Always is a Long Time

Over at Commonweal, the interpreters interpreting THE interpreter, assert something about the unchanging nature of Roman Catholic teaching:

The Catholic Church has always taught that the right to private property is never absolute, and must always be subordinated to common use—making sure that the needs of all are met. And while collectivism can elevate common use at the expense of private ownership, free-market individualism errs in the opposite direction. Writing at the time of the Great Depression, Pius XI was particularly blunt: “The right ordering of economic life cannot be left to a free competition of forces,” he said. “For from this source, as from a poisoned spring, have originated and spread all the errors of individualist economic teaching.”

The notion that the church goes back to Peter invites this notion of a long tradition of unwavering conviction. But the antiquity of Rome also invites a form of amnesia in which apologists and interpreters read the most recent back into the past. Most people suffer from this problem. Historians call it presentism. But it is a weightier matter for Roman Catholic apologists since so much of the case against Protestantism hinges on the notion that Rome has 1500 more years than Protestantism.

Yet, rarely do the historically minded do justice to the pronounced changes that have accompanied Rome’s own adaptation to modern life. Consider the recent “breathtaking” editorial where editors on the left and the right of matters Roman Catholic experienced a kumbayah epiphany and joined paragraphs to oppose capital punishment:

We, the editors of four Catholic journals — America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor — urge the readers of our diverse publications and the whole U.S. Catholic community and all people of faith to stand with us and say, “Capital punishment must end.”

The Catholic Church in this country has fought against the death penalty for decades. Pope St. John Paul II amended the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church to include a de facto prohibition against capital punishment (2263-2267). Last year, Pope Francis called on all Catholics “to fight … for the abolition of the death penalty.” The practice is abhorrent and unnecessary. It is also insanely expensive, as court battles soak up resources better deployed in preventing crime in the first place and working toward restorative justice for those who commit less heinous crimes.

This also prompted Dwight Longenecker to praise God for a kairos moment. There is nothing wrong — aside from the spirituality of the church — with Roman Catholics opposing the death penalty. It’s a free country and if you’re going to be in the business of editorializing about everything and sundry in the name of Christ, why stop now?

The problem is that the meme of antiquity obscures level headed reflection on what the church has “always” taught and even sometimes did. The much longer history of Christianity indicates that Roman Catholics (Protestants too) not only supported capital punishment but that popes as temporal rulers oversaw the execution of persons who committed capital offenses. I can’t vouch for the accuracy, though the material is plausible, but here is a list of the criminals executed during the reign of the Roman pontiff as a temporal or civil authority. It is long, maybe not as long as that for other kingdoms or nations, but if true in the context of the recent editorial it calls to mind Captain Renault’s shock to learn that gambling was taking place in Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca.

Numbers like this may explain why John Allen was could write the way he did about John Paul II’s change on capital punishment:

So strong had Italian aversion to capital punishment become that when an anarchist named Angelo Bresci assassinated King Umberto I in 1900, Italian courts sentenced him to life in prison. It was the first time a man had killed a European king (without toppling his regime) and not been executed.

Yet the Catholic church was never part of this development. The guillotine was busy up to the very last minute of the pope-king’s regime. Its final use came on July 9, 1870, just two months before Italian revolutionaries captured Rome.

What explains this stubbornness? In part, that Catholic standby — tradition. Christian writers since the fourth century had defended capital punishment.

St. Augustine did so in The City of God. “Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand [of God], it is in no way contrary to the commandment `Thou shalt not kill’ for the representative of the state’s authority to put criminals to death,” he wrote.

Augustine saw the death penalty as a form of charity. “Inflicting capital punishment … protects those who are undergoing it from the harm they may suffer … through increased sinning, which might continue if their life went on.”

Aquinas followed Augustine in the 13th century in Summa Contra Gentiles. “The civil rulers execute, justly and sinlessly, pestiferous men in order to protect the state,” he wrote. The Cathechism of the Council of Trent, issued in 1566, solidly endorsed capital punishment as an act of “paramount obedience” to the fifth commandment against murder.

Nor was this tradition confined to the Middle Ages. As late as Sept. 14, 1952, Pope Pius XII echoed its logic. “It is reserved to the public power to deprive the-condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already he has dispossessed himself of the right to live,” he said.

The leading abolitionists of the 18th and 19th centuries were Enlightenment-inspired critics of revealed religion. Popes defended their right to send people to death because to do otherwise seemed tantamount to abandoning belief in eternal life.

