Many people argue that the rescript issued on August 2, which changed Paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to call the death penalty “inadmissible,” was a change of doctrine. In fact, some have gone so far as to treat it as a heresy on a level with denying the divinity of Christ. One writer nastily asserted that the rescript was intended to distract us from the current round of sexual scandals cropping up in the wake of Abp. Theodore McCarrick’s fall from power. Others less hysterically inclined have noted that the new formulation avoids calling capital punishment intrinsically evil, and suggest that there may be some latitude in how the faithful may accept it.
But before we can answer whether the rescript (titled Ex Audentia Sanctissimi) changed doctrine, we must first ask whether the prior teaching was in fact doctrine. Put differently, the controversy likely stems from imprecise, even sloppy use of language and a false association of age with necessity or permanence. Doctrine comes from the Latin doctrina, “teaching;” however, not everything the Church teaches is doctrine. Take a walk with me to see why.
Dogma, Doctrine, and Theological Certainty
First, let’s consider the matters of dogma, doctrine, and theological certainty. The Glossary of the Catechism defines both doctrine and dogma the same way: “The revealed teachings of Christ which are proclaimed by the fullest extent of the exercise of the authority of the Church’s Magisterium. The faithful are obliged to believe the truths or dogmas contained in divine Revelation and defined by the Magisterium” (p. 875; cf. CCC 88).
Paragraph 90 reminds us of a truth spoken of in Unitatis Redintegratio, the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism: “When comparing doctrines with one another, [theologians] should remember that in Catholic doctrine there exists a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the fundamental Christian faith” (UR 11.3; cf. CCC 90). This hierarchy exists because the Church hasn’t given everything she has proposed for belief over the centuries that fullest exercise of her authority. Not everything she teaches or has ever taught is infallible and irreformable, nor is everything she teaches so fundamental that change is unacceptable.
It might be much to expect that either a pope or a council would have dogmatically defined the prior teaching on capital punishment since historically such extraordinary action has only occurred after a teaching has been heavily disputed for some time. But we should expect it at minimum to be “intrinsically connected with the truths of the Revelation so that [its] denial would undermine the revealed truths” (Ludwig Ott, The Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 8). If its theological weight isn’t de fide (“of the faith”), then, it must be at least a sententia certa (“fixed opinion”). (See Ott, pp. 6-10)
Age and Doctrine
The age of a teaching doesn’t by itself give it the infallibility or the necessity which demands dogmatic permanence. Even within the Church, “This is the way we’ve always done it” is not a sufficient argument; it’s not what we ordinarily mean by tradition. You must show that the teaching is grounded in the Revelation in such a way that it can’t be changed without imperiling the gospel message. Here a good example is Pope St. John Paul II’s apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone, 1994), which built on arguments previously advanced in the CDF declaration Inter Insigniores (On the Question of Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, 1976).
The fact that God permitted specific things within the Law of Moses has not proven to be an impediment to change, either. In his dogmatic teaching against divorce (Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-9), Jesus indicated that not everything permissible under the Law of Moses was intended from the beginning of creation or would continue to be permitted within the kingdom. In fact, while the Law of Moses is an important moral and cultural resource, Gentiles have not been juridically bound to it since the Council of Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15). Two examples will suffice:
- The Law of Moses specifically demands death for men who have sex with each other (Leviticus 20:13). But St. Paul argued that baptism in Christ’s death freed homosexuals from acting on their desires and thus opened heaven to them (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, esp. “And this is what some of you used to be”). The Church, while still holding homosexual desire to be disordered and gay sex to be sinful, demands that those with same-sex attraction “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided” (CCC 2358).
- The Law of Moses permitted slavery, albeit with restrictions not found elsewhere in Mediterranean society. The early Church took no radical steps to overturn the institution; indeed, both Jesus and St. Paul used slavery as a metaphor for proper service to God. However, from the very beginning, Christians viewed slaves and their masters as equals, which sowed the earliest seeds of change. (Read Paul Allard’s Catholic Encyclopedia article for a thumbnail sketch of the Church’s long, slow growth.) The Church now regards chattel slavery as a sin against the Seventh Commandment (CCC 2414).
Of course, it doesn’t follow of necessity from any of the foregoing arguments that old doctrines are false doctrines. If the appeal to age is a logical fallacy, so are appeals to novelty and to chronological snobbery. For instance, while the Church now explicitly defends the dignity and equality of women, no ingenious twisting of this defense will convince her that abortion is anything other than an offense against the Fifth Commandment, as she has held from the beginning: “This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable” (CCC 2271). The teaching against abortion is not a “policy”—it is dogma.
“A Long-Standing Conventional Opinion”
For all that the Church has accepted capital punishment over the last 2,000 years, that acceptance has never been based, so far as I know, on a presumed intrinsic connection with the doctrine of revelation. The teaching has traded on the fact that, in the Old Testament, God commanded death in retribution for grave sins. However, the one recorded time that God Incarnate had the opportunity to enforce His law as a rabbinical judge, He turned it against the accusers: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:2-11).
Jesus did not dispute the fact of the woman’s sin; he did not abrogate the Law which penalized that sin with death. But he challenged the right of sinners to execute other sinners. The Law of Moses would no longer be the basis of our relationship with God, who does not desire our deaths any more than He desires blood sacrifice.
If we simply used doctrine to distinguish the reformable from the irrevocable or to cover everything the Church teaches regardless of permanence, only in those senses could we call the prior teaching about capital punishment doctrine. If, however, we mean teachings that “are proclaimed by the fullest extent of the exercise of the authority of the Church’s Magisterium” (i.e., synonymous with dogma)—then the acceptance of capital punishment was never a doctrine per se. It was at best a sententia communis, a conventional opinion the Magisterium endorsed for many centuries, but with increasing reluctance in the last twenty-five years.
Following this line of reasoning, then, the rescript doesn’t “change doctrine” because there was no doctrine—in the technical sense—to change. The Church’s magisterial power to bind and loose (cf. Matthew 16:19, 18:18) implies the power to propose revisions to existing teachings so far as they haven’t already been concretized by formal definition. Moreover, it’s within the scope of the pope’s role as both supreme teacher and supreme legislator to propose such changes if they lead to a better understanding of the gospel message. No harm, no foul; the rescript is neither a heresy nor an excess of authority.
To say that the rescript is neither a heresy nor an excess of authority, however, is not to say it’s without its problems. Indeed, the only indisputable fact it asserts is that “the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes;” if that dignity could be lost or surrendered, it wouldn’t be intrinsic. [Full disclosure: The author is against the death penalty.] The rescript’s airy generalizations about a “new understanding” of penal sanctions and “more effective systems of detention” simply beg for a systematic, substantive defense—preferably ghost-written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
This is actually the second time CCC 2267 has been revised to reflect development in the Church’s thinking about capital punishment. I don’t expect a future rescript to reverse it; I would hope that a future revision will place the change on more solid, defensible grounds. But while the change is (still) not doctrinal, we are (still) called to give it our religious assent (CCC 892; cf. Lumen Gentium 25). This requires that we place our trust, not in Pope Francis, but in the promises Christ made to St. Peter and the apostles, especially that the gates of Hell will never overcome His Church (Matthew 16:18).