The Death Penalty & Doctrine

The recent change to The Catechism of The Catholic Church has sparked news reports and questions from folks everywhere, "How can the teaching on the death penalty change?" The first thing to do is to read the original text carefully. Paragraph #2267:

2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

Notice that the doctrine up to this point states "the traditional teaching." Take special note that the word "traditional" is lowercased. Now look atThe Catechism of The Catholic Church paragraph 83:

83 The Tradition here in question comes from the apostles and hands on what they received from Jesus' teaching and example and what they learned from the Holy Spirit. The first generation of Christians did not yet have a written New Testament, and the New Testament itself demonstrates the process of living Tradition.

Tradition is to be distinguished from the various theological, disciplinary, liturgical or devotional traditions, born in the local churches over time. These are the particular forms, adapted to different places and times, in which the great Tradition is expressed. In the light of Tradition, these traditions can be retained, modified or even abandoned under the guidance of the Church's Magisterium.

The last part of #83 makes an important distinction between Tradition and traditions. Since "traditions" can be kept, changed, or abandoned. That means that the 'doctrine' of the death penalty in 2267 was not identified as part of The Tradition, it was classified as a tradition. This means the logical possibility of removing the death penalty was built into The Catechism.

Tradition, traditions, tradition

Paragraph 83 mentions how The New Testament itself is evidence of a process of living Tradition. This does not mean that Tradition substantially changes, only that it accidentally changes. An example of a substantial change would be if an acorn grew into a moray eel -- it would be something radically different than what it started out as. An accidental change would be if the acorn sprouted a stalk -- it would still be the same thing but with some particular differences. The Tradition has accidental changes, but not substantial changes

At the Council of Trent you'll only find conversations around "traditions," which is something like 'customs' or 'stuff we've done for a very long time.' But notice traditions might include both Mass or superstitious use of relics. If we say "all traditions are good and can't be removed," then how would we ever get rid of superstitious practices while maintaining good ones? We'd need a Standard by which we could evaluate multiple traditions, especially if they are competing or incoherent to The Faith.

At Vatican II a nuanced discussion about tradition. We find something like the following:

  • Tradition: a living transmission of the oral and written sources of revelation that is one long sustained argument over what is True about The Holy Trinity and our relation to God.

  • traditions: something like "customs;" these are particular expressions of Tradition that may or may not be correct, but are commonly done

  • tradition: the process of transmitting truths

Influenced by a Platonic-Aristotelian synthesis, the English language often capitalizes the standard of a thing (Tradition) and particular instances are lowercased (tradition). This signifies that there is some notion of Tradition perhaps existing not just as concept in Man's mind, but ultimately as an objective reality in the mind of God, and particular instances of traditions that better or worse correspond to this Tradition. If they are accurately participations in Tradition then they have a true form of tradition as they exist manifested in various cultures.

For instance, The Incarnation is Tradition, and having a procession on Christmas Eve until the cock crows on Christmas Morning (Misa Gallo in Spain) is a true tradition. The Tradition of what is Canon in Scripture is True, e.g. that Luke, Sirach, Deuteronoy, and Jude are all part of The Bible. But it turns out the Shepherd of Hermas that was claimed by many Church Fathers to be Scripture (perhaps even a consensus of them) has now been falsified as a false tradition. In other words, you won't find The Shepherd of Herman in The Bible, despite the fact it was for over some 400 odd years claimed to be a "traditional" book of Scripture.

Development of Doctrine

Cardinal John Henry Newman was a famous Anglican convert to Catholicism, later made a Catholic Cardinal. He is credited with denoting the notion of "Development of Doctrine" in a book by the same name. (I was halfway through this book when I became Catholic.) I will address this at a later day in regards to how the death penalty can be a true development of doctrine. You'll notice if you read not wordly sources, but actually read the official CDF document, A Letter to the Bishops regarding #2267, that they refer to this change as a "development of doctrine" repeatedly.

Ordinariate Catholics familiar with John Henry Newman will find accidental changes in doctrine of "traditions" non-problematic. At the same most become Catholic because they realize only Catholics have non-changing Tradition. The problem many have with a "tradition" changing is that they conflate tradition with Tradition, and/or think that "tradition" is a static, non-changing thing. The Catholic Church has never taught this. She has taught Tradition never changes. This places the OCSP is a great place to share the treasure of her forefathers like Newman.

General Principle vs. Particular Matter

In short, if the CDF is correct that this removal of the death penalty is a true development of doctrine, we can see it simply by comparing #2267 to #83. The latter (#83) allows the former (#2267) to be removed. This means the general principle allows the tradition on the death penalty to change: even absolute removal. Whether or not the particulars of The Scriptures and The Patristics support this is a matter of particulars that theologians can work out in service to The Magisterium. After all, The Magisterium's job is to faithfully interpret The Scriptures:

86 "Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully.

What to do?

If this is the Magisterium's job, then what is our job considering Doctrine? If our job to make what a private judgment about this Doctrine? Of course not, the famous Anglican convert to Catholicism, Cardinal Newman once described such an action as the essence of Liberalism and the Protestant Religion. For a Catholic to do this is to act like a Protestant.

What is our job then?

87 Mindful of Christ's words to his apostles: "He who hears you, hears me", the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms.

To be "docile," is to be "easy to teach," it requires a disposition of ready reception, like our Mother Mary who said, "Let it be done unto me according to thy Word." For reading The Scriptures and The Patristics we would be wise to recall St. Augustine who laid out two principles for reading anything, Scripture or a doctrinal change:

1) The Rule of Faith: what does The Faith teach?

2) The Law of Charity: am I willing The Good (God) for God, my neighbor, and myself?

In a sense this is a conversation about what is The Rule of Faith regarding the death penalty. This means it's harder to appeal to, and those arguing against it would find this to be circular reasoning. However, we can still have goodwill, and ought to have charity about pronouncements declared developments of doctrine by The Magisterium. If Charity is willing the good, this does not rely on one understanding the good absolutely, so much as relying on the virtue of Faith to know what is ultimately good here.

For the sake of Faith, Hope, and Charity then -- be docile to The Magisterium. As St. Anselm of Canterbury said, we have Faith Seeking Understanding, not the other way around. The Church has been around a while and seen many things and many "traditions" have passed away before this without Tradition changing. No matter what "side" you find yourself on, remember you are Catholic first, and there we have no "sides," we are not followers of Paul or Apollos, for none of them was crucified for us. We are all part of The Body of Christ, and he promised the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against The Church, so let the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Saint Aelred Catholic Church

4951 Macon Highway
Bishop, GA 30621
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