When Time magazine published its issue on the 100 most influential people of the 20th century, the columnist and pundit Peggy Noonan wrote the profile for her former boss, Ronald Reagan. She began by recounting Clare Boothe Luce’s quip that every president is remembered for a sentence: “He freed the slaves.” “He made the Louisiana Purchase.” Sometimes a presidency boils down, fairly or not, to a single word. Watergate. Lewinsky. Obamacare. The same parlor game applies to popes and papacies. “He called the Council.” “He changed the Mass.” “He resigned.” What will Pope Francis’s sentence be? His most famous catchphrase, “Who am I to judge?” appeared early, just months after ascending to Peter’s chair, and set a tone of openness or ambiguity (depending on one’s point of view) that would become a hallmark of his pontificate. His legacy, though, will more likely be captured by another phrase, uttered during that same trip to World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro. During his remarks on Copacabana beach, the Holy Father went off-script and exhorted the millions of young people there, “¡Hagan lío!”—“Make a mess!” Among the possibilities for Pope Francis’s sentence, a leading contender would have to be, “He made a mess.”
Any pope is subject to the cold eye of historical evaluation. Critics of Pope Francis have not been shy to point out what they see as his excesses and abuses. The specific mess that may well define Francis’s legacy, though, concerns the deposit of faith itself. That is, Pope Francis has made a mess of the Church’s doctrine, not just in what Catholics believe, but in how we receive and understand that revelation.
A few years into the current pontificate, I was invited to join a group of fellow doctoral students in Rome for dinner with the late Cardinal Pell. At the time he was serving as prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy, tasked with the unenviable job of reforming the Vatican’s finances. Someone asked the cardinal about the Holy Father, to which he replied, “Well, he sows great confusion.” It’s the type of assessment that one rarely hears from high-ranking prelates, even over casual dinners. It reassured us that our concerns were not unwarranted, that the confusion we were experiencing was indeed great and unprecedented.
Amidst heresies and schisms, the papacy is to remain a rock of stability and clarity. Catholics rightly look to the pope as the visible source of unity, the authoritative voice in the face of uncertainty. That voice has been amplified in modern times in two ways. The first is that papal authority has become more muscular. From the declaration of infallibility at Vatican I, a doctrinal ultramontanism has led many Catholics to equate the papacy with Catholicism. Popes themselves have not been immune to this temptation. When a wavering bishop at Vatican I expressed concerns that a declaration of infallibility would undermine the Church and her tradition, Pope Pius IX angrily retorted, “I am the Church! I am tradition!” It was a decidedly non-infallible statement. At Vatican II, Pope Paul VI likewise succumbed to an overestimation of his office. During conciliar discussions on the doctrine of papal primacy, Paul proposed an insertion into the document on the Church stating that the pope is “bound by the Lord alone.” The Doctrinal Commission rejected this proposal, calling it excessively simplistic and reminding the pope that he is indeed bound by revelation, by the sacraments, by previous councils, and other factors too many to mention.
The second amplification of the papal pulpit is the advances in technology and mass media, through which the pope has assumed an ever-greater presence in the everyday lives of Catholics. For most of Church history, the pope was a name in the Canon of the Mass, and a whispered one at that. Now he is the world-traveling face of the Church. Papal interviews and tweets are instantly read by millions.
What exactly is the mess that Pope Francis has made? I would like to focus on what I believe to be the most serious doctrinal error of this pontificate, which is the change that the pope made to the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the death penalty. I call this the most serious error both because of its official nature—this was not an off-the-cuff remark—and because of the precedent it set. In order to understand the significance of the pope’s actions, though, we need to place the Church’s teaching on the death penalty in context.
Saints and doctors and popes, interpreting Scripture and Tradition, have taught, and the people of God down through the ages have believed, that the state has the inherent right to mete out capital punishment. How and when and under what circumstances it may or should be carried out is a matter for discernment, but the right itself has been upheld universally and uncontroversially as part of the Church’s ordinary magisterium. Catholics, though, have become accustomed to relying on the extraordinary magisterium of the Church, a solemn definition by a pope or council. Such exercises are, by definition, rare. When a given doctrine has been taught and reaffirmed so consistently, for so long, it assumes an infallible quality. That is, we believe it is not possible that the Holy Spirit could mislead the Church in such a serious way on a matter of such importance. That the moral permissibility of the death penalty is an infallible doctrine of the Church’s ordinary magisterium has been thoroughly argued elsewhere, and was reinforced in the original 1992 version of the Catechism. That version stated what would have been familiar to Catholics throughout history: “The traditional teaching of the church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.”
Pope John Paul II brought his personal opposition to capital punishment to bear upon the revised 1997 edition of the Catechism: “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.” The change is significant and presents a novel circumscription in applying capital punishment. Rather than serve as a just punishment commensurate with the gravity of one’s crime, the death penalty is reduced to a practical means of protecting society. The wording gives the impression that prisons were notoriously porous throughout history, and that the need for such penalties has today been obviated. John Paul thus introduced into the Catechism the idea that capital punishment is somehow opposed to human dignity. He was at pains not to deny the inherent permissibility of the death penalty, but by limiting and discouraging its application he pushed the magisterium as far as he believed he could.
