PopeWatch: Chaplain of the Zeitgeist

Sandro Magister enlists the late Cardinal Dulles to explain why the Pope’s attempt to change doctrine on the death penalty flies in the face of twenty centuries of Church teaching:


The decision of Pope Francis to rewrite the Catechism of the Catholic Church in regard to the death penalty has ignited lively discussions.

The change was in the air, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio had been foretelling it for some time. In the letter of the prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith that accompanies the rescript, Cardinal Luis F. Ladaria says that “the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.”

But this is precisely the point that is raising the greatest controversy. For many, the contradiction with the previous teaching of the Church is there. And it amounts not to a “development” but to a real and proper rupture.

Also striking is the “historicist” nature of the motivations that Francis adopts: new awareness concerning the dignity of the person, new understanding of the meaning of penal sanctions, new and more effective prison systems, etc. From here would arise, “in the light of the Gospel,” the new current teaching of the Church on the absolute inadmissibility of the death penalty.

Given this precedent – as many hope, or on the contrary fear – what can prevent a pope from changing the doctrine of the Church on any other issue? Breaking not only with the previous magisterium, but with the Sacred Scriptures themselves?

To facilitate an understanding of the debate, the following are two useful elements of documentation.


The first is a comparison of the old article of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty and the new article rewritten at the behest of Pope Francis.


2267. The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.

If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today are very rare, if not practically non-existent’ [John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56].


2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” [1], and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

[1] Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.


The second element of documentation offered here is an extract from an essay published in 2001 in “First Things” by Cardinal Avery Dulles (1918-2008), a Jesuit and one of the greatest North American theologians of the twentieth century, highly esteemed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

The complete text of the essay:

> Catholicism & Capital Punishment

To begin with, Dulles focuses on what the Sacred Scriptures say regarding the death penalty:

“In the Old Testament the Mosaic Law specifies no less than thirty-six capital offenses calling for execution by stoning, burning, decapitation, or strangulation. Included in the list are idolatry, magic, blasphemy, violation of the sabbath, murder, adultery, bestiality, pederasty, and incest. The death penalty was considered especially fitting as a punishment for murder since in his covenant with Noah God had laid down the principle, ‘Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image’ (Genesis 9:6). In many cases God is portrayed as deservedly punishing culprits with death, as happened to Korah, Dathan, and Abiram (Numbers 16). In other cases individuals such as Daniel and Mordecai are God’s agents in bringing a just death upon guilty persons.

“In the New Testament the right of the State to put criminals to death seems to be taken for granted. Jesus himself refrains from using violence. He rebukes his disciples for wishing to call down fire from heaven to punish the Samaritans for their lack of hospitality (Luke 9:55). Later he admonishes Peter to put his sword in the scabbard rather than resist arrest (Matthew 26:52). At no point, however, does Jesus deny that the State has authority to exact capital punishment. In his debates with the Pharisees, Jesus cites with approval the apparently harsh commandment, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’ (Matthew 15:4; Mark 7:10, referring to Exodus 2l:17; cf. Leviticus 20:9). When Pilate calls attention to his authority to crucify him, Jesus points out that Pilate’s power comes to him from above-that is to say, from God (John 19:11). Jesus commends the good thief on the cross next to him, who has admitted that he and his fellow thief are receiving the due reward of their deeds (Luke 23:41).

“The early Christians evidently had nothing against the death penalty. They approve of the divine punishment meted out to Ananias and Sapphira when they are rebuked by Peter for their fraudulent action (Acts 5:1-11). The Letter to the Hebrews makes an argument from the fact that ‘a man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses’ (10:28). Paul repeatedly refers to the connection between sin and death. He writes to the Romans, with an apparent reference to the death penalty, that the magistrate who holds authority ‘does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer’ (Romans 13:4). No passage in the New Testament disapproves of the death penalty.”

Dulles then goes on to examine how the Fathers of the Church and Catholic theologians expressed themselves over the centuries, coming to this conclusion:

“Turning to Christian tradition, we may note that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are virtually unanimous in their support for capital punishment. […] And throughout the first half of the twentieth century the consensus of Catholic theologians in favor of capital punishment in extreme cases remained solid”.

