Pope Says Capital Punishment is Inadmissible, Cardinal Dolan Praises the Decision, Ed Peter’s Challenges Both

by Steve Ray on June 18, 2019

A comment on a cardinal’s tweet re capital punishment, by Canon Lawyer Ed Peters:
June 17, 2019

Earlier today Cdl. Dolan of New York tweeted: “With the clear and cogent clarification of the successor of St. Peter, there now exists no loophole to morally justify capital punishment.”

The supposedly clear and cogent clarification that Dolan has in mind must be Pope Francis’ 2018 modification of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to assert that the death penalty is “inadmissible”. But, while it is likely that Francis meant what Dolan said, the pope did not quite claim what the cardinal clearly did. Francis (or his handlers) left just enough wiggle room (by using “inadmissible”, an ambiguous term in magisterial-moral discourse) to avoid flatly declaring the DP “immoral” and setting off thereby a magisterial firestorm such as has not been seen for some centuries.

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Dolan, in contrast, tweeting in terms well-known to tradition, plainly stated that the DP is immoral, thus going beyond what Francis was willing to say. That’s a problem. Indeed, it’s two problems.

(Photo: Highly recommended book on the legitimacy of Catholic teaching and tradition on Capital Punishment.)

1. Numerous serious studies argue (convincingly, in my view) that the liceity of the DP in certain cases is taught by the Church’s infallible magisterium (specifically, as “secondary object” thereof); at the very least, such studies make a prima facie case for the liceity of the death penalty under the infallible magisterium. Therefore, Church leaders contradicting that position must, simply must, deal with the possibility that infallibility is in play here, and, at a minimum, they should refrain from unnuanced declarations that might, in the end, be shown as “opposed to the doctrine of the Catholic Church” per Canon 750 § 2. See also Canon 1371 n. 1.

But the stakes might be higher still.

2. Many of the sources invoked for the liceity of the DP as a secondary object of infallibility (Scripture, Patristics, etc.) are those commonly associated with infallible assertions of primary objects of infallibility, that is, with matters of revelation. Now, while contradicting infallible assertions regarding secondary objects is, as stated above, to make one opposed to the doctrine of the Church, contradicting primary objects of the Church’s infallible magisterium is a specific element of heresy per Canons 750 § 1 and 751. See also Canon 1364. Obviously, this characterization risks even greater harm to the Church.

Am I saying that Dolan has committed heresy in his tweet or that he has expressed opposition to the teaching of the Church? No, but I am saying that declaring the DP as immoral per se puts one at risk of asserting something that many qualified scholars argue powerfully is opposed to infallible Church teaching, and possibly even to contradicting something divinely revealed. The real possibility of so offending the truth should, I think, trigger more respectful caution by those in positions of authority when speaking on these matters.

Think of it this way: A hunter shooting toward something moving in the underbrush can’t defend his accidental killing of a human being by saying “I did not know it was a man, I thought it was a deer.” The hunter has a duty to verify the status of his target before he shoots. Likewise, popes and bishops taking shots at the long-recognized moral liceity of the DP have a duty to verify the magisterial status of that teaching lest they accidentally hit something they had no business aiming at in the first place.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Paul Connors June 18, 2019 at 12:41 PM

Has Francis declared capital punishment to be intrinsically wrong? No. And Dolan hasn’t either. His recent tweet is just one sentence from his article of last August, which indicates that although the Church does allow capital punishment when necessary, that necessity is circumstantially lacking in modern times. So Dolan agrees with Francis, and Francis agrees with JPII. So why on earth would we listen to Ed Peters or to Feser? There is no contradiction between current and past teaching of the Church.

Timothy W Hallett June 18, 2019 at 1:08 PM

“So why on earth would we listen to Ed Peters or to Feser”

Because Ed Peters, and especially Ed Feser, have colossally high IQs, whereas Dolan, a cartoon caricature of a fat, happy fool stated the church’s utter defeat in the culture war was due to “bad marketing”, such is his profound insight. As for Francis, he said “realities are more important than ideas”, oblivious to the fact that this statement is itself an idea, making it possibly the stupidest thing ever uttered by a human being.

Thomas M Govern June 19, 2019 at 10:50 PM

I think that it comes down to the crime. What if Germany had the chance to put Hiller on trial? Some people should not be allowed to live if there is any chance that they would recommit the crime. Putting a person in prison is not a guaranty they will not have another chance. Certainty in the persons guilt must be assured, given that, punishment should include ending a life.

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