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.

On the non-reception of Aeterni Patris

Paul VI's encyclical Humanae vitae is often called a "dead letter," and, unfortunately, for good reason. The same could be said of Leo XIII's Aeterni Patris. In a lecture on the Thomistic revival to students and professors of Mount Saint Bernard Seminary and the Aquinas Institute in Dubuque, Iowa in 1962, James Weisheipl had this to say:

[H]istorically speaking, the program of Pope Leo XIII has never been universally implemented in Catholic colleges, universities and seminaries. Not even the ardent efforts of St. Pius X were able to effect this. Until this program is really attempted in a thorough manner, there will always be zealous priests who react to what they only half understand. Reactions against Thomism in the past half century have always been to a pseudo-Thomism, a half-understood St. Thomas.

For Fr. Weisheipl, this was particularly disturbing, since, as he adds:

[A]ccording to the mind of the Church, only the sound philosophical and theological principles of St. Thomas are capable of creating a modern Catholic Weltanschauung which will move forward with the modern world and save it for Christ. Ite ad Thomam is not the cry of an antiquarian pope. It is the cry of a prophet who sees what can be the millenium of Christianity in the modern world. Therefore a great responsibility is ours. It is up to us Thomists and Catholics throughout the entire world to show that we can incorporate everything that is good and modern in our age -- and take the great step forward to tomorrow.

And where do things stand today with the reception of Aeterni Patris? Need we ask?

Thomism and the death penalty

Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette's new book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty and the Pope's recent remarks on the death penalty have revived the Catholic debate on the topic.

The death penalty has been discussed in several posts here at Thomistica over the years: here, here, here, here, and here. Most of these posts were authored by Steve Long.

On Friday Catholic World Report published an essay of mine entitled "Is opposition to the death penalty Thomistic?" In it I compare Pope Francis's remarks with St. Thomas's teaching. I think the Holy Father's defense of Amoris laetitia as Thomistic encourages this sort of exercise. I also assume that my discussion may be of interest to some of our readers.

How bad was scholastic manualism?

Perhaps not all that bad. See my brief post on this at the AMU philosophy department blog.

Dare I say that Aquinas was the first "textbook Thomist"?

Thomism and travel bans

Occasionally here at Thomistica we discuss current events. I'm not going to do that in this post but shall rather direct you to where I've just done that elsewhere. I have an essay at Public Discourse today in which I try to apply Aquinas's moral theory to GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump's proposal to ban Muslim travel to the US.

Remembering Fritz

Frederick “Fritz” Wilhelmsen (1923-1996) was, in my estimation at least, one of the great Thomists of the last century. So, I thought it fitting to mark in some way the 20th anniversary of his death. I’m a month late for the anniversary – Wilhelmsen died on May 21, 1996 – but I don’t think that matters much.

Wilhelmsen grew up in Detroit. During World War II, he interrupted his studies at the University of Detroit to serve for three years as an army medic. He eventually earned his BA in 1947 from another Jesuit institution, the University of San Francisco. He completed his MA in philosophy in 1948 at the University of Notre Dame, where he studied under Gerald Phelan and Yves Simon. He completed his PhD in philosophy at the Universidad de Madrid in 1958, with a dissertation on Jacques Maritain.

Wilhelmsen taught at Santa Clara University, Al-Hikma University in Baghdad, the Universidad de Navarra, and lastly at the University of Dallas, where he taught philosophy and political theory for 31 years.

His work ranged from metaphysics and epistemology to political theory and cultural criticism. During his lifetime, Wilhelmsen authored seventeen books, among which, the better known are: Hilaire Belloc: No Alienated Man. A Study in Christian Integration (1954); Man’s Knowledge of Reality. An Introduction to Thomistic Epistemology (1956); The Metaphysics of Love (1962); The Paradoxical Structure of Existence (1970); Christianity and Political Philosophy (1978); Citizen of Rome: Reflections from the Life of a Roman Catholic (1980); and Being and Knowing: Reflections of a Thomist (1991). Several of these books collect separately published papers.

