Rorate Caeli

Recent Profane Novelties: A Dialogue on the Death Penalty

The papal apologists who have been so vocal in recent weeks about "how dare you criticize the pope and accuse him of heresy" have fallen eerily silent in the face of his explanation of "development of doctrine" when speaking last Friday, May 10, to the International Union of Superiors General of Women Religious:

The Church is not only Denzinger, that is, the collection of dogmatic passages, of historical things. This is true, but the Church develops on her journey in fidelity to Revelation. We cannot change Revelation. It’s true the Revelation develops. The word is “development” — it develops with time. And we with time understand the faith better and better. The way to understand the faith today, after Vatican II, is different than the way of understanding the faith before Vatican II. Why? Because there is a development of knowledge. You are right. And this isn’t something new, because the very nature — the very nature — of Revelation is in continual movement to clarify itself.

Also the very nature of the moral conscience. For example, today I said clearly that the death penalty is not acceptable — it’s immoral. But, fifty years ago, no. Did the Church change? No. Moral conscience has developed. A development. And the Fathers [of the Church] understood this. In the 800s [actually 400s] there was a French Father, Vincent of Lerins, who coined a nice expression. He says that the knowledge of faith — I’ll say it in Latin, and then I’ll translate it — ut annis consolidetur, dilaetur tempore, sublimeture aetate. That is, it grows with the years. It is continually growing. It doesn’t change, it grows. It expands with time. It is better understood. And with the years it is sublimated. 

Is this how our papal apologists also understand the matter? If so, that would explain everything. If not, where are they? Or are they hoping this bad dream will just go away of its own accord?

"Today I said clearly that the death penalty is not acceptable, it's immoral. But, fifty years ago, no. ... Moral conscience has developed." Let's think about this some more. Was there some other controversial moral judgment advocated by the Church 50 years ago? Oh, right -- Humanae Vitae! Maybe our better understanding of morality (in the course of a half-century marked by renewal and ever-deepening insight), which is apparently capable of overturning the consensus of Fathers, Doctors, Popes, and Councils, will catch up to other areas of Catholic life, such as contraception, abortion, homosexual relations, and who knows what else.

It doesn't even matter if Francis is not the one to draw the conclusion. He has stated the premise, and others will draw the conclusion -- as he intends, and as we have seen playing out on the ground for the past six years. It's as if Francis himself wanted to put the finishing touch on the case made by the Open Letter. To state that "Revelation develops" and that "Revelation is in continual movement to clarify itself" brings to mind the fifth thesis condemned by Pope Pius IX in the Syllabus of Errors: "Divine Revelation is imperfect, and therefore subject to a continual and indefinite progress, corresponding with the advancement of human reason. Anathema sit." Anyone who understands Divine Revelation and development of doctrine in this manner is not a Catholic.

The continual abuse of St. Vincent of Lerins, an author who is as diametrically opposed to the Bergoglian program as any author could possibly be, prompts me to share with readers the following fictional dialogue, taken from my most recent book Tradition and Sanity: Conversations and Dialogues of a Postconciliar Exile (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2018), 141-155, and posted here with the publisher's permission.

Recent Profane Novelties

Brother Macarius (with some animation): Father!

Brother Jonas (startled): My son, what ever is the matter?

Br. Macarius: Have you heard the news?

Br. Jonas: You know how little news enters these hallowed walls. I have heard no more than the monastic bell today—and my grumbling stomach.

Br. Macarius: The pope gave a speech [on October 11, 2017] about the death penalty, saying it is always and everywhere wrong—it is intrinsically evil! And that we should modify the text of the Catechism so that it says so![1]

Br. Jonas: One might almost be grateful that he considers anything intrinsically evil, after the Amoris Laetitia debacle. It reminds me a little of what someone once said about Marcial Maciel: “At least they were women.”

Br. Macarius: You seem to be making light of a serious matter, Father.

Br. Jonas: No, no, I’m not, really. It’s just that I can’t be surprised anymore about the flow of bad news from Rome. When you have Honorius, Liberius, John XXII, and Paul VI all wrapped up in one modernist Jesuit from South America, what do you expect?

Br. Macarius: What’s astonishing is how clearly his position goes against Divine Revelation and the Magisterium. You know the texts as well as I do, from all our lectio: “If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has man been made.”[2] “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to the people of Israel, Any man of the people of Israel, or of the strangers that sojourn in Israel, who gives any of his children to Molech shall be put to death; the people of the land shall stone him with stones.’”[3]

Br. Jonas: Don’t forget that remarkable passage in Deuteronomy: “That prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God .... You shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him; but you shall kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”[4]

Br. Macarius: Not to mention the time when Jesus says: “For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die.’”[5]

Br. Jonas: Well, one could take that last bit figuratively, as referring to the death of the soul in mortal sin. A clearer example is when Our Lord says to Pontius Pilate, precisely concerning the death sentence: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.”[6] He speaks of “sin” because Jesus was, of course, entirely innocent and therefore could never have deserved the death meted out to a notorious criminal.

