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Letter lamentably misleads on Catholic doctrine

If Catholics want to have confidence in institutions surrounding their faith that sustain it, those in the institution not only have to act better, but they have to teach the faith accurately.

American Catholics have been rocked by news of the extraordinarily perverse actions of clergy in Pennsylvania, both in terms of sexual deviance and covering up the horrors from that. Now more than ever, to reassure Catholics that their belief is about the faith and not the people entrusted to minister to that faith, propagation of a true understanding of that faith is necessary.

Thus, it was disheartening to see a Louisiana example that fails in this regard. Recently, I authored a Baton Rouge Advocate column that in part addressed the death penalty. In it, I noted the Catechism change ordered by Pope Francis that withdraws support for capital punishment as part of Catholic teaching, which represents the first doctrinal change made by a pope in the Church’s history.

I’m not alone in recognizing the revolutionary nature of the alteration. To present just one example, dozens of authors, scholars, and priests signed an open letter to the Church’s cardinals to cause removal of the change, writing because it has “brought great confusion upon the Church” to suppose “that the Church considers, contrary to the Word of God, that capital punishment is intrinsically evil,” thus “to put an end to this scandal [the Holy Father] must withdraw this paragraph from the Catechism … to teach the word of God unadulterated.”

But some have sought to explain away this crisis by contending the change wasn’t a change, but “development of doctrine in the Catholic Church” from a “deepening awareness of what our Catholic faith supports, the dignity of every human,” according to an example coming by way of a letter to the editor to the Advocate from Fr. Louis Arceneaux. He was ordained in 1966 into the Congregation of the Mission (many Catholic priests are part of religious orders, with this one founded by St. Vincent DePaul) and presently serves as Spiritual Advisor to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Southeast region.

Further, in the letter he alleges that such “change” has precedent, writing “In the early centuries of Christianity, slavery was accepted” but then evolved away on the same basis, the notion of human dignity. The only problem with his assertions taken together is that this is historically and theologically inaccurate.

Perhaps the best exposition of his error comes from modern America’s greatest religious theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles. His Eminence’s 2001 Fordham University McGinley Lecture addresses the issue of church theology on the death penalty, unequivocally noting that no conflict exists between the Church’s concept of human dignity and how to support it and capital punishment simultaneously. He also lays out an erudite historical and theoretical summary demonstrating that dogma without qualification accepts use of the death penalty, calling attempts to state otherwise a “radical revision—one might almost say reversal” based upon the very “human dignity” argument Fr. Arceneaux seeks to advance.

Cardinal Dulles also observed that the Church never has reversed itself doctrinally, including on the issue of slavery. In a 2005 book review of a tome that claimed such about-faces had occurred, he demolishes that contention in explaining how the Church never gave unqualified support to slavery and, technically to this day, never has delivered an unqualified condemnation: “No Father or Doctor of the Church, so far as I can judge, was an unqualified abolitionist. No pope or council ever made a sweeping condemnation of slavery as such.” Even Pope John Paul II’s 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor, which called slavery “intrinsically evil,” didn’t do that. While Fr. Arceneaux is on more solid ground here, he errs in equating slavery and executions because the former has a Church tradition and doctrine that wasn’t absolute, while the latter – until Francis rewrote it using only his own past statement without any other theological references as a referent – did have absolute status.

(As a side note, the “human dignity” argument relies upon the belief that the salutary aspects of the death penalty may come adequately from other kinds of punishment, which as noted elsewhere is completely unsustainable as a matter of fact.)

Thus, to characterize the change on the death penalty as evolutionary rather that revisionary simply is wrong. Particularly troubling is that Fr. Arceneaux, besides being the Society’s spiritual advisor, also hosts a number of retreats for the religious and lay people where, if the participants do not otherwise understand their faith’s history and tradition, they likely would accept uncritically his word on this matter.

(Fr. Arceneaux is no stranger to controversy within the Church. He remains close friends with excommunicated former priest and radical leftist Roy Bourgeois and denounced his defrocking over the issue of female ordainment – ironically in relation to the issue of capital punishment, lamenting in the case of Bourgeois that the “Vatican chooses to take such a strong and definitive stand on a matter of doctrine that is debatable in the eyes of many Catholics.” He also is a member of Pax Christi, a radical leftist anti-war/military organization that awarded its top honor one year to Bourgeois.)

This example of faulty teaching strikes at the heart of the crisis of Catholic faith in America. If Catholics don’t understand their faith properly, they become less capable of defending it when it meets challenges, self-inflicted or otherwise. The next step becomes discarding it entirely, which happens in part because of institutional failure. At this critical point, those who hold themselves out as teachers of the Faith must not encourage this by striving not to mislead the faithful.

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