A Breakdown of Positions on the New Catechism Text

Eamonn Clark

Basically, there seem to me to be available 16 positions on the new text of the Catechism. They break down according to the following bifurcations: the text itself as an objective piece of magisterium vis-a-vis the author’s subjective intention behind the text, whether the putative development  is practical or speculative (viz. a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine or a principled definition of universal moral prescript), and whether that development is legitimate or illegitimate.

I consider the various readings of the text as having attempted sincerely to use the standard hermeneutic of magisterial documents, namely, to read them within the context of what has gone before, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and without otherwise relying on the subjective intent of the author except insofar as it is incontrovertibly expressed in the text. In other words, when in doubt, try to find the most sensible meaning which does not contradict established doctrine.

For my purposes here, a legitimate prudential judgment would be a correct judgment, even if it is not binding. I do not consider here the various positions on the binding character of either practical or speculative characters of the text (which would add even more positions), although it seems rather clear that it can only be the text itself in which such a binding character could be found (and not in the hidden recesses of the author’s mind), and it could only be binding if legitimate (viz., it does not contradict a past infallible teaching). It furthermore seems clear, if we are to take Ratzinger’s instruction on the matter seriously, that merely prudential applications of the Church’s teaching on capital punishment cannot be binding, even if they are uttered by the Holy Father. So that leaves us only with the possibility of a binding or non-binding legitimate speculative judgment.

Let’s see this drawn out in its combinations… I have marked commonplace positions in bold.

  1. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  2. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself illegitimate.
  3. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  4. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself illegitimate.
  5. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  6. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself illegitimate.
  7. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  8. The text presents a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself illegitimate.
  9. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  10. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself illegitimate.
  11. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  12. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is legitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself illegitimate.
  13. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  14. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a prudential application of pre-existing doctrine which is itself illegitimate.
  15. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself legitimate.
  16. The text presents a speculative development of doctrine which is illegitimate, and the author’s intention is to present a speculative development of doctrine which is itself illegitimate.

Personally, I find it possible to torture the text into being a merely prudential application, solely due to its partial reliance on “more effective systems of detention” as a criterion for calling the death penalty “inadmissible.” This application, in my opinion, is the result of a very bad judgment, not only because of the vast disparity among various countries’ justice systems, and the violence which can be caused directly or indirectly from within even a good prison, but also because it ignores some of the major arguments in favor of capital punishment, such as deterrence and an incentive to individual repentance.

Had there been no mention of systems of detention, my position would probably be different. While the last paragraph does say, “the Church teaches,” thus seemingly putting the text into the realm of speculative claims, the foregoing is enough in my view to render it “toothless.” It seems one can, and therefore should, read the text as meaning, “the Church teaches in the way that She can teach prudential applications of doctrine which properly belong to the legitimate civil authority,” which is to teach merely in a hortatory way, i.e., “Think hard about not killing!”

Given the other two reasons for the putative development (the clauses about the “increasing awareness” of dignity and the “new understanding” of penal law), it seems difficult to deny that the author’s intention was speculative. Because of the staggering litany of popes, saints, Fathers, and trustworthy theologians who have not merely tolerated capital punishment but have taken a positive stance in favor of it, if the teaching of the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment does not belong to the infallible body of ordinary magisterial teaching then one must wonder what does. One could very easily replace some words to form a “development” of the teaching on abortion, contraception, gay marriage, women’s ordination… All that needs to be done is to say that there is “an increasing awareness” of the dignity of the pregnant mother, or the financially burdened spouse, or the homosexual, or the woman, which would allow for a “development” on a connected issue which, while leading to a differing praxis would not be a “contradiction” because what has developed is the awareness or understanding of the dignity of the person or their desires which naturally leads to that new praxis, and even if there were a doctrinal contradiction, the doctrine was not directly defined by the extraordinary magisterium anyway. Watch:

The sacramental ordination of men alone was long considered an appropriate response to a male-dominant culture and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of avoiding scandal.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of women is equal to that of men. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of the Church’s conferral of ordination.

Lastly, more effective systems of ecclesiastical administration have been developed, which ensure the due protection of traditional mindsets with respect to the role of men in the Church but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive women of the possibility of sacramental ordination.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that restricting sacramental ordination to men alone is inadmissible because it is an attack on the talents and dignity of women, and the Church works with determination for the implementation of women’s ordination worldwide.

It’s that easy.

I don’t think that the intense exasperation and Sedevacantism which are now cropping up are warranted. We have seen such antics before with Honorius I (over Monothelitism) and with John XXII (over the Beatific Vision). These issues were resolved without a deposition, and without an antipope. Furthermore, it does not seem to me that we are in the kind of situation at issue in the increasingly relevant debate between St. Robert Bellarmine, Suarez, and Cajetan about manifestly heretical popes. (It is also unclear who is right, or if there might be some middle-path.) For what it’s worth, Bellarmine thought the situation of a manifest heretic (as opposed to a merely occult heretic) occupying the See of Peter was impossible, and surely he knew of Honorius and John. Bellarmine did, however, see capital punishment as an item over which there could be heresy.

At any rate, a troubled mind will not help to resolve anything. So let’s all calm down.

Much to ponder… More to come… Stay tuned.

 

Main image: screenshot of the Hydra from Disney’s Hercules

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