“This is simply not any language; this doesn’t have any doctrinal import to it. What does it mean to say something isn’t admissible? That is a relative term, either say it’s intrinsically evil, or it’s good.”
This is a post I meant to write over a year ago, about an oft-repeated false claim that critics of Pope Francis regularly make. They argue that the term “inadmissible” is new and/or novel in magisterial and theological language. For those who don’t bother to investigate this claim, it sounds convincing. But it’s false. Yesterday, when this talking point (and that’s all that it is) was repeated to me by an anonymous Twitter troll, I was motivated to research it and put this issue to rest.
When Francis revised the official Church teaching on the death penalty in August 2018, he masterfully avoided falling into the trap that death penalty supporters had set for him. He avoided the theologically-loaded language of “intrinsically evil” while still making it clear that use of the death penalty is a violation of Catholic teaching and of moral principles.
His critics wanted to offer a binary choice. In their minds, Francis either had to concede that the death penalty is morally licit (and thus force him to admit he has been wrong about the issue), or he had to explicitly say that the death penalty is intrinsically evil, and thus provide them with a smoking gun (in their minds, anyway) that “proves” he is a heretic. He did neither. He taught that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
This of course frustrated his critics immensely. They wanted him to engage them within the parameters they had set. While it was clear to all Catholics who have been thinking with the Church on this and other issues of human dignity that the Church had moved away from its support of the death penalty, others were determined to keep the issue on the table.
A favorite talking point
One of the tactics that they employed was to attack the word “inadmissible,” and to claim it has no basis in the language of the Church. This is completely false.
In addition to Cardinal Burke’s quote that opens this piece, there are many examples of Catholics making this argument in the usual “Catholic” media outlets.
For example, an anonymous canonist writing in Church Militant is unsettled by the term:
“The actual text of the new formulation is unsettling and ambiguous: unsettling because the term ‘inadmissible’ not being a term of art consecrated by the centuries by the Magisterium, or the Church’s canonists, dogmatic or moral theologians lending itself to clarity of meaning, renders the plain attempt to decipher the substance of the change to be frustrating; ambiguous, because the term ‘inadmissible’ can be interpreted to mean that a moral act is either intrinsically or extrinsically evil.”
The Catholic Herald quoted an anonymous “dogmatic theologian,” who makes a similar argument:
“While the Pope’s term ‘inadmissible’ was ambiguous – and thus not necessarily in contradiction with Church teaching – it would be widely interpreted as meaning ‘intrinsically immoral,’ which would contradict Catholic doctrine.“
(This mysterious theologian goes on to advocate what David Wanat has called the the “New Theology of Dissent” and tries to justify rejecting magisterial teaching:
“Just as children are required to obey the law of God even when it means disobedience to their parents, so Catholics are required to believe and hold the divinely revealed dogmas of the faith and definitive Catholic teaching even if it means dissenting from the authentic magisterium of the pope or bishops.”)
Fr. George Rutler jumped on the bandwagon in the Catholic World Report:
“Pope Francis uses the term ‘inadmissible’ to describe the death penalty, although it has no theological substance, and by avoiding words such as ‘immoral’ or ‘wrong,’ inflicts on discourse an ambiguity similar to parts of Amoris Laetitia. The obvious meaning is that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, but to say so outright would be too blatant.”
Raymond de Souza repeats the talking point in the National Catholic Register:
“The new teaching … said that it is ‘inadmissible,’ a novel term with no fixed meaning in Catholic theology.
Indeed, that term was evidently chosen because it was new and had no fixed meaning.”
Not to be outdone, Monica Migliorino Miller, writing for Crisis, also laments the alleged newness of the term:
“The term ‘inadmissible’ is new and presents considerable confusion.”
Canonist Ed Peters joins the chorus of those suggesting Francis has used the term in order to add “ambiguity” and to “wiggle” away from charges of doctrinal error:
“Francis (or his handlers) left just enough wiggle room (by using ‘inadmissible’, an ambiguous term in magisterial-moral discourse) to avoid flatly declaring the DP ‘immoral’ and setting off thereby a magisterial firestorm such as has not been seen for some centuries.”
Steven A. Long, another writer for First Things (no surprise there), wrote a long and convoluted piece that describes the new teaching as “objectively problematic” and concludes that the new teaching is “genuinely saddening” (because we all want more executions, I suppose?). He suggests that “inadmissible” means the teaching is based on mere prudential judgement, and is therefore falsifiable:
“The new teaching about ‘inadmissibility’ is expressly predicated on a composite prudential antecedent judgment (indeed, ‘inadmissibility’ is a legal and prudential term). Two of the three considerations offered as supporting the conclusion of inadmissibility are in the prudential order (judgments about the significance of penal sanctions and about the effectiveness of criminal detention systems). Accordingly, the conclusion is predicated on prudential judgments that are susceptible to falsification.”
Michael Pakaluk, a professor of ethics at the Catholic University of America, comments on the term in First Things and makes a false claim about the contents of the Catechism:
“Everyone has pointed to the strangeness of the word ‘inadmissible’ in the new teaching… The word ‘inadmissible’ occurs nowhere else in the Catechism. It is almost a solecism in moral theology. We speak of inadmissibility in legal, logical, or interpretive contexts: inadmissible evidence, an inadmissible premise, an inadmissible construction. That is, the category of the inadmissible brings in some notion of will.”