He points out, however, that already in 1977 a theologian of good repute had taken a position in “L’Osservatore Romano” in favor of the inadmissibility of the death penalty, giving voice to the “objections” of “a rising chorus of voices in the Catholic community”:

“Some take the absolutist position that because the right to life is sacred and inviolable, the death penalty is always wrong. The respected Italian Franciscan Gino Concetti, writing in ‘L’Osservatore Romano’ in 1977, made the following powerful statement: ‘In light of the word of God, and thus of faith, life-all human life-is sacred and untouchable. No matter how heinous the crimes… [the criminal] does not lose his fundamental right to life, for it is primordial, inviolable, and inalienable, and thus comes under the power of no one whatsoever’.”

And from here on Dulles discusses precisely this radical thesis, a forerunner of what Pope Francis has now decided.

Here are a few passages from his argumentation, written in 2001 but still perfectly relevant:

“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.’

Go here to read the rest.  The Pope’s attempted doctrinal change has bupkis to do with Catholicism and everything with this Pope’s constant attempt to splash with Holy Water the current beliefs and prejudices of the chattering classes of the West.  The Pope has made himself the chaplain of the current zeitgeist.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.


  1. Christ affirms the old covenant death penalty for cursing one’s parents in Mark 7:10. Read it folks…really. Christ lacked Francis’ increased awareness of human dignity…so did the good thief when he said, “ we are getting what our deeds deserved”. We’re a joke now. Brazil and Mexico are the two largest Catholic countries and are non death penalty and have about 21 times the murder rate of East Asia…and they both have prisons that have no relation to either old or new ccc 2267. A college of Cardinals elected Francis…a college, not a preK…a college. It’s Friday. Signs of the cross said and done obtain partial indulgences per the Enchiridion for the 50,000 murder victims of Brazil yearly. Yeah…we know what we’re doing. College of silent Cardinals. Gotta protect that $70,000 a year til death.

  2. “For many, the contradiction with the previous teaching of the Church is there. And it amounts not to a “development” but to a real and proper rupture.”

    This puts me in mind of the Tractarians, so ably dealt with by Cardinal Manning who, before his conversion, had been attracted to their doctrine.

    “No Catholic would first take what our objectors call history, fact, antiquity and the like, and from them deduce his faith ; and for this reason, the faith was revealed and taught before history, fact or antiquity existed…

    But perhaps it may be asked: If you reject history and antiquity, how can you know what was revealed before, as you say, history and antiquity existed? ‘I answer: The enunciation of the faith by the living Church of this hour, is the maximum of evidence, both natural and supernatural, as to the fact and the contents of the original revelation. I know what are revealed there not by retrospect, but by listening…

    In truth, and at the root, is not this inverted and perverse method a secret denial of the perpetual office of the Holy Ghost? The first and final question to be asked of these controversialists is : Do you or do you not believe that there is a Divine Person teaching now, as in the beginning, with a divine, and therefore infallible voice ; and that the Church of this hour is the organ through which He speaks to the world ? If so, the history, and antiquity, and facts, as they are called, of the past vanish before the presence of an order of facts which are divine…”

    The theory from which all of their false teaching drew its strength was the theory professed by soi-disant Traditionalists today; that the teaching of the Church is something to be searched for in the records of the past rather than something to be heard and accepted in the living present

  3. No wonder Manning hated Newman, Newman knew his history, as his quip that to be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant demonstrated. Contra Cardinal Manning, former Protestant preacher, the Church does not need lies to support her, and when the fallible men at the head of the Church resort to lies, it is usually a short path to disaster and chaos.

  4. Michael,
    Verbum Domini chapter 2, section 10:
    “ But the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”

    When 3 Popes don’t even mention Romans 13:4 on the topic, that’s a tell that they are not interpreting it…but rather avoiding it and avoiding handing it on because they think they are above that verse. Another tell is when they all project the safety of Euro prisons implicitly to northern Latin America whose prisons are not remotely safe outside their capitals. Another tell, is when all three Popes have difficulty with Judas being in hell. Another tell is when ccc 2267 changes the meaning of deterrence to mean deterring only the present murderer you caught. Another tell is when Pope Benedict declared in Verbum Domini sect.42 that “the preaching of the prophets challenged every form of violence”…and implied that the herem massacres were sins. Here’s Jeremiah, a major prophet, telling the Chaldeans they must do an herem massacre against the Moabites per God,
    48:10 “Cursed be he that doeth the work of Jehovah negligently; and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood.” Elijah killed 552 men and maybe 952 if the Carmel incident had a missing verse. Jehu, a prophet- king, killed decades of Baal worshippers and was praised by God though he persisted laterin idolatry. Samuel killed Agag because Saul failed to. Eliseus got 42 children killed by bears via a curse. Did Benedict read the Old Testament at all. A small percent is in the Mass.

