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Feser: multiple problems with Prof. Feser’s article.

Fastiggi on the revision to the Catechism (Updated)

UPDATE: The conversation continues.  Prof. Fastiggi has responded to this post in the comments section over at Catholic World Report. I have cut and pasted his responses below, under the text of my original post, together with my replies.  Scroll down to take a look

In the comments section under my recent Catholic World Report article “Three questions for Catholic opponents of capital punishment,” theologian Prof. Robert Fastiggi raises a number of objections.  What follows is a reply.  Fastiggi’s objections are in bold, and I respond to them one by one.

Fastiggi begins:

There are multiple problems with Prof. Feser’s article.

1. He sets up a false dichotomy with his insistence that either Pope Francis’s revision of CCC 2267 represents a doctrinal change or merely a prudential judgment. This either/or does not do justice to the new formulation in the Catechism, which represents a deepening and a development of the moral principles of John Paul II that apply to the prudential order (but is not merely prudential in nature).

The revision to the Catechism asserts flatly that the death penalty should never be used.  My claim is that there are only two ways to read this.  Either the revision is saying that capital punishment should never be used even in principle, which would constitute a doctrinal change; or it is making a merely prudential judgment to the effect that it should never be used in practice.  This is what Fastiggi characterizes as a false dichotomy.

Now, if I really were guilty of setting up a false dichotomy, then there should be some third alternative way of reading the revision that I have overlooked.  So what is this third alternative?  Tellingly, Fastiggi never tells us!  He merely asserts that the revision “represents a deepening and a development of the moral principles of John Paul II” etc.   But this is mere hand-waving unless we are told exactly what this deepened moral principle is that is neither (a) a reversal of past doctrine nor (b) a mere prudential judgment.

The reason he does not tell us what this third alternative is is that there could be no third alternative.  Think about it.  Any such alternative would have to say flatly that the death penalty is never permissible for reasons that are both stronger than merely prudential reasons (otherwise the purported third alternative would collapse back into alternative (b)), but not as strong as reasons of principle (or it would collapse back into alternative (a)).  But that simply makes no sense.  If the reasons why it is flatly impermissible are more than merely prudential, then there is nothing left for them to be than reasons of principle.  And such reasons would inevitably entail a doctrinal change, since the Church has in the past consistently taught that capital punishment can in principle be used.

2. Feser falls into the fallacy of begging the question when he insists that a total rejection of the death penalty contradicts “the irreformable teaching of Scripture and Tradition.” This is his position, but I don’t believe he’s proven it to be true. There’s no irreformable teaching of Scripture and Tradition that prevents the Church from judging now that the death penalty is inadmissible in light of a deeper understanding of the Gospel.

This is an even less plausible charge than the claim that I had set up a false dichotomy.  I would be guilty of begging the question if I simply asserted, without argument, that capital punishment is the irreformable teaching of scripture and tradition.  But of course, I have in fact provided a great deal of argumentation in support of that claim, in writings such as my Catholic World Report article “Capital punishment and the infallibility of the ordinary Magisterium,” and in my book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed (co-authored with Joe Bessette).  And of course, Fastiggi knows this, both because he has commented before on these earlier works, and because I refer to them in the very article to which he is responding here!

Fastiggi has the right to disagree with the arguments I present in those writings, but he has no right to speak as if they don’t exist.  Yet one would have to pretend that they don’t exist in order to accuse me of begging the question.  Indeed, if I wanted to play Fastiggi’s game, I would say that he is begging the question, given that his comments here simply assume, without argument, that my other writings fail to make the case for irreformability.

Anyway, the interested reader is directed to the article and book just referred to, where he will find ample evidence that the Church has indeed taught irreformably that capital punishment is not per se contrary to either natural law or the Gospel.

But even if Feser were persuaded that his position is true, he should abide by what the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) teaches in its 1990 document, Donum Veritatis, no. 27: “ the theologian will not present his own opinions or divergent hypotheses as though they were non-arguable conclusions.”

Fastiggi is attacking a straw man.  I have never said and never would say that my own opinions are non-arguable conclusions.  What I have said is that the consistent teaching of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and two millennia of popes are non-arguable conclusions.  The Church says the same thing (as I show in the writings referred to above), and the Church says that the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is among these consistent teachings of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and two millennia of popes (as I also show in the writings referred to above).

