St. Pope John Paul II condemned the death penalty and urged government leaders to end it.
Pope Benedict XVI did the same, in language just as strong as that used by his beloved predecessor.
Now Pope Francis has gone one step further, saying that the church can now say that the faith of the ages has evolved, allowing the Catholic Catechism to condemn the death penalty in strong, but somewhat unusual language. Is use of the death penalty now a mortal sin, like abortion and euthanasia? Well, the word is that it is "inadmissible."
This is, of course, a major news story and, no surprise, host Todd Wilken and I discussed the early press coverage in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.
But what does this change really mean?
Did Pope Francis simply take the work of St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI one step further? Thus, Catholic traditionalists can chill.
Or is this an example of Pope Francis the progressive, moving one piece on the Jesuit chessboard to prepare for further shifts in the future on other doctrines? If the church was wrong on the death penalty for 2,000 years, who knows what doctrine will evolve next?
So, is this doctrinal shift a big deal or not?
It appears, after looking at lots of commentary on social media, that the answer to that question depends on whether someone trusts Pope Francis or not.
As someone who opposes the death penalty, in all cases, I was pleased to hear this news. Then I started listening to voices of commentators who were worried, including people who oppose the death penalty, but are not sure that Francis had the authority to speak a new word and change this doctrine.
So what's going on? So far, I have seen at least five different takes:
(1) We are not talking about a crucial doctrine. Thus, this shift is fine.
(2) The big doctrinal point here is the defense of human life, from conception to natural death. In a doctrinal clash with Old Testament takes on capital punishment, the right to life argument wins. After all, studies have shown that use of the death penalty hits the poor and members of racial minorities harder than it hits the privileged. And what about the execution of people who are later found to be innocent? Should state officials have the right to make mistakes they cannot correct?
(3) Ah, but what if Pope Francis is setting a precedent that could lead to similar doctrinal equations on issues like divorce and homosexuality?
What would that look like? Well, the larger doctrinal truth is the inherent dignity of the human person. Thus, as stated by a Catholic reader responding to Rod Dreher:
From the Catholic Catechism of 2030:
“Sexual relations between persons of the same sex were long considered to be intrinsically disordered acts.
“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost when a person engages in same-sex relations. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the meaning of human sexuality.
“Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘same-sex sexual activity is a legitimate expression of the inviolability and dignity of the person’, and she works with determination for its acceptance worldwide.”
(4) Maybe this is just another subtle move to help protect liberal Catholics in the Democratic Party? You can imagine a liberal Catholic saying, "Hey, I am opposed to abortion in my heart and I oppose the death penalty in the U.S. Senate. That makes me more Catholic than that Republican woman who opposes abortion, but then backs the death penalty. Come on people: I'm a Pope Francis Catholic!"
(5) Now, what about that movie theme at the top of this post?
Admit it. Didn't the thought cross your mind that this zap the death penalty announcement from Rome might be a brilliant "Wag The Dog" move to give journalists a different story to argue about for a week or so, thus knocking former Cardinal "Uncle Ted" McCarrick off page one?
That's all for now. Enjoy the podcast.