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On October 11, Pope Francis addressed a conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of John Paul II’s Catechism of the Catholic Church. In his remarks, Francis indicated a desire to revise the Catechism, to take into account the development of doctrine on the death penalty. The upshot of the pope’s remarks is that the death penalty is “per se contrary to the Gospel” and it was “dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.” In other words, Francis holds that the death penalty is “inadmissible.”

Any number of sources have pointed out—and will point out—that these statements are flatly untraditional. The Church has taught, from the time of the Apostles to the time of John Paul II, that the death penalty is lawful. Indeed, the Common Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, sets forth in both the Summa Theologiae and the Summa Contra Gentiles arguments in support of the death penalty that are subtle and leave much room for the exercise of prudence by lawmakers. It would be difficult to characterize Thomas’s arguments as “dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.” The pope’s statements will no doubt join the other hotly disputed statements he has made since his election in 2013.

These remarks provide an interesting window into how the pope thinks about doctrine, and about his relationship to doctrine. Such windows have been hard to come by since Amoris laetitia was issued in the spring of 2016. Francis has so far refused to answer the dubia submitted by some cardinals about Amoris laetitia. And, while Pietro Cardinal Parolin, the secretary of state, and Gerhard Cardinal Müller, formerly prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have called for dialogue in the wake of the filial correction released a few weeks ago, it is unlikely that Francis would participate personally in such a process. The speech to the Catechism conference may be, for now, the clearest vision we get from Francis about the developments he favors.

Perhaps showing how closely he follows the debates that have exploded over his various pronouncements, Francis devoted some time in his remarks to demonstrating that his new position on the death penalty is part of a “harmonious development” of doctrine. Francis explains that, when the Church’s traditional doctrine is “clearly contrary” to a “new understanding of Christian truth,” we have a duty to “cease to defend” that doctrine. Francis argues that, today, we understand that any taking of human life is contrary to the dignity of life, and therefore we can now say that it is contrary to the Gospel. The argument is simple enough, but its implications are profound.

How profound? For that we need to turn to Bl. John Henry Newman. The pope’s remarks come just a couple of days after Newman’s feast. It is a little surprising that Francis did not mention Newman, since Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine has long been the locus classicus for an orthodox discussion of the development of doctrine. Or maybe not so surprising. In the Essay, Newman identifies several “notes” (he does not go so far as to call them “tests”) of an authentic development of doctrine. Among these notes is “conservative action” upon a doctrine’s past. Newman writes that a true development “is an addition which illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds; and this is its characteristic as contrasted with a corruption.” In other words, Newman tells us that an authentic development will never result in black becoming white or up down.

When Francis talks about doctrine becoming “clearly contrary” to a “new understanding of Christian truth,” it seems that he rejects Newman’s notion that a development of doctrine is conservative of the doctrine’s past. He seems to believe that authentic developments can correct, not corroborate, the body of thought from which they proceed. Perhaps this approach reflects the principle articulated in Evangelii gaudium, the programmatic exhortation he issued in 2013: “Realities are more important than ideas.” Recall that Francis taught that “angelic forms of purity,” “objectives more ideal than real,” and “ethical systems bereft of kindness” were all “means of masking reality.” One could, therefore, read Francis’s theory of development as an implementation of this principle. Realities can change, and therefore the idea can become contrary to the reality. Under these circumstances, the idea—especially if it is an objective more ideal than real—gives way.

At the same time, Francis cites Dei Verbum, the dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, observing that the Church’s duty to guard the deposit of faith, which closed with the death of the last apostle, is in “the very nature” of the Church. However, Dei Verbum seems to come closer to Cardinal Newman’s understanding of the development of doctrine when it emphasizes that the teaching office of the Church is the servant of the word of God. That is, in the Council’s words, the teaching office of the Church teaches “only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit.” It is difficult to see how “clearly contrary” understandings of doctrine could emerge in such a process.

Theologians can debate the sources and implications of Francis’s notion of development. And it is possible that Francis views these remarks as a response not only to the dubia cardinals but also to the signatories of the filial correction, even though they appear to embody principles he has espoused since the beginning of his reign. At the very least, it is helpful for Catholics—and others—who puzzle over some of the pope’s pronouncements to get this window into his thinking about doctrine.

P.J. Smith writes from southern Indiana.

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