Have you ever noticed that the amount of news coverage granted to the writings of Pope Francis tends to rise or fall based on the degree to which his pronouncements mesh with the editorial pages of The New York Times?
Notice, please, that I said the "amount" of coverage, not the "quality." This pope has made important, and complex, statements on hot-button topics that led to the spilling of oceans of ink and pixels in coverage that missed the point of his words. His comments defending traditional Catholic teachings -- think gender, for example -- often draw little or no response.
Then again, who am I to judge?
The news, today, is that Rome has changed the Catholic Catechism on an important issue linked to the defense of life, from conception to natural death. We are, of course, talking about the death penalty (confession: which I have always opposed, with no exceptions).
So far, the coverage has been good -- since this is a change welcomed by the religious left. However, let me note some information that really needs to make it into the coverage, to show readers how this change came to pass. So, here is a question: Who said the following?
"A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."
That would be the late St. Pope John Paul II, of course, in a 1999 sermon. That wasn't the only time that he signaled that the death penalty didn't align with pro-life doctrines.
Did the words of John Paul II make it into the early coverage that you read?
I am pleased to note that the evolving Times story about this issue now includes the following. Yes, this language pushes a political button, but that button is real:
Francis’ decision is likely to put many American Catholic politicians in a difficult position, especially Catholic governors, like Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, who have presided over executions.
The move could also set off a backlash among Catholic traditionalists who already cast Francis as being dangerously inclined to change or compromise church teaching on other issues, such as permitting communion for Catholics who have divorced and remarried without getting a church annulment.
The new teaching on the death penalty builds on the instructions of Francis’ two immediate predecessors, but goes further, reflecting this pope’s unconditional opposition to the death penalty while affirming his vision of a merciful church.
It’s true that many political conservatives may fret about this, and not just in the GOP tent. The death penalty is one of the many moral and cultural issues that separate former Vice President Joe Biden from the teachings of his church. Hillary Clinton? She's a United Methodist, but she is also pro-death penalty.
As you would expect, the team at Crux immediately offered readers the roots of this announcement by Francis, noting that the previous two popes -- both beloved by pro-Catechism Catholics -- were clearly steering the church in this direction, on step at a time.
First, here is a bit of new Catechism language, approved by Pope Francis. Note that Crux stresses that this is a statement from the Catholic Church itself, not from Francis alone.
“The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” reads the Catechism of the Catholic Church now on the death penalty, with the addition that the Church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
Then, right at the top of the story, Crux notes:
This is a departure from what the document, approved under Pope John Paul II in 1992, says on the matter: “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.”
The former formula does stipulate that if non-lethal means are sufficient to protect people’s safety from the aggressor, then authority must limit itself to it, as these “are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”
In 1997, the Catechism was changed to reflect John Paul’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. The addition said that the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
While the voice of Pope Francis is crucial, Crux also offered important background material from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Marking down the development, Ladaria quotes from Francis’s two immediate predecessors, first saying that John Paul II’s document Evangelium vitae is key in this development of the doctrine. In it, the Polish pope enumerated the signs of hope for a new culture of life, including “a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of ‘legitimate defense’ on the part of society.”
Criminals, the late pontiff wrote, shouldn’t be “definitively” denied the chance to reform. It was this document, as Ladaria points out in his letter, that led to the first change in the Catechism on this issue, saying the cases in which the death penalty is justified are, in reality, “practically non-existent.”
Ladaria then goes on to say that John Paul’s commitment to the abolition of the death penalty was then continued by Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, who recalled “the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty.”
So here is the basic question to ponder as you watch this coverage evolve in the next 24 hours, including the inevitable shouting matches on niche-cable "news" shows: To what degree do journalists treat this as a story about the heroic and possible liberal Pope Francis, as opposed to giving news consumers the larger picture of how recent popes have been preparing the theological ground for this change?
Consider this passage from USA Today:
Francis has long railed against the death penalty, insisting it can never be justified, no matter how heinous the crime. He has also long made prison ministry a mainstay of his vocation. On nearly every foreign trip, Francis has visited with inmates to offer words of solidarity and hope, and he still stays in touch with a group of Argentine inmates he ministered to during his years as archbishop of Buenos Aires.
That information is not inaccurate. It's just incomplete.
The larger framework matters. For example, if doctrinal conservatives are supposed to be upset about this (Rod Dreher rounds up some crucial voices and quotes), how does that mesh with the writings of Pope Benedict XVI? It would be crucial to seek multiple John Paul II and Benedict references on this doctrinal debate.
The bottom line: This isn't a news story about one pope.