Papal fallibility

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Pope Francis

Source: Alfredo Borba [CC BY-SA 4.0]

A pontiff is infallible only when speaking ex cathedra on matters of doctrine. It’s kind of Pope Francis to remind us that otherwise a pope may be very fallible indeed.

The latest reminder was given last Sunday, when His Holiness called for wholesale abolition of the death penalty. With all due respect, one can’t help noticing that this entreaty isn’t instantly persuasive.

“The commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’,” said the Pope, “has absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty.” This is wrong theologically.

In modern society there exist ways, added His Holiness, “to efficiently repress crime without definitively denying the person who committed it the possibility of rehabilitating themselves.” This is wrong empirically, not to mention grammatically. The latter is the translator’s fault, but the former, alas, is the pontiff’s illusion.

For secular life in the West is ridden with crime, and nowhere has modern society found a way to ‘repress’ it. That the death penalty has deterrent value is indisputable both factually and psychologically – even though those of the leftish inclination do dispute it.

What even they can’t dispute is that capital punishment does deter the punished criminal – the murderer will never murder again. This is no small matter, considering the number of recidivist murders committed by criminals who have already served time for another such offence.

However, His Holiness may be forgiven for not being up on murder statistics or indeed the harsh realities of lay life. What is, however, worrying is the theological weakness of his blanket opposition to the death penalty.

For thereby the Pope seems to claim that he possesses a moral standard that’s higher than the biblical one. In some quarters such a claim may be described as hubristic.

The Bible unequivocally prescribes the death penalty for a whole raft of crimes, most emphatically including murder: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”

Most such edicts were vouchsafed in the Old Testament, which is an essential part of the Christian canon. Yet even the New Testament is unequivocal on the death penalty.

In his Epistle to the Romans, St Paul endorses the magistrate’s right to impose capital punishment: “But, if thou do that which is evil, be afraid: for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that does evil.” And elsewhere in the same epistle: “For the wages of sin is death.”

The Bible mandates against unlawful killing but manifestly allows the justified kind in the context of warfare, capital punishment and self-defence. This was confirmed for millennia by great saints.

Thus, for example, St Augustine: “It is in no way contrary to the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason.”

That position was later reaffirmed by St Thomas Aquinas: “The life of certain pestiferous men is an impediment to the common good which is the concord of human society. Therefore, certain men must be removed by death from the society of men”.

Hence His Holiness merely expressed his personal opinion, to which he’s entitled even if this opinion contradicts Scripture, patristic writings and church tradition. Similarly he’s entitled to holding views that are more Buddhist than Christian.

And why not? Why can’t the Vicar of Christ also be a Buddhist? After all, our previous Archbishop of Canterbury is a Druid and the present one is an unreconstructed oil trader.

However, it would have been helpful if His Holiness had informed his audience of 1.2 billion Catholics, that his views on this subject are based not on any scriptural, historical or intellectual authority but merely on his own emotions.

Unfortunately though, people nowadays find it hard to issue such disclaimers. What comes more easily is a claim, or at least an implication, of moral progress, proceeding in parallel with progress in science and technology.

Just as we can circumnavigate the world considerably faster than Noah in his Ark, so we’re supposed to have elevated morality to a new level, much higher than ever imagined by the Church Fathers or indeed by God, whom the Pope is institutionally required to regard as the author of the Bible.

Modern history makes this claim hard to sustain. For outside the lunatic fringe the validity of the death penalty had never been questioned in the West until the 20th century, when the Christian teaching on this subject, as well as on all others, was abandoned and replaced with ‘new morality’.

As a direct result of this prideful self-aggrandisement, more victims, by an order of magnitude, died violent deaths in that century than in the previous 19 centuries of the West combined – when people were so backward that they didn’t realise their own moral standards could be superior to God’s.

One would suggest that, as a minimum, His Holiness fire his speechwriters. His current team is doing him no favours.

One Comment

  1. To be technical, the commandment is, “Thou shalt not murder.”

    In 17th century English, “kill” meant murder; “slay” meant to terminate someone in battle (with extreme prejudice). Ergo, an army might “slay” people, but it did not “kill” them;

    whereas, a murderer “killed” people.

    This is not to argue the merits or demerits of “thou shalt not kill”; only, that is not in the scripture.

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