith and reason.

        I think you’re missing the thrust of the objection here. The Church’s position since at least the fourth century has been that the death penalty is licit in principle (even those authors who thought non-lethal punishments were better agreed to this); more than this, opposing the in-principle liceity of capital punishment was generally considered a mark of heresy. If the Church screwed up so badly that for 1700+ years Jesus’ real teaching was considered heretical, how on earth can anybody take seriously her claims to divine inspiration?

      2. I got the sense you were being casual about the matter from this: “To be frank, this does not particularly worry me per se.” I’m glad I was wrong about that. I do not particularly understand (and was not commenting on) the connection you’re trying to draw between the assumption of change and your appreciation of a smaller, purified (?) Church as a good position for evangelization.

        I am, however, concerned about what the Pope’s new teaching says about the reliability of Church teaching generally – or at least the Pope’s understanding of it. I think “Padre Peregrino” makes a good argument that the death penalty is authorized by Sacred Scripture: (The blog also nicely shows that the CCC is not binding.) My interest is not in defending the death penalty but with the idea that (as theoriginalmrx notes) the Pope is now saying something is immoral which the Church (Sacred Scripture) held moral before, and this calls into question the role of the Holy Spirit. You gave me pause when you said that Church teaching once “encompassed” slavery, but now I see that you meant “tolerate.” I have faith that the Holy Spirit is with the Church, notwithstanding the Pope’s change, as the Pope isn’t telling the faithful to stop doing something they were required to do. However, the Pope seems not to believe that the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church, or he wouldn’t presume to try to make the change.

        1. A few considerations, in no particular order.

          Indeed the CCC is not binding as it is not a legislative or definitive text in the proper sense of those adjectives. The CCC is a summary of doctrine though it is intended to be authoritative as such. This is why I am not too worked up about the change. One does not change doctrine by fiddling with a paragraph of the CCC. One can cause confusion by doing so, however, and one can make prudential errors of equal significance.

          The teaching on capital punishment, like teachings on usury or slavery, are not of dogmatic status and are to be interpreted and applied contextually. As circumstances change so too may the application of a teaching.

          The Old Law prohibited usury except when exacted from foreigners. The early Church condemned in clear terms the charging of interest on loans. Clearly the Church was thinking of the poor, to protect them from greed. But loans are not what they used to be. If I put money in a bank account that is a loan, and the bank pays me interest. That is to my advantage. The strictures on usury surely do not apply. Was the Church wrong before? Of course not.

          Capital punishment is likewise subject to context for its application. It remains in principle legitimate. But in practice its application should be extremely rare. Our Lord did not challenge the sentence of death for adultery in principle in the episode of the woman taken in adultery. What he did challenge was the context: where was the male offender? how did she come to act adulterously? was she truly free? to what extent should sinners exact the ultimate punishment on others? would capital punishment actually have served justice in this instance or rather compounded sin with a graver injustice?

          It strikes me that today, with our systems of prisons and the reality of lifelong secure detention, the need for capital punishment is greatly reduced. God does not require it to protect his honour. His self-abasement in the incarnation and the cross show that he has no need of our fickle regard for his honour. Islam seems yet to learn this.

          The continuing legitimacy of capital punishment probably lies in its aspect of self defence. There are some whose offence is so gross, and the likelihood of its repetition so great even in prison, that the welfare of all, including the offender, is better served by capital punishment. Even then, the guilt must be proved beyond any doubt.

          The real reason, I guess, why I do not advocate capital punishment, beyond what I have written above, is that Christians are called to a higher good. Punishment is legitimate but Christ bids us turn the other check to those who sin against us. There is also the fact that the degree to which we impose judgement on others will the degree to which judgement will be imposed on us. The Lord has said so. Vengeance can do very easily masquerade as justice.

          As a matter of practice I’m against capital punishment. I do not deny its legitimacy in principle, all things being equal. That is why I am not too exercised by the change to CCC. It is not a change of doctrine as the CCC is not a vehicle for doing so. But I do consider it imprudent, dangerously so. It reinforces the modern culture of change in the Church. It sows confusion unnecessarily. It is fiddling while Rome burns.

          No less sadly, it has provoked from some a distastefully excessive harshness of tone and attitude that raises more questions. As with those who tub-thump about guns, I’m left wondering if the concern is really one of principle, or are some making an idol out of a principle. That would be very dangerous indeed.

      3. The Church has taught the liceity of capital punishment for at least the vast majority, and possibly the entirety, of her existence (it’s difficult to tell what the teaching was in the first few centuries, or even if there was an official teaching). I just don’t see how we can say “Oh, it’s alright, that’s not a dogmatic teaching” without abandoning the whole concept of the Ordinary Magisterium. And now Francis has said that the death penalty is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”. Unless we’re meant to understand that attacking the inviolability and dignity of the person is sometimes justified, it seems clear that we’re meant to understand that the death penalty is always wrong. And that is a plain contradiction with the teachings of the Ordinary Magisterium on the matter. Sure, this doesn’t actually change doctrine, but it does mean that Francis is now teaching heresy — and that, I’d humbly submit, is indeed something to get worked up about.

        1. All taking of human life by human hands is in some sense and to some degree an imperfection, a disturbance to the divine order and the divine will as revealed. Sometimes it can be justified by the circumstances, eg just war, proportionate self-defence. These are permitted according to the right conditions, tolerated with a heavy heart. The same holds true due capital punishment. However in the modern context I see a vastly reduced justification for it. This is what the Church teaching should reflect. The formula being proposed due the CCC is woefully inadequate but it establishes no change in Church teaching in reality, and rather reflects an overstatement of opinion in a vehicle not suited to opinion. Our dues not change Church teaching. Cries of heresy are excessive and, in some cases, a little hysterical. It’s a mistake that changes nothing and can be easily undone. Of more concern to me is the imprudence of the action, and the lack of any good cause to be even considering it.

