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?