One of the ways that journalists can tell a Pope Francis controversy has legs is when it quickly becomes clear that conservative Catholics and liberal Catholics are offering very similar readings of the same text.
The difference, of course, is that Catholics on the doctrinal left are excited about the text and many on the doctrinal right are worried.
In this case, I am talking -- of course -- about the pope's "evolution of doctrine" statement on the death penalty. (In candor, let me again note once again that I am totally opposed to the death penalty, with no exceptions.) As a refresher, let's listen to the gospel according to The New York Times:
... Francis said executions were unacceptable in all cases because they are “an attack” on human dignity, the Vatican announced on Thursday, adding that the church would work “with determination” to abolish capital punishment worldwide.
Francis made the change to the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, the book of doctrine that is taught to Catholic children worldwide and studied by adults in a church with 1.2 billion members. Abolishing the death penalty has long been one of his top priorities, along with saving the environment and caring for immigrants and refugees. ...
The pope’s decree is likely to hit hardest in the United States, where a majority of Catholics support the death penalty and the powerful “pro-life movement” has focused almost exclusively on ending abortion -- not the death penalty.
Kudos for the restraint shown in avoiding a reference to "the so-called 'pro-life' movement."
Now, in my post with this week's podcast -- "So how much do you trust Pope Francis? Here's why death penalty debate is heating up" -- I quoted the following reference from an email to Rod Dreher from a Catholic reader, referring to this "evolution of doctrine" debate:
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.”
Now, is it cynical for Catholic conservatives to take the death-penalty language of Pope Francis and apply this same doctrinal formula to the Sacrament of Marriage and moral theology linked to the status of sex outside of marriage?
Well, consider the following from the website of New Ways Ministry, a Catholic group -- condemned by some, welcomed by others -- seeking changes in Catholic doctrines on sexuality. The headline on this piece by editor Francis DeBernardo: "What Does Change in Church’s Death Penalty Teaching Mean for LGBT People?"
After quoting the New York Times, of course, DeBernardo notes the following from the Vatican News Service:
In the Letter to the Bishops, Cardinal Ladaria [prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] explained that the revision of n. 2267 of the CCC [Catechism of the Catholic Church] “expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium” and said “these teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime”.
Thus, the leaders of New Ways Ministry conclude:
What does this death penalty news mean for Catholic advocates for LGBT equality? A few things.
First, we now have a clear, explicit contemporary example of church teaching changing, and also a look into how it can be done: with a papal change to the Catechism.
Second, we can see that the process that brought about this change has been decades of theological debate and discussion, and not just a papal whim. That means the theological and even ecclesial discussions and debates right now about LGBT people have great potential to shape future changes in church teaching in regard to those topics.
Third, the death penalty is condemned because it violates the human dignity of a person. In Ladaria’s “Letter to the Bishops” explaining the change in teaching, he quotes Pope Francis: “no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” The dignity of the human person is the same foundation upon which many of the arguments for LGBT equality are based in theology, so seeing this teaching promoted more vigorously by Pope Francis and other church leaders is a positive step for Catholic LGBT topics.
Fourth, Pope Francis emphasis that human dignity is not eradicated despite whatever condition a person may be in highlights an important theme of his papacy which has been helpful for pastoral ministry to LGBT people: Because everyone has inherent human dignity, the Church should be open and welcoming to all people, regardless of whether or not their lives conform to church teaching in other areas. The church should not leave anyone out.
There's more, of course.