Wilhelmsen co-authored two books with Jane Bret: The War in Man: Media and Machines (1970) and Telepolitics: The Politics of Neuronic Man (1972).

You can find a bibliography of Wilhelmsen’s writings here.

Since there are several good overviews of Wilhelmsen’s life and work available online, I'll forego going any further with the one in this post. Here are four of those overviews:

J. Lehrberger, O. Cist., Christendom’s Troubadour: Frederick D. Wilhelmsen

D.J. D’Elia, Citizen of Rome: Dr. Fredrick D. Wilhelmsen

J.O. Nelson, Wilhelmsen, Frederick

UD Philosophy Department, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen (1923-1996): A UD Legend (Go to p. 2.)

A last word...

It's truly sad that Fritz is gone. We could really use him right now.

"Thomophobia" or: the "Hart Complex"

David Bentley Hart is at it again, another raving diatribe against Thomists. What's he worked up about now? Here is Ed Feser's summary:

Hart’s beef with Thomists this time around is that they deny that non-human animals possess “characteristics that are irreducibly personal,” that they deny that “many beasts command certain rational skills,” and that accordingly—and worst of all, for Hart—Thomists deny that there will be “puppies in paradise.” Hart, by contrast, affirms the “real participation of animal creation . . . in the final blessedness of the Kingdom,” asserting that Heaven will be “positively teeming with fauna.”

Feser responds to Hart here. I wonder, however, whether Ed's perfectly reasonable comments will be of any use to Hart. It may be that what Hart really needs is not philosophical dialogue but therapy.

John Lamont on anti-Thomism

John Lamont has a provocative piece at Rorate Caeli on the anti-Thomism of the nouvelle théologie. It is somewhat geared toward a popular audience but I believe Thomists, Aquinas scholars, and historians of 20th century Catholic theology (among others) will find it interesting. Lamont returns to some of the themes that he dealt with in a 2008 article he wrote for The Thomist entitled "Determining the Content and Degree of Authority of Church Teachings."

There are three points in particular that Lamont addresses (both in The Thomist article and in the new piece) that I think deserve wider discussion: (1) the truth/falsity of the theses of the "neomodernism" of the nouvelle théologie; (2) the validity (or lack thereof) of the nouvel théologiens' critique of Thomism; (3) the positive/negative influence of the nouvelle théologie on contemporary Catholic thought. All three, of course, require not only historical but also speculative consideration.

Scholastic metaphysics: an interview with Edward Feser on his new book

This past spring Edward Feser's latest book, Scholastic Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction, was published by Editiones Scholasticae. We recently talked with Ed about his new book.

*** Could you tell us something about the genesis of your book and what your aims are in it?

Feser: One of the aims of the book is to provide, for readers with a background in contemporary analytic philosophy, an exposition and defense of Scholastic (and especially Thomistic) approaches to causation, substance, essence, teleology, identity, persistence, and other issues in fundamental metaphysics.  Another aim is to provide, for readers with a background in Scholastic thought, an introduction to the many ideas and arguments in contemporary analytic philosophy which recapitulate themes in Scholastic metaphysics.  So, the book argues for the continuing relevance and defensibility of Scholastic ideas by revealing how much common conceptual ground already exists between Scholastics and analytic philosophers.

I did a bit of this in earlier work, such as the second chapter of my book Aquinas, but the subject really demanded a book-length treatment.  There is also the consideration that many of the most important arguments for the contemporary relevance of various Scholastic metaphysical ideas are scattered in various books and journal articles by a diverse group of writers -- “analytical Thomists,” Thomists and other Scholastics of a more traditional stripe, scholars who approach the subject from more of a historical perspective, older Neo-Scholastic authors of now out-of-print manuals, and so forth.  There is an urgent need for a convenient resource that gathers the main ideas all together and presents them systematically for philosophers, theologians, and other readers interested in Scholastic metaphysics and its contemporary relevance.  So the book aims to provide that.

