A comedy in four acts (updated)

After Jean-Luc Marion’s critique of Aquinas as an ontotheologian in L’idole et la distance (1977) and Dieu sans l'être (1982) people made a big deal of an alleged retraction in “Saint Thomas d’Aquin et l'onto-théo-logie” (1995) published in Revue thomiste. The text was even inserted into the 2013 edition of Dieu sans l'être as a supplement. In Marion’s “defense” of Aquinas against the charge of ontotheology in the Revue thomiste article he tells us that we should seriously consider the possibility that the esse that Aquinas predicates of God has no positive content but is purely a nom négatif. Indeed,

pourquoi pretendre le traiter comme un nom affirmatif, fournissant l’équivalent d’une essence, l’équivalent d’une concept, l’équivalent d’une définition, l’équivalent d’une connaissance?

Is this Marion channeling Sertillanges? Is he in earnest or is it all in jest?

I think it was the latter. Marion published an article in a 2004 issue of Conférence in which he argued once again, as he had before 1995, that Aquinas limits God’s transcendence by predicating esse of him.

Marion’s argument in the 2004 piece is weak, to say the least. He begins, harmlessly enough, by explaining that, for Aquinas, God’s esse and essentia aren’t really distinct from each other, as they are in creatures, but identical. This means that God isn’t simply an ens. However, he goes on, this won’t do to ensure God’s transcendence.

Que la transcendance de Dieu ne joue plus à l'intérieur d'un concept d'étant […] ne suffit pas à la libérer; puisqu'elle ne s'ouvre encore que dans l'interstice entre l'essence et l’esse, donc definitivement dans l'horizon de l’être.

It’s unclear whether être here is meant to refer to Heideggerian Sein (which Marion had mentioned in the previous paragraph). If it is, then Sein, being finite (as it surely seems to be), would necessarily limit God’s transcendence were he subject to it. But why should we think that esse and essentia as Aquinas predicates them of God can be reduced to Sein? If this is what Marion has in mind, he doesn’t explain why we should buy it. On the other hand, if être isn't Sein but has a more indefinite reference, why should we think it limits God? Marion doesn’t explain. Of course, we know that Aquinas holds that divine esse is unlimited (cf., e.g., ST, Ia, q. 13, a. 11). If God is without limits, then he can’t help but be transcendent. How does Marion show that Aquinas is wrong to think that divine esse is unlimited? He doesn’t.

The title of the 2004 article is “L’impossible pour l’homme – Dieu.” Marion presented an English version of it at one of John Caputo’s “Religion and Postmodernism” conferences at Villanova. But I don’t remember whether that was before or after the French version appeared.

Several years ago I thought about publishing something about all of this but I never got around to it. Maybe it it doesn’t require any drawn-out discussion. The basics can be noted without much ado. In any event, let this blog post suffice for now.

(This is a reblog of a post of mine at the AMU Philosophy Department blog.)


Post scriptum (12.7.18): I should make it clear that I do think that, for Aquinas, esse as predicated of God does have positive content. It’s not merely a negative name, as Marion suggests in the Revue Thomiste article. In the general debate about Aquinas’s apophaticism, I side with Maritain (and Garrigou and Cajetan) against Sertillanges.

Thomas Aquinas and Canon Law. T.A.C.L.

Justin M. Anderson (Seton Hall University), Mark Johnson (Marquette University), Atria Larson (St. Louis University) and myself are at the initial stages of setting up a “Thomas Aquinas and Canon Law. International Working Group” [T.A.C.L.]. The aim of T.A.C.L. is to bring together scholars of Thomas and of (medieval) canon law in order to trace and study the connections between these two fields.

In particular, medieval ecclesiastical law as a fount of Thomas’ own thought remains an important source which thus far has seem to be neglected.  Yet, that body of law holds significant importance in Aquinas’s moral, sacramental thought, etc. Below one can read a first description of our project as it can also be found on our website https://thomasaquinasandcanonlaw.wordpress.com/

Scholars who are interested in exploring these connections or can provide us with suggestions and comments on how to move forward are invited to contact us!