Br. Macarius: And St Paul, writing to the Romans, told them expressly: “Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.”[7]

Br. Jonas: Honestly, has there ever been any doubt in the minds of Catholics, in the long history of the Church, that God has commanded the death penalty in some situations? That he has given human rulers authority to use it for malefactors? That it is not only a permitted form of enacting justice but can even be the preferable one? A person would have to be…

Br. Macarius: … a heretic to deny it? Yes, quite so.

Br. Jonas: We can always disagree about when capital punishment should be used, and even whether it is “safe,” if I could put it that way, for a given regime or society to have recourse to it—John Paul II raised some searching questions along these lines, regarding the callous attitude towards life and death in liberal secular governments. But none of this amounts to saying that it is intrinsically evil.

Br. Macarius: Well, just listen to what Pope Francis said in this speech he gave. I’ve got it printed out here. “It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which—ultimately—only God is the true judge and guarantor.”

Br. Jonas: Jumping Jesuits! How can he reconcile that with what his predecessor Pius XII taught in 1952? “Even when it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live.”[8] And there are many other texts like this one.

Br. Macarius: Here’s where it gets worse: Pope Francis actually says that his teaching is a novelty, and that this doesn’t matter—because Christianity is going to bring forth novelties from time to time, when, I guess, people have … I don’t know … matured enough?

Br. Jonas: Sounds to me like old-fashioned progressivism. The Age of Aquarius and all that! Jacques Maritain on steroids.

Br. Macarius: You said it. Listen to this bit from the speech: “It is not enough to find a new language in which to articulate our perennial faith; it is also urgent, in the light of the new challenges and prospects facing humanity, that the Church be able to express the ‘new things’ of Christ’s Gospel, that, albeit present in the word of God, have not yet come to light.”[9]

Br. Jonas: Ah, “new things”! Haven’t we had enough of those in the past fifty years?

Br. Macarius: Enough and to spare.

Br. Jonas: We were just talking about Pius XII, right? He said something in 1954, on the occasion of the canonization of St Pius X, that doesn’t sit well with the words of our yerba mate aficionado. He said this to a large group of cardinals, archbishops, and bishops:

If there are any present-day teachers making every effort to produce and develop new ideas, but not to repeat “that which has been handed down,” and if this is their whole aim, they should reflect calmly on those words which Benedict XV proposes for their consideration: “We wish this maxim of our elders held in reverence: Nihil innovetur nisi quod traditum—let nothing new be introduced, but only what has been handed down; it must be held as an inviolable law in matters of faith, and should also control those points which allow of change, though in these latter for the most part the rule holds: non nova sed noviter—not new things but in a new way.”[10]

Br. Macarius: The death penalty’s legitimacy is clearly not one of those things that can change.

Br. Jonas: Of course not. Not in itself. Its actual employment can change according to circumstances, but not the inherent right of the political authority to use it.

Br. Macarius: Yes. And adding duplicity to innovation, Pope Francis cites a few lines from John XXIII’s opening speech of October 11, 1962, to the Second Vatican Council—but not those lines that undermine Francis’s agenda. Articulating the purpose of the Council, John XXIII stated:

What instead is necessary today is that the whole of Christian doctrine, with no part of it lost, be received in our times by all with a new fervor, in serenity and peace, in that traditional and precise conceptuality and expression which is especially displayed in the acts of the Councils of Trent and Vatican I. As all sincere promoters of Christian, Catholic, and apostolic faith strongly desire, what is needed is that this doctrine[11] be more fully and more profoundly known, and that minds be more fully imbued and formed by it. What is needed is that this certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which loyal submission is due, be investigated and presented in the way demanded by our times ….

Br. Jonas: … and I can finish off that famous part with the line everyone quotes: “For the deposit of faith, the truths contained in our venerable doctrine, are one thing; the manner in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment, is another thing.” This is classic stuff.

Br. Macarius: Some people question whether you can so easily separate the truths of doctrine from their formulations. If you say something in a way that is too new, you risk altering the meaning and judgment, don’t you think? We’ve certainly seen that happen with the liturgy. Changing the lex orandi has effectively, for most Catholics, changed the lex credendi.

