This wonderful article in Catholic World Report is from the Catholic philosopher and eminent scholar on this issue, Dr. Edward Feser.
“Pope St. John Paul II favored the abolition of capital punishment. However, the catechism he promulgated nevertheless taught that the death penalty can be legitimate “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” Moreover, the pope’s doctrinal spokesman Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who went on to become Pope Benedict XVI, made it clear that John Paul’s call for abolition reflected a prudential judgment with which faithful Catholics need not agree. In a 2004 memorandum, the cardinal wrote that “if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment… he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion,” and that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty.”
“Pope Francis has taken a harder line against capital punishment than his predecessors. He has vigorously and repeatedly denounced the practice in public addresses, and has altered the catechism so that it now declares the death penalty flatly “inadmissible” and calls for “its abolition worldwide.” John Paul II’s exception has been removed. Some Catholic opponents of capital punishment appeal to these developments as proof that all Catholics are now obligated to favor its abolition – that there can no longer be the “legitimate diversity of opinion” spoken of by then-Cardinal Ratzinger. They label those who still support the death penalty “dissenters” and attribute to them disreputable motives, such as bloodlust or a political agenda.
“But there are serious problems with this view (apart from the obvious one that the latter accusations are just cheap ad hominem attacks). For one thing, when one reads Pope Francis’s statements about the death penalty carefully, it turns out to be difficult to interpret them in a way that would make assent to them binding on Catholics. For another, if Catholic opponents of the death penalty were consistent in their appeal to these statements, then they would have to accept some further conclusions that it seems few of them do accept – and that it would be difficult for any faithful Catholic to accept. I will explain what I have in mind by setting out three questions that any intellectually honest Catholic has to address before he can claim that all Catholics are obligated to oppose capital punishment:
“1. Does Pope Francis’s teaching on capital punishment amount to a doctrinal change or merely a prudential judgment?
“There are two possible interpretations of Pope Francis’s teaching on the death penalty. Either he intends to revise the relevant doctrinal principles, or he intends merely to make a prudential judgment about how best to apply existing doctrinal principles to current circumstances. But on neither interpretation can Catholics be obligated to assent to his position (as opposed to merely giving it respectful consideration).
“Here’s why. Consider first the suggestion that Pope Francis means to revise the relevant doctrinal principles. Now, the Church teaches that there are limits to what any pope can do by way of such revision. For example, the First Vatican Council taught:
“For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.”
Along the same lines, Pope Benedict XVI taught:
“The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: the Pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism…
The Pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church’s pilgrimage.”
“Now, as even many Catholic opponents of the death penalty acknowledge, it is not open to the Church to teach that capital punishment is wrong intrinsically or of its very nature. The most the Church can teach is that capital punishment is wrong under certain circumstances. The reason is that Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the popes prior to Pope Francis have consistently taught that capital punishment can be legitimate at least in principle. Given the Church’s claims about the reliability of Scripture and of her ordinary magisterium, it is not possible for the tradition to have been wrong for over two millennia about something that fundamental. Indeed, as I have shown in another article, the traditional teaching on the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment clearly meets the criteria for being an irreformable part of the ordinary magisterium. (Joseph Bessette and I set out the evidence for this at greater length in our book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.) So, the most that any pope could do by way of revising the relevant doctrinal principles would be to clarify the circumstances under which capital punishment can be legitimate.
“The problem is this. Pope Francis holds that the death penalty should never be used under any circumstances. He does not even concede, as Pope John Paul II did, that there may be rare circumstances where it is justifiable in order to protect others from the offender. Now, if he were saying that it is true as a matter of doctrinal principle that capital punishment must never be used, then it seems he would be contradicting the irreformable teaching of Scripture and Tradition. For how could it be the case that capital punishment ought never to be applied even in principle, not even to protect the innocent, unless it were intrinsically wrong?
“Now, no Catholic can be obligated to assent to anything that contradicts Scripture and Tradition – not even if a pope says it. After all, the Church acknowledges that popes are not infallible when not speaking ex cathedra. Moreover, though there is a strong presumption that Catholics ought to assent even to the non-infallible teachings of a pope, the Church also acknowledges that there are cases in which this presumption can be overridden and deficient magisterial statements respectfully criticized. The most obvious cases would be precisely those in which a pope appears to be contradicting irreformable doctrine. There is extensive teaching on this matter both from recent ecclesiastical documents and from tradition, which I have set out at length in another article. For example, the instruction Donum Veritatis, issued under Pope John Paul II, states:
“The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule. It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions…
“If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian’s part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented.”
“Note that the document teaches that it can sometimes be a duty to raise respectful criticisms. Donum Veritatis even goes on to say that a faithful theologian who feels compelled to raise such issues with the Magisterial authorities can be said to “suffer for the truth.” The document also explicitly distinguishes the raising of such difficulties from the “dissent” associated with heterodox theologians who want to reverse the Church’s traditional teachings.
“This is not some novel teaching of the Church. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that though the faithful have no authority to punish a wayward prelate, there can be circumstances in which they ought to correct a wayward prelate, even publicly, as long as this is done respectfully. And he offered an example that makes it clear that this includes popes:
“[F]raternal correction is a work of mercy. Therefore even prelates ought to be corrected…
“It must be observed… that if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly. Hence Paul, who was Peter’s subject, rebuked him in public, on account of the imminent danger of scandal concerning faith, and, as the gloss of Augustine says on Galatians 2:11, “Peter gave an example to superiors, that if at any time they should happen to stray from the straight path, they should not disdain to be reproved by their subjects.”
“A later example would be the case of Pope John XXII, who was rebuked by the theologians of his day for contradicting traditional teaching on the postmortem state of the soul, and who recanted this error on his deathbed. If Pope Francis were teaching that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong, then we would be in a similar situation, and would have a clear case in which the teaching of Donum Veritatis and of St. Thomas would apply. We would have a case where Catholics need not assent, indeed must not assent.”
Retrieved September 16, 2019 from https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2019/09/15/three-questions-for-catholic-opponents-of-capital-punishment/