The book is in that way somewhat like the old Neo-Scholastic manuals, though of course more up to date in the sense that it engages heavily with the literature in contemporary analytic philosophy.  My friend Bill Vallicella has already taken to referring to the book as “Feser’s manual,” and I’m happy to own the label.

But I should, I suppose, add that I use the term “metaphysics” a little more broadly than some Aristotelians and Thomists do.  Thomists in recent decades have distinguished those questions that are strictly metaphysical from those that fall within the philosophy of nature, though they recognize that there is some overlap.  They are right to make this distinction, but unfortunately it is lost on a lot of contemporary analytic philosophers, who tend to use the term “metaphysics” in a way that often includes topics that the Thomist would see as part of the philosophy of nature (such as the hylemorphic structure of material substances).

To make the book as useful as possible for furthering discussion between analytic philosophers and Scholastics, I have to some extent made allowances for this broader usage in the choice of topics I cover in the book.  But only to an extent.  I plan to follow this book up with a book on Aristotelian philosophy of nature that covers issues that I judged were too far from general metaphysics to be properly treated in the present book -- topics concerning the general structure of time and space, chemical and biological kinds, and so forth. Who is the audience of Scholastic Metaphysics?

Feser: Well, for one thing, and as I’ve indicated, the book is of course aimed at both analytic philosophers and Scholastics interested in questions of fundamental metaphysics.  But I hope it will also find an audience among philosophers interested in natural theology, philosophy of mind, and other sub-disciplines within philosophy, even ethics.  Certainly the key arguments in all these areas made by Thomists and other Scholastics cannot properly be understood or evaluated without an understanding and evaluation of the underlying metaphysics.  Hence you cannot understand Thomistic arguments for God’s existence without an understanding of the theory of act and potency and the other aspects of Scholastic thinking about the nature of causality.  You cannot understand Thomistic arguments concerning the mind-body problem and other aspects of philosophical anthropology without an understanding of hylemorphism.  You cannot understand traditional natural law arguments without an understanding of how Scholastic writers understand teleology (as opposed to the caricatures of their understanding of teleology, which is all that many people are familiar with).  And so forth.

So, while the book doesn’t really say much about these specific sub-disciplines, it is clearly relevant to them.  Indeed, I like to think it would be of interest to anyone concerned with questions about the most general structure of reality and questions about ultimate explanation  -- which includes scientists as well as philosophers -- because that is, of course, what metaphysics is all about.  Metaphysics is the most fundamental of all disciplines.  That is the traditional view, anyway, and it is one I try to vindicate in the book. At one time volumes of scholastic metaphysics were published quite regularly. Now they appear only rarely. The decline seems to have begun in the late 1960s. What do you think are the reasons for this decline?

Feser: That’s a large question, of course.  In part it is linked to the general collapse of traditional theology, philosophy, and catechesis within the Catholic Church and Catholic higher education over the last 40 or 50 years.  Scholastic metaphysics got swept away along with the rest of it.  In part it has to do with the alleged foibles of the textbooks that were so widely in use in the period prior to Vatican II.  The usual complaint against them is that they are dry, merely repeat each other, are somehow untrue to authentic Thomism, etc.   Accusations of “Wolffian rationalism,” “sawdust Thomism,” and other such epithets are routinely flung at them.

I think this is mostly nonsense.  Naturally, like any body of literature, not all the old manuals are of equal quality.  Like anything human, they have their imperfections.  But the standard objections are just ridiculously overstated, and there is some truly excellent and useful work to be found in many of those old books from the late nineteenth centuries through to the early 1960s.  I think we are much the poorer for having let it all slip down the memory hole.  Indeed, we’re paying a heavy price for it.  If you want to know why theology is in such a mess today and secularism in such a position of strength, I would say that it has in large part to do with the fact that Catholic intellectuals have largely lost the intellectual muscle that Scholasticism used to provide.