3. Feser assumes that Pope Francis’s opposition to life sentences is not defensible. In fact, Pope Francis’s position is in line with the top human rights court in Europe, which in 2013 ruled that sentences of life in prison without parole represent inhuman and degrading treatment and violate the European Convention of Human Rights: 

First, whatever one thinks of this “top human rights court in Europe” and its assertions about life imprisonment, they have zero doctrinal relevance.  They are relevant at most only to the prudential question about whether life imprisonment is a good idea in practice, not to the doctrinal question about whether it is legitimate in principle.  So, Fastiggi’s remark here hardly undermines my main point that the pope’s remarks about life imprisonment are best interpreted as the expression of a prudential judgment rather than as a doctrinal revision.

Second, it is worth noting that Fastiggi completely ignores the points I made about the problematic consequences of abolishing life imprisonment (such as that it would entail paroling serial killers and Nazi war criminals).  Surely any attempt to show that the abolition of life imprisonment is “defensible” should address this rather glaring difficulty?

Feser’s [sic] suggests that Pope Francis’s opposition to life sentences represents “a secular rather than a Catholic understanding of hope.” This is a complete non sequitur. To hope for criminals to undergo reform and eventually be released from prison in no way denies hope in eternal life. Feser’s suggestion is gratuitous and insulting to Pope Francis.

Fastiggi’s remarks here are a gratuitous and insulting misrepresentation of what I actually wrote.  I never said that either the pope, or his view about life imprisonment, “denies hope in eternal life.”  What I said is that when he appeals to hope when criticizing life imprisonment, he is making use of a secular conception of hope rather than the Catholic theological conception of hope.  It’s not that he denies the latter, but just that he does not make use of it. 

And that is manifestly the case.  For one thing, as I pointed out in my article, life imprisonment is obviously not incompatible with hope in the theological sense, because no misfortune we can suffer in this life is incompatible with hope in that sense.  For another thing, it is clear from Pope Francis’s own words that he has a secular conception of hope in mind.  In my article, I cited remarks in which he ties hope to the possibility for the offender to “plan a future in freedom.”  And in a speech from just a few days ago wherein he revisited the theme of life imprisonment, the pope tied hope to the offender’s “reintegration” into society and “the right to start over.”

I fail to see why it is “insulting” to Pope Francis simply to call attention to what he actually said.

4. Feser speaks of Pope Francis “attributing” a certain position to the Russian author Doystoyevsky. [sic] Feser, though, seems ignorant of the source of the Holy Father’s citation. The passage Pope Francis cites is from the novel, The Idiot, and it needs to be read in context to appreciate the profound insight of the Christ-like character, Prince Mishkyn, concerning the death penalty:

Pope Francis’s reference to Doystoyevsky is not really central to his arguments against the death penalty. Nevertheless, Feser should not comment on the quote from Doystoyevsky unless he understands the context in which it appears. It should also be noted that Doystoyevsky was once brought before the firing squad to be executed (only to receive a last-minute reprieve to serve five years in Siberia). Doystoyevsky saw a side to the death penalty that few of the living know.

Naturally, I was aware that the quotation came from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot.  When I said that the pope “attributes” the quotation to Dostoyevsky, I was not implying that the attribution was mistaken.  Rather, I used that word precisely to forestall quibbles about matters of Dostoyevsky exegesis.  I knew that some readers might complain that the words are actually those of a character in a novel rather than something Dostoyevsky said in a non-fiction context, that to pull them from context risks oversimplifying their meaning, etc.  So I simply spoke of “the view [the pope] attributes to Dostoyevsky” in the hope of avoiding getting into all that.  As Fastiggi’s quibbles here indicate, my hopes were in vain.

Anyway, the average person who reads the pope’s remarks is hardly likely to know all the context that Fastiggi says needs to be taken into account.  The average reader will just see that the pope approvingly quotes a remark to the effect that executing a murderer is worse than what the murderer did – a claim that many are likely to find shocking and incompatible with traditional Catholic teaching.  If Fastiggi wants to insist that people shouldn’t cite this Dostoyevsky passage without making the context clear, then it seems he should direct his complaints to Pope Francis rather than to me.

5. Prof. Feser continues to appeal to a leaked 2004 memo of Cardinal Ratzinger regarding worthiness to receive communion. This memo was not focused on the death penalty, and it was written within the context of the 1997 Catechism on the death penalty. Since the new formulation of CCC 2267 has replaced the version in force in 2004, the brief comment of Cardinal Ratzinger articulated in his 2004 memo no longer applies. Moreover, it’s simply bad theology to cite a document of lesser importance to override a later document of greater importance and authority.