“Thomas Aquinas and Canon Law. International Working Group” [T.A.C.L.].

For nearly a century now, scholars involved in the study of Thomas Aquinas’s writings have sought to unearth the historical dimensions of his thought. This has included both studying the development of his arguments, but also his sources. As the decades have progressed, we have learned much of his indebtedness to his own contemporaries, but also to Scripture, to Augustine, to the neo-Platonic authors, and most recently to his Jewish and Muslim sources. However, one historical source that is largely, if not all together omitted, is Aquinas’s understanding and employment of the medieval canon law tradition, in particular both that of Gratian and the papal decretals.

Recent findings, especially regarding his use of the decretal tradition on vows, scandal, and truth have revealed that in all likelihood, Aquinas – like others around him – was both aware of and sought to include the logic of certain papal decrees within his own writings. When Pope Gregory IX wished to compile all the previous compilations into a single work, he asked none other than Raymond of Peñafort, Thomas Aquinas’s Dominican confrère who would – it is said – one day encourage Aquinas to write the Summa Contra Gentiles. Peñafort’s work was published in 1234 and is known as the Liber Extra. While the 12th Century’s Decretum Gratiani easily serves as an early benchmark in the medieval canon law tradition, the Liber Extra likewise serves as a similar point of reference established just under twenty years before Aquinas would begin to write. Moreover, according to the explorations of authors like Leonard Boyle and Joseph Goering, one cannot ignore that both canon lawyers and theologians, especially those in the Dominican houses of the 13th Century, were deliberately concerned with bringing their thought to bear in a practical way in the form of medieval penitentials. Here again Peñafort looms large. The medieval manuals for confessors became a meeting place and, consequently, a conduit of mutual influence between theology and canon law. Of course, the penitentials need not be the only locus of mutual influence. The Leonine edition of Aquinas’s Super Decretalem notes Henry of Segusio (a.k.a. Hostiensis), the author of multiple commentaries on medieval canon law itself, as one of Thomas’s potential sources.[1]

All of this points to a rich new field yet to be discovered. Still, in this nascent field questions abound. What or who were Aquinas’s influences regarding medieval canon law? With regard to what discussions, philosophical or theological, can we find Aquinas employing the decretal tradition? What, if any, secondary literature already exists in this regard? While our project is, at this stage, primarily focused on the influence the medieval decretal tradition had on Aquinas’s thought and writings, not to be ignored are the writings of other 13th Century philosopher-theologians who may also demonstrate the use of medieval canon law in their own thought, or by their writings have influenced Aquinas as a conduit. Furthermore, the causal direction may interestingly be turned around: what influence may Aquinas’s writings have had on later medieval canon law, decretists and/or decretalists?[2] Certainly the role of John of Fribourg could prove instrumental here as well.

Both Thomas’s œuvre and the medieval canon law tradition represent massive sources of knowledge in their own right. Tracing connections will likely require a familiarity with both. While the demand of such a study can make the task appear overwhelming, it is precisely because both fields of learning are so important that the work will prove both fruitful and intriguing.

[1] Sancti Thomae de Aquino, Opera omnia iussu Leonis XIII P. M., Tome 40, Pars D-E (Romae, 1968): E, p. 6.

[2] Historians of canon law often make a distinction between “decretists”, who commented on Decretum Gratiani, and “decretalists”, who commented on papal decretals including the Liber Extra.

1 Comment

Jörgen Vijgen

DR. JÖRGEN VIJGEN holds academic appointments in Medieval and Thomistic Philosophy at several institutions in the Netherlands. His dissertation, “The status of Eucharistic accidents ‘sine subiecto’: An Historical Trajectory up to Thomas Aquinas and selected reactions,” was written under the direction of Fr. Walter Senner, O.P. at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome, Italy and published in 2013 by Akademie Verlag (now De Gruyter) in Berlin, Germany.

