Recently Bishop Robert W. Finn (Kansas City – St. Joseph) wrote an article entitled, “Divine Mercy and the death penalty,” which will be published as resource for Respect Life Month in October, by US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishop Finn clarifies the Church’s position on this issue and urges Catholics to consider opposition to the death penalty as part of the pro-life agenda. I would highly recommend his article.
The death penalty is an issue which confuses some Catholics. Some assume that it is a matter of purely political opinion and not a theological matter. This is clearly not the case. In 1995, Pope John Paul II published a major encyclical letter, entitled The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). While Pope John Paul II acknowledges that capital punishment may have been justified in primitive societies to promote the common good and provide public safety, this is no longer the case. He points out the growing opposition to the death penalty and disputes the notion that the death penalty is a kind of "legitimate defense" on the part of society. He notes, “Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform” (EV 27) Pope John Paul II see the cases where the death penalty is necessary as “very rare, if not practically non-existent” in our modern world (EV 57). But isn’t this just the Pope’s personal opinion?
Here is where the confusion enters in. Some Catholics think that only those things which are infallibly taught by the Church need to be followed and everything else is mere opinion. This is clearly a distortion of Catholic belief. In union with the Holy Father, the Fathers of Second Vatican Council published the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. In this document, they refer to the authority of the ordinary non-infallible teaching of the Pope. We normally refer to this as the “ordinary magisterium” as opposed to the extraordinary infallible magisterium. The Council Fathers note;
In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission (religiosum obsequeium) of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking. (Lumen Gentium, 25)
The Catechism comments on this point quoting the above passage;
Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a "definitive manner," they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful "are to adhere to it with religious assent" (religioso animi obsequio adhaerere debent ) [Lumen Gentium 25] which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it. (CCC 892)
What Lumen Gentium called the “authentic” and “supreme” magisterium, the Catechism calls the “ordinary Magisterium.” In the case of Pope John Paul II’s The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) we are dealing with a major papal Encyclical. An encyclical letter is the most formal and authoritative statement of a pope’s ordinary non-infallible magisterium and is precisely what the Council Fathers had in mind in the quote above (Lumen Gentium, 25).
Speaking of the assent or religious submission of mind that must be given to papal encyclicals the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) notes;
“It remains the common teaching of theologians today that this assent must be not merely a respectful silence, but a true internal, albeit conditional, assent of the intellect to the doctrines precisely as they have been proposed” (NCE V:332).
For a deeper understanding of the issue of magisterium and authority in the Church, I would recommend, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. Magisterium: Teacher and Guardian of the Faith, (Sapientia Press, 2007).
On the Feast of St. Monica,