First, it is extremely misleading to say that the memo in question “was not focused on the death penalty.”  It was not focused only on the death penalty, but it was most certainly intended to clarify the Church’s teaching on matters of life and death, including the death penalty (alongside war, abortion, and euthanasia). 

Second, the memo is in fact extremely important to the current discussion, precisely because it clarifies the status of the Church’s teaching on those matters, including its current teaching. 

Here’s why.  The memo was written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, who was at the time the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Pope St. John Paul II.  In other words, he was the Church’s chief doctrinal officer, responsible for clarifying for the faithful the meaning of the Church’s teachings, including those of John Paul II himself.  And Ratzinger made it clear in that memo (and elsewhere, as Joe Bessette and I discuss in our book) that John Paul II’s teaching on capital punishment was a prudential matter rather than a development of doctrine.  That’s why, as the memo explicitly says, even a faithful Catholic can be “at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment” and why “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty.”

Now, Pope Francis appeals to Pope John Paul II’s teaching in order to justify his own revision to the Catechism.  He says that he is merely extending what John Paul said.  But John Paul II’s teaching was prudential rather than a matter of doctrinal revision, as John Paul II’s own chief doctrinal officer confirmed.  So, Pope Francis’s extension (as he sees it) of John Paul’s teaching can itself be merely prudential.  Whereas John Paul II made the prudential judgment that the cases in which the death penalty is called for are “very rare, if not non-existent,” Francis makes the prudential judgement that they are flatly non-existent.  But in both cases, we have merely a prudential judgment.

So, Fastiggi is mischaracterizing my use of the memo.  I am not guilty of citing a document of lesser magisterial authority in order to override a document of greater magisterial authority.  What is in fact going on is this.  There are two documents here of equal magisterial weight: (a) the text of the Catechism as John Paul II left it, and (b) Pope Francis’s revision to the text of the Catechism.  What I am doing is citing a clarification made by the Church’s official doctrinal spokesman – the man whose job it was to make such clarifications and who spoke for John Paul II – about the proper understanding of (a).  And I am then saying that we have to interpret (b) in light of this proper understanding of (a), especially because Pope Francis himself has indicated that he is merely extending what is already there in (a).

Now, what we are debating here is the proper interpretation of the Church’s magisterial documents.  And Fastiggi, who has over the years consistently tried to downplay significance of the 2004 memo, is guilty of ignoring the Church’s own clarification of the meaning of those documents.  Now that, I submit, is bad theology.

6. Feser seems to believe he is justified in not accepting what Pope Francis and the Catholic Church now teach about the death penalty because he finds the arguments unpersuasive. Here Prof. Feser directly contradicts the teaching of the CDF in no. 28 of Donum Vertitatis [sic] which explictly says that disagreement with a magisterial teaching “could not be justified if it were based solely on the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable.”

This is a gross misrepresentation of my position.  Fastiggi makes it sound as if I have identified some teaching unambiguously put forward by Pope Francis as binding on the faithful, and then gone on to reject that teaching.  As anyone who has read my article knows, that is precisely what I have not done.  What I have actually done is to note that Pope Francis’s words are ambiguous between two possible teachings: (a) a reversal of the Church’s traditional teaching that capital punishment can in principle be legitimate, and (b) a mere prudential judgment to the effect that even if it is in principle legitimate, it is better in practice to abolish capital punishment.

Now, as Fastiggi well knows, it is a general principle of Catholic theology that magisterial statements ought if possible to be interpreted in a way consistent with traditional teaching.  That alone makes reading (b) preferable to reading (a).  Furthermore, as is clear from the passages from Donum Veritatis that I cited in my article (and which Fastiggi conveniently ignores, since they undermine his case), the Church permits respectful criticism of magisterial statements that are problematic in various ways, including with respect to their content.  And there can be nothing more problematic with a magisterial statement than an apparent conflict with scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and two millennia of consistent papal teaching.  Therefore, even if the pope intended reading (a) (which he has not said he intends, and indeed which he has implicitly rejected since he says that he is in no way contradicting past teaching) a Catholic would be within his rights to withhold assent to (a).

So, the better reading is reading (b).  But if reading (b) is what is intended, then the Church herself does not require assent to it in the first place, because prudential judgments require only respectful consideration rather than assent.  As I argue in my article, if (b) is the correct interpretation, then what then-Cardinal Ratzinger said in the 2004 memo still applies.

So, though Fastiggi accuses me of dissenting from some binding teaching, the whole point of my article was to show that that is not what is going on with those who have been critical of the revision to the Catechism.  He is simply begging the question against the argument presented in the article.

