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The death penalty and doctrine, Part 2

Correction without contradiction: Reading Newman

DERMOT ROANTREE :: Given the gruesome physicality of the elements involved, the Catholic debate about the death penalty after Pope Francis’s recent remarks has been uncannily bloodless. There has been little room in the conversation for grizzly mutilations, violent childhoods, prison rape, electric chairs, chemical cocktails, mouldering victims, or smouldering perpetrators. Instead, it’s all been about the doctrine: the normativity of scripture, the nature of magisterial tradition, the ambit of prudential judgement, and so on. In fact, quite a number of the Pope’s critics have stressed their own aversion to capital punishment, but they draw the line – emphatically draw the line – at saying that the practice is intrinsically evil, or (as Pope Francis put it) “in itself contrary to the Gospel”. In their book, if this is so then God and the Church have countenanced evil since the very beginning of revelation. And if this is what the Pope is saying, it makes him a heretic. Again.

What is clear in this debate, as in the one surrounding Amoris Laetitia, is that the underlying issue remains the Second Vatican Council. In my last post I stressed that, stated broadly, Pope Francis is working out of the historically-conscious perspective of the majority of the Council fathers, while his critics share the markedly classicist views of the minority, and that these battle lines will remain intact until each side pays greater attention to the ‘fore-understanding’ of the other.

What many conservatives suspect, however, is that such attention will not save Pope Francis from the charges of either heresy or bad logic. After calling the death penalty intrinsically wrong the Pope remarked: “Here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively”.

But is he not indeed contradicting past teaching? Austrian Catholic philosopher Josef Seifert, for example, says past popes could not have been right to defend the legitimacy of capital punishment if the current pope is right to reject it, “because they contradict each other”. The same line was taken by Edward Feser (who co-wrote a book in defence of capital punishment only months before Pope Francis damned it), and by Joseph Shaw, Claudio Pierantoni, John Zmirak and any number of other conservative or traditionalist Catholics.

In fact Fr Brian Harrison OS, a prolific conservative author, saw Pope Francis’s remark as “a jawdropping travesty of logic”, one that would be obvious to “any eighth-grade child of average intelligence”. The proposition that “Capital punishment is always contrary to the Gospel” contradicts the proposition that “Capital punishment is not always contrary to the Gospel”. In Harrison’s view the matter is reducible to this – to the principle of non-contradiction.

It’s not, however. It’s a great deal more complex than this. What we have is two very different understandings of what it means for the Church to preserve its doctrines and stay faithful to revelation as it was given. And if there is to be any prospect of a rapprochement between them, I think, each side will need to frame its argument in language that makes sense to the other. From my point of view here, this means taking the conservative repudiation of Pope Francis seriously and asking: Is there an understanding of the development of doctrine which is credible in the context of tradition and which could endorse the change regarding capital punishment which the Pope proposes? I believe there is. To get a sense of it, I think, the best thing is to return to the problem of doctrine and history as Blessed John Henry Newman broached it in the lead-up to his conversion. Newman does not give us the last word on doctrinal development, but by placing a great deal of theological weight on history he gives us a fruitful first word.

The difference history makes

When he set about writing his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine in 1844 Newman wrote a terse memorandum on the cover of his notebook. It read: “Write it historically”.
‘Historically’ as opposed to what? Newman’s purpose was to confirm that the Roman Church of his own day was the same as the Church of the Apostles – the same in spite of 1800 years of controversy, schism, heresy, intellectual diversity, frequently shifting political circumstances, contact with outside systems of thought, the amendment of old doctrines, and the emergence of new ones. It was plain to him that this lengthy culture of change needed to be theorised rather than ignored or denied.

But apologetic defences of Roman Catholicism in the 19th century didn’t usually turn to history, and certainly not to historical development. After all, most of the major breaches with the Church, in particular the 16th century Reformation, began with the accusation that Rome had deviated from the ancient faith, that it had welcomed innovation and change. In response the Church had tended to shoot the charges back at the accusers ¬– they were the ones who had innovated – and to deny flatly that any change had taken place in the Church at all. The Church is averse to novelty, they insisted. All appearance of change is just that: mere appearance.

More sophisticated ultramontane responses in the mid-19th century accepted the historicity of the Church, but mostly as a unique, a supernatural, instance of development. The Church unfolds in time, but it has known the full truth of revelation all along, so to speak. To quote Cardinal Manning, a convert of a very different stripe to Newman, “the history of the Church is the Church itself”, so there is nothing contained in it which is not always already part of its “living and perpetual consciousness” of itself. Hence it defies common sense to consult secular history before, say, defining doctrine, as the only history which counts is the supernatural perspective which the Church itself holds perfectly. It was on these grounds, for example, that Manning repudiated historically-based opposition to the definition of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council. That definition was, for him, the “triumph of dogma over history”. “The scientific historian reads the history of the Catholic Church in one sense,” Manning wrote, “the Catholic Church reads its own history in another. Choose which you will believe.”