The next alteration came in 2018, when Pope Francis completely rewrote the section:
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,” and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
There is much to dissect here. Most glaringly, Francis calls the death penalty “inadmissible.” The word is something of a theological unicorn. The pope does not say that the death penalty is inherently wrong—such a statement would contradict the infallible teaching of the Church. The wording does, however, render the death penalty obsolete: It may not be wrong in theory, but it is never to be carried out in practice. More alarmingly, though, is the reason given for this inadmissibility. What John Paul sketched out, Francis draws in bold lines. He twice refers to the dignity of the person and declares that the current age has a more sensitive and refined awareness of it. The assertion undermines the sensus fidelium—the belief that the faithful infallibly intuit the truth. It is not possible that the faithful people of God, including her saints and doctors, could have gotten something so wrong for her entire history, only to be enlightened by the most recent pontificates.
But of course, this isn’t exclusively about the death penalty. Most alarming in the passage above is the doctrinal change that Francis describes. The word change here is important. We are not speaking of a development of doctrine, no matter how much Francis and his apologists insist otherwise. A doctrine develops by becoming more fully and recognizably itself. Something very different is afoot in this discussion. What the pope describes is not a development, but a contradiction: for a long time we believed capital punishment was fine, but now we appreciate human dignity so much better, so we not only believe that it is not fine, but we must work for its abolition. The death penalty issue is so important because it serves as a possible template for any doctrinal change one could wish for. “For a long time we believed X, but now we have a better understanding of Y, and so we have come to believe NOT X.”
The pope’s emendation to the Catechism was wrong not just in itself but in the impression that it gave. “The pope changed Church teaching” was the common takeaway. In fact, the pope did not change Church teaching and has no authority to do so. The impression that he can, and did, remains the real problem. One recalls Richard Nixon’s infamous answer to the interviewer David Frost: “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” The statement expresses an incorrect and outsized view of executive power. A similar sentiment has crept into the Catholic psyche: “When the pope does it, that means that it is not wrong.” That the possibility of papal error would surprise and discomfit most Catholics underscores the woeful state in which we find ourselves. Even the means of the pope’s actions adds to the confusion. The Catechism is a statement of Church doctrine; it does not create Church doctrine. If I am at a restaurant and find myself disappointed that a certain item is not available, writing it on the menu does not make it magically appear on my plate.
If the pope can seem to get away with changing the teaching on the death penalty, stating that the Church and her people were wrong up until yesterday, it’s difficult to see what presumably settled doctrine is safe from similar revision. And that’s precisely the point.
To take a prime example, consider the issue of women’s ordination. In an interview earlier this year, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, the archbishop of Luxembourg who currently oversees the Synod on Synodality, answered a question on women’s ordination by stating, “Pope Francis does not want the ordination of women, and I am completely obedient to that.” The answer betrays a faulty ecclesiology. The cardinal speaks as though the inability of women to receive Holy Orders is due to the personal preference of the present pope, to which the cardinal acquiesces until such time that this pope changes his mind or the Church changes popes. He then added, “There is no way you can strictly go against the Pope’s teaching, yet sometimes there is a development though which can lead to different conclusions.” Cardinal Hollerich’s words in effect give away the game: Doctrine, even infallible doctrine, can develop in such a way that it comes to mean the opposite of what it did formerly. Indeed, his words represent the logical end to which Pope Francis has pointed.
Nor are the cardinal’s words an isolated example. In the confusion surrounding Amoris Laetitia, the first great doctrinal scandal of the Francis pontificate, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn referred to the possibility of admitting someone in an irregular marriage situation to Holy Communion as “an organic development of doctrine.” When asked about the possibility of changing Church teaching on contraception, Pope Francis himself invoked the idea of development and cited the death penalty as an example of how moral teaching can and should develop. The pope has also spoken of a development in the Church’s just war theory, stating that there is no such thing as a just war and thereby contradicting two millennia of magisterial teaching. The pattern becomes clear.
Every conclave must assess the needs of the Church and elect the shepherd who has the skills to address them. At different times in history such skills might be diplomatic or administrative, financial or evangelical. The great challenge for Francis’s successor is doctrinal assurance, to give Catholics once again the courage of their convictions, and to proclaim the apostolic faith—ever ancient, ever new—with clarity and brio. The next pope must strive to fulfill the Lord’s mandate to Peter on the eve of his Passion: “strengthen your brethren.” Twice in his letters to Timothy, St. Paul exhorts him with the primary task of every bishop: “guard the truth that has been entrusted to you.” The next pope’s task will be daunting, but he would do well, as he emerges from the Sistine Chapel, to keep first principles in mind: Protect the faith. Strengthen the brethren. And don’t make a mess.
Fr. Brian A. Graebe is a priest of the archdiocese of New York.
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