  3. Surely the strongest argument against capital punishment is that once life is taken, one cannot bring it back again. In the course of history, have there ever been cases of the wrong person condemned to the death penalty?

    1. Can I just point out that the CDF have described this as a ‘development of doctrine’.

      I am totally opposed to the death penalty, but this change to the CCC isn’t really about that at all for most Catholics. Imprudent it most certainly is, and is sending some within the Church into meltdown, coming, as it does, as yet another change pushed through by Francis. If you add things such as his comments about those attached to the EF who were born post Vatican II, as being mentally ill, and other such remarks (always aimed at those who are orthodox) then it’s hardly surprising that the camel’s back is weighed down with a great deal of spine-breaking straw!

      There’s renewed chatter about impending schism, once more, in some circles. I don’t think there’ll be any such thing; most of the solidly orthodox Catholics I know are actually going over to the Orthodox. Some, who have always rejected the SSPX out of hand, are now actually beginning to look upon them in a different light and not see them as extremists at all (more like prophetic guardians if anything!): there won’t be anyone left to go into schism!

      I would urge calm at this point. Awareness of ones own sinfulness and short-comings, coupled with the avoidance of the inflammatory websites/secular news outlets on the web which inflame and incite, and deep, deep prayer will go a long way.

  4. You have no idea, Father, how refreshing this post is in the midst of so many people getting overheated and going completely over the top about this. Which doesn’t take away that this change of the CCC is, as you say, highly imprudent. Because the subject is so complex, a lot of background knowledge is required to really appreciate that this is not, per se, a “big deal”. So much thought (and consultation) had gone into the final version of the paragraph on death penalty: why oh why was it deemed so absolutely necessary to revise it again? Have circumstances changed so drastically over the last twenty years? I just don’t get it: so much extra confusion for so little gain…

    1. Exactly; no gain, all pain. Change for change’s sake? A diversionary tactic (as some are now claiming)?

      Certainly some need to regain a sense of proportion. My faith is not founded nor affirmed by the prevailing teaching on capital punishment, though this is offering a disturbance we do not need. What the Church teaches about God, Christ, salvation, the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life—these are what ground my faith. Hopefully they do yours as well.

  5. Couldn’t have said it better. And thanks for the book suggestions. Keep them coming. Have you seen The Spectator’s article on the death of Ampleforth? Some spicy comments about the Benedictines.

  6. P.S. There is also the issue of the French version saying “mesure inhumaine” where the Latin and other vernacular languages have “inadmissible”. In fact, that is not even a translation error but a simple (and very silly) editing blunder. The wrong sentence was cut and pasted from pope Francis’s address:
    Instead of using “Il faut donc répéter que, quelque puisse être la gravité de la faute commise, la peine de mort est inadmissible car elle attente à l’inviolabilité et à la dignité de la personne”, they took “On doit affirmer avec force que la condamnation à la peine de mort est une mesure inhumaine qui blesse la dignité personnelle, quel que soit son mode opératoire”, just two paragraphs earlier! The error was most probably caused by the fact that both sentences have a similar kind of start. Still, how is it possible that this blunder was not noticed? Anyhow, it does not improve the overall impression…

  7. I’m strictly against the use of the death penalty in our rich Western democracies, as a matter of moral pragmatism (basically, we can afford to lock people up indefinitely in the hope of a reform of character and in the fear of a misjudgement). However, I agree with Ed Feser “[t]hat capital punishment can be legitimate at least in principle is a teaching that clearly meets the criteria for being an infallible and irreformable doctrine of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church” ( Hence, the previous entry in the Catechism was actually on the money, whereas the new one at best obscures the actual teaching of the Church. It is nor irrational at all to worry about that, and to question the motives of a pope doing it.

    Concerning usury, may I recommend Zippy’s usury FAQ – not necessarily as the perfect truth, but to get the idea that an actual discussion can be had on this matter in our days, and perhaps is rather necessary after all:

  8. I hope to avoid attracting opprobrium by my comments, but I have found the Catholic reaction to the Pope’s change to the Catechism to be hysterical and quite troubling. It has been very illustrative – painfully so – of cultural divides. It wasn’t prudent of the Pope to make this change, but rather it could have been better handled by a Declaration from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith treating the whole subject matter and discussing why a change to the Church’s teaching on the subject is “admissible”. Perhaps had this happened, there might have been less angst and a greater receptivity.

    Lest the gentle reader regard me as naive, I fully acknowledge that in this Pontificate, people are not taught gently, but rather shouted at. Let us not emulate these un-shepherdly ways.

    1. Nobody, neither the pope nor the CDF, can contradict what is a truth of the bible and an infallible doctrine of the ordinary magisterium. There are now three options: 1. admit the mistake, withdraw the text, do penance for the scandal, but justifiably retain office and standing, 2. squeeze every little drop of ambiguity out of the text and spin its meaning hard enough to cling to office and standing, or 3. acknowledge that this is an outright change, forfeiting office and standing before God, but relying on the timidity of men to keep them.

      Option 2 is of course most likely, but I hope for either option 1 or 3. Then at least it would be clear to me what I must do.

  9. Totally off-topic, Fr, but could you please share your thoughts with us on the WMOF in Dublin this week/end. Have you seen the vestments and Damien-Thorn-head-tattoo logo etc? It can’t just be dismissed any longer as silliness and imprudence and liberal ‘Jesus-wants-me-for-a-sunbeam’/Cliff Richard tambourine masterclass madness anymore, surely? There’s no way that this stuff is anything but intentional…


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