Fundamentalist Controversy Redux

John Allen explains how Roman Catholicism has come along side Protestantism. The Left and Right aren’t even on the same page of what constitutes truth:

… at this point most defenders of Pope Francis haven’t accused critics of being dissenters, nor have they suggested that people who uphold contrary positions on the substantive positions associated with the pontiff, such as opening Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, are thereby committing heresy.

The implication seems to be that fans of the pope are more generous, less vicious, and less inclined to question people’s bona fides as Catholics. There is, in other words, often a presumption of moral superiority in the observation that “we don’t talk that way.”

Simply as a descriptive matter, that proposition seems a bit disingenuous. Many in the pro-Francis camp don’t invoke concepts such as “heresy” and “dissent,” because frankly, it’s not the worst insult they can think of with which to slur an opponent.

Instead, they use terms that Francis himself also regards as abhorrent, such as “rigid,” “inflexible,” “legalistic,” “clerical,” and, of course, worst of all, “anti-Vatican II.”

In effect, what’s on display here is one of the defining differences between the Catholic left and the Catholic right over the last fifty years.

For the right, “heresy” and “dissent” are about the worst things imaginable, so when they want to say “x is terrible,” that’s the language that comes naturally. For the left, the equivalent horror is “rolling back the clock” on the Second Vatican Council, so when they want to call something or someone awful, that tends to be the verbal packaging in which the complaint comes wrapped.

Someone trying to remain objective about today’s debates would probably have a hard time concluding that either side has a claim on the moral high ground, since both are charging the other with virtually the vilest crime in their respective vocabularies.

At the same time, gatekeepers like John Allen don’t see when modernism is part of the warp and woof of church life:

Despite challenges intolerance brings, Camilleri stressed that religion, Christianity included, has an endless capacity for good, not only for individuals and communities, but for society as a whole.

The Church, he said, “does not pretend…to substitute for politics. Nor does the Church claim to offer technical solutions to the world’s problems since the responsibility of doing that belongs elsewhere.”

What religion does, then, is offer specific guidelines to both the community of believers, and to society as a whole.

Religion by its nature “is open to a larger reality and thus it can lead people and institutions toward a more universal vision” and a “horizon of fraternity” capable of enriching humanity, Camilleri said.

The Holy See, then, “is convinced that for both individuals and communities the dimension of belief can foster respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights, support democracy and rule of law and contribute to the quest for truth and justice.”

Dialogue and partnerships between religions and with religions, he said, “are an important means to promote confidence, trust, reconciliation, mutual respect and understanding as well as to foster peace.”

If religion did all that, I’m sure President Obama would have gotten on board. Wait. He did:

Holy Father, your visit not only allows us, in some small way, to reciprocate the extraordinary hospitality that you extended to me at the Vatican last year. It also reveals how much all Americans, from every background and every faith, value the role that the Catholic Church plays in strengthening America. (Applause.) From my time working in impoverished neighborhoods with the Catholic Church in Chicago, to my travels as President, I’ve seen firsthand how, every single day, Catholic communities, priests, nuns, laity are feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, educating our children, and fortifying the faith that sustains so many.

And what is true in America is true around the world. From the busy streets of Buenos Aires to the remote villages in Kenya, Catholic organizations serve the poor, minister to prisoners, build schools, build homes, operate orphanages and hospitals. And just as the Church has stood with those struggling to break the chains of poverty, the Church so often has given voice and hope to those seeking to break the chains of violence and oppression.

And yet, I believe the excitement around your visit, Holy Father, must be attributed not only to your role as Pope, but to your unique qualities as a person. (Applause.) In your humility, your embrace of simplicity, in the gentleness of your words and the generosity of your spirit, we see a living example of Jesus’ teachings, a leader whose moral authority comes not just through words but also through deeds. (Applause.)

You call on all of us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to put the “least of these” at the center of our concerns. You remind us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and our measure as a society, is not determined by wealth or power or station or celebrity, but by how well we hew to Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized — (applause) — to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity –- because we are all made in the image of God. (Applause.)

You remind us that “the Lord’s most powerful message” is mercy. And that means welcoming the stranger with empathy and a truly open heart –- (applause) — from the refugee who flees war-torn lands to the immigrant who leaves home in search of a better life. (Applause.) It means showing compassion and love for the marginalized and the outcast, to those who have suffered, and those who have caused suffering and seek redemption. You remind us of the costs of war, particularly on the powerless and defenseless, and urge us toward the imperative of peace. (Applause.)

