The Catholic Church is infallible. Her infallibility is supremely invested in the Roman Pontiff, but is also exercised by the college of bishops, when they universally teach the same doctrine with and under the pope.
Not only books, but libraries of books have been written to explain the truths expressed in those two sentences, there being myriad complexities surrounding an issue that is, at its heart, quite simple.
One undeniable hallmark of Catholic dogma has always been its clarity. The Church, as a good teacher, does not guide her children in halting speech. She is not vague or ambiguous. Indeed, to teach infallibly and thus bind the faithful under pain of grievous sin would absolutely require clarity. Since it is manifestly contrary to reason for a teacher to demand assent of the intellect to something ambiguous or vague, how can Christ’s faithful be bound in conscience to believe something ephemeral or given to a multiplicity of contrary interpretations?
The infallible magisterium of the Catholic Church is limited in its exercise, clearly recognizable when invoked, and serious in its expression. But these marks of Catholicity are all but lost in our day when a “paramagisterium” operates seemingly to supplant the authentic magisterium of the Church.
These thoughts came to mind upon hearing the news that Libreria Editrice Vaticana has published the book, Interviste e conversazioni con i giornalisti (“Interviews and Conversations with Journalists”), a collection of interviews with Pope Francis.
Readers will no doubt recall the brouhaha that resulted from the Pope’s interviews and correspondences with Eugenio Scalfari, the atheist founder of the liberal secularist newspaper, La Repubblica. According to the Italian Catholic journalist, Antonio Socci, those very interviews are contained in the new volume.
We are soon to see an awful lot of spin.
What will likely be lost in the drama of it all is doctrinal clarity. A papal interview is not a vehicle for infallible teaching. True enough, when the Holy Father professes perennial teachings of the Faith in such a context, those dogmas are infallibly true, but that is not the point. The world is not going to consider it newsworthy that the 266th pope of the Catholic Church has reaffirmed belief in the Trinity or the Immaculate Conception. To be blunt about it, the sound bites the world is looking for, concern the hot-button questions, mostly on the subject of sexual libertinism, but also on how far the Church is willing to go in accepting other aspects of the dominant liberalism of secular society.
This drama will no doubt get very ugly. We must pray that God will work a greater good out of the confusion — e.g., that stable and orthodox theological thinkers would enlighten the confused but good-willed with some clarity about the Church’s magisterium.
(Some efforts of my own may be found in a talk I gave in 2007 entitled, “The Magisterium on the Magisterium,” and in sections of a longer work I’ve written online here and here. Thoughts on the related subject of development of doctrine may be found here and here.)
For purposes of illustration, I would like now to consider a concrete subject upon which the paramagisterium has spoken frequently and loudly, even to the point of confusing some very good Catholics — especially champions for the pro-life cause. I speak of capital punishment.
Writing for Crisis Magazine some time ago, Christopher A. Ferrara asked the question “Can the Church Ban Capital Punishment?” He replied in the negative for very weighty reasons. In brief, the entire tradition of the Church advanced and defended the right of the State to administer the death penalty, not only as a means to protect the citizenry from a repeat offense, but also for reasons of justice, deterrence, expiation, and even the spiritual welfare of the guilty, whose frightful sentence could lead to his conversion, as it did over the years for many of the condemned.
Ferrara quotes the Catechism of the Council of Trent:
Again, this prohibition [of killing] does not apply to the civil magistrate, to whom is entrusted the power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which he punishes the guilty and protects the innocent. The use of the civil sword, when wielded by the hand of justice, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the commandment is the preservation and sanctity of human life, and to the attainment of this end, the punishments inflicted by the civil magistrate, who is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend, giving security to life by repressing outrage and violence.
Citing Pope Pius XII and Romano Amerio, Ferrara puts emphasis on the expiatory value of the sentence:
It must not be forgotten that the death penalty, like any criminal penalty, serves as a form of expiation. That is why prisons were once called penitentiaries. As Saint Thomas observes in the Summa: “Even death inflicted as a punishment for crimes takes away the whole punishment for those crimes in the next life, or at least part of that punishment, according to the quantities of guilt, resignation, and contrition; but a natural death does not.” (Cf. Romano Amerio Iota Unum, 435). Further, in the case of capital punishment the expiatory penalty reflects the sin of one whose grave crime has caused him to lose the right to life. Some 700 years after the Summa, Pope Pius XII repeated the constant teaching of the Church in this regard: “Even when it is a question of someone condemned to death, the state does not dispose of an individual’s right to life. It is then the task of public authority to deprive the condemned man of the good of life, in expiation of his fault, after he has already deprived himself of the right to life by his crime.” (AAS, 1952, pp. 779 et. seq)
What a lot of Catholics probably do not know is that Vatican City State and the other Papal States themselves formerly used the death penalty.
In the nineteenth century, there existed in Rome the archconfraternity of San Giovanni Decollato (“Saint John Beheaded”), whose members did penance for those we now call death-row inmates. For them, part of being Christian also meant looking out for the spiritual welfare of the condemned. The Papal States were quite interested in man’s supernatural end, too. For this reason, execution days in Rome were days of prayer and penance. Saint Vincent Pallotti used to work with the archconfraternity of San Giovanni Decollato, and never complained that the popes, one of whom was Blessed Pio Nono, were “violating human dignity.”
There are some who oppose capital punishment purely for prudential reasons, and in the present context. They believe that the modern state is so evil, so given to usurp rights that are not its own, and so callous towards human life in general (e.g., abortion), that it ought not to wield the sword. This position is not at variance with Church teaching, but it is certainly debatable.
Granted, the State does not have to resort to capital punishment. The question is may it do so. And the answer is yes.
But there is a new body of teaching today, part of the paramagisterium, which has it that the death penalty is an intrinsic violation of the dignity of the human person. We hear it from bishops, priests, and pious lay faithful engaged in the pro-life movement. The logical question presents itself: If this is so, why did Christ’s infallible Church, for the entirety of her history, teach and act otherwise until the late twentieth century? This cannot be justified as a legitimate “development of doctrine,” because these individuals negate capital punishment in principle and based upon fundamental anthropological truths that the Church has either not known or overlooked until the ascendancy of personalist philosophy in the twentieth century.
Capital punishment is but one issue upon which we see confusion generated by the paramagisterium. Others would include evolution (no, it’s not a teaching of the Church!), Christ’s Social Kingship, Limbo, Biblical inerrancy, and, of course, sex. Lastly, the very nature of the Church herself, her necessity and divine constitution are constantly assailed by the paramagisterium.
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Here is a YouTube video of a sermon preached by a priest friend of Saint Benedict Center on the subject of capital punishment. It’s very good.