Catholic scholar James Megivern summed up the tradition this way: “If tempted to waver, one needed only to consult the bedrock authorities from Aquinas to Suarez. Questioning it could seem an act of arrogant temerity. If one did not believe in the death penalty, what other parts of the Christian faith might one also be daring or arrogant enough to doubt or deny?”

All of which makes the shift in thinking under John Paul II astonishing.

In the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, John Poul wrote that the only time executions can be justified is when they are required “to defend society,” and that “as a result of steady improvements … in the penal system such cases are very rare if not practically nonexistent.”

Not only journalists but Cardinals were surprised by the pope’s change. In a piece for First Things in April 2001, Avery Cardinal Dulles reminded the chorus of U.S. Roman Catholic death penalty opponents of their church’s history going back before Vatican II, papal social encyclicals, and the unification of Italy:

In modern times Doctors of the Church such as Robert Bellarmine and Alphonsus Liguori held that certain criminals should be punished by death. Venerable authorities such as Francisco de Vitoria, Thomas More, and Francisco Suárez agreed. John Henry Newman, in a letter to a friend, maintained that the magistrate had the right to bear the sword, and that the Church should sanction its use, in the sense that Moses, Joshua, and Samuel used it against abominable crimes.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the consensus of Catholic theologians in favor of capital punishment in extreme cases remained solid, as may be seen from approved textbooks and encyclopedia articles of the day. The Vatican City State from 1929 until 1969 had a penal code that included the death penalty for anyone who might attempt to assassinate the pope. Pope Pius XII, in an important allocution to medical experts, declared that it was reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life in expiation of their crimes.

Summarizing the verdict of Scripture and tradition, we can glean some settled points of doctrine. It is agreed that crime deserves punishment in this life and not only in the next. In addition, it is agreed that the State has authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death.

Dulles added the theological reasons for such a tradition and noted the flimsy premises for opposition to the death penalty:

To warrant this radical revision—one might almost say reversal—of the Catholic tradition, Father Concetti and others explain that the Church from biblical times until our own day has failed to perceive the true significance of the image of God in man, which implies that even the terrestrial life of each individual person is sacred and inviolable. In past centuries, it is alleged, Jews and Christians failed to think through the consequences of this revealed doctrine. They were caught up in a barbaric culture of violence and in an absolutist theory of political power, both handed down from the ancient world. But in our day, a new recognition of the dignity and inalienable rights of the human person has dawned. Those who recognize the signs of the times will move beyond the outmoded doctrines that the State has a divinely delegated power to kill and that criminals forfeit their fundamental human rights. The teaching on capital punishment must today undergo a dramatic development corresponding to these new insights.

This abolitionist position has a tempting simplicity. But it is not really new. It has been held by sectarian Christians at least since the Middle Ages. Many pacifist groups, such as the Waldensians, the Quakers, the Hutterites, and the Mennonites, have shared this point of view. But, like pacifism itself, this absolutist interpretation of the right to life found no echo at the time among Catholic theologians, who accepted the death penalty as consonant with Scripture, tradition, and the natural law.

The mounting opposition to the death penalty in Europe since the Enlightenment has gone hand in hand with a decline of faith in eternal life. In the nineteenth century the most consistent supporters of capital punishment were the Christian churches, and its most consistent opponents were groups hostile to the churches. When death came to be understood as the ultimate evil rather than as a stage on the way to eternal life, utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham found it easy to dismiss capital punishment as “useless annihilation.”

In other words, the switch in attitudes about the death penalty among contemporary Roman Catholics (magisterial and lay) has less to do with biblical and theological reflection and more to do with the modernist habit of adapting the faith to modern times. Worse, it reflects the modern sensibility of knowing that we know better than people who lived in the past. Even worse, this notion of knowing better runs up against the problem of knowing more than say, the son of God, the apostles, or (for Roman Catholics) infallible popes knew. I understand that many Roman Catholic apologists think that modernism can’t happen among Roman Catholics because Pius X condemned it and that settles it. But the phenomenon of modernism is always before the church, that is, a temptation to cave in to the pressure that comes from the opposition between the church and the world (as if Vatican II wasn’t a classic case of caving with its program of updating the faith).

The haunting thought that so-called conservatives like Father Dwight should have is this: if the church which for centuries had regarded capital punishment as a plausible outworking of revealed truth can change on this, what might the bishops do at the upcoming summit on families, marriage, and sex?