Holy Father, we are grateful for your invaluable support of our new beginning with the Cuban people — (applause) — which holds out the promise of better relations between our countries, greater cooperation across our hemisphere, and a better life for the Cuban people. We thank you for your passionate voice against the deadly conflicts that ravage the lives of so many men, women and children, and your call for nations to resist the sirens of war and resolve disputes through diplomacy.

You remind us that people are only truly free when they can practice their faith freely. (Applause.) Here in the United States, we cherish religious liberty. It was the basis for so much of what brought us together. And here in the United States, we cherish our religious liberty, but around the world, at this very moment, children of God, including Christians, are targeted and even killed because of their faith. Believers are prevented from gathering at their places of worship. The faithful are imprisoned, and churches are destroyed. So we stand with you in defense of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, knowing that people everywhere must be able to live out their faith free from fear and free from intimidation. (Applause.)

And, Holy Father, you remind us that we have a sacred obligation to protect our planet, God’s magnificent gift to us. (Applause.) We support your call to all world leaders to support the communities most vulnerable to changing climate, and to come together to preserve our precious world for future generations. (Applause.)

Your Holiness, in your words and deeds, you set a profound moral example. And in these gentle but firm reminders of our obligations to God and to one another, you are shaking us out of complacency. All of us may, at times, experience discomfort when we contemplate the distance between how we lead our daily lives and what we know to be true, what we know to be right. But I believe such discomfort is a blessing, for it points to something better. You shake our conscience from slumber; you call on us to rejoice in Good News, and give us confidence that we can come together in humility and service, and pursue a world that is more loving, more just, and more free. Here at home and around the world, may our generation heed your call to “never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope.”

For that great gift of hope, Holy Father, we thank you, and welcome you, with joy and gratitude, to the United States of America. (Applause.)

Gnostic Audacity

The myth:

What I came to recognize, in other words, was that the Catholic position was in actuality the much more humble of the two. Indeed, it was downright self-effacing. For the Catholic position, paradoxically, was that it is precisely because mere men can claim no genuine spiritual authority that the successors of the apostles could claim it; and, in particular, it is precisely because no man can possibly be infallible that the bishop of Rome had to be.

The fundamental conviction here is really quite straightforward: Catholics think that we’d better not be left to our own devices, or else we’ll probably screw things up. When you get right down to the core of the thing, it isn’t that Catholics are misanthropes; they don’t think that human beings are just absolutely idiotic or irredeemably horrible. But they do have a lot of skepticism about man’s inherent capacity to get things right on his own; to see things straight for himself; to understand things clearly and objectively, apart from the potentially adverse influence of the cultural categories and presuppositions, the inherited traditions, through which he sees the world and understands the Bible – but which themselves usually remain unseen. They believe that owing to these inherent and historical limitations to which all men are subject, an individual person, even if he is a Christian indeed, cannot always rely upon himself – that his own internal “feelings” of certitude, or the inward confidence he has in his own views and in those of his tradition, do not necessarily come straight from the Holy Ghost and do not automatically mean he is right.

The reality:

The Vatican is not an organism that thinks only one thought at a time, it’s a bureaucracy. It’s staffed by human beings, each of whom has his or her own wants, fears, intentions, visions, hopes and dreams. There’s far less internal coordination than the mythology would suggest, meaning that often, diversity – at times, even border-line chaos – is the order of the day.

For every official inside the system who embodies whatever one thinks “the Vatican” said or did today, there are probably routinely a half-dozen who aren’t on the same page.

There are at least three reasons why: Structural, cultural and political.

Structurally, Vatican systems are set up in some ways to minimize interaction among different departments. There’s a strong emphasis on respecting the juridical “competence” of each, so that cardinals and their lower-level aides are often hesitant to intervene outside their area of authority.

Documents and policy decisions can be in the works in one department for months, in some cases years, before anyone else knows about them.

Although the atmosphere has loosened up somewhat, I recall distinctly when I first began covering the Vatican twenty years ago, if I were to go out to dinner with two officials from different offices and ask each what was bubbling in his shop, they’d get nervous – not so much about discussing it in front of me, but someone from a different outfit inside the system.

The bottom line is that there simply is no Vatican “war room” where officials hammer out a master plan on much of anything.

Culturally, the Vatican is an international milieu, home to people from a staggering variety of geographical points on the compass. What seems natural or obvious to one official in one office, therefore, will often seem puzzling, even objectionable, to others.

It’s almost always a mistake to assume, for instance, that if an American official in the Vatican says “x,” that view would be shared in precisely the same way by, say, the Italians, or the French. Similarly, if a Latin American head of a department makes a statement on some news story, one can’t presume that his German or Polish colleagues would see it the same way.