David Oderberg Conscience Book Free Online

How did I miss this? David Oderberg’s book on freedom of conscience is available online here: https://iea.org.uk/publications/opting-out-conscience-and-cooperation-in-a-pluralistic-society/

Chapter 4 contains a summary of moral (or immoral!) cooperation that is accessible to those who are unfamiliar with everything. Chapter 6 has an interesting discussion of the limits of freedom of conscience.

And the book is free!

Abuse Crisis and Jesuit Understanding of Obedience?

In an essay at Rorate Caeli, John T. Lamont argues that the abuse of clerical authority during recent years, especially in the context of sexual deviancy, has its roots in the fact that “Catholic theologians and philosophers during the Counter-Reformation all held that law and moral obligation are to be understood as resulting from the command of a superior.” See the post here: https://rorate-caeli.blogspot.com/2018/10/tyranny-and-sexual-abuse-in-catholic.html

Aspects of the argument seem to me at least prima facie possible, although I don’t know what to think of it, and am wary of painting with one brush the experience of different countries, cultures, classes, and orders in the period. Moreover, Jesuits tended in my mind to hold rather extreme positions in certain areas concerning not only the authority of law, but also the reliance of Scripture on the Church, free will, the papacy, etc. If you run your eyes over the works not only of Suarez but also of Molina and Lessius, you will find a mysterious combination of different late medieval views and a sampling of oddities from figures such as Pighius, all thrown together in a pungent anti-Protestant brew.

Nevertheless, Lamont’s article is worth reading for some brilliant sentences and observations, even if they might not be fully fair. For instance: “The progressive faction that seized power in seminaries and religious orders had its own programme and ideology that demanded total adherence, and that justified the ruthless suppression of opposition. The tools of psychological control and oppression that had been learned by the progressives in their own formation were put to most effective use, and applied more sweepingly than they had ever been in the past -- the difference between the two regimes being rather like the difference between the Okhrana and the Cheka.“

Sex, hylomorphism, and women priests

Here I want to reply to Tom Osborne’s post from several weeks ago. In his post Tom argues that although the Church doesn’t permit the ordination of women, it is overly strong to claim that this is an ontological impossibility. He offers two reasons against this:

First, it does not seem impossible for Christ to have made a co-ed or all-female priesthood.  It may be inappropriate, but it seems hardly impossible.  It just didn't happen.

Second, suppose that a validly ordained man becomes a woman not through some sort of operation or sex-change, but some truly natural or supernatural process.  The identity of the individual would be the same.  The priesthood is permanent.  It seems then that there would be a woman priest.  It doesn't happen, but it isn't impossible. 

Of course, Tom isn’t calling for women’s ordination. That’s not the moral of the story. He’s simply pointing out what he takes to be problems with certain arguments against women’s ordination.

Be that as it may, I’m going to take issue with Tom’s second argument above.

On a hylomorphic account of the human person, i.e., an account that sees the human person as a unity of body and soul (or matter and soul), the person isn’t the body or the soul but the whole package. Furthermore, on this account, souls – the substantial forms of persons – are, so to speak, “fitted” to bodies. In other words, the apparently Platonic idea that there’s no necessary match between the kind of body and the kind of soul such that any soul could inhabit (a hylomorphist would say “actualize”) any body (e.g., my soul would be just as suitable for a whale’s body) is wrong.

I think the hylomorphic account of the human person is the right one. What does it imply about men and women as human persons? To me it appears to imply that the difference in male and female anatomy and biology, implies a difference in substantial form (not an essential one but either an accidental one or a difference that falls somewhere between essential and accidental). What I’m saying is that men and women have different souls. You can’t, then, have a female body with a male soul or vice-versa. Male and female souls are no more interchangeable than male and female bodies.