In fact, a simple Google search of the Vatican website reveals that the term “inadmissible” has been used dozens—if not hundreds—of times in official papal and Magisterial documents. The definition of the term is not a mystery. Without resorting to quoting Webster or a legal dictionary (because the word isn’t hard to decipher), inadmissible simply means, “Not allowed.” “Don’t do it.” “Unacceptable.”
The counterarguments to the teaching are reminiscent of my children when they insist on knowing all the reasons why my wife and I have laid down a particular rule. Of course, Francis’s critics, like my children, aren’t interested in my reasons. They want Francis to agree with their reasons. The CDF released a letter explaining the reasons for the change. Because they don’t accept its conclusions, they don’t accept the reasons. This is ideological thinking at its worst.
Anyway, here are about a dozen examples of the use of “inadmissible” in a magisterial context.
First, in direct contradiction to Michael Pakaluk’s claim above, the term did appear in the Catechism (also in the section on the 5th commandment), in paragraph 2296 on organ transplants, and the term still appears on the Vatican website:
It is furthermore morally inadmissible directly to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons.
The current edition, found on the USCCB website, has a slightly different translation, changing “morally inadmissible” to “not morally admissible.” This change is not substantive:
Moreover, it is not morally admissible directly to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons.
I only spent a few minutes searching for the term and there were an abundance of quotes. The earliest reference I found comes from Pope Pius XI in 1938:
“It is impossible for a Christian to take part in anti-Semitism. It is inadmissible. Through Christ and in Christ we are the spiritual progeny of Abraham. Spiritually we are all Semites.”
But there are many other examples of “inadmissible” in reference to moral issues.
A 1971 Apostolic Letter from Saint Paul VI:
“It lends itself to new forms of exploitation and of domination whereby some people in speculating on the needs of others derive inadmissible profits.”
A 1972 CDF document:
“This makes inadmissible every conception of faith that would reduce it to a purely pragmatic cooperation, lacking any sense of community in the truth.”
A 1974 speech by Saint Paul VI on apartheid:
“Men rightly consider unjustifiable and reject as inadmissible the tendency to maintain or introduce legislation or behaviour systematically inspired by racialist prejudice”
A 1978 speech by Saint Paul VI:
“Not all these claims seem reasonable or feasible, for they are sometimes inspired by individualisms, enthusiasms or anarchical utopia; some are even inadmissible on the moral plane.”
A 1987 speech by Saint John Paul II:
“There persist social situations based upon racial discrimination and often willed and sustained by systems of thought; such situations constitute a manifest and inadmissible affront to the fundamental rights of the human person.”
Saint John Paul II’s 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus:
“Besides being morally inadmissible, this will eventually have negative repercussions on the firm’s economic efficiency.”
In a message for the 2000 World Day of the Sick by Saint John Paul II:
“Even the achievements in the field of genetics, which are fundamental in health care, especially for the protection of newborn life, can become an opportunity for inadmissible choices.”
A 2001 speech by Saint John Paul II:
“Biomedical experimentation that does not have as its purpose the good of the subject entails inadmissible and discriminatory methods of selection.”
In a message for the 2002 World for Peace by Saint John Paul II:
“Truth, which is certainly more liberating than propaganda, especially when that propaganda serves to conceal inadmissible intentions.”
In the 2006 Christmas address to the curia by Pope Benedict XVI:
“Because we no longer know what the correct use of freedom is, what is the correct way to live, what is morally correct and what instead is inadmissible.”
A 2010 speech by Pope Benedict XVI:
“Violence achieves nothing and makes everything worse, since it is a dead end, a detestable and inadmissible evil, an enticement that deceives and insults the person and his/her dignity.”
Describing immoral acts as inadmissible has clear precedents in Catholic teaching. The fact that so many Catholic “intellectuals” are using the exact same talking point, despite the fact that it’s manifestly untrue suggests that they are not using their intellectual ability, and are simply parroting one another. Their goal is to undermine the pope. They will resist his teachings when it does not align with their ideological opinions.
For those who have complained that I only cited one pre-1970 magisterial reference (and no “theological” references) to the term inadmissible:
A Google search of the Summa on New Advent reveals 17 hits.
A search of the website papalencyclicals.net reveals two additional papal references both prior to Vatican II.
Pius XII wrote in the 1950 encyclical Menti Nostrae:
“128. For this reason, We exhort you to continue in paternal fashion on the path you have taken and to notify Us of the results of your efforts, for it is inadmissible that the worker who has been sent into the vineyard of the Lord should go without his daily bread.”
Another quote from Pius XI (one that seems particularly apt today, given the rhetoric of Pope Francis’s hard-line traditionalist critics) from his 1931 encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno:
“We have always refrained from formal and explicit condemnations, and have even gone so far as to believe possible and to favour compatibilities and cooperations which, to others, seemed inadmissible.”
Image: Adobe Stock
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.