Br. Jonas: No doubt that’s true. But it’s obvious, isn’t it, that Pius XII and John XXIII are just expressing the undisputed and indisputable view of St Vincent of Lerins? You remember what that great Father of the Church says:

The Church of Christ, the careful and watchful guardian of the doctrines deposited in her charge, never changes anything in them, never diminishes, never adds, does not cut off what is necessary, does not add what is superfluous, does not lose her own, does not appropriate what is another’s, but while dealing faithfully and judiciously with ancient doctrine, keeps this one object carefully in view—if there be anything which antiquity has left shapeless and rudimentary, to fashion and polish it, if anything already reduced to shape and developed, to consolidate and strengthen it, if anything already ratified and defined, to keep and guard it.[12]

And he says that sometimes the Church will “designate an old article of the faith by the characteristic of a new name, for better understanding.”

Br. Macarius: The clarity and logic, the vigor and zeal of St Vincent! How we need this again in our day. His treatise is endlessly quotable. Here’s one of my favorite passages:

I cannot sufficiently wonder at the madness of certain men, at the impiety of their blinded understanding, at their lust of error, such that, not content with the rule of faith delivered once for all, and received from the times of old, they are every day seeking one novelty after another, and are constantly longing to add, change, take away, in religion, as though the doctrine, Let what has once for all been revealed suffice, were not a heavenly but an earthly rule—a rule which could not be complied with except by continual emendation, nay, rather by continual fault-finding.[13]

Br. Jonas: Brilliant, just brilliant. It’s as if he’s describing this very pontificate.

Br. Macarius: Gotta love Patristic invective. These men were no wallflowers.

Br. Jonas: That’s probably why the master polemicist St Maximus the Confessor ended up having his tongue cut out and his hand cut off by that wicked emperor—I forget his name—

Br. Macarius: Constans II.

Br. Jonas: How can you remember so many details?

Br. Macarius: I think we’re getting off track. Will you believe me if I tell you that Pope Francis had the gall to cite Vincent of Lerins in this speech of his?

Br. Jonas: You’ve got to be kidding.

Br. Macarius: No, it’s only too true! He cites the beginning of chapter 23, but stops right before Vincent explains what progress actually means—and it’s the opposite of what Pope Francis is doing today. You know how that amazing chapter starts: “Someone will say, perhaps, ‘Shall there, then, be no progress in Christ’s Church?’ Certainly; all possible progress. For what being is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it?” That’s the bit Bergoglio puts in—and then quotes no more.

Br. Jonas: You mean he doesn’t go on with the rest?

Yet on condition that it be real progress of faith [profectus fidei], not alteration [permutatio]. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself; alteration, that it be transformed into something else. The intelligence, then, the knowledge, the wisdom, as well of individuals as of all, as well of one man as of the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress, yet only in its own kind—that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning.

Br. Jonas: There’s the famous phrase: in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu, eademque sententia. I wonder how many dozens of times that phrase has been quoted in papal and conciliar documents?

Br. Macarius: John Paul II used it in Veritatis Splendor when asserting that the Church’s moral teaching could develop in its formulations but never be altered in its sensus and sententia.[14]

Br. Jonas: One misses John Paul II these days, no? After Assisi, I thought I’d never say that. (Sighs.) So Francis misuses Vincent?

Br. Macarius: Clearly. Both of the citations of the Commonitory in Pope Francis’s speech give the reader a false understanding of what Vincent is saying—a technique Vincent himself critiques in chapter 7 of his treatise, “How heretics craftily cite obscure passages in ancient writers in support of their own novelties.”

Br. Jonas: So, where does that leave us, young man?

Br. Macarius: Pope Francis is telling us that, after 2,000 years of Christians accepting and defending capital punishment on the basis of divine revelation and sound philosophical reasoning, we are now in a position to see that it was intrinsically evil all along. He is uttering sheer novelty, in the worst sense of the word.

Br. Jonas: I see. Is he not, then, espousing the idea that there can be not only new statements of doctrines already held by Christians, but actually new doctrines in Christianity? This flies directly in the face of the Church’s self-understanding from St Peter down to the last pontificate.

Br. Macarius: Exactly. As the Apostle perfectly summed it up: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.”[15]

Br. Jonas: He said it more than once, too: “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you.”[16]

Br. Macarius: Don’t forget this one: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter.”[17]

Br. Jonas: This is why Benedict XVI was so adamant that a pope does not make up the Faith. He does not pull rabbits out of hats—or should I say, doves out of tiaras?