If I’m right about this, then sex isn’t just skin deep. The human person is a sexed being through and through. That means that I am a sexed being through and through. So, I can’t be a male at T1 and a female at T2. If I’m the person at T1, then I could never be the person at T2. Let’s call the person we have at T1, who is male, person A, and the person at T2, who is female, person B. Suppose that by some natural or supernatural occurrence (such as Tom speaks about in his post), A is in some sense transformed into B. On the account I’ve been proposing, the continuity between A and B couldn’t be a personal continuity unless we’re prepared to say goodbye to the PNC. It could only be, at most, a material continuity. The change wrought by the transformation would have to be a substantial rather than an accidental change.

In light of these considerations, I don’t see how, if A were an ordained priest, that A’s ordination could be transferred to B. It would be an ontological impossibility.

20 years later

On the 20th anniversary of Fides et ratio I have some thoughts on its vision for philosophy in an essay posted today at Catholic World Report.

It has just occurred to me that there’s a pretty big lacuna in my essay. One of the ultimate truths that is central to the encyclical is the nature of the human person. I don’t really say much about that. Maybe next time.

Could the Church Teach that Capital Punishment is Inherently Wrong? Steven Long Comments on John Finnis's Article

Thomistica here re-presents some comments of Professor Long in response to a two-part article of John Finnis' pertaining to the death penalty (see part one and part two).

There are two points on which I concur with Prof. Finnis's work published at thepublicdiscourse.com. The first is that the catechetical insert can only signify prudentially, a point that among others I argue in an essay that will soon be published. The second I would articulate by saying that the Catholic tradition is not Kantian regarding penalty, that is, that it may be the case that several distinct penalties may each suffice for retributive proportion, which accordingly must then be further prudentially differentiated in terms of their medicinal effects for the common good.

I do differ from what I take to be his view--perhaps I am incorrect in reading him this way?--that for Thomas retributive proportionality is not essential to penalty. To the contrary, Thomas teaches very formally on this point: "Punishment is proportionate to sin in point of severity, both in Divine and in human judgments” (STh I-II, q. 87, a. 3, ad 1).

Also, Prof. Finnis's account of the oath required of the Waldensians seems to me both historically and doctrinally inaccurate. The Waldensians held that the death penalty was intrinsically wrong, the type of act that could not rightly be chosen with knowlege and full consent without mortal sin. They were made to swear an oath to the effect that if the penalty were imposed without hatred, and "judiciously" ("iudicio" which here denotes "good reason") and "cautiously," it was not mortally sinful, i.e.: this is the kind of act that *can* be performed judiciously. One cannot, for instance, rape and torture an individual judiciously and cautiously, commit sacrilege judiciously, etc. The Waldensian teaching which was held important for the heretics to abjure, was the teaching that the death penalty was of its nature such as to be a grave sin, objectively speaking. Subjective culpability could as well be imported into the consideration of everything else they were asked to abjure, which would essentially have been simply to require them to hold that if someone doesn't know what he is doing, he isn't culpable. But the issue wasn't and isn't whether one is *culpable* or not, but whether objectively the act is or isn't a grave sin (i.e., such that when undertaken with adequate knowledge, sufficient reflection, and full consent it would always be mortally sinful). Finally, Thomas's line about those who do grave evil falling to the level of the beasts does not concern the natural dignity of the wrongdoer, but the acquired and infused dignity in virtue and grace. The inceptive natural dignity of the human person is further ordered to this acquired and infused dignity, and when the latter is lost, the human person *in this respect* "falls to the level of the beast" or in fact even lower, since beasts are not culpable for any disorder they suffer vis a vis their ends. This is important, because in fact it is the very doctrine of the imago dei on which Scripture reposes the foundation of the essential justice of the penalty, and the imago naturae is ordered further to the imago gratiae and finally the imago gloriae.

I do not think it makes sense to say that Thomas, who teaches that certain species of intentional killing are justified by the transcendence of the common good, simply didn't understand his own teaching well enough to avoid this conclusion. Given the consensus of the Fathers, the wide papal teaching on the matter, many papally approved catechisms, and the testimony of Sacred Scripture, the essential validity of the penalty—as distinct from its prudential reasonability in some given place and time—seems to have been taught by the ordinary universal magisterium for two millennia.

