In June 17th, Cardinal Dolan posted the following on Twitter:

Cardinal Dolan tweet on the death penalty


This tweet (as accurate as it is) prompted a wild discussion in social media, since there are many Catholics who are unwilling to assent to the recent Catechetical revision on the Death Penalty, from which this tweet flows.

In this context, Dr. Edward Peters has chimed in with this article, where he claims the Cardinal’s tweet to be ill-advised, because it might contradict perennial Church teaching on the death penalty.

First of all, I submit that Dr. Peters’ interpretation of the good Cardinal’s tweet misses the mark. At first, Dr. Peters correctly asserts that Pope Francis used the term “inadmissible” to sidestep the “intrinsically evil” terminology that could be problematic on account of previous magisterial formulations.

But then, Dr. Peters’ incorrectly postulates that Card. Dolan’s tweet stumbles on the “intrinsically evil” terminology by claiming that he tweeted “in terms well-known to tradition,” and “plainly stated that the death penalty is immoral.” I must emphasize that Dr. Peters is imprecise in equivocating “immoral” with “intrinsically evil,” since an act may be immoral without being intrinsically evil (for example, even those who believe the death penalty is licit would agree that the application of the death penalty in the case of St. Joan of Arc was immoral.)

Also, Dr. Peters assumes that Cardinal Dolan is tweeting with the intent of discussing tradition. By doing so, he ignores the wider context of the discussion, in which Dolan’s tweet rests. On one hand, as Dr. Peters notes, this tweet comes in the wake of a Catechetical revision from the Pope, where the Holy Father has clarified that the death penalty was not immoral at the time the Church advocated for its liceity (see the CDF’s clarification and this video). So, if Dolan is referring to this revision, he could not be propose something that is clearly not what the revision intended.

On the other hand, Cardinal Dolan is clearly referring to the problem of “loopholes.” In the previous Catechetical formulation, Pope St. John Paul II (who was a champion of death penalty abolition) wrote — in order to avoid the magisterial firestorm Dr. Peters so fears — that the situations where death penalty was licit were “rare, practically non-existent.” But many Catholics of a certain ideological bent, primarily in the United States, kept fighting for the death penalty, using the “practically non-existent” language as a loophole for its admissibility, in order to leave the status quo unchallenged.

Cardinal Dolan correctly notes that the current Catechetical revision has closed that loophole. This is the context of Cardinal Dolan’s tweet, and what he meant is easily comprehensible to anyone who is familiar with this debate. Asking for more nuance and details from a tweet is not fair, given the limitations of this social media platform. But any reasonable person can understand from where Dolan was coming from.

Nevertheless, Dr. Peters equivocates the cardinal’s clear meaning to employ a tactic, commonly used by those who disagree with Francis on this issue, of trying to reframe the debate according to their own terms (the “intrinsically evil” debate) in order to be able to create more solid ground for themselves and to piggy-back on previous popes, when the debate was on the morality of the death penalty in principle, but on the morality of its application in specific contexts.

My main objection to Dr. Peters’ article is that it perfectly encapsulates the mindset at the root of the resistance to Francis’ pontificate. Brian Killian has brought this phenomenon to our attention in this very blog earlier this week: papal critics assume that when they are in disagreement with the Holy Father, it is the Pope, and not them, who is wrong. In fact, they will often hold the Pope’s wrongness as a self-evident truth and build up their argument from there. Dr. Peters shows a scholarly, academic version of this problem.

Dr. Peters cites “numerous studies” arguing that the moral acceptability of the death penalty has been infallibly taught. He will then proceed to pontificate:

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” (…) I am saying that declaring the [death penalty] 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.

This is a complete inversion of the proper roles. It is not Church leaders (whom Dr. Peters later identifies as “popes and bishops”) that should be cautious of teaching things that “many qualified scholars” argue are divinely revealed or infallible. Rather, it is the scholars who should be cautious of teaching things contrary to what the popes and bishops present as Church teaching.

It is not the role of popes and bishops to stop teaching what the Holy Spirit, in his special guidance to the Church, leads them to teach, just because there are academics who might disagree. Why should the Pope refrain from teaching things that theologians might find hard to grasp? Why should the bishops be cautious of not contradicting the scholars’ theses?

Rather, it is the scholars’ role to teach in unison with the Pope and bishops with communion with him. It is the scholars’ role to accommodate the teachings of the Pope in their articles and dissertations.

If the Pope develops doctrine in a way that seems to contradict a previous formulation, then the scholar should humbly acknowledge that it was not an infallible teaching in the first place, even if the scholar has published work arguing that it was infallible. They shouldn’t double down and tell the Pope that he is contradicting infallible teaching. Just as with the scientist who is confronted with new evidence that refutes his previous hypotheses, so the theologian should amend his conclusions on these topics to reflect new papal formulations.

From reading Dr. Peters’ article, one would be tempted to think that the scholars have an authority superseding that of from Church leaders, such that the Magisterium should bow to the opinions of the theologians. It is no wonder that so many Catholics have been led astray from communion with the Vicar of Christ because they prefer instead the alleged expertise from popular figures online.

However, paraphrasing Dr. Peters, the real possibility of so offending the truth should, I think, trigger more respectful caution by those in academic positions when speaking on these matters.

As soon as we grasp the inversion of roles set up by Dr. Peters, it is easy to turn his argument on its head. Dr. Peters never categorically asserts that the “numerous studies” have definitively settled the infallibility of the death penalty’s liceity. In fact, he uses this uncertainty to justify his next argument:

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.

First of all, it has not been lost in me how ironic it is to use this argument to defend the death penalty. For the “hunter and the deer” analogy works on the basis that, if you are not sure, you should not kill. If you don’t need to kill, then do not kill. And yet, this analogy is being used in favor of killing human beings, even if the “numerous studies” are not conclusive.

And here is where the argument becomes self-defeating, if we take into account the inversion of roles I mentioned above: if you are not sure that the death penalty’s liceity has been infallibly proclaimed, then you should not “shoot” Pope Francis’s development. Scholars might end up accidentally hitting, not the “deer” of Francis’s Catechetical revision, but the “hunter” of papal primacy, something they had no business aiming at in the first place.


Image: Adobe Stock

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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

Dr. Peters’ deer & hunter: death penalty & the inversion of roles
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