Politically, popes often like to appoint officials to Vatican jobs who don’t exactly see eye-to-eye, on the theory that what results can be a sort of “creative tension.”

During the John Paul II years, it was well known that Chilean Cardinal Jorge Medina, the Vatican’s top official for liturgy, and Archbishop Piero Marini, who organized the pope’s own liturgical celebrations, were on completely different planets – Medina a staunch conservative, Marini an ardent reformer.

Insiders knew not to take much of what either man might say on liturgical matters as a corporate Vatican line, but rather as part of an ongoing internal debate, until the pope officially pronounced one way or the other.

When will Bryan and the Jasons tell the truth that John Allen tells while actually covering real-life church officials in the Eternal City?

Top Down or Bottom Up?

I can’t say I’m waiting on baited bated breath for Bryan and the Jason’s response to Pope Francis’ latest encyclical apostolic exhortation (on the genres of papal communications, see this), Amoris Laetitia (why continue to use Latin titles when you write in the vernacular; imagine how down-with-the-peeps Pope Francis might have appeared had he used Spanish for the title). Since the main article at CtC was posted seven months ago and the current blog post is almost two months old the Reformed-turned-Roman Catholics have hardly established themselves as the go-to site for inquiring minds who want to inquire about all things audaciously papal during the tenure of one of the more audacious popes in recent history.

That being said, when you read reports like this one from John Allen, who reads more and more like the press secretary for Pope Francis, you do wonder why all the hubbub about the longest encyclical in the saeculum (and here I thought John Paul II and Benedict XVI were the thinking person’s popes). For it seems that Pope Francis is merely catching up to what is already going on in the parishes:

In effect, what he’s saying is that there may be cases in which a given divorced and remarried Catholic, after talking things out with a priest, could be justified in reaching the decision that they don’t carry the guilt that should exclude them from the sacraments, including Holy Communion.

In truth, that may not change very much in terms of in-the-trenches experience in the Church.

For one thing, that sort of pastoral adaptation, sometimes referred to as an “internal forum” solution, is already happening. In many parishes, you can find divorced and remarried Catholics who come forward for communion, and many pastors have either quietly encouraged them to do so or, at least, never discouraged them, choosing to respect whatever decision they’ve made in conscience.

For another, the language in Amoris Laetitia on the Communion question is sufficiently elastic that both sides in the debate can take consolation, meaning that those pastors and bishops inclined to a stricter reading of Church law probably won’t feel compelled to revise their thinking, and neither will those given to a more flexible stance.

In another sense, however, Amoris Laetitia represents a breakthrough of no small consequence, because for once in a Vatican text, what got enunciated wasn’t simply the law but also the space for pastoral practice – which is where the Church’s long-underappreciated capacity for subtlety and compassion usually enters the picture.

In other words, what may be astounding about Pope Francis is the recognition that the papacy doesn’t set the agenda, resolve controversies, maintain unity the way CtCer’s audaciously claim. It may be that the papacy merely reflects what already happens in the church. In which case, converting to the post-Vatican 2 church was a Doh! moment on the order of the Second Vatican Council’s determination to open the church’s windows to the modern world after four centuries of opposition. Could anyone think of a more audacious time to catch up to modern times than the decade of women’s liberation, sexual revolution, and anti-western radicalism?

Brilliant!

Postscript: David Gibson offers this perspective on Amoris Laetitia:

Yet others would in fact see Francis’ nuanced approach as precisely in keeping with the church’s tradition of developing doctrine over time in the light of changing historical realities, and the gradual movement — guided by the Holy Spirit — “towards the entire truth,” as Francis put it.

Reformed and always reforming.

Apologetics Catches Up with Journalism

The Boston Globe, perhaps to make up for its coverage of the Boston Archdiocese’s sex scandal, started Crux, a web-based publication devoted to reporting on all thing Roman Catholic. Now comes word that the Globe has pulled the plug on Crux.

Eighteen months is not a long time for any new venture to get firmly established. But the scariest part of the paper’s abandonment of Crux is that the vertical actually did get established, at least with readers. Allen said the section rallied roughly 1 million monthly readers, and those numbers “easily doubled” during big news events related to the pope, such as his recent trip to Mexico. Within the religion-journalism world, Crux quickly became a must-read, and Allen’s reporting is widely respected as some of the best-sourced in the business. The Globe could not have run a cleaner experiment in terms of testing market viability—as McGrory himself emphasized, the journalism was extremely high quality, but the dollars just weren’t there.