Views like these held sway in the Church throughout the ‘long 19th century’, right up to the pontificate of Pius XII, just years before Vatican II was convened. Things changed with the Council, however. It was Newman’s, not Manning’s, view of the Church and history that dominated. As Cardinal Ratzinger put it, Newman “placed the key in our hand to build historical thought into theology, or much more, he taught us to think historically in theology and so to recognize the identity of faith in all developments.” In the opening address of the council, Blessed Pope John XXIII spoke of history as “the teacher of life”, and Gaudium et Spes noted that “the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one”. The implication was that the Church had done so too. There’s a lot of Newman in that.

What most characterised Newman’s approach was an empirical epistemology, a concrete apprehension of the Church as not merely a body of doctrine and precepts but as “a fact in the world’s history”, as an “objective reality” that had made its home in the world of humankind and developed along with it. Newman, I imagine, would have been content with the Council’s image of the Church making “its pilgrim way through the vicissitudes of human history” and calling forth old and new things from its own sacred tradition and doctrine. What this intimates is that history itself is a locus theologicus. The Church’s home “is in the world; and to know what it is we must seek it in the world, and hear the world’s witness of it”.

Reading Newman

So, what do we find when we seek the meaning of the Church in the facts of its history? That there is consistency, “identity of faith”, “unity of type”, certainly, and it is for this reason that conservatives will often call on Newman as a witness to the hermeneutic of continuity. But in doing so they tend to pass over something essential to his theory of development. In fact it’s the very reason he wrote the work in the first place.

It is this. Maintaining identity of type, according to Newman, is consonant with striking variations, with dramatic changes in the aspect and expression of ideas. These are not only possible but to be expected. It is not the case that we can just look at an alteration in the Church’s life or teaching and know immediately or instinctively that it shows either continuity or change. Identity of type is difficult to discern. It is “subtle… and mysterious”, and it often goes against appearances.

Consider Newman’s analogy with “a popular leader”. He

may go through a variety of professions, he may court parties and break with them, he may contradict himself in words, and undo his own measures, yet there may be a steady fulfilment of certain objects, or adherence to certain plain doctrines, which gives a unity to his career, and impresses on beholders an image of directness and large consistency which shows a fidelity to his type from first to last.

This same idea runs through his whole elaboration of the theme. “Unity of type” is indeed characteristic of faithful developments, but it must be seen to allow “considerable alteration of proportion and relation” and “great changes in outward appearance and internal harmony”. “Ideas may remain,” he says, “when the expression of them is indefinitely varied”. It may look as if an idea has substantially changed, but it might well be intact, even if this is not immediately evident.

In fact Newman goes further. Corruptions, he argues, often appear to resemble the original doctrine more than “changes which are consistent with it”. Here we see the full force of his organic conception of the Church, his sense of tradition not as an archive but as an evolving form of life. And it is on these grounds that Catholicism can rebuff the charges of the Waldensians, the Anglicans, the continental Reformers, the Jansenists, the Gallicans, and the Old Catholics that Rome has been unfaithful to the deposit of faith, that it has deviated from the tradition. If a child fails to grow in physical stature or in areas of cognition or socialisation, they are not being ‘faithful’ to their original form. Quite the contrary. Medicine considers it to be a developmental disorder.

And so it is with doctrine. “One cause of corruption in religion,” Newman says, “is the refusal to follow the course of doctrine as it moves on, and an obstinacy in the notions of the past.” The Samaritans, for example, only seemed to be faithful to primitive doctrine by refusing to add the books of the Prophets to the books of the Law. Newman again: “Our Lord found His people precisians in their obedience to the letter; He condemned them for not being led on to its spirit, that is, to its developments.”

Newman was forced to this conclusion by his historiographical approach to development. What he discovered through his study of Arianism, Monophysitism and Donatism and his study of the Church’s responses to these early heresies, particularly at ecumenical councils, was that it was often heresy, not orthodoxy, that had refused to change. Also – running directly counter to a traditionalist axiom – that the early Church had to be interpreted “by the times which came after”, not by the times which came before. It was these insights which led him to doubt “the tenableness of Anglicanism”.

What we may glean from Newman, through these reflections as well as through the more seasoned Catholic ecclesiology of his later decades, is the paramount importance of a historical and descriptive approach to development. Also that the ‘type’ that is preserved is not the concrete term or formula or canon that conveys one teaching or another, but something more elusive – something more akin to a fundamental principle or orientation. Continuity often means a “large consistency”, visible only when one apprehends the doctrinal life of the Church as a narrative reality that resists reduction to a set of contextless propositions.