7. Feser’s rejection of the new teaching of the Church on the death penalty is in direct violation of what Lumen Gentium, 25 teaches about the need to adhere to teachings of the ordinary papal Magisterium “with religious submission of mind and will.” His rejection also violates canon 752 of the 1983 CIC and no. 892 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Again, this simply begs the question in the way I just described.  It also ignores inconvenient texts like the passages I quoted from Donum Veritatis and from St. Thomas, as well as the qualifications that the Church herself puts on the requirement of assent, which I set out at length in an earlier post to which I linked in my article.

Feser and his followers do not seem to understand the “argument from authority” that applies to teachings of the ordinary papal magisterium and judgments of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Catholics who support the new formulation of CCC 2267 are being faithful Catholics. Prof. Feser’s attempt to put such faithful Catholics and the Pope on the defensive suggests that he believes he has more authority than the Roman Pontiff. If he has difficulty accepting the Church’s new teaching on the death penalty he should, in a spirit of humility, make every effort to understand the teaching “with an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve his difficulties” (CDF, Donum, Vertiatis, 30). [sic] I have no difficulty with the new teaching. I hope and pray that Prof. Feser and his followers will overcome their difficulties.

Here we see Fastiggi once again deploying two of his favorite rhetorical tricks.  The first is to suggest that I am appealing to my own “authority.”  Of course, I am doing no such thing.  Again, I am only ever appealing to what the Church herself says.  In particular, I am appealing to the consistent teaching of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and two millennia of popes.  I am appealing to what the Church says about the proper interpretation of scripture and scripture’s freedom from moral error.  I am appealing to what the Church says about the conditions under which the ordinary magisterium teaches infallibly.  I am appealing to what the Church says about the authority of the Fathers and the Doctors.  I am appealing to what the Church says about the conditions under which respectful criticisms of deficient magisterial statements might be raised.  And so on.  Again, see By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed for the mountain of evidence and argumentation along these lines, or, if you lack the time or patience for that, at least my article on capital punishment and the ordinary magisterium.

What Fastiggi does is to try to chip away a little at this mountain by raising weak objections to some of the arguments I have presented, and then to try to undermine the rest of it by writing it off as an appeal to my own “authority.”  This is a rhetorical distraction, nothing more.  Either the arguments I present are cogent or they are not.  If they are cogent, then labeling them mere appeals to my own “authority” does not magically make them less cogent.  And if they are not cogent, then the problem is that they are not cogent, not that they are appeals to my “authority.”  Either way, the focus should be on the arguments themselves.  To go on about my “authority” or lack thereof is just to kick up dust.

The second rhetorical trick Fastiggi likes to play is to make reference to my “followers,” as if I were the leader of some movement.  I don’t have “followers.”  I have readers.  And some of them sometimes find some argument that I have given to be convincing, while finding Fastiggi’s counterarguments to be unconvincing.  That’s all.  Characterizing these people as “followers,” while fancying himself a noble defender of the magisterium against them, doesn’t magically make my arguments any worse or his any better.  It is simply another rhetorical distraction. 

Moreover, Fastiggi doesn’t see that these same rhetorical tricks could be turned against him.  Someone inclined toward Fastiggi-style rhetoric could say that he is pitting his own “authority” against the weight of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and two millennia of popes.  One could suggest that Fastiggi and his “followers” are bent on encouraging Pope Francis to teach something contrary to traditional teaching – rather than respectfully encouraging him, in line with Donum Veritatis and the teaching of St. Thomas, to reaffirm traditional teaching.  Again, one could do these things if one were inclined toward Fastiggi-style rhetoric.  I’m not.

One last comment.  Fastiggi’s expression “the Church’s new teaching” should give every faithful Catholic the dry heaves.  The Church has no “new teachings.”  The Church only ever teaches what has been believed “always, everywhere, and by all,” as St. Vincent of Lerins put it.  The Church only ever teaches “the same doctrine, [in] the same sense, and the same understanding,” as the First Vatican Council solemnly affirmed.  While the Church may clarify the sense of her traditional teachings and draw out the implications of those teachings, she may never reverse those teachings or introduce “some new doctrine,” as the same council taught.  The Church cries out, with Pope St. Pius X: “Far, far from the clergy be the love of novelty!” 

The most faithful Catholics, and the most loyal sons of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, are those who interpret his teaching in continuity with tradition, and who respectfully implore him – in obedience to the teaching of Donum Veritatis and of St. Thomas – explicitly to reaffirm that tradition.