“It clearly is worrying for people who do this for a living to see a mainstream news organization like The Globe who launched a big project like this and then 18 months later backed out,” Allen said. Religion journalism is a notoriously tough sell for publishers, and the fact that the Globe would emphasize the editorial quality and importance of Crux while still choosing to shutter it suggests a fear of investing in topical coverage that isn’t directly appealing to advertisers. A spokesperson for the Globe maintained that the paper will continue its same level of coverage of the Church—this without Allen and the laid-off staffers, and with the editor of the vertical, Teresa Hanafin, being “redeployed [in] an exciting new position as an early morning writer for Bostonglobe.com,” as McGrory wrote in his memo. “I expect if The Globe had launched a vertical exclusively dedicated to coverage of the Patriots and Red Sox, we would not be here,” Allen said.

From the standpoint of religion journalism, the end of the Globe-supported version of Crux is a significant blow. A number of publications are solely dedicated to covering Catholicism, but the big differences between Crux and those organizations, Allen said, are independence and critical distance. Many outlets are expressly affiliated with the Church, and even independent publications such as The National Catholic Reporter have fairly close ties with Catholic institutions.

But I wonder. As much as I like to read Allen, he also massaged the papacy and the Vatican in much of what he wrote.

For instance, Allen applauded Pope Francis for showing a better way to be a culture warrior (read not to fight):

With regard to Italy’s Family Day, Francis used an address to judges of the main Vatican court on Friday to insist that “there can be no confusion between the family willed by God and any other type of union,” which was taken locally as a green light for resistance to the civil unions measure.

In the long run, a pope’s impact is measured not just by what he says or does, but also by which impulses in Catholicism rise or fall on his watch. Almost three years in, it does not seem that a drop-off in the Church’s commitment to what St. John Paul II called the “Gospel of Life” will be part of Francis’ legacy.

Perhaps the question is not whether Pope Francis will lead the Church away from its traditional positions, but whether he’s modeling a different way of making the argument.

It’s sometimes been said that the worst enemies of the anti-abortion movement can be the abortion opponents themselves, because they can seem shrill, angry, and judgmental, turning people off to the message because of the unattractiveness of the messengers.

Examples like this pile up.

Others have also wondered about Crux’s reporting on the church:

2016 March for Life. Allen writes “As to the March for Life, Francis didn’t offer any direct endorsement, but US leaders in the anti-abortion movement say they’re convinced he’s got their backs.” Sorry? This sentence says that Francis said and did nothing in regard to the March for Life, reporting only that some pro-lifers feel that the pope supports them. If it is anything, that sentence is not a claim about Francis, it’s a claim about pro-lifers.

Francis need not, of course, have attended the March for Life (no pope has); he need not have sent it a supportive message (though other popes have); he need not even mention the March for Life if he does not wish to. But, if he did not attend, did not greet, and did not even mention the March, how exactly is this series of non-actions evidence that the pope is ‘pioneering’ a new way to oppose abortion? If eisegesis is reading one’s opinions into another’s words, what is it when there literally are no words to read one’s opinions into, but a message is divined from them anyway? . . .

These remarks are not a criticism of Francis—there is no doubt whatsoever where he stands on the gravity of abortion and on the impossibility of ‘gay-marriage’ (even if his manner sometimes muffs his message) and he is not obligated to engage in any specific acts of opposition to either. But my remarks are a criticism of reporters who, with some proclivity these days, seem to offer the pope’s silence on various matters as evidence for what they think he means on various matters. May I suggest, instead, that silence is usually, pretty much, just silence.

Perhaps Allen was too deferential to his subjects and this undermined his relationship with the Globe. Or, perhaps the Globe wanted good public relations with the Boston Roman Catholic community and Crux failed.

In the Larger Scheme of Things

Should the church engage in politics? John Allen answers, that’s a no-brainer:

And that ministry inevitably has a political edge. Yes, Jesus Christ said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s,” which is a charter for church/state separation. However, Christ also said we will be judged for how we treat the least among us, which is a standard with a clearly political dimension.

Popes represent a tradition rooted in prophetic denunciations of injustice and abuses of power, and a Lord who chose to be born into a poor family in an occupied corner of the world’s leading empire of its day.

To insist, therefore, that popes remain apolitical would be to demand that they betray their office.

As if politics were all about finger-wagging. Lobbyists make lousy politicians.

J. Peter Nixon worries what happens when the church’s ministry becomes too oriented to this world:

Last week Pope Francis presided over a Mass to mark the end of the Year for Consecrated Life. Robert Mickens reported here that the Holy Father also gave a short talk to men and women religious at an audience prior to the Mass. “Why has the womb of religious life become so sterile?” he asked.

The answers to that question are complex and manifold. . . . I know enough men and women religious to realize the dangers of sentimentalizing their lives. Those without property can often become proprietary about their roles and responsibilities and unhealthy power dynamics can afflict any community of human beings. The spiritual risks of celibacy are well known, even if they are sometimes exaggerated.

