This last week has brought not one but two statements presented as being from Pope Francis which seem to be – how shall I put it? – heteredox.
The first is indisputably his. It is the Letter to the International Commission against the Death Penalty. A somewhat clumsy Zenit translation is given here. We might have expected simply a repeat of what is in the Catechism – that the death penalty can be justified as a matter of social self-defence (which doesn’t imply self-defence only against the man who is executed, but could include self-defence by deterrence or by the very visible upholding of the moral law), coupled with a prudential judgement, to which no Catholic is bound, that today it will very rarely if ever be the case that the death penalty is necessary.
That’s not what we find. Instead we read:-
(i) self-defence cannot apply in the case of the death penalty as it can in the case of enemy invasion, because the harm done by the criminal is now in the past, and can’t be changed;
(ii) the death penalty is a crime against the dignity of man;
(iii) the death penalty has no legitimacy, because of the possibility of error;
(iv) the death penalty deprives the criminal of the possibility of reparation (and, bizarrely, of the possibility of confession)
(v) the death penalty is contrary to divine mercy (if only Moses had known that);
(vi) the death penalty is worse than the crime committed by the criminal.
He says, “today, the death penalty is inadmissible”; but the points (i) to (vi) imply that it always was. He quotes our Lord saying “put your sword back into its sheath” and telling the one who was without sin to cast the first stone, but does not point out that neither of these involved a properly-constitued tribunal. He does not mention Christ quoting with approval the law, “He that shall curse father or mother, dying let him die” (Mk. 7:10), nor St Paul’s assertion that the civil ruler or “prince” does not bear the sword in vain, i.e. without good reason, but rather as God’s minister (Rom. 13:4).
Nor does he quote the statement of faith which Innocent III gave to the Waldensians, which includes the assertion:-
With regard to the secular power, we affirm that it can exercise a judgement of blood without mortal sin provided that in carrying out the punishment it proceeds not out of hatred, but judiciously, not in a precipitous manner, but with caution (Dz. 795).
Nor does he quote the teaching of the Roman Catechism of St Pius V, that:-
Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and eath, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this commandment which prohibits murder.
Apart from all these things, the legitimacy of the death penalty has been taught by the universal and ordinary magisterium of the Church for many centuries and is therefore surely a matter of faith.
I can see no way to reconcile the pope’s statements listed above, with the possible exception of (iv), with this teaching of the Church.
That was the first thing.
The other thing is not an official statement, but another of these interviews with the Italian atheist chap. But it can’t be written off, because the previous interviews have been put in a book and published by the Vatican Press. So the pope presumably considers the Italian chap a reliable conduit for his own opinions. Part of it is in English here.
So, the unusal bit in this interview happens when the Italian atheist chap says to the Holy Father, “What about the souls that choose selfishness and put out the divine spark? Will they be punished?” And the pope is quoted as saying, “They won’t be punished but annihilated (non c’è punizione ma l’annullamento).” The chap says that the pope’s words were netta e chiara, “clear and distinct”.
Annullamento means annihilation or destruction. It can also be translated as cancellation, but what would that mean?
In other words, we have here the doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that the wicked will not suffer after death, because they will no longer exist. Obviously this is contrary to Scripture, Tradition and many statements of the magisterium. To quote just one, from Lateran IV:-
All will rise again with their own bodies which they now bear to receive according to their works, whether these have been good or evil, the ones perpetual punishment with the devil and the others everlasting glory with Christ (Dz. 801).
I suppose it would be just about possible to interpret these words attributed to the pope in an orthodox way – ‘not punished’, because they will suffer the natural consequences of their own choices rather than a penalty arbitrarily imposed; ‘annihilated’ not ontologically but morally, in that they will no longer be capable of love etc. But frankly, would there be any point? If the words were not meant in their obvious sense, it is for an official spokesman to disavow them.
Of course none of these things touch the dogma of papal infallibility; the conditions for an ex cathedra judgement are not present. But we seem to have a pope who does not know the Catholic faith.
No doubt it was very wrong of Richard Williamson to have consecrated a bishop in that monastery in Brazil last week (and I was sorry to see him do it in such a-hole-in-the-corner way; that was not how Archbishop Lefebvre acted. Also, why on earth did he choose someone nearly as old as himself?) But in times like these, I find it difficult to be sorry that there is another orthodox bishop in the world; perhaps even a Catholic bishop, given how hard it is to excommunicate oneself under modern canon law.
Michael Davies once said that future Catholic apologists would have greater difficulties with the Eucharistic Prayers for Children than with the morals of the Borgias or the worst excesses of the Inquisition. Perhaps also they will have more difficulties with the present pope than with Popes Liberius, Honorius I and John XXII combined.
A blessed Passion-tide to all.