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Distinguishing between ‘prudential judgment’ and change in doctrine

Letter to the Editor

12/21/2018 | Comments

I would like to respond to John O’Keeffe’s letter on the Death Penalty in the Dec. 7 Herald.  He writes that I have “accused” Pope Francis of “using prudential judgment to delegitimize 2000 years of Catholic teaching on the death penalty.”  Several points need to be clarified. 

First, my point in the article was not to give arguments in support of capital punishment (though there are very strong arguments in favor of its use), but to ask the bishops for clarification on the limits of papal authority and the “inadmissibility” of a pope ever reversing established doctrine — a line of thinking on which many Catholics are confused. 

Second, there was no accusation.  I merely tried to clarify the magisterial weight of the change, echoing the words of Cardinal Ratzinger when he was head of the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith and those of Cardinal Avery Dulles in his commentary on Pope St. John Paul’s own prudential opinion that was published in his encyclical “Fides et Ratio” and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The irreformable teaching of the Church (from Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors, her councils and Papal writings) for 2,000 years has been that capital punishment can in principle be justified for purposes other than directly securing the safety of the community, especially for the primary purpose of administering a proportionate punishment (retributive justice) to redress the disorder caused by the offense, as stated in CCC 2266, and which is a principle of Natural Law. This principle was upheld by St. Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and (I must assume) by Pope Francis.

According to Cardinal Ratzinger in his letter to Richard John Neuhaus, the following citation in CCC No. 2277 was then used to add the Pope’s prudential opinion on the application of the death penalty. Ratzinger writes: “Clearly the Holy Father has not altered the doctrinal principles which pertain to the issue as they are presented in the Catechism, but has simply deepened the application of such principles . . .  It is in this sense that the Catechism may be rewritten, naturally without any modification to the relevant doctrinal principles” (“By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment,” Feser and Bessette — a must read on this topic!). Pope Francis’ change (or “development” of the opinions of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, as Mr. O’Keeffe might claim), only added his own thoughts to it, even though the strong language that Pope Francis used may have implied a higher level of magisterial weight — which is concerning. 

Third, Mr. O’Keeffe commandeers quotes from great theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and Cardinal John Henry Newman to support his opposition to the death penalty. However, Thomas Aquinas supported the legitimate use of the death penalty, and Newman’s seven marks on the development of doctrine identify any radical change, such as determining that the death penalty is now intrinsically immoral, as a “corruption” and not a development. Development of doctrine is not done within a 30-year (or even 300-year) window but within the 2,000 years of the Church’s life. If that were not so, Newman would have had no reason to convert.

Suffice it to say that “if the pope’s teaching on capital punishment is neither a reversal nor a development of doctrine, the only remaining option . . . is that the pope was merely putting forward a prudential judgment” (Feser, 176), one that we should respectfully consider but that does not require the assent of faith. As Cardinal Ratzinger wrote: “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about . . . applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia” (Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion, par 3). 

Lyn Rooney

Colorado Springs

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