As we saw yesterday, people who chatter about the Magisterial development regarding the death penalty seem oblivious to the really huge development of doctrine surrounding the Church’s extremely recent denunciation of slavery. What is notable to me is that all the Church has done with the death penalty is call it “inadmissible”. It does not declare the death penalty to be gravely and intrinsically immoral. It just says, “Don’t kill people if you don’t have to–and you don’t have to. So don’t.” But the Reactionaries are still shrieking that Francis has “overturned the immemorial Tradition of the Church!!!!11!!111!!!”
If they actually knew anything about the Tradition, they would have a stronger (though still ridiculous) case if they started demanding the return of slavery since slavery was declared gravely and intrinsically immoral (just like abortion is) for the first time in the Church’s history at the Second Vatican Council. “Gravely and intrinsically immoral” means that it is, by its very nature, a mortal sin and (mark this) always was and always will be–including when the Church tolerated it.
Of course, sensible people can grasp that the early Church, while it disliked slavery, was not capable of mounting a global assault on an institution that was literally as old as the human race. It was a tiny persecuted sect. So it operated within the constraints of Greco-Roman culture, urging slaves to get their freedom if they could and calling them to be good servants and witnesses if they could not. As time went on, slavery became harder to maintain and disappeared for a while in Christian Europe. But it returned with the rise of the nation-state and with a tit for tat power struggle with Islam. Colonialism gave it a new lease on life too (it is never far away). The Church wrestled with it (precisely because identical “we’ve always tolerated it, so it’s part of the Tradition!” arguments that undergird Catholic death penalty dissent were used on its behalf). But theological work went forward (courtesy of people like Bartolme de las Casas) that made it harder and harder to square with Catholic teaching about the dignity of the human person.
Still and all, it was not till the 20th century that it was definitively condemned as gravely and intrinsically immoral. What happened was the great doctrinal development of the Council: the declaration that man is “the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake” (Gaudium et Spes 24 § 3).That development–formulated under the lash of the horrors of the 20th century, definitively declared that no human system could be exalted over the dignity of the human person and that no human being exists for some other end. We are made by God in his image and likeness and no economic, political, social, ecclesial, or cultural human system can make us into cogs in its machinery.
That spelled the utter doom of slavery, since slavery is, by its nature, the reduction of the human person to a commodity.
That development also did something else. Hitherto, Catholics had rationalized mistreatment of human beings under the argument that “Error has no rights.” It was and is a true statement as far as it goes. As people say these days, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts.” Even the bitterest enemy of the Church believes that “Error has no rights”. If you disagree, just listen to them when the subject changes from the Church to climate change BS from the Trump Administration or kooks arguing for a Flat Earth.
But what the development at V2 did was bring the Church to the point of realizing that “While error has no rights, persons in error do have rights”. And so the Church was bound to commit itself to things like religious liberty and so forth. Putting the dignity of the human person at the root of its anthropology, the Church had to revisit a lot and is still doing so. Its views of everything from Just War to slavery to capital punishment and torture therefore changed radically. B16 has openly wondered if there is such a thing as just war in the modern era.
All this is very bad news for every Catholic whose system is exalted over the human person, including the death penalty advocate. At the end of the day, what they really want is a world in which diagrams, not persons, are at the center of the Church’s moral thinking. They will never get it now.
It will be fascinating to see whether death penalty advocates, in their lust to save the argument that the Magisterial move to abolish it “overturns Sacred Tradition” will likewise condemn the Church for declaring slavery gravely and intrinsically immoral. I hope they are not that dumb, but if there is one thing I have learned about conservative dissent, it has the worst judgment on the planet.