25 thoughts on “Always is a Long Time

  1. Perhaps I am overly cynical, but this switch seems rather too convenient.

    When Rome’s authority was challenged during the Reformation there was no hesitation to use the sword to try to bleed the Reformation dry. Some 100,000 Reformed died at the hands of Catholics. The killing occurred wherever it was possible: the Spanish Inquisition, the St. Batholomew’s Day Massacre in France, and England’s Bloody Mary. The Jesuits also tried their best to torture the Hungarian Reformed church out of existence.

    These days, however, Rome does not have the same level of authority and influence and the times, they are a-changing.

    In this (post) modern world, when capital punishment is looked down upon by many, Rome takes a progressive stand against a practice they previously strove to perfect.

    Now when Rome is unable to enforce its religious will with the sword they expect civil governments to follow suit and not execute violent criminals.

    Rome has exchanged the executioner’s blade, the hangman’s noose, the stacked logs, and the torturer’s tongues for the moral high ground and a PR boost.

    I am glad that Rome no longer wants to kill its enemies — they have enough blood on their hands already. Just don’t expect me to pat them on the back because they aren’t in the mood anymore. And don’t expect me to be all that impressed when Rome looks down its nose at those governments that practice capital punishment.


  2. This article is an excellent example of why Rome’s case for infallibility is impossible. For centuries, Rome taught and acted as if capital punishment was all good. Now it’s not? What changed?

    Cue the “Well it was never taught dogmatically.” Wait? How do we know that? Simply because Rome says it wasn’t? Didn’t hundreds of years of RCs think it was?

    The inevitable result is that no RC today can actually know what Rome has infallibly taught. Perhaps, like those poor RCs of previous generations who thought Rome infallibly taught capital punishment was okay, the current RC will have his belief shown erroneous.


  3. If you go back and read Dulles’ article on “The Population of Hell,” he essentially concedes your point in a discussion of the separate issue of Universalism. The Popes insist on “technically” toeing one line (through linguistic and theological pretzel baking) whole trying to fall in behind another. The cheat phrases making it all possible are “Living Tradition” (read “Theological Jell-O”) and “Hermeneutic of Continuity.” Both phrases are ones that preconciliar popes waking today would anathematize before their morning baths.


  4. Madhun, the RCC changes its mind all the time and followers insist they are always correct, even when they do a double reversal and go back to prior things that were declared wrong.

    And when you bring it up, they go into hummingbird mode…


  5. Rome’s just out of power and they don’t like staring at the sword. If they get back in power somewhere suddenly the Living Magisterium won’t mind having the sword again in its hands.


  6. In his Reflections on the Guillotine, Camus wrote that his Dad (a supporter of the death penalty at that time, IIRC) went to witness an execution and came back in a state of shock that lasted days.

    It’s a good read.

    He wrote of witness(es?) observing the head (being carried away) of a man just beheaded turn around when his name was called. This from Camus, not Savonarola: I don’t think it’s possible but it freaked me out just the same.

    I agree with what Mad Hungarian wrote.

    RCs (Protestants too) in charge would revert to type, and quickly too. “Sins of aversion” would give them an abominating itch they couldn’t resist proxy-scratching to tortured submission or death.

    I think to a lesser degree would that be true for Protestants mainly because of Church government. They’re more in tune with the local church as stand-alone rep of the visible Church. So they’ll kick you out but if you stay out of the Canton (99% of Canton citizens are church members) you should be all set. 😉

    Lands reverted to nationalities, war exhausted them all but they never really embraced non-violence. Defeat hushed them into their current stance.


  7. Unfortunately for papists true to type, what was good enough for Paul is not good enough for them.

    Acts 25:11  For if I be an offender, or have committed any thing worthy of death, I refuse not to die . . . .

    There’s no question that the death penalty can be abused, but all lawful things can be abused. Even something like marriage. But that doesn’t make for a valid argument for a celibate clergy. Even Bryan ought to know that.
    Whether he would admit it or not is a different story.


  8. The game plan to (all about) me is “let’s let this foot in mouth diseased pope speak his mind, stir up convos, apologize for improper comments (can you spell ” rabbits”), we’ll issue a Vatican statement clearing it up, all will be well.”

    And these meetings on the family, they mean nothing, but they get people talking about RCism. Even bad publicity is good publicity.

    But what am I saying. I defer to Sean, this cradle protestant (yours truly) is in over his head. Maybe after I watch Borgia’s I can understand the context for the featured image of this blog post by Savonarola (right click, “search google for this image” – BOOM).

    I’m out.


  9. Andrew, compare this view, which is very accurate, with the notion that Christ interacts directly with Christians through the Holy Spirit. It may clarify, as the Roman Catholics in charge think of themselves as having this power “for all time”. So long as “Pope Francis” doesn’t issue an infallible teaching that is wrong (or even if he does, they can “reformulate” it “positively”) — then they are all right, and “Pope Francis”, now almost 80 years old, is only going to be a brief inconvenience.