And a strong sense emerges from Newman that the corrective action of the Church at any time of crisis is motivated not primarily by legal exegesis but by the very life of the Church – or more correctly by its identification with Christ and by the action of the Spirit. And finally, there is much in Newman’s sense of what distinguishes organic growth from corruption that prefigures later Church teaching about the hierarchy of truths and the primacy of christological interpretation.

Scripture reads scripture

Another scriptural instance which Newman cites as an illustration of how much things may change without compromising ‘unity of type’ helps to open up the theme of the corrective re-reading which takes place within scripture itself. “The Gospel is the development of the Law;” Newman writes, “yet what difference seems wider than that which separates the unbending rule of Moses from the ‘grace and truth’ which ‘came by Jesus Christ?’”

Here, in the image of Jesus correcting the law of Moses, we have a pertinacious fact that must be accommodated in any theory of development. Six times, immediately after attesting that he has come to fulfill the law and the prophets, not to abolish them, Christ intones the formula, “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you…” So, six corrective progressions of the law.

Now, it is true of course that some of these do not rescind the Mosaic law; they are more like exhortations to raise the standard, to seek a higher perfection. I think this is harder to argue, however, in the case of the injunction to love and pray for one’s enemies rather than hate them. This does seem to me to entail an abrogation of the old law, and I will return to this matter in a later post. But for our present purposes the most important case in point concerns divorce. Jesus forbade it tout court in the Sermon on the Mount, and when the matter is raised later, in Matthew 19, he insists again that no one should put asunder what God has joined together. (Here is not the place to discuss the ‘exceptive clause’ concerning infidelity. Suffice it to note that the absence of a similar clause in Mark 10, Luke 16, Romans 7, or 1 Corinthians 7 makes it unlikely that it is endorsing any exception.)

But why then, they ask him, did Moses allow a man to issue a writ of separation and put his wife away? In other words, “If it was licit to divorce in the time of Moses, surely it is licit now”. “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives,” Christ responds, “but from the beginning it was not so.” Not so from the beginning. Of its nature, then, as the Church teaches, marriage is indissoluble. But for the 1,200-odd years that separated the Mosaic law from Christ, a concession was made to the people of Israel, on account of their sklerokardia, their sclerosis of the heart, their hard-heartedness. This permitted them with God’s sanction to dissolve an indissoluble bond. How is such a contradiction to be understood?

Or take another case of the established doctrine of one point in scripture being controverted or confuted at another. In his book On Job, Gustavo Gutiérrez sees the comforters in that parable as representative of orthodoxy as it came from the Pentateuch. Eliphaz and his companions are thoroughly convinced by the doctrine which Gutiérrez calls “temporal retribution”, the doctrine well established by the Deuteronomist that God punishes the wicked in this world and rewards the upright. It would have seemed impious if not blasphemous to the Jews to doubt it. And yet the inspired word of the Book of Job does just that.

“Can you recall anyone guiltless that perished?” Eliphaz asks Job; “Where then have the honest been wiped out?” The friends have learned the law and they are certain of it, and Job, they believe, is obstinate in not acknowledging the truth which has been received. Yet Job’s own experience has given him reason to dispute this orthodoxy – in fact to reject it outright. He protests his innocence. He challenges his ‘comforters’: “Put me right and I shall say no more; show me where I have been at fault”.

In the end of course God admonishes the comforters and takes Job’s side. The old doctrine ought to have been in tatters, yet the sheer steadfastness of orthodoxy kept it intact for many hundreds of years thereafter. It lay close to the surface of a number of the Psalms, for instance. And when, in John 9, Christ’s disciples see a blind man they ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Nothing had been learned from Job. If then hardness of heart had been the impediment which kept God from divulging the true nature of marriage to the Jews of the Exodus, this time the impediment was obtuseness of mind. Culturally they were still locked into a crude quid pro quo sense of the divine economy, and this meant they were left with not just an imperfect but a wrong understanding of God’s action in the world.

Already we can see that the theological and moral comprehension of Old Testament times show the truth of what Pope Benedict stated in Verbum Domini. Biblical revelation, he said

is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “ dark ” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day.

Except for extreme bible literalists it is clear that Christians have no reason to feel bound by the ritual and disciplinary culture of the Old Testament. What we are seeing here, however, is that we also need to be circumspect when it comes to identifying the normative value of Old Testament doctrines. It’s worth noting, for instance, that it is the prosperity gospel preachers who are most faithful to the original doctrines of “temporal retribution”. But this is clearly a corruption of revelation. It shows what Newman called “a refusal to follow the course of doctrine as it moves on, and an obstinacy in the notions of the past.”


The next post will continue this examination of corrective action within scripture and magisterial tradition.

About Dermot Roantree

Dermot Roantree is content editor with Irish Jesuit Communications. He has a doctorate in Modern History and many years of teaching and of e-learning projects behind him. He is married with two children.