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To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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Rupture by Stealth?

According to a source well-positioned to know, one of the behind-the-scenes dramas of the present pontificate involved Pope Francis’s determination to amend the Catechism of the Catholic Church and declare capital punishment an intrinsically evil act: something that can never be countenanced. After a lengthy and bruising argument over whether that was doctrinally possible, a compromise was reached and CCC 2267 now declares the death penalty “inadmissible”—a strong term, but one with no technical theological or doctrinal meaning.

Has the papal campaign against capital punishment now achieved its objective through the recent declaration of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Infinita (Infinite Dignity)?

There, the Dicastery wrote that the death penalty “violates the inalienable dignity of every person, regardless of the circumstances” (34). That subordinate clause (al di là di ogni circonstanza, in the Italian original) is striking. For the paragraph in Dignitas Infinita in which it appears cites paragraph 27 of Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), where the Council fathers identified as crimes against human dignity “all offenses against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and willful suicide; all violations of the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture, [and] undue psychological pressures.” That, in turn, was the paragraph cited by Pope John Paul II in the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor to identify intrinsically evil acts: acts that are wicked by their very nature. And as John Paul wrote in Veritatis Splendor 81, “If acts are intrinsically evil, a good intention or particular circumstances can diminish their evil, but they cannot remove it. They remain ‘irremediably’ evil acts; per se and in themselves, they are not capable of being ordered to God and to the good of the person.”

So when Dignitas Infinita 34 teaches that “one should [also] mention the death penalty” when citing the list of grave evils identified in Gaudium et Spes 27, which are the evils John Paul II used in Veritatis Splendor 81 to illustrate the concept of acts that are inherently evil irrespective of circumstances, was Dignitas Infinita making a stealth move to achieve the goal Pope Francis was unable to achieve in his proposed revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the question of capital punishment?  

I am no fan of the death penalty. It is too often applied in the United States. It is certainly applied in grotesquely inhumane and promiscuous ways in China, Russia, and countries suffering under jihadist and radical Islamist regimes. 

But to assert that capital punishment is intrinsically evil is to assert that the entire Catholic tradition from St. Augustine to St. John Paul II got something of grave moral significance wrong. It is also to assert that the Bible, the revealed Word of God, teaches falsely, e.g., in Romans 13:3–4: “For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.”

And the assertion of either of those two things cannot underwrite a genuine development of doctrine. Rather, those assertions risk a collapse into what the great theorist of doctrinal development, St. John Henry Newman, called “doctrinal corruption”—an omnipresent danger in the Church, brilliantly explored by Matthew Levering in Newman on Doctrinal Corruption (Word on Fire Academic, 2022).       

Given that Dignitas Infinita was the result of a somewhat rocky editorial process (described rather blandly in the declaration’s prefatory note by the prefect of the doctrinal dicastery, Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernández), it is not clear whether what was afoot in Dignitas Infinita 34 was editorial sloppiness or an intentional, if stealthy, rupture with revelation and tradition. That it could be the latter is suggested by the fact that, over the past decade, stealth measures, in the form of ambiguities, have been employed to achieve certain ends the present pontificate could not achieve by other means, such as Holy Communion for Catholics in canonically irregular marriages or blessings for those in homosexual unions.  

All of which underscores the bottom-line issue in the Catholic Church today: Is divine revelation, embodied in Scripture and the Church’s tradition, real, and does it have binding authority over time? Or can the truths of revelation, mediated through two millennia of tradition, be modified by contemporary human experience and sensibility?        

George Weigel’s column “The Catholic Difference” is syndicated by the Denver Catholic, the official publication of the Archdiocese of Denver.

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