Professor Long went on to contend that Finnis misrepresented what Pius XII said in his article dated August 23rd, in which he argued that the "logical conclusion" of Pius XII's teaching is "that capital punishment is inherently wrong." Long comments:

I think that his reading of Pius XII's proposition is unfoundedly tendentious and does not cohere well with Pius XII's own teaching that the death penalty is essentially valid. The power of the state to punish in general is addressed by the Romans passage, but it does so by iterating the most radical punishment which is that imparted through the sword, the "maximum of the genus" as it were. So, it is "about" the foundation of the penal power, but addresses this synecdochally through the authority of the state to impose the most severe penalty which is death. Even more problematic is Finnis's proposition that "Read with the rest of the completed scriptures, Genesis 9:6 no more commands us (or even licenses us) to shed the blood of those who have shed human blood than Genesis 9:4 forbids us to eat any meat not drained of blood." The reason is that the ratio of the death penalty in the imago dei is affirmed in the Genesis passage, which is a very central and crucial ratio for Catholic reflection. The dignity of human nature derives from its ordering to noble ends in nature and grace, and the achievement of this ordering through acquired and infused virtue and infused grace signifies a superordinate dignity with reference to the inceptive natural dignity which is in potency to such perfections. Scripture addresses this continually in a variety of ways. The imago naturae is ordered to the imago gratiae and the imago gloriae, and the latter are of higher dignity than the former and specify it. Even simply in the natural order, the dignity of acquired virtue is loftier than merely the inceptive dignity of human nature unfulfilled and "truncated" in vice, as it were. But understanding the dynamism of the imago dei in nature and grace requires teleology, and the first tutoring here is natural teleology, whose significance for moral reflection is of course a vexed subject of controversy of NNLT advocates with the older tradition. I do think Finnis's reflections are of great interest, and that the Romans passage isn't simply or merely about the death penalty, but about the death penalty as "standing for" or adumbrating the just power of the state in general. So the Romans passage does teach the validity of the death penalty, but does so as a means of addressing the penal power in general. I do think Pius XII took this for granted, given his other statements on the death penalty and the unity of the tradition...


Ryan J Brady

Subsequent to a few semesters of study at Thomas Aquinas College, Dr. Brady graduated from La Salle University in Philadelphia with a B.A. in Religion. After receiving a Masters degree in Systematic Theology from Christendom Graduate School (where he was the valedictorian) he defended his doctoral dissertation “Aquinas on the Respective Roles of Prudence and Synderesis vis-à-vis the Ends of the Moral Virtues” with distinction and received his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology.

Ontological Possibility of Women Priests

I came across the statement recently that women priests are ontologically impossible.  This seems to me an overly strong claim for two reasons, of which the second is more interesting.

First, it does not seem impossible for Christ to have made a co-ed or all-female priesthood.  It may be inappropriate, but it seems hardly impossible.  It just didn't happen.

Second, suppose that a validly ordained man becomes a woman not through some sort of operation or sex-change, but some truly natural or supernatural process.  The identity of the individual would be the same.  The priesthood is permanent.  It seems then that there would be a woman priest.  It doesn't happen, but it isn't impossible.  


The "is" that isn't: Heidegger and Aquinas

In Der Satz vom Grund Heidegger writes:

Wenn wir von etwas sagen: “Es ist” und “es ist das und das,” dann wird es im solchen Sagen als Seiendes vorgestellt. Nur Seiendes “ist,” das “ist” selber, das “Sein” “ist” nicht (GA 10, p. 93).

In his commentary on Boethius’s De ebdomadibus Aquinas writes:

[S]icut non possumus dicere quod ipsum currere currat, ita non possumus dicere quod ipsum esse sit; set id quod est significatur sicut subiectum essendi, uelud id quod currit significatur sicut subiectum currendi; et ideo sicut possumus dicere de eo quod currit siue de currente quod currat in quantum subicitur cursui et participat ipsum, ita possumus dicere quod ens siue id quod est sit in quantum participat actum essendi. Et hoc est quod dicit quod ipsum esse nondum est quia non attribuitur sibi esse sicut subiecto essendi, set id quod est, accepta essendi forma, scilicet suscipiendo ipsum actum essendi, est atque consistit, id est in se ipso subsistit (Expositio De ebdomadibus, l. 2; Leonine, L, p. 271).