UPDATE 9/21: Prof. Fastiggi has responded in the comments section over at Catholic World Report.  Here are his responses, followed by my replies:

I am honored you would give so much attention to my comments regarding your recent article in Catholic World Report. I will now respond to the points you raised to my numbered comments:

1. You seemed to miss what I said. The third alternative would be that the revision of CCC 2267 represents both a doctrinal development/change and a prudential application. To my mind, you did set up a false dichotomy.

This is no answer at all.  As I said before, in order to show that I was guilty of setting up a false dichotomy, Fastiggi needs to tell us exactly what this new doctrinal principle is that both rules out the death penalty in all cases and yet is neither a reversal of past doctrinal principle nor merely a prudential judgement.  Just saying that there is such a principle does not suffice.  If I say “Either A or B” and you accuse me of a fallacy of false dichotomy, the accusation is groundless unless you can identify some further proposition C that I have failed to consider.  All Fastiggi has done is yet again to assert, without argument, that there is such a proposition.  He hasn’t told us what that proposition is.

The proposition can’t be something like “The death penalty is always wrong in principle,” because that would contradict past doctrinal principle, and Fastiggi claims that the pope’s revision does not contradict past doctrine.  Nor can it be “The death penalty is always wrong in principle unless necessary to protect society against the offender,” for two reasons.  First, the revision says flatly that capital punishment is “inadmissible,” and makes no reference to any exceptions.  Second, Fastiggi holds that Pope St. John Paul II already limited the legitimate use of capital punishment even in principle to cases where it is necessary to protect society against the offender.  (In fact this is not true, since as Joe Bessette and I show in our book, John Paul’s teaching was merely prudential rather than a development of doctrinal principle.  But what matters for present purposes is that Fastiggi thinks it was a development of doctrine.)  So, since Pope Francis presents the revision as going beyond what John Paul already said, it must be insisting on a more thoroughgoing ban on capital punishment than the thesis that the death penalty should never be used except where necessary to protect society.

But the only remaining possibility seems to be to interpret it as the expression of a thesis like “The death penalty is always wrong under current circumstances.”  But that reduces it to a mere prudential judgment, and Fastiggi says that the revision entails something stronger than a mere prudential judgment (even if, he says, it also in part involves a prudential judgment).

So, again, we have yet to be told by Fastiggi exactly what this principle is that is neither a reversal of past doctrinal principle nor a mere prudential judgment.  And until he tells us, his accusation that I am guilty of a false dichotomy rings hollow.

2. I think you do beg the question because you state your opinion at times as if it were an established fact.

That’s not what “begging the question” means.  Fastiggi’s conception of what “begging the question” amounts to would entail that anyone who thinks that something is an established fact, but who turns out to be wrong, is begging the question.  And that is not the case.  For example, Europeans used to think that all swans are white, and this turned out to be wrong.  But they weren’t for that reason begging the question.  They were just mistaken, that’s all.  Similarly, even if it turned out that I am wrong to think that the Church’s traditional teaching on capital punishment is irreformable, that doesn’t entail that I am committing the fallacy of begging the question.  It would just mean that I was mistaken.

3. Pope Francis has not articulated his position against life sentences with the same insistence as he has against the death penalty. Perhaps it is only a prudential judgment. Behind every prudential judgment, though, are certain principles that are worthy of respect.

Actually, the only significant difference is that the pope has not inserted the teaching against life imprisonment into the Catechism.  But as the citations I gave show, he has raised the issue many times, he has characterized life imprisonment as morally on a par with the death penalty, and he has invoked the Magisterium when commenting on it.  That’s pretty significant.  Now, as I have argued, because what he says about life imprisonment would be very problematic if interpreted as a statement of doctrinal principle, it is better interpreted as a prudential judgment.  But since he characterizes the death penalty and life imprisonment as morally on a par, this would give us good reason to interpret his teaching on capital punishment as merely prudential as well.  That was my argument, and Fastiggi has not answered it.

I provided the example of the European court of human rights to show that Pope Francis’s position against life imprisonment without parole is held by many respectable people. The authority of Pope Francis’s position comes from his authority as the Roman Pontiff not from the European court.

As some of Fastiggi’s readers have pointed out, the suggestion that the European Court of Human Rights is a source of “respectable” moral opinion is dubious given the court’s rulings on abortion.