  10. Boniface reminds that Rome historically supported capital punishment and did so on the basis of the Noahic Covenant:

    …four Catholic newspapers decide to take a stand on capital punishment!

    This is so dumb, so facile, such a waste of space and breath and intellect that I’m not really going to bother addressing it. We all know the Church’s teaching on capital punishment. We all know the Catholic world for centuries until the last thirty years never had any qualms about capital punishment. We all know this is just a stupid “feel good” position taken by some liberal/moderate rags who are too intellectually lazy to sort out the moral theology of the question and too cowardly to take on something of real importance (i.e., the homosexual lobby) in a pitiful attempt to pretend that they still have relevance.

    I just want to remind people of one thing to keep in mind in the midst of this whole absurd story:

    The prime rationale employed by those who oppose the death penalty absolutely is that it is unjust to take a human life because of the intrinsic dignity of the human person. As a being made in the image and likeness of God, man possesses a certain inherent dignity, which – they say – makes it an offense against the dignity of the human person to take his or her life.

    Let’s go back to the beginning, shall we?

    In Genesis 9:6, the practice of capital punishment is instituted by God Himself. Note that He does not simply tolerate and permit capital punishment (as he tolerated polygamy and divorce in the Old Testament), but He actually institutes it by a positive decree. That alone tells you it could not be intrinsically evil.

    But anyhow, look at the rationale God gives for instituting capital punishment:

    “Whosoever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed: for man was made to the image of God.” – Gen. 9:6

    In other words, the very rationale God gives for instituting the death penalty is the same rationale now given to abolish it! Those who argue against capital punishment based on man’s intrinsic dignity as an imago dei are appealing to the same principle God did when He instituted it!


  11. Boniface is a real covert and not an escapee. Easy to like and respect and reminds me of the normal character of converts I’ve known over the years.

    When Francis referred to the faithful breeding like rabbits, what he probably had in mind was a picture of the Tridentine congregations. They are pathetic (in the loving sense of that word) betrayed and abandoned yet still they hold onto what they were taught. I can’t be one of them but I have affection for them. They multiplied and have been fruitful; they’re undoubtedly economically strapped and they seem exhausted. He feels absolutely nothing for them.

    Pope Francis was a bouncer in his younger days and his advice to the rabbit-like breeders is another way of saying hit the bricks, we’re at capacity. He will likely drive the train of clericalism (Vatican II Cats are no less prone to it than their predecessors) right down the center of the conservative RCs world.

    Belief in the Real Presence and contraception are secondary, IMO, to the character defects born of the will to clericalism and lack of love popes and bishops have shown their sheep. In any RC church, liberal or conservative, when a RC approaches Communion he is in awe or in that comfortable place of familiarity from years of weekly and sometimes more than weekly communing but I don’t think there are many RCs who would throw the consecrated bread in the trash if it fell to the ground.

    The issue of contraception should have always been handled as the EO have handled it.


  12. I should have written,

    Belief in the Real Presence as explained by way of accident and substance and by way of drawing a picture for the faithful that should they be able to see what they were partaking of their human and weak sensibilities would be overpowered, etc.

    Should have written,

    issues surrounding teaching on contraception.


  13. Change.

    The death penalty is an affront to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of the human person, he said. It contradicts God’s plan for humankind and society and God’s merciful justice, he added.

    Capital punishment “is cruel, inhuman and degrading, as is the anxiety that precedes the moment of execution and the terrible wait between the sentence and the application of the punishment, a ‘torture’ which, in the name of a just process, usually lasts many years and, in awaiting death, leads to sickness and insanity.”

    The pope went on to say that the application of capital punishment denies the condemned the possibility of making reparation for the wrong committed, of expressing their interior conversion through confession, and expressing contrition, so as to encounter God’s merciful and saving love.

    Speaking about life imprisonment, Pope Francis said such sentences makes it impossible for a prisoner to “project a future” and in that way can be considered a “disguised death” as it deprives prisoners not only of their freedom but also of their hope.


  14. How to explain change:

    When I say development, I do not mean it in the progressivist sense, as if whatever modern man thinks is ipso facto an improvement over what has come before — as if the more we abandon former norms, the more we’re advancing morally. That’s false and absurd. I agree with C.S. Lewis: If you’re on the wrong road, turning back is the most direct route forward.