  5. Pope Confusion doing away with 20
    centuries of church teachings will make it that much easier for his next big move, taking the sin of homosexual acts out of the Catechism. He could care less what the Bible says, and has proven this a thousand times over since he became pope.

  6. Donald R McClarey wrote, “No wonder Manning hated Newman…”

    Newman was equally scathing. He pictures a Tractarian saying, “And then I read the Fathers, and I have determined what works are genuine, and what are not; which of them apply to all times, which are occasional; which historical, and which doctrinal; what opinions are private, what authoritative; what they only seem to hold, what they ought to hold; what are fundamental, what ornamental…”

    In the same vein, he observes, “At first glance, what is the history of doctrine but “pope against pope and council against council” and “Some fathers against others, the same fathers against themselves; a consensus of fathers of one age against a consensus of fathers of another age; the church of one age against the church of another age.”

    Of Scripture, he says, “Surely, then, if the revelations and lessons in Scripture are addressed to us personally and practically, the presence among us of a formal judge and standing expositor of its words, is imperative. It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so unsystematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times, and places, should be given us from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself. Its inspiration does but guarantee its truth, not its interpretation. How are private readers satisfactorily to distinguish what is didactic and what is historical, what is fact and what is vision, what is allegorical and what is literal, what is idiomatic and what is grammatical, what is enunciated formally and what occurs obiter, what is only of temporary and what is of lasting obligation?”

    It was precisely this need for a “standing expositor” that brought both Manning and Bl John Henry Newman to Rome.

  7. You misquote Newman MPS. Here is what he actually wrote in his classic tome on the development of doctrine:

    And, if it be said in reply that the difficulty of admitting these developments of doctrine lies, not merely in the absence of early testimony for them, but in the actual existence of distinct testimony against them,—or, as Chillingworth says, in “Popes against Popes, Councils against Councils,”—I answer, of course this will be said; but let the fact of this objection be carefully examined, and its value reduced to its true measure, before it is used in argument. I grant that there are “Bishops against Bishops in Church history, Fathers against Fathers, Fathers against themselves,” for such differences in individual writers are consistent with, or rather are involved in the very idea of doctrinal development, {121} and consequently are no real objection to it; the one essential question is whether the recognized organ of teaching, the Church herself, acting through Pope or Council as the oracle of heaven, has ever contradicted her own enunciations. If so, the hypothesis which I am advocating is at once shattered; but, till I have positive and distinct evidence of the fact, I am slow to give credence to the existence of so great an improbability.

    Rather than fleeing from history, for Newman history was an essential part of his test to determine whether some occurrence in the life of the Church was an actual development of doctrine or one of those abberant corruptions that from time to time arise also in the life of the Church until swept away over the years.

  8. Donald
    The quotation about “pope against pope” is from a letter, if memory serves, to his nephew John Rickards Mozley. The quotation marks (without attribution) show he had Chillingworth in mind.

    Of course, Newman believed that these apparent contradictions were only a seeming and wrote the Essay on Development to demonstrate it.

    Underlying this was a distinction that he had already described in his 1843 sermon on Development. “Theological dogmas are propositions expressive of the judgments, which the mind forms, or the impressions which it receives, of Revealed Truth. Revelation sets before it certain supernatural facts and actions, beings and principles; these make a certain impression or image upon it; and this impression spontaneously, or even necessarily, becomes the subject of reflection on the part of the mind itself, which proceeds to investigate it, and to draw it forth in successive and distinct sentences.”

    Newman’s epistemology is fascinating and is developed in his sadly neglected work, “The Grammar of Assent.” He anticipates ideas of Frege, Wittgenstein and Kripke by a century.

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