Br. Macarius: The sanity of Ratzinger! “The First Vatican Council had in no way defined the pope as an absolute monarch. On the contrary, it presented him as the guarantor of obedience to the revealed Word. The pope’s authority is bound to the tradition of faith …. The authority of the pope is not unlimited; it is at the service of Sacred Tradition.”[18]

Br. Jonas: Or when he said: “The pope knows that in his important decisions, he is bound to the great community of faith of all times, to the binding interpretations that have developed throughout the Church’s pilgrimage. Thus, his power is not being above the Word of God, but at the service of it. It is incumbent upon him to ensure that this Word continues to be present in its greatness and to resound in its purity, so that it is not torn to pieces by continuous changes in usage.”[19]

Br. Macarius: Would that Benedict XVI’s words were being followed today, rather than trampled under foot like so much rubbish!

Br. Jonas: The Lord will win in His good time; we just have to be patient. The days of Francis are numbered. The reaction against him will be powerful, you wait and see.

Br. Macarius: I know you are right, but I was still so upset by this death penalty speech.

Br. Jonas: Just because of how flagrantly it contradicts Scripture and Tradition?

Br. Macarius: Well, yes—but it’s even worse than that. The implications of Pope Francis’s speech are staggering.

Br. Jonas: You’ve always had a sharper theological mind than I. Can you help me see those implications?

Br. Macarius: First, we know that God commanded the Israelites in the Old Testament to use the death penalty. Therefore, God commanded them to perform intrinsically evil acts. Second, we know too that the New Testament speaks favorably of capital punishment. Therefore, our inspired authors accepted, and taught, that intrinsically evil acts are legitimate. Finally, countless popes and councils throughout Church history accepted and taught the acceptability of capital punishment. Therefore, the universal ordinary magisterium of the Church accepted and taught that intrinsically evil acts should be performed.

Br. Jonas: Can any of these conclusions be uttered without blasphemy!?

Br. Macarius: Such confusion is characteristic of this papacy, for at the same time Francis has taken adultery off the table as an intrinsically evil act, in spite of the explicit condemnation of it in both Testaments and in the unbroken magisterium of the Church. In keeping with trends of political correctness, the traditional mortal sins that would bar one from receiving communion are rehabilitated as “the best some people can do” (maybe most people?), while the sins recognized by European liberals, such as limiting immigration, harming the environment, and putting convicted criminals to death, are recategorized as the great moral evils of our time.

Br. Jonas: What do you think are the deeper foundations of Francis’s views in this speech? I mean, what is driving him?

Br. Macarius: It is hard to say. There are a number of possible explanations.

Br. Jonas: I’m all ears, but don’t go too fast or you’ll lose me.

Br. Macarius: Maybe Francis holds to an Ockhamist voluntarism whereby what is good or evil depends merely on God’s whim. There is no eternal right and wrong for human nature that man can glimpse with his reason and receive definitively from revelation …

Br. Jonas: … and so, what is right and wrong will change depending on what the “God of surprises” has in store for us next, as declared through his appointed mouthpiece on earth.

Br. Macarius: Or maybe Francis holds that God commands (or allows?) people to do evil things because He knows that these evil things are “the best they can do for now.” Thus, the ancient Israelites killing Canaanites, or medieval Catholics killing heretics, are morally equivalent to divorced men and women of the modern West engaging in sexual relations with someone other than their original spouse.

Br. Jonas: You mean, in each case it is the best that can be managed at this person’s stage of moral development?

Br. Macarius: Right. Again, perhaps Francis holds that part of man’s moral progress over the centuries is to come to the realization that certain things God told him were good are actually evil, and so he needs to “correct” God’s revelation by his own superior wisdom; and that things God told him were evil are actually permissible, once again requiring a correction of the narrowness of a legalistic God by the breadth of human compassion. In this Hegelian view, God and man evolve together: our reasonings, our social perceptions, our feelings, are part of the unfolding of divine law.

Br. Jonas: Raving lunacy!

Br. Macarius: It sure is. Another version of the last view is that the God of the Old Testament has been superseded by the God of the New Testament, and that the God of the New Testament has been superseded by the God of Modernity. It is Marcionism with a twist—for now we find that it was not only the bloodthirsty Yahweh of olden times who was hiding from us the true face of the merciful God, but even the highly-demanding Jesus, whose moral law is far more demanding than that of Moses.

Br. Jonas: This last phase, too, has to be superseded if we are to enter the Age of Mercy.

Br. Macarius: Or the Age of Something.

Br. Jonas: I remember a Scripture course I had back in college. It was taught by a devotee of the historical-critical method who maintained that much of what Scripture attributed to God or to Christ was made up by the authors and therefore could not be said to be divinely authorized. And it was the job of the Scripture scholar to sort out what things are genuine and what things are fake.

