On August 2, in light of an address last October to the Pontifical Council, Pope Francis made a modification to the Catholic Catechism declaring that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”. As an officially declared teaching of the Church, this poses a serious dilemma for Catholic judges and political leaders who have sworn to uphold the law. Personally I have been swayed by arguments in favor of the death penalty, and face some soul-searching in light of this development.
One criticism of the Church which I have heard numerous times is that, being infallible, the Pope can make any claim and all Catholics must believe him and agree with him if they are to remain faithful. This occasion provides a good opportunity to clarify the scope of papal authority in matters of teaching and doctrine.
The dogma of papal infallibility was officially declared at the First Vatican Council in 1870. The Pope has the authority to make declarations of dogma “ex cathedra” (“from the chair” of authority) which are subsequently binding for all Catholics under pain of separation from the Church. Though officially implemented relatively recently, this notion of the Pope’s authority has been paramount since the earliest days of the Church. The occasions for the use of this authority have been exceedingly rare. The latest three instances of “ex cathedra” declarations have been the dogmas of the Immaculate Conception (1854), Papal Infallibility (1870), and the Assumption of Mary (1950).
Speaking personally, I have an affinity for the clarity that such an authority would bring to my choices in life. When faced with a difficult situation at home or work, what could be better than to have the Pope standing in the room with me in full garb, telling me exactly how to deal with it and addressing my every concern? I would gladly forfeit years of ethical grappling and life experience for an infallible guiding hand. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work that way.
The three aforementioned dogmas have something in common. Not one is an idea that could have been deduced from historical study or life experience. There are two means by which our conceptions are directly connected with reality: physical observation and divine revelation. The dogma of papal infallibility lies in the domain of divine revelation. This means that the Pope can only make infallible declarations on matters in which God has directly intervened in the human history. This is fitting because he is God’s representative on earth. Two conclusions follow. First, dogmas of papal infallibility are only binding to Catholics. Second, the Pope does not have the final say in matters of ethics.
C. S. Lewis makes an excellent point in his book “Mere Christianity”. In a chapter entitled “Social Morality” the whimsical desire described above is shot to pieces:
But, of course, when they ask for a lead from the Church most people mean they want the clergy to put out a political programme. That is silly. The clergy are those particular people within the whole Church who have been specially trained and set aside to look after what concerns us as creatures who are going to live for ever: and we are asking them to do a quite different job for which they have not been trained. The job is really on us, on the laymen.
What Lewis is suggesting is that it is our calling as lay Catholics to take the supernatural guidance of the Pope (technically the Magisterium of the Church) and deduce both the general rules of ethical behavior and their specific applications to real-world circumstances. Ethical progress is attainable completely apart from direct supernatural intervention. The two most influential sources for Thomas Aquinas’ “Summa Theologica” are Augustine of Hippo and Aristotle. Aristotle had no significant ties to the Jewish nation and lived hundreds of years before Christ.
However, Aristotle also taught that the ends do not justify the means. There exists such a thing as an intrinsically evil act, which again can be deduced completely apart from divine revelation. The Second Vatican Council enumerates instances of such acts:
Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator.
In the case of slavery, eighteen centuries of history passed under the guidance of the Church before humanity had made sufficient ethical progress to realize its impermissibility. But that does not mean it required an act of God to make it so. I suspect that the same might be true of capital punishment. Although, it does not seem clear that the argument has been made, that capital punishment is indeed hostile “in toto” to life itself. Genesis 9:6 states, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” This passage seems to justify capital punishment by the same premise for which it is declared “impermissible”.
Of course, of all earthly institutions, the Catholic Church as a whole is in the most authoritative position to argue on matters of ethics and morality. But ultimately, because ethical declarations in general and the declaration on capital punishment in particular are not made “ex cathedra”, it might be argued that the onus remains on the conscience of each individual. A discourse on discerning the message of conscience will require another endeavor and some divine intervention for this fallible author.