On the plus side, I think there is something good in the change—it clarifies that the Church recognizes the valid development of doctrine, especially as regards changing material and historical circumstances (this does not, of course, mean that dogma can change; non-Trinitarianism will never be true). I cannot state clearly enough that I agree with the pope, even as I think that this decision is imprudent. He is not fundamentally changing the Church’s position (as long as one reads his words with a modicum of charity). The problem is one of prudence and rhetorical effectiveness, not meaning. You might disagree and say that material conditions have not changed enough to warrant the condemnation of the death penalty, but you’d be disagreeing with the Church. That, however, is a historical question of what is permissible now, not a sweeping statement on the death penalty’s acceptability since time immemorial.
What happens on the Catholic internet does not worry the Pope of Rome, especially when this discussion in particular is largely based in American Catholicism (we are rich and big, but we aren’t the end-all-be-all of the Faith). Unfortunately, his comments are clearly going to rock the boat; in fact, they already have. I have seen more “liberal” Catholics accuse conservatives of Cafeteria Catholicism. I have seen conservatives lose it; some are threatening Schism. This saddens me. I know that my liberal brothers and sisters have struggled with Magisterial teaching before (contraception being one notable example). I know that the desire to leave the question open makes little sense to them, but not all confused by this are out for the blood of prisoners; I beg them to extend a hand in charity, even as they explain this teaching. I admit that some Catholics seem to relish the death penalty too much for my taste; it upsets me. But if I lose hope, I will lose everything.
At the same time, I fear for the souls of those who would become schismatics. There is no hope down that road, and the downfall of souls brings me no pleasure, not while there is still time for their conversion. And is that not what Pope Francis is asking of us in this change—hope for conversion?
I am a Byzantine Catholic. What makes the most sense to me is what is written on the Orthodox Church in America’s website:
Christ taught that perfection requires the love of enemies and the absolute renunciation of resisting evil by evil. Thus if a man will be perfect he will renounce the relative values of this world totally and will not participate in any act which is morally ambiguous. In this way, for example, the Church forbids the bearing of arms to its clergy and does not allow a man to continue in the ministry who has shed blood, theoretically even in an accidental way!
However, the Orthodox Church follows Christ and the apostles in teaching that the relative and morally ambiguous life of this world requires the existence of some form of human government which has the right and even the duty to “wield the sword” for the punishment of evil.
In the Gospels, for example, we do not find Christ or John the Baptist of the apostles commanding the soldiers which they met to cease being soldiers. Even the early Christians bore the arms of the pagan Roman state for the welfare of society in this world.
But still, if a man will be perfect and give his life totally to Christ, he will of necessity renounce military service as well as any political service which always and of necessity is involved with relativistic values and greater and lesser evils and goods. Such a man will also renounce his possessions and follow Christ totally and in everything.
Thus total pacifism is not only possible, it is the sign of greatest perfection, the perfection of the Kingdom of God. According to the Orthodox understanding, however, pacifism can never be a social or political philosophy for this world; although once again, a non-violent means to an end is always to be preferred in every case to a violent means.
When violence must be used as a lesser evil to prevent greater evils, it can never be blessed as such, it must always be repented of, and it must never be identified with perfect Christian morality.
Also, one final point of great importance is that Christians who are involved in the relativistic life of this world must resist military conscription when the state is evil. But when doing so they must not yield to anarchy, but must submit to whatever punishment is given so that their witness will be fruitful.
The entire concern with what is totally moral and totally immoral here confuses me. A killing may be justified, but that does not mean it cannot be repented. There is no absolutely good execution, even if that execution is done in the name of the common good. I call for lauding Pope Francis in his desire to bring us to a fuller respect for human life given changes in material conditions, even as we recognize that his wording may be imprudent. Our goal here is hope for conversion—both of criminals and of our supposed enemies on the Catholic internet.