I truly doubt that Heidegger's Sein is the same thing as Aquinas's esse. There is very good reason (which I won't go into here) to see them as different things. Nevertheless, the parallel between these two texts is interesting and worth thinking about.

Happy Feast of St. Dominic!

Today is the liturgical feast of St. Dominic de Guzmán, founder of the Ordo Praedicatorum. Dominic died on August 6, 1221 at the convent of San Nicolò delle Vigne in Bologna.

Why is St. Dominic's feast celebrated today and not on the 6th? Gregory DiPippo has an informative post on the history of the feast of St. Dominic at the New Liturgical Movement that explains this and a few other things.

Some responses to Pope Francis's revision of CCC 2267

Pope Francis has revised the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that deals with the death penalty (see the Bollettino here). The previous version of CCC 2267 went like this:

Traditionalis doctrina Ecclesiae, supposita plena determinatione identitatis et responsabilitatis illius qui culpabilis est, recursum ad poenam mortis non excludit, si haec una sit possibilis via ad vitas humanas ab iniusto aggressore efficaciter defendendas.

Si autem instrumenta incruenta sufficiunt ad personarum securitatem ab aggressore defendendam atque protegendam, auctoritas his solummodo utatur instrumentis, utpote quae melius respondeant concretis boni communis condicionibus et sint dignitati personae humanae magis consentanea.

Revera nostris diebus, consequenter ad possibilitates quae Statui praesto sunt ut crimen efficaciter reprimatur, illum qui hoc commisit, innoxium efficiendo, quin illi definitive possibilitas substrahatur ut sese redimat, casus in quibus absolute necessarium sit ut reus supprimatur, “admodum raro [...] intercidunt [...], si qui omnino iam reapse accidunt”

[Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”]

The new version goes like this:

Quod auctoritas legitima, processu ordinario peracto, recurrere posset ad poenam mortis, diu habitum est utpote responsum nonnullorum delictorum gravitati aptum instrumentumque idoneum, quamvis extremum, ad bonum commune tuendum.

His autem temporibus magis magisque agnoscitur dignitatem personae nullius amitti posse, nec quidem illius qui scelera fecit gravissima. Novus insuper sanctionis poenalis sensus, quoad Statum attinet, magis in dies percipitur. Denique rationes efficientioris custodiae excogitatae sunt quae in tuto collocent debitam civium defensionem, verum nullo modo imminuant reorum potestatem sui ipsius redimendi.

Quapropter Ecclesia, sub Evangelii luce, docet “poenam capitalem non posse admitti quippe quae repugnet inviolabili personae humanae dignitati” atque Ipsa devovet se eidemque per omnem orbem abolendae.

[Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. 

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. 

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it opposes the inviolability and dignity of the person,” and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.]

The revised text was released five days ago and was accompanied by an official commentary by Luis Ladaria, SJ, the cardinal prefect of the Holy Office. Ladaria’s commentary takes the form of a letter addressed to the bishops of the Catholic Church.

The Holy Father had proposed making this change to the Catechism in a speech last fall (which I wrote about here), so Thursday’s news wasn’t unexpected.

There are already a number of public responses to the revision of CCC 2267 by Catholic philosophers and theologians. I want to single out four responses that I think will be of particular interest to readers of Thomistica:

• Ed Feser at First Things

• Peter Kwasniewski at LifeSiteNews

• Michael Pakaluk at First Things

• Thomas Petri, OP at the Catholic News Agency

I encourage you to read their comments. All four are eminently qualified to speak on the topic. They have different things to say about the revision but they seem to agree that the antecedent teaching of the Church, according to which the death penalty is morally permissible in certain circumstances, is irreformable. I don’t know how anyone could seriously question that. (If you’re tempted to, then read this essay by Ed Feser.)