Br. Macarius: Indeed, it’s quite a popular approach, and one can see why: Scripture can be made to say, or not say, anything you like. So, Francis might believe that God never commanded the Jews to use the death penalty in the first place, and that Jesus never actually taught His disciples that remarrying after divorce was adultery. The Jews wanted to kill people, so they attributed their views to God. Some early Christian rigorists wanted Jesus to say these things about divorce and adultery, so they put the words in His mouth.

Br. Jonas: And let me guess—we know (somehow) that the real Jesus would never have said such harsh, judgmental, unloving, and off-putting things. St Paul, who was a Jewish-trained rigorist, developed a moral theology that was radically different from the plain teaching of the nature-loving, fun-loving, “to understand all is to forgive all” proto-hippie Jesus of Nazareth. Francis is taking us back beyond the grimy build-up of a 2,000-year-old Pharisaical hijacking of the original Gospel message. How liberating!

Br. Macarius: Don’t forget your guitar and your bong.

Br. Jonas: This is all rather disturbing, especially when it’s coming from a member of the clergy—let alone the Roman Pontiff! I can see why you were agitated.

Br. Macarius: I feel better, though, talking it over with you. Somehow seeing the evil for what it is galvanizes me to fight against it in prayer, in monastic obedience, in offering up my sufferings, and in doing what I can to give good counsel to our guests, who invariably ask about these things.

Br. Jonas (pauses): I’ve often wondered how much of this current crisis can be traced back to the Second Vatican Council itself.

Br. Macarius: That’s a huge question, and we’re running out of time before Vespers. Why don’t we take it up another day?

Br. Jonas: All right. Sufficient for the day are the evils thereunto.

Br. Macarius: But I do have one last thought to share with you, which touches somewhat on that topic. Several of the blasphemous positions I summarized might be seen together as a new form of Joachimism, whereby we are now living, after the Second Vatican Council, in the Age of the Spirit, which goes as far beyond the Age of the Son—represented by Church councils, canon laws, rubrics, and precepts—as the Age of the Son went beyond the Age of the Father, with its animal sacrifices, ritual ablutions, and priestly caste. This new Age of the Spirit is characterized above all by the goodness of everyone and everything …

Br. Jonas: … except of those who deny the goodness of everyone and everything.

Br. Macarius: They, of course, would be the false prophets that must arise whenever the Spirit of newness is poured out with new fullness.

Br. Jonas: Ah, there’s all that newness again! All I can say is, I don’t want a new Spirit; I want the Holy Spirit, with the fullness He poured into the Church on the day of Pentecost. The eternal newness of Christ, “the same yesterday and today and for ever.”[20]

Br. Macarius: There is only one Spirit and one Pentecost. Anything else is a lying spirit. I was thinking of one of the more interesting features of the Montanist schism in the early Church, namely, their claim that divine revelation was, in their day, still in process. In other words, revelation was an internal “charismatic” phenomenon, no longer to be identified with the Apostolic depositum fidei.

Br. Jonas: That very Montanist thesis, under the guise of “development,” is precisely what is being imposed upon us today. To resist it is to be guilty of “grieving the Holy Spirit.” What humbug!

Br. Macarius: I take it, then, you’re in favor of “the antiquity and universality of the Catholic Faith against the profane novelties of all heresies,” as our beloved brother St Vincent of Lerins puts it.

Br. Jonas: You bet. Monks-in-arms.

Br. Macarius: Ah, that’ll be the bell for Vespers.

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[1] Reference is made here to Pope Francis’s Address to Participants in the Meeting Promoted by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, October 11, 2017. This text was subsequently cited in the same pope’s alteration of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, signed on May 11, 2018 and released on August 1.
[2]Genesis 9:5–6.
[3]Leviticus 20:1–2.
[4] Deuteronomy 13:5, 8–10.
[5] Matthew 15:4.
[6] John 19:11.
[7] Romans 13:3–4.
[8] Pope Pius XII, “The Moral Limits of Medical Research and Treatment,” Address to the First International Congress on the Histopathology of the Nervous System, September 14, 1952.
[9] Pope Francis, Address, October 11, 2017.
[10] Pope Pius XII, Si Diligis, Allocution to Cardinals, Archbishops, and Bishops on the Occasion of the Canonization of St Pius X, May 31, 1954.
[11] Emphasis added.
[12] Vincent, Commonitory, ch. 23.
[13] Ibid., ch. 21.
[14] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor (August 6, 1993), n. 53.
[15] 1 Corinthians 15:3.
[16] 1 Corinthians 11:2.
[17] 2 Thessalonians 2:15.
[18] Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, 166.
[19] Benedict XVI, Homily, May 7, 2005.
[20] Hebrews 13:8.