Here is what you said about Pope Francis’s view of hope: […]

My point was that hope for life outside prison does not deny a Catholic understanding of hope. I am glad you now accept that point. It wasn’t clear in your article. In fact, you took it upon yourself to quote 1 Cor 15:19 as if the Holy Father needed to be reminded of this Scripture.

I highly doubt that the Holy Father reads my blog.  I quoted that passage to illustrate how radically different the theological virtue of hope is from hope in a secular sense.  I fail to see what is wrong with that.

4. I am glad you are aware of the context of the Dostoyevsky quote. It’s not central to the Holy Father’s argument, but it’s something worth considering. Since the reference is not so central, I wonder why you gave it so much attention. I suspect it’s because you want to make Pope Francis look bad. But it doesn’t really make him look bad. The insight on the death penalty provided in the novel, The Idiot, is something we all need to contemplate.

Pope Francis is known for a tendency to say things that are theologically imprecise and sometimes even extreme.  For example, he once famously remarked that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null” (a remark he later qualified).  I quoted his remark about Dostoyevsky to illustrate that he has this tendency when he talks about capital punishment no less than when he talks about other subjects.  And the point is that, precisely because of this tendency toward imprecision and overstatement, we need to be very cautious before drawing momentous doctrinal implications from Pope Francis’s various statements.

Now, it is true that calling attention to this tendency might make him look bad, because popes, of all people, should, given the nature of their office, be precise and cautious in what they say in public.  But it is unfair to accuse me of wanting to make him look bad.  That was not my intent.  My intent was to call attention to a consideration that is highly relevant to interpreting the meaning of the pope’s remarks on capital punishment and evaluating their doctrinal status.

This is hardly some novel point of my own.  As Joe Bessette and I note in our book (at p. 170), in volume I of their Contemporary Moral Theology, Ford and Kelly give examples of statements from Pius XI and Pius XII that were potentially misleading because of their imprecision, and that were later qualified.  Ford and Kelly use these examples to illustrate the point that “a theologian is not necessarily irreverent or disloyal in supposing that [some papal] statements may need clarification or restriction or rephrasing” (p. 30). 

5. You completely miss my point on the 2004 memo of Cardinal Ratzinger. First of all, the Cardinal in the memo never says that the teaching of John Paul II on the death penalty was merely prudential. The word “prudential” does not appear in the text.

The word “prudential” does not have to be in the text in order for it to have the implication that John Paul’s teaching was prudential.  The memo says that “if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment… he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion,” and that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty.” Obviously, it follows that the views of John Paul II with which a faithful Catholic may be “at odds” and have a “legitimate” difference of opinion about cannot be matters of doctrinal principle.  Hence they must be prudential.

The 1997 version of CCC 2267 left open the possibility of applying the death penalty if it were “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” This is why Cardinal Ratzinger could say in 2004 that the death penalty could still be applied and there might be a legitimate diversity of opinions about applying the death penalty. Since Cardinal Ratzinger was one of the major editors of the 1997 Catechism we must assume that the legitimate diversity of opinions corresponded to the very limited possibilities for the use of the death penalty in that edition of the CCC.

As I’ve said, Joe Bessette and I show at length in our book (at pp. 163-82) that there are several considerations, including other remarks from Cardinal Ratzinger, that make it clear that John Paul II’s restriction of the death penalty to cases where it is necessary to protect society was itself merely a prudential judgment rather than a development of doctrine.  But even if it had been a development of doctrine, the memo makes it clear that a Catholic would still have the right to argue that capital punishment is necessary in some cases for the defense of society against the aggressor.  And given the argument I gave above about the relevance of the memo to interpreting both the 1997 version of the Catechism and the new revision (which claims to be merely extending the principles underlying the 1997 version), the teaching of the memo applies today no less than it did in 2004.

Because Pope Francis ordered a revision of CCC 2267, the more authoritative text is the revised text of 2018. This text supersedes the 1997 version and has more authority now.

But the question is, exactly what is the doctrinal principle that the 2018 version contains that is different from what the 1997 version contained.  And as I noted above, Fastiggi still hasn’t answered that question.  But then, since he hasn’t even told us what the doctrinal principle is, he can hardly claim to have shown that that principle leaves no room for there to be legitimate disagreement among Catholics on the prudential question of whether capital punishment is still sometimes necessary in practice.

