Over at Where Peter Is, Robert Fastiggi continues his look at the development of doctrine concerning the death penalty. His basic goal in the second part of his essay is to show that, despite the outrage Reactionaries, the Church retains the authority to develop doctrine even when they don’t like it. He concludes:
The Magisterium of the Church, represented by a letter of the Cardinal Prefect and Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—with the approval of the Roman Pontiff—has affirmed that there has been “an authentic development of doctrine” of the Church on the death penalty. This shows that there was not a definitive magisterial tradition standing in the way of this doctrinal development, which now affirms that the death penalty is an attack on the dignity of the human person. I know Feser, Bessette, and Steven A. Long have argued that the death penalty actually affirms human dignity because it treats people as free and rational beings. The Magisterium, though, has rejected that argument, and we hope that Professors Feser, Bessette, and Long will now acknowledge that the position they defended is not now the position of the Catholic Church.
Development of doctrine, as distinct from mutation, means that the Faith becomes more itself than ever, just as a baby growing into a man becomes more himself (as distinct from a baby mutating into and octopus or a pine tree).
The paradigm of this is seen in Acts 15, when the Church develops Christ’s teaching of his saving death and resurrection and his teaching about the availability of salvation to the Gentiles and realizes that the ceremonial laws of Moses are not necessary for Gentiles to perform in order to become Christians. Consequently, the Church concludes that (despite 2000 years of Jewish custom) Gentiles need not be circumcised or keep kosher in order to join the New Covenant community. And just as with Reactionary Catholics today concerning the death penalty, this perfectly legitimate development of doctrine is greeted with hostility and fear, not as a logical development, but as a mutation.
In the case of the death penalty, the Church, as at the Council of Jerusalem, retains the authority to say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” to urge civil authorities to do always what she once urged them to do sometimes: namely, to spare the condemned.
For the reality is that there has never been a time in the Church’s history where capital criminals had to be executed as some sort of positive divine command. Rather, execution has always been treated as a permission–a concession to human weakness and the fragility of civil law, rather like divorce in the Old Testament. It has always been treated like a bad thing to be endured as the best of a bad job, not as a shining ideal. And so, there are many occasions in the Church’s history when capital criminals have been spared, beginning with the woman taken in adultery (a capital crime under the law of Moses).
Likewise, we find that the Church prescribed not death, but lengthy penances for those guilty of murder in the early centuries of the Church. To inflict death was seen as just and a prophylactic again violence in a violent culture with few protections for the vulnerable. But to spare capital criminals was not treated as a sin, which it would have to have been if the Church had ever taught that the death penalty was absolutely required in every capital crime.
In short, there has always been flexibility in the Church’s approach to capital punishment. All she is has done (in obvious response to both a deepened understanding of the dignity of the human person and to the rise of horror states with the power to kill millions of their own citizens) has been to say, “Don’t kill people if you don’t need to–and you don’t need to kill anybody on death row. So don’t.”