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Catholics Upset With Pope Francis’s Death Penalty Opposition Shouldn’t Jump To Condemn It


Pope Francis sent the internet for a tailspin last week, when the Vatican announced that a change would be made to the catechism of the Catholic Church. The change to the section on the death penalty makes the practice now “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

Many conservative commentators both in and outside the Catholic Church immediately condemned Francis for violating 2,000 years of Christian teaching and tradition. Liberal pundits, alternatively, lauded him for affirming the value of human life, and for stickin’ it to the conservatives. Rather than offer yet another opinion on the decision itself, I would like to step back and argue that the the nature and speed of responses to this event — particularly by Americans — is a more worrisome trend than the actual content of the announcement.

To understand why, we should revisit a little-known heresy the Catholic Church condemned more than a century ago. In the 1890s, a set of theological beliefs and practices became popular in the United States. These included insistence on a clear divide between church and state, emphasis on interior initiative in the spiritual life, attacks on religious vows, disparagement of the value of religious orders in the modern world, minimization of Catholic doctrine, and a reduction of the importance of spiritual direction. Americanism also stressed the uniqueness and exceptionalism of the American people, the American nation, and the American church.

Pope Leo XIII condemned American particularism in the 1899 encyclical Testem benevolentiae nostrae, and rejected the idea of “some who conceive and would have the church in America to be different from what it is in the rest of the world.” As I’ve noted elsewhere, debates over whether Leo’s description reflected the reality in the United States largely subsided in the years that followed, although the underlying premise of American exceptionalism continues to play a role in some aspects of American Catholicism. The response to Pope Francis’ determination on the death penalty is, I would argue, just such an instance.

Consider first the amazing celerity of American pundits to the decision. I was at work when the news from the Vatican “hit the presses.” By the time I got out of work, my email inbox was already being flooded with commentary and opinion pieces.

From the Left, a CNN opinion called Francis’ critics “death penalty hypocrites.” Another same-day Huffington Post opinion asserted that Pope Francis was “right.” On the Right, a same-day opinion on the website of The American Conservative by Rod Dreher (of Benedict Option fame) observed: “I don’t see how he [Pope Francis] can do this.” Another same-day opinion on a conservative Catholic website accused Francis of offering the world “another dose of confusion.”

Some of the same-day commentary was impressively alarmist and conspiratorial. An article on The Stream declared: “Make no mistake, the Vatican launched this smoke bomb this week for a reason. … To get the world’s liberal activists’ attention. This sends the memo: ‘Don’t talk about all those molested boys. Talk about this instead!’” How the author could possibly know this, besides sheer speculation, is unclear. It’s not as if this is the first time in Francis’ pontificate that the Vatican has been in crisis and under the international media microscope.

The following day brought little relief. Dreher argued that the decision was a “big win for LGBT Catholics,” because such Catholics would try to employ the same language to affirm their own lifestyles and behavior. Another August 3 piece on a conservative Catholic site alleged that the pope is “moving from religion to politics,” seeming to forget that every pope in recent memory has waded deep into the waters of political debate.

John Paul II was quite vocal in his opposition of the 2003 U.S. and allied invasion of Iraq. Before that, he exerted tremendous energy in combating the forces of atheistic communism. Yet an August 6 article on another conservative Catholic website accused Francis of using “junk theology to end the death penalty.”

Apart from Dreher and perhaps some of the liberal commentators, most of the articles I’ve cited are written by Catholics who define themselves as orthodox, meaning that they seek to abide by church teaching, and view themselves as in union with the pope and the universal church. Many people, even those outside the Catholic Church, know that one of the most important cornerstones of the Catholic apologetic is that the Church is unchanging, and that the bishop of Rome is a principle of unity for all Christians.

One will consistently find these arguments if he or she peruses many of the websites I’ve referenced. Yet here we have many of those same Catholic apologetic stalwarts attacking the pope — some only hours after the initial statement was released — and asserting that the church has changed its teaching in some fundamental way that unravels the continuity of the Catholic tradition at its very core. Why?

I think the Americanist heresy is at work here. The Americanist heresy, which still influences American Catholic self-identity, influences us to view ourselves as unique, overly important, and free to criticize with impunity. Coupled with our twenty-first-century, 24-hour news cycle, Americanism encourages us to offer knee-jerk reactions to every event, even when we are ill-equipped to comment.

Catholics — even those who during the last two pontificates would have avoided criticizing the pope at all costs — are treating their holy father like any other politician worthy of our immediate censure, rather than someone who should be respected, honored, and treated with charity and love. This ad hoc treatment of the papacy amounts to a uniquely American brand of selectivist, consumerist Catholicism.

Please read the above carefully: I am not arguing that Catholics have to defend or praise everything the pope does, nor am I arguing that Catholics must always avoid criticism of the pope. Sometimes popes can do or say foolish things that are worthy of the flock’s censure. What I’m arguing is that the speed, intensity, and content of recent criticism suggest a fundamental disrespect for the office and person. This is out-of-step with the Catholic apologetic — something critics of the church perceive all too well — and is reminiscent of a peculiarly aggressive strand of rebelliousness found in the American spirit.

A friend of mine, a Catholic philosophy professor I deeply respect, wrote the following on Facebook, speaking of one such Catholic article responding to the Vatican decision:

[The article] never even quoted the letter once. In order justifiably to make such claims, mere bluster and hand-waving are not enough; good arguments are needed, arguments that set out to refute claims or positions not by sophistry but by logic, a skill not only necessary for theology, but itself part of the Church’s longstanding philosophical tradition. And constructing such arguments takes time and careful reflection; it isn’t something that fits well with the first-to-press mentality on the interwebs.

Indeed, in the case of the death penalty declaration, many commentators seemed oblivious to the fact that the change to the catechism was a quote from an address made by Francis in October 2017. Another Catholic theologian noted: “These changes build upon prior remarks by popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI calling for the abolition of the death penalty.” Good analysis and contextualization of the decision takes time and careful research.

American Catholicism is certainly unique. A majority of American Catholics buck the global Catholic trend on capital punishment in their support the death penalty, according to the Washington Post. Yet it would be good for us to remember that we are but one, relatively small part of a global body of Catholics — about 6 percent.

We may be wealthier than Catholics in other parts of the world. We may even be better-educated than the average Catholic worldwide. But that doesn’t make us necessarily better Catholics, nor does it mean we have some outsized claim on commenting on church decisions. Indeed, a truer “conservative Catholicism” would be one that exemplifies humility and self-restraint, rather than self-importance and bluster.

Commentators in the coming weeks and months will continue to debate whether the pronouncement is a “legitimate development,” as one article termed it, or a “reversal,” as other commentators are labeling it. I’m uninterested in raising that debate here (although two of my favorite commentaries, demonstrating a more nuanced, reflective, and unemotive analyses of the decision, can be found here and here). Far more important, I offer, is the manner in which Catholics debate and analyze the Holy Father and the remainder of his pontificate.

As has always been the case, what is at stake is not just internal church politics, but the very souls of men.