You are simply wrong to claim that we are dealing with two documents of “equal magisterial weight.” The 2018 version supersedes the 1997 version just as the 1997 version superseded the earlier 1992 version. Because the 2018 version does not allow for the very limited possibilities of applying the death penalty found in the 1997 version, it is bad theology to cite a 2004 memo of Cardinal Ratzinger to override the authority of the later revised version of CCC 2267. This revised version was ordered by the Roman Pontiff and supported by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It clearly supersedes the authority of the leaked 2004 memo, which is now outdated with respect to the death penalty.

Fastiggi is here equivocating on the expression “magisterial weight.”  The expression could connote either:

(a) the relative authority of documents of different types, such as ex cathedra definitions, conciliar decrees, encyclicals, catechisms, papal allocutions, documents from the CDF, etc. (where you might label this a synchronic notion of magisterial weight), or

(b) the way later magisterial statements may be intended to clarify earlier magisterial statements (where you might label this a diachronic notion of magisterial weight).

Now, in our earlier exchange, Fastiggi objected that a memo didn’t have the same weight as a catechism, and thus was clearly appealing to notion (a).  I responded that the significance of the memo was that it clarified the meaning of the 1997 version of the catechism – which, qua catechism, has the same magisterial weight in sense (a) as the 2018 version of the catechism has.  A catechism doesn’t somehow cease being a catechism just because a later revision, or a later catechism altogether, comes along.  For example, the Roman Catechism of Pope St. Pius V is not somehow now a non-catechism just because Pope John Paul II issued a new one.  So, in sense (a) – which is the sense I had in mind – the 1997 and 2018 versions of the current catechism, along with the Roman Catechism, are indeed of “equal magisterial weight.”

But isn’t the 2018 version nevertheless of greater magisterial weight than the 1997 version in sense (b)?  And doesn’t that mean that we should now ignore the 1997 version and care only about the 2018 version?  No, because as I have said, the 2018 version claims precisely to be extending the principles of the 1997 version.  So we need properly to understand the latter if we are properly to understand the former.  But the 2004 memo shows (or, to be more precise, is one of several considerations that show – again, see the discussion at pp. 163-82 of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed) that the 1997 version amounted to a prudential judgment.  And my point was that this prudential nature of the 1997 version carries over into the 2018 revision.

Fastiggi hasn’t answered this point.  He simply misses it.

6. I am afraid you also miss my point here. It is quite clear that you disagree with the revised text of CCC 2267, which carries magisterial authority because it was ordered by the Roman Pontiff. Here is what no. 28 of Donum Veritatis says:

“Such a disagreement could not be justified if it were based solely upon the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable. Nor, furthermore, would the judgment of the subjective conscience of the theologian justify it because conscience does not constitute an autonomous and exclusive authority for deciding the truth of a doctrine”

Now it’s quite clear that you believe Pope Francis’s teaching on the death penalty is not evident and the arguments for the opposite position are more probable. The CDF, though, specifically says that your disagreement is not justified on such grounds. The claim that the Church does not require assent to authentic teachings of ordinary magisterium is nowhere supported by the CDF in Donum Veritatis.

As I have said, in order to disagree with some teaching, you first have to know what it is.  And as I have also said, what is at issue here is precisely the question of exactly what Pope Francis is teaching.  Is he saying (a) that capital punishment is always illegitimate even in principle, or (b) that it is legitimate in principle but always illegitimate under current circumstances?  The revision to the Catechism is ambiguous between readings (a) and (b) (though (b), as I have also suggested, should be the default interpretation given the “hermeneutic of continuity”).  But either way we interpret it, I have argued, assent to it cannot be obligatory on Catholics.  For on interpretation (a) we would have a conflict with traditional teaching, and the norms for legitimate respectful criticism set out by Donum Veritatis (in passages quoted in my original article) would kick in.  And on interpretation (b), we would have a mere prudential judgment, and Catholics are not obligated to assent to such judgments in the first place.

Now, Fastiggi is here simply ignoring this argument rather than answering it.  He is simply stomping his foot, shouting that “it is quite clear that you disagree with the revised text,” and then expressing his disapproval of this purported disagreement.  But what is at issue is precisely whether the text is in fact saying something that Catholics are obligated to agree with in the first place.  And if it isn’t saying something that Catholics are obligated to agree with, then the passage from Donum Veritatis cited by Fastiggi is moot.

What Fastiggi owes us, then, is an actual response to the argument, rather than a reiteration of the same question-begging, foot-stomping accusation.

