Friday, August 3, 2018

The Death Penalty and the Development of Doctrine

In his 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II famously included slavery among "the acts which, in the Church's moral tradition, have been termed "intrinsically evil" (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances" (VS 81). Referencing the obvious fact that slavery had widely been accepted as just part of the way things were for most of human history, John Noonan, in A Church Than Can and Cannot Change (2005), described the Pope as having "discovered" the intrinsic evil of slavery. Sarcasm aside, Noonan was trying to come to terms and deal directly with the clearly complicated question of doctrinal development, when something like slavery, once widely seen as normal, has become certainly sinful, and when something like charging interest, once certainly seen as sinful, has become not so.

Such questions will undoubtedly appear again in connection with Pope Francis' apparently definitive proscription of capital punishment.  Actually, that doctrinal development has been in process for several decades now. The Catechism of the Council of Trent, promulgated by Pope Saint Pius V in 1566, clearly recognized the State's power to execute criminals, a teaching the "general and abiding validity" of which Pope Pius XII affirmed as recently as 1955. The 1983 Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 2267), however, expressed a much more nuanced view of the legitimacy of capital punishment, affirming it in theory but then in practice somewhat limiting what had been affirmed. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II went further, stating that the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent," and the Catechism's text was subsequently amended to reflect that added nuance. 

Now it has been amended again, eliminating any nuance. The amended text of section 2267 now states:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, 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.

This felicitous formulation avoids "intrinsic evil" language and the problems inevitably associated with that approach. It thus also avoids the popular contemporary tendency to pass ex post facto judgments on previous generations. It acknowledges that the death penalty used to be considered "appropriate" and "acceptable" but now no longer will be - because of "an increasing awareness" and "a new understanding." The long-term effect of thus incorporating concepts like "an increasing awareness" and "a new understanding" into the Church's moral pronouncements at such a high level remains to be seen, but seems likely to be significant.

As with slavery, this doctrinal development follows and aligns with an already changed secular outlook in most Western societies. Here, however, the U.S. remains something of an exception. It will be most likely in the U.S., if anywhere, that there may be some strong expressions of dissent from the Pope's pronouncement, perhaps especially in those circles that have sought in recent decades to realign Catholicism with the ideology of one particular political party. That strange alliance may in turn help maintain the US in its outlier position versus the rest of the world on the question of capital punishment, while in the process unfortunately continuing to diminish the Church's already fragile moral voice and standing in the US. 

In contrast, Pope Francis, who has already undertaken to reinvigorate the Church's moral voice and standing in the wider world by confronting this century's challenge of climate change and "caring for our common home" (an effort nobly begun by his predecessor, Pope Benedict), has taken yet another powerful step in that direction with this latest challenge to American exceptionalism.

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