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Pope Francis’s recent decision to change the teaching of the Catechism concerning the death penalty – that it is always “inadmissible” – is supposed to be a moment of rejoicing in the Catholic Church, as has been the case for the vast majority of Catholics.
But for other Catholics, especially neo-traditionalist Catholics in the United States, it became another opportunity to take issue with the interpretation of Pope Francis’s magisterium and its relationship with the previous tradition of the Church.
There are two issues at stake here: one is theological-doctrinal, and the other more broadly theological-cultural.
The theological-doctrinal issue has to do with the way a famous speech of Pope Benedict XVI was interpreted. That speech, on 22 December 2005, presented the Pope’s view on two ideal-typical ways of interpreting the Second Vatican Council: the hermeneutics of “discontinuity and rupture” versusthe hermeneutics of “continuity and reform.”
Among those who criticize Pope Francis’s teaching on the death penalty (as well as that on marriage and family), the two hermeneutics have become “discontinuity and rupture” versus “continuity.” Reform is purposefully left aside, despite being integral to Benedict’s view on the nature of change in the theological tradition and ecclesiastical magisterium.
This is yet another example of the misunderstandings and ambiguities surrounding the “hermeneutic of continuity” without “reform.” One could say that continuity is now being used by neo-traditionalist Catholics paradoxically to produce a rupture with the way the Catholic Church has always understood tradition – that is, dynamically.
It is interesting to note that French Benedictine theologian Ghislain Lafont has recently made the case for a greater adequacy of the term coherence with the previous tradition of the Church, instead of continuity with the tradition.
Then there is then theological-cultural problem: the identification of catholicity with continuity and the rejection of reform is particularly visible in the contemporary Catholic Church, when a certain revanche of fundamentalism in approaching the magisterial tradition is haunting the intra-Catholic debate.
It’s no coincidence that this is happening primarily in American Catholicism. Quite apart from the irony (and tragedy) that the very Catholics who are outraged by Francis’s decision about death penalty are the same ones that are sceptical about government-provided health care, this also points to a more profound intellectual crisis. Where literal continuity with past magisterial tradition is seen as the last resort in the “cultural wars” – especially around sexuality and sexual orientation – the tradition itself becomes enslaved to a political and ideological agenda that cannot do justice to the historicity of the theological tradition. Such denialism (“change does not happen, cannot happen and never happened in Catholic teaching”) could become the Catholic equivalent of the 1925 Scopes trial, which played such a decisive role in the intellectual ghettoization of Evangelical Christianity in the United States.
This reluctance to accept change in the Church is part of a larger tendency in U.S. neo-traditionalist Catholicism, where it seems to have become impossible to accept the idea that the Catholic Church, in order to remain Catholic, must sometimes change: fidelity to past language can sometimes become infidelity to unchanging principles, as Yves Congar wrote in True and False Reform in the Church in 1950.
It seems now that in neo-traditionalist circles, but also among respected Catholic theologians, change is accepted only when it is in quotation marks, when it is phrased only as “development in continuity” – as if, in order to remain or look Catholic, Catholic intellectuals had to adopt the ecclesiastical language of talking about change. In the letter of Cardinal Luis Ladaria to the bishops of 2 August 2018 that announced the change to the Catechism, the word “change” is absent, while “development” is used eight times and “continuity” only once. One can understand why the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is using this cautious language, but this is not a good reason to blind ourselves to the sheer facts of history and accept the idea that there has been some real, if gradual, change.
Pope Francis’s recent decision on Catholic teaching comes at the conclusion of a series of increasingly critical statements concerning the death penalty by John Paul II and Benedict XVI; but it also comes fifty years after the abolition of the death penalty from Vatican City law (1969), and after hundreds of executions carried out by the executioners in the history of the Papal States. It is hard to defend Francis’s decision from a strict “continuity” point of view. The letter of Cardinal Ladaria significantly affirms that “the new revision affirms that the understanding of the inadmissibility of the death penalty grew ‘in the light of the Gospel'” (which is a quotation from Gaudium et spes), thus making clear that the real criterion is not simply the continuity with the previous tradition, but mainly the coherence of the Church’s teaching with an ever-growing understanding of the Gospel.
This is not just a purely intellectual issue. It is also an ecclesial issue because it has to do with the credibility of the Church that Francis sees as a missionary Church. Neo-traditionalist Catholic thinkers put their faith – and that of others – in danger when they make their membership of the Church dependent on the intellectual viability of Catholicism strictly grounded on the idea that the Church’s teaching never changed because it was never wrong. As if the Church decided to stop learning from history – its own history, first of all – about what Christians got wrong of Jesus’s Gospel; as if the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992 represented the idea that history had ended within the Church.
The greatest problem that this kind of neo-fundamentalist Catholic culture has with Pope Francis is not with one particular aspect of his teaching, but more generally with the consequences of the first of the four principles that Francis laid out in the exhortation Evangelii Gaudium: “time is greater than space.” Francis puts a new emphasis on time which assumes a greater acceptance of change, development, acceleration, fracture and re-composition in the Church’s language and formulations.
Some popes happen to be prophets, and prophecy never appears to be in visible, literal continuity with the recent past.
7 Aug 2018
Massimo Faggioli is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University and Conjoint Professor at BBI – The Australian Institute of Theological Education in Sydney