    But I’m not speaking of “modern man” or society at large. I’m speaking of the Church, “the people of God,” the sensus fidelium. And there we do find development, in Cardinal John Henry Newman’s sense of that term. Why don’t modern-day popes call for crusades against jihadists? Why do they condemn as wrong things that used to be accepted as natural, like slavery and the subordination of women? Why, when they used to denounce heretics, do they now champion religious freedom? Have the doctrines changed?

    No. Rather, our understanding of the practical exigencies of the immutable truths of our faith has developed organically through reflection on them and on human experience.

    Harry Emerson Fosdick could not have said it better.


  15. Maybe Pope Francis could use some help from Bryan in the logic department:

    In perhaps the most troubling passage of his March 20 address, Pope Francis said: “States kill when they apply the death penalty, when they send their people to war or when they carry out extrajudicial or summary executions.” Here three completely different sorts of government action are tossed together in an illogical jumble.

    And the Pope compounds the problem by going on to say that governments “can also kill by omission, when they fail to guarantee to their people access to the bare essentials for life.” Is he seriously suggesting that the government of a poor country, by failing to stop a famine, is as guilty of “killing” its citizens as a government like the military dictatorship in his native Argentina, which kidnapped citizens by night and executed them without trial?

    We can all agree, I hope, that extrajudicial executions—lynchings—are morally indefensible. Perhaps Pope Francis had in mind the brutal mass murders of the Islamic State when he conceded that governments do sometimes have the right, and even the duty, “to repel an ongoing assault proportionately to avoid damage caused by the aggressor, and the need to neutralize him could lead to his elimination.” So making war can sometimes be right, whereas summary executions can never be right, and capital punishment is the topic under discussion. To toss the three things together in a sentence can only produce confusion.

    Pope Francis has developed a reputation for making offhand remarks that sometimes cause consternation among the faithful. But his message to the International Commission against the Death Penalty was apparently not delivered extemporaneously; the Vatican announced that the Pope had given a “letter” to the group’s leader. It is distressing that a prepared statement by the Roman Pontiff—which would inevitably be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as an expression of the teaching magisterium—would make such unconvincing arguments.

    Habemus papam indeed.


  16. Pope Francis says:

    Today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been”. Why? Because “it is an offense to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person which contradicts God’s plan for man and for society and his merciful justice, and it fails to conform to any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather foments revenge.

    There was a time when capital punishment actually showed respect for human dignity by revealing the magnitude of taking human life unjustly — sort of like just war theory. But for enthusiasts it’s never both and. It’s either or.


  17. An Anabaptist could argue against the death penalty better:

    The point of the parable, however, is in the importance of father’s perspective. No son is beloved to the father because of some action on the part of the son, including repentance. His love does not depend on the son’s response. It would be a mistake to think that either son, older or younger, earns the father’s love. This realization gets to the crux of the parable: the harsh reality that the older brother is no more deserving than the younger brother in the eyes of the father. This is the challenge to all of us “older brothers” who look at “younger brothers” with judgment. The reality of the father’s love is radically unfair. The love of the father, the love of God, is unconditional and offered always and everywhere, as much to Tsarnaev as to his victims.

    The Catholic tradition understands this radical love to be the root of all human dignity, including in the case of Tsarnaev, who himself disregarded that human dignity on Marathon Monday in 2013. This tenet of the Catholic faith is at the root of every pro-life position. It is why we have no place disregarding even Tsarnaev’s human dignity by sentencing him to death.

    No wonder Protestants got rebranded from schismatics to separated brethren.


  18. Have you heard of Romans 13?

    “. . .we are having the wrong debate,” the two bishops said. “We should no longer debate which inmates we execute and how we execute them. Instead, we should debate this: If all human lives are sacred and if a civilized society such as ours can seek redress and protect itself by means other than taking a human life, why are we continuing to execute people?”

    How about Numbers 15:35?


  19. Remember that the Pius IX insisted the pope needed temporal power to maintain his spiritual authority:

    you really have to go all the way back to the 1800s to find the last time the “courthouse beat” formed any part of covering the Vatican for most reporters in Rome.

    In that era, the pope still ruled over a swath of territory in central Italy known as the “Papal States,” and criminal trials were a regular event. The pope even had his own executioner, the most famous of which was “Mastro Titta,” a nickname that was a corruption of the Italian phrase maestro di giustizia, or “master of justice.”

    So famous was he in the mid-19th century that Roman mothers sang their little ones to sleep with a rhyme that goes, “Sega, sega, Mastro Titta.” Segare is the Italian verb “to saw,” so the mental image is ghoulishly accurate.


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