The lives of ordinary believers and the lives of those called to practice the counsels should complement one another, embodying the tension between a Kingdom that is already present and yet still to come. In the past, the balance may have tipped too far in the direction of the latter, leading to the suggestion that the married state was somehow inferior to religious life. Over the last half century, however, we have tipped far in the other direction. Somehow, we must find balance.

The balance may not involve the monastic life, but it could include something like recognizing that this world, and even its attempts to right social wrongs, is not all there is:

So while politics is important business, there are strict limits to what we can achieve by political means. There are no limits at all, on the other hand, to what we can achieve by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; for that we have the Lord’s promise! We can revive our own faith, awaken the strength of our neighbors, and thereby accomplish what not even a presidential candidate dares to suggest.

“America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” So wrote the most acute of all observers of our political scene, Alexis de Tocqueville. Perhaps the most appropriate “political” task for Lent would be to embark on our own private campaigns to make America good again, beginning with ourselves.

Of course, Protestants don’t believe we make ourselves good. But confessional Protestants do understand, in ways that challenge followers of the papacy, an institution fraught with power and political intrigue, that ministering the gospel does more good in the long run than making policy or running for office.

Not Universal, Parochial

Ines San Martin thinks that local circumstances may affect papal interpretation/teaching:

Just as Pope St. John Paul II’s papacy was shaped by Poland’s experience under communism, and Benedict XVI’s by Western European concerns such as relativism and secularism, Francis’ pontificate is defined in large part by the problems he encountered over several decades as a Latin American pastor and bishop.

A catalog of those core themes would include marginalization, illiteracy, inequality and poverty, sexism, corruption, governments of socialist inspiration, what South Americans often call “Jockey Club elites” who dominate their societies, as well as racism and ecological devastation.

Meanwhile, John Allen reports that Pope Francis is teaching the popes are fallible (because creatures of their times?):

As Benedict XVI put it in July 2005: “The pope is not an oracle; he is infallible [only] in very rare situations.” Benedict reinforced the point when he published his book “Jesus of Nazareth,” actually inviting people to disagree with him.

At the popular level, however, those limits often haven’t registered. Many people assume Catholics are supposed to accept everything a pope says as Gospel truth — or, at least, that it’s a major embarrassment if a pope is caught in a mistake.

In that context, it’s especially striking that Pope Francis appears determined to set the record straight by embracing what one might dub his own “dogma of fallibility.” The pontiff seems utterly unabashed about admitting mistakes, confessing ignorance, and acknowledging that he may have left himself open to misinterpretation.

Whether such candor is charming or simply confusing, leaving one to wonder if the pope actually means what he says, perhaps is in the eye of the beholder. In any case, it’s become a defining feature of Francis’ style.

During a 65-minute session with reporters, Francis embraced his own fallibility at least seven times:

Asked about a border dispute between Bolivia and Chile, Francis said he wouldn’t comment because “I don’t want to say something wrong” — an indirect admission that he’s capable of doing precisely that.

On a controversy in Ecuador over what he meant by the phrase “the people stood up,” Francis replied that “one sentence can be manipulated” and that “we must be very careful” — an acknowledgement, perhaps, that he hasn’t always shown such prudence.

Asked about tensions between Greece and the Eurozone, Francis said he has a “great allergy” to economic matters and said of the corporate accounting his father practiced in Argentina, “I don’t understand it very well.” For a pontiff who’s made economic justice and global finance a centerpiece of his social rhetoric, it was a fairly breathtaking acknowledgment.

Also on the situation in Greece, Francis said he heard a year ago about a United Nations plan to allow countries to declare bankruptcy, but added, “I don’t know if it’s true,” and, remarkably, asked reporters traveling with him to explain it if they happened to know what he was talking about. (Francis may have been referring to a UN debate in 2014 over an international bankruptcy law.)

On blowback in the United States about his rhetoric on capitalism, Francis said he’s aware of it, but declined to react because “I don’t have the right to state an opinion isolated from dialogue.”

When challenged about why he speaks so much about the poor, but relatively little about the middle class, Francis bluntly conceded, “It’s an error of mine not to think about this,” and “you’re telling me about something I need to do.”

Asked whether he’s concerned that his statements can be exploited by governments and lobby groups, Francis said “every word” is at risk of being taken out of context, and added: “If I make a mistake, with a bit of shame I ask forgiveness and go forward.”

Might these be reasons why the majority of Roman Catholics in the U.S. don’t seem to pay attention to papal teaching?

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?