It is amazing how thoughtlessly people repeat the clichés about the manuals, including people who should know better.  More than once I’ve had people tell me, to my face and pretty much in the same breath, both how much they like my work and how bad the old manuals are -- evidently without noting the cognitive dissonance!   I hope my work will contribute in its own small way to reviving respect for and attention to what the manualists were trying to accomplish. How would you compare your book to some of the older ones, like, say, Klubertanz's Introduction to the Philosophy of Being, or even a recent one like Clarke's The One and the Many? What does your book have in common with them? What would you say is different about your book?

Feser: What it has in common with them is that it treats most of the same issues, in the same sort of systematic way, and defends similar conclusions.  It differs in three major ways.  First, and as I have indicated, it interacts heavily with contemporary analytic philosophy.  That is the tradition I was trained in, and I tend to think that, for all its real weaknesses, the analytic tradition is ripe for fruitful engagement with Scholasticism.  Like Scholastic writers, analytic philosophers emphasize conceptual precision, clarity of expression, and rigorous argumentation.  Recent years have also seen a serious revival of interest in metaphysics within analytic philosophy, including an interest in Aristotelian themes in metaphysics.  There are of course other contemporary philosophers bringing the two traditions into conversation -- David Oderberg’s book Real Essentialism is outstanding in this regard -- but much more needs to be done, and my book aims to further that conversation.

Second, there are differences in the way I would understand some common Thomistic ideas.  For example, I’m not as keen on personalism as Fr. Clarke was.  Having said that, I have enormous respect for Fr. Clarke’s work and have profited much from it.

Third, for the most part my book does not deal directly with issues in natural theology, as older Scholastic books on metaphysics tend to.  In part this is because I have treated these issues elsewhere, such as in my book Aquinas.  In part it is because the book is long enough as it is, and to treat topics in natural theology adequately would in any case require a book of its own.  And in part it is because it is important to emphasize that the key ideas and arguments in Scholastic metaphysics are defensible and important whatever one thinks of their application within natural theology. How has your book been received?

Feser: So far, very well.  It’s gotten several good reviews, including one in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.  It has twice sold out at, once not long after it was first published, and the other time after several reviews appeared at around the same time.  For a while at Amazon, it was trading the #1 spot in Metaphysics with Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.  Not that I checked it daily or anything.  (And of course, reaching the #1 spot in metaphysics for a few days or weeks doesn’t exactly get you into Stephen King bestseller territory!)

The most vigorous and interesting criticism has come from Scotists who think I haven’t adequately either challenged or defended the standard Thomistic construal of, and criticisms of, Scotist positions on those issues where Thomists and Scotists disagree.  That isn’t surprising, and it’s a good debate to have.  Indeed, if the main debate in contemporary metaphysics were between Thomists and Scotists, we’d be in a very good place indeed!  Though we are, of course, a long way from that ever happening.

From the analytic side, Stephen Mumford has said some very kind things about the book.  He is, by the way, one of several contemporary analytic philosophers whom Thomists and other Scholastics ought to be reading.  His book Laws in Nature and a book he co-wrote with Rani Lill Anjum, Getting Causes from Powers, are particularly recommended to anyone interested in seeing just how fruitful a discussion between Scholastics and analytic philosophers is likely to be.

Atheism and divine transcendence

I have a whimsical little essay on this topic at Crisis Magazine. At the center is what I take to be a Thomistic understanding of creation. It's pitched to a broad audience. But it might be something to refine and develop further in the future. Or it might not. Your comments would be much appreciated either here or at Crisis

Comments on philosophy of mind textbooks

Three months ago one of our contributors, Tom Osborne, wrote a post asking readers for feedback on philosophy of mind textbooks by Ed Feser, James Madden, and William Jaworski. Tom tells me that some people contacted him directly with feedback. But for three months no one posted anything in the comments box. Until now! There have been two comments in two days! I draw this to your attention because if you would like to know something about the Madden and the Jaworski books, you might find these brief comments (by Kelly Gallagher and Andrew Jaeger) helpful. Neither commenter addresses Feser's book. So, if there is someone out there who has read Feser's book, please feel free to tell us something about it either in the comments box below or at Tom's original post.