Did Vatican II pave the way for Pope Francis’ recent
change development of the catechism’s teaching on capital punishment? Korey Maas thinks so even if the laity (so far the bishops aren’t giving much guidance) are divide:
Largely unremarked in the debate over capital punishment, however, are its striking parallels with the half-century-long, still unsettled, and also increasingly contentious intra-Catholic dispute concerning religious liberty. This is all the more curious because Pope Francis’s own remarks—now echoed in the language authorized for the Catechism—appear quite intentionally to echo important aspects of Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. According to that Declaration, for example, religious liberty is a right grounded in the “dignity of the human person.” As such, it is “inviolable.” This is precisely the language invoked by Pope Francis when he declared capital punishment impermissible because “it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”
Moreover, just as Dignitatis Humanae asserts that it “leaves untouched traditional Catholic doctrine,” while at the same time “developing” that doctrine, so too did Francis insist that his remarks in no way “signify a change of doctrine” or “any contradiction with past teaching”; they represent instead “the harmonious development of doctrine.” Both of these claims have proved controversial for the simple reason emphasized by Feser in the debate over capital punishment: “simply calling something a ‘development’ rather than a contradiction doesn’t make it so.” As he and Bessette argue, the Church’s earliest theologians acknowledged the legitimacy of capital punishment, in principle, and this conclusion was consistently affirmed by popes up through the twentieth century. The explicit rejection of that conclusion, they therefore reason, cannot logically be understood as a “development” of it.
But precisely the same logic applies, mutatis mutandis, to the apparent claims of Dignitatis Humanae, since it deems religious liberty an inviolable right while also claiming not to have changed “traditional Catholic doctrine on the moral duty of men and societies toward the true religion and toward the one Church of Christ.” That traditional Catholic doctrine—as taught by the Church’s fathers, doctors, popes, and councils for more than a millennium—proclaimed it legitimate in both principle and practice to enforce that duty by means of coercion. Because Dignitatis Humanae appeared plainly to proscribe such coercion, however, it was not at all clear even to the bishops gathered at Vatican II how contradiction was actually being avoided. Indeed, just before the final vote on the Declaration, its official relator frankly admitted that “this matter will have to be fully clarified in future theological and historical studies.”
Once again the problem is that Roman pontiffs speak too much and all of Roman Catholicism’s history (and all those statements) make it hard to claim with a straight face that nothing has changed. History, in fact, is all about change (over time). So to present yourself as superior to Protestantism because you have 1500 years more history is also to open yourself up to the problem of trying to make coherent all of the church’s documents, laws, and doctrines. It is hard enough finding unity in the sixty-six books of the Bible. Now add to that endeavor 2000 years of papal pronouncements, council declarations, and revisions of canon law and you have work that could have made HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, break down in 1982.
Maas puts a fine point on the problem this way:
Quite obviously, given such disparate opinions, the controversy concerning the Church’s teaching on religious freedom is far from settled. But it differs from that concerning capital punishment because, as Feser himself notes, it is one that “most Catholics, including conservative Catholics, have avoided.” And he is surely correct in his understanding of the reason for this: “the older teaching is extremely unpopular in modern times, and thus whatever its current doctrinal status, most Catholics are happy to let it remain a dead letter and leave its precise relationship to Dignitatis Humanae unsettled.” And yet, he finally concludes, “a question unanswered and ignored is still a real question.”
Indeed, it is precisely the same question raised in the controversy over capital punishment: can a practice endorsed for more than a millennium by the Church’s fathers, doctors, popes, and councils now be condemned as an immoral and inadmissible violation of human dignity?
Protestants may have account for many denominations, but Rome has 2 millennia of cats to herd.