I don’t have the time to write anything long and sophisticated but to the comments that have already been made I would like to add a few of my own that I think might be useful.

One controversy over the revision of CCC 2267 that has already emerged has to do with whether it teaches that the death penalty is “inadmissible” for prudential reasons (which would be a version of John Paul II’s approach) or because it is a malum in se (a view that the Church has consistently rejected). The revised text gives three reasons for the inadmissibility of the death penalty. Two reasons appear to refer to contingent circumstances whereas a third, taken by itself, seems not to. According to this third reason, the death penalty “opposes the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Now, this sounds like we could be talking about a malum in se. But looking back at the rest of the text, it might be argued that it only intends to claim that “today” (his temporibus) in certain circumstances the death penalty constitutes such an opposition. I think this is how Fr. Petri reads the text. In any case, whoever wishes to claim that the revision of CCC 2267 teaches that the death penalty is a malum in se must contend with the fact that neither the new text itself nor Ladaria’s commentary on it expressly uses that language.

There’s reason to think that this is deliberate. One of the most problematic statements, from a doctrinal perspective, that the Holy Father made in his comments on the death penalty last fall was this:

Si deve affermare con forza che la condanna alla pena di morte è una misura disumana che umilia, in qualsiasi modo venga perseguita, la dignità personale. È in sé stessa contraria al Vangelo perché viene deciso volontariamente di sopprimere una vita umana che è sempre sacra agli occhi del Creatore e di cui Dio solo in ultima analisi è vero giudice e garante.

[It must be forcefully affirmed that the death penalty – in whatever way it is carried out – is an inhumane practice that humiliates personal dignity. It is in itself contrary to the Gospel because there is a free decision to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and with respect to which God alone, in the final analysis, is the true judge and guarantor.]

If this isn’t code for malum in se, I don’t know what is. If it is, it contradicts what should look to all the sane and educated Catholic world like an irreformable teaching. But none of this absolutist language made it into the final draft of the revision of CCC 2267 and Ladaria doesn’t employ it in his commentary either. It’s entirely conceivable that the CDF saw the above statement as impossible to reconcile in any reasonable way with the antecedent teaching and concluded that it expresses merely a personal opinion of Pope Francis.

The revised text only quotes a small fragment of last fall’s speech, the one that tells us that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it opposes the inviolability and dignity of the person” – “la pena di morte è inammissibile perché attenta all’inviolabilità e dignità della persona.”* As I just said, that fragment, taken in isolation, could give the impression that the death penalty is a malum in se but, as I also just said, if we look at the revised text as a whole, it could also be interpreted as relating only to certain contemporary circumstances.

The hermeneutic rule of thumb in interpreting new magisterial pronouncements is to understand them in the light of established teaching. In other words, they should be read in such a way that they don’t contradict that teaching. Why? Well, this could be explained in a few different ways. But perhaps it’s put best by Holy Writ: “Iesus Christus heri et hodie, ipse et in sæcula.”

If the letter of some new magisterial pronouncement can’t be reconciled with established teaching or is so unclear that no one can honestly make heads or tails of how it’s supposed to relate to established teaching, then we have a problem. In my view, the revision of CCC 2267 falls into the latter category. This makes it quite unhelpful as a formulation of the Church’s teaching. As such, it should be retracted. If it isn’t retracted, then it should be rewritten to conform more clearly with the Church’s previous consistent teaching. If neither of these courses is taken, then it will be Amoris laetitia redux.

* The Latin text renders attenta as repugnet. I think the most straightforward English translation of attenta here is “attack.” I’m not sure if repugnet is the best Latin translation of attenta but it is certainly a possible translation. I have translated repugnet into English as “opposes.” The Vatican’s official English translation has “is an attack.” That may be perfectly fine even if it does turn a verb into a noun.