The document does make room for raising questions “regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions” (no. 24). Respectfully raising questions is not the same as public dissent from a magisterial teaching. As I explained above, I do not believe the revised text of CCC 2267 is merely prudential. A prudential judgment applies principles to concrete cases. Here is the revised teaching of CCC 2267:

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

How is this teaching merely prudential? The “light of the Gospel” is not merely prudential but normative. The “inviolability and dignity of the person” is not a prudential judgment but a theological principle by which to make moral judgments. Your claim that this teaching is merely prudential does not correspond to the text and, therefore, must be rejected. Moreover, even with respect to interventions in the prudential order, Donum Veritatis never says that such interventions only require “respectful consideration rather than assent.” This is your inference, but it’s not to be found in the text itself. Nowhere does Donum Veritatis ever justify dissent. Instead it speaks of dissent as a “problem.”

Here too Fastiggi yet again just begs the question and misses the point.  I have already myself explained how the revision contains some elements that point to a “prudential” reading, but also elements that point to a “doctrinal revision” reading.  So in pointing to the latter, Fastiggi is merely reiterating things I have already acknowledged.  But he is also ignoring the problem that, if the new text is read as a doctrinal revision, then it would seem to contradict traditional teaching.  And I have already explained ad nauseam why that is a massive problem, and how the Church allows the faithful respectfully to disagree in such a case.

Now, though Fastiggi himself is open to a reversal of the traditional teaching, he appears to think that the revision to the Catechism does not quite amount to that.  He thinks it does constitute a novel doctrinal principle, but not one that strictly contradicts past teaching.  Yet as we have seen, he has also now twice failed to tell us exactly what this novel doctrinal principle is.  Even Fastiggi, it seems, does not know exactly what the revision is saying.  But then how can he accuse anyone of “dissent,” if he cannot tell us what we are dissenting from

7. You completely fail to respond to my point here. It’s quite clear to me that you do not adhere to the teaching of the revised text of CCC 2267 with religious submission of will and intellect. In spite of your attempts to justify your dissent, the fact remains that you do dissent from the teaching. Your reasons justifying your dissent fail because Donum Veritatis, no. 28 specifically says that disagreement with a magisterial teaching “could not be justified if it were based solely upon the fact that the validity of the given teaching is not evident or upon the opinion that the opposite position would be the more probable.” Your appeals to the Church Fathers and “two millennia of popes” are all open to challenge. At the end of the day, all you can offer are your own reasons for justifying your dissent. But who’s to decide whether your reasons for dissent are sufficient to justify your resistance to a clear magisterial teaching? It seems that you are assuming the authority that belongs to the magisterium itself. You certainly have the right to make known to the magisterial authorities your difficulties with the revised version of CCC 2267. In the final analysis, though, it’s up to the magisterium to decide the issue not you. So until the magisterium decides to revise the text of CCC 2267, I will abide with what the magisterium teaches and not Dr. Feser.

This is just more of the same question-begging and foot-stomping.  Phrases like “it is quite clear to me,” “it seems that,” etc. merely inform us about the subjective feelings of certainty that Fastiggi finds when he introspects the contents of his own consciousness.  They provide exactly zero evidence that I am actually guilty of what he accuses me of.

And once again, Fastiggi’s last redoubt is to object that “at the end of the day, all you can offer are your own reasons,” and to claim that I am appealing to my own “authority” – despite the fact that I consistently appeal, not to my own authority or reasons but rather to scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the popes, what the Church herself says about the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium over time, what the Church herself says about the circumstances under which respectful criticisms may be raised, etc.

But Fastiggi is guilty of a rather simple and obvious fallacy.  No matter what the reasons are that any person gives for any conclusion, he is in a trivial sense giving what are his reasons.  They are, after all, reasons that he gives.  And in that completely trivial sense, I have indeed been giving “my own reasons.”  But then, in that completely trivial sense, Fastiggi too has been giving “his own reasons.”  They are, after all, reasons he gave – they came from his keyboard, out of his mouth, etc.

Now, obviously this has nothing to do with “private judgment,” putting one’s own “authority” in place of the Church’s, etc.  It is just a trivial consequence of the fact that a person can’t give any reasons for anything at all, not even when the reasons amount to “The magisterium says so,” without he himself being the one who is presenting those reasons.  That is simply a point about the nature of communication, and has no theological significance.

Fastiggi’s fallacy is in thinking that, since anything I say is at the end of the day coming out of my mouth or from my keyboard, and thus in that (completely trivial) sense counts as “my reasons,” it follows that I am guilty of pitting my “authority” against that of the pope, that I am guilty of the error of private judgment, etc.  But again, that is nothing but a crude fallacy, rather than the devastating trump card Fastiggi supposes it to be.

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