Time for a big think on Catholicism’s moral authority and culture of dissent  

That didn’t take long.

On August 2, the Vatican’s doctrine office announced that Pope Francis ordered a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to proclaim that “the death penalty is inadmissible” and the church “works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”  

On August 15, 45 Catholic conservatives joined in a bold public appeal to all members of the College of Cardinals, beseeching them to convince Francis to “withdraw” the teaching and end “this gravely scandalous situation.” In ensuing days, dozens added their endorsements by e-mailing appealtocardinals@gmail.com.

The dramatic rebuke of the pope’s teaching occurred one fortnight after the 50th anniversary date of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical defining birth control as immoral (apart from the natural or “rhythm” method), which sparked  far broader dissent worldwide.  

Reporters will observe that liberals contend the birth-control decree undermined the church’s moral authority because so many lay parishioners could not agree -- and still do not. Conservatives argue that maintaining traditional teaching is necessary to uphold the church’s moral credibility. Another angle here is that opposition to executions has hardened partly due to Catholicism's "pro-life" concerns over abortion and mercy-killing. 

There’s been similar conservative angst over Francis’ ambiguous suggestion of openness toward communion for divorced Catholics in second marriages. And now the moral prestige of the church and its leaders is rocked by devastating #ChurchToo scandals involving Cardinal “Uncle Ted” McCarrick and other hierarchs, then the grand jury report on 300-plus Pennsylvania priests’ unspeakable molestation of minors and church cover-ups, after decades of accumulating cases elsewhere.

Add all that together and it’s time for a journalistic big think, tapping a variety of the very best sources, on the stature of the 21st Century Catholic Church’s moral authority and the swirling culture of dissent.

The new petition to cardinals states that “no Catholic is obliged to support the use of the death penalty in practice” and not all the endorsers in fact favor its use. But it contends that teaching capital punishment “is always and intrinsically evil would contradict Scripture” (citing Genesis 9:6) and “Scripture cannot teach moral error.” Moreover, the signers insist, the “legitimacy in principle of capital punishment” has been the “consistent teaching” of the church for 2,000 years.  To contradict both Scripture and tradition “would cast doubt on the credibility of the magisterium [i.e. church teaching authority] in general.”

The 1870 constitution from the First Vatican Council mandated obedience to teachings of the Roman pontiff on “faith and morals,” so how do these Catholic loyalists justify their explosive  public challenge to the authority and wisdom of the reigning pope?

First, they cite section 212 in the Code of Canon Law, which states that parishioners, depending on their level of knowledge and competence, “have the right and even at times the duty” to express “with reverence” to the clergy and the broad Catholic populace “their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church.”

They also quote the peerless St. Thomas Aquinas, who wrote in Summa Theologiae  that “if the faith were endangered, a subject ought to rebuke his prelate even publicly.” Aquinas in turn cited St. Augustine, who noted that in the Bible St. Paul justifies his rebuke of  St. Peter, who in Catholic belief is the first pope (see Galatians 2:11). Sounds like what the Catholic Left has been saying since 1968.

Reporters will want to dig out who wrote this fierce protest and recruited support. The text first appeared on the Website of the conservative interfaith magazine First Things, so start with Matthew Schmitz, a senior editor who signed the letter (office: 212 - 627-1985 or ft@firstthings.com).

Other names: The clergy and lay endorsers so far are largely American, with many thinkers in theology and philosophy. A sampling: Hadley Arkes of Amherst College; J. Budziszewski of the University of Texas at Austin; Anselm Ramelow of California’s Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology; Thomas Pink of King’s College, London; and Josef Seifert, recently removed by Spain’s International Academy of Philosophy for criticizing Francis over divorce. Also Professors Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, co-authors of  the 2017 book “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty.” 

Possible sidebar: There’s classic debate over the First Vatican Council’s “divinely revealed” assertion that any pope acting on his own “and not by the consent of the church” has the power to issue “infallible” and “irreformable” definitions on faith and morals. Does this apply broadly, or only if a pope explicitly states that he is teaching “ex cathedra” (“from the throne”)?   

Handy resource: This article from the New York archdiocese (in support of Francis) provides the full texts of the Catechism’s old and new wordings and of the Vatican  explanation sent to bishops.

(For purposes of this Memo, The Religion Guy obviously leaves aside Protestant predators and countless #MeToo evils in secular settings.) 

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