Saturday, March 7, 2015

Brief Thoughts on Invoking the 2004 Memorandum of Cardinal Ratzinger

As the debates on the decision about four Catholic publications (the orthodox National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor and the heterodox National Catholic Reporter and America) rage on, I see a new tactic used by proponents of the death penalty to give credibility to their position. This tactic is to cite the 2004 memorandum issued by then Cardinal Ratzinger concerning the issue of the worthiness of Catholics to receive the Eucharist who support certain policies contrary to Catholic teaching.

The history of this memorandum is relevant for the discussion. In 2004, the Catholic John Kerry was running for President. There was a lot of publicity over the question of whether he (and his Catholic supporters) should be denied Communion on account of his support for abortion and euthanasia. A counter charge arose that Catholics who supported the death penalty or the war in Iraq (in other words, the supporters of President George W. Bush) were also going against Church teaching.

In response, then Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that one had to keep the proper perspective. When it came to Church teaching, certain things involved intrinsic evil (that is, things that are always considered evil and can never be justified by motives or circumstances), while other things could be made wrong because of bad motives or circumstances.

So after pointing out that issues like abortion and euthanasia fell under the category of intrinsic evil, the cardinal wrote:

3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

So, if an individual disagrees with the Pope on whether a certain application of war or capital punishment is warranted that person is not committing a sin that requires them to refrain from receiving Holy Communion. There is a legitimate diversity of opinion. However, when it comes to abortion or euthanasia, that is not a place where individuals can disagree.

So, this is common sense when you think about it. When it comes to issues involving intrinsic evil, there is never a justification to do such an act. Therefore when it comes to torture, abortion, euthanasia, homosexual acts and the like, no diversity of opinion can exist—a person who supports these things is supporting what must be called evil and is in opposition to Our Lord and His Church.

But on the other hand, the Church recognizes that there can be circumstances and motives for war or capital punishment which are legitimate. These things are not in and of themselves evil. They are to be condemned when the circumstances or motives are wrong however. 

In other words, there can never be a just abortion, but there can be a just war. So far, so good.

The problem I have with the citation of this memorandum at this time is that some people are interpreting it in such a way as to say to the magisterium of the Church...

There can be diversity of opinion over the question over whether a particular case of war or capital punishment is just or unjust, but there can’t be a diversity of opinion over the principles which are used to assess what makes them just or unjust. Hence, the principles of just war must be kept in mind. For example, no Catholic living in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s could call their nation’s actions in the Second World War a just war. On the other hand, during the Gulf War, there were Catholics who applied the same teachings on just war and arrived at opposite conclusions. There was no rejection of the principles of just war—just a dispute whether they applied to this case.

(Personal disclosure. At this time, I believed the war was just, so Cardinal Ratzinger’s memorandum was a relief as I was struggling with the Pope’s words. Now, I believe St. John Paul II was right when he warned us about what we were getting into, and I wish I had understood it then).

Now, when it comes to capital punishment, I fear some people are missing the point and confusing the principles and the application. For a principle, we have the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. (2306)


If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.


Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

That’s a principle. When non-lethal means are sufficient, the authorities will use these means, and in this day and age, the cases where non-lethal means are necessary are “practically non-existent.” So the person who focuses on whether or not the person “deserves it,” or thinks it should be used to “send a message,” are going against this principle.

(Personal disclosure II: I used to support the death penalty, and had to struggle for years to understand this teaching before I could accept this as anything more than “I have to do this.” Again, I wish I had understood St. John Paul II’s teaching then).

So when it comes to Jihadi John or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the consideration over the death penalty can’t be the magnitude of their crimes or what effect it will have on terrorism. It has to ask whether non-lethal means are sufficient to “defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor.” If it is, then the principle of Catholic teaching, as applied today, requires us to use a non-lethal means of punishment.

As long as we accept this principle, there can be legitimate diversity of opinion over whether or not this case meets the requirement of being the “only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” But if we don’t accept this principle, if we write it off as being a political view instead of a teaching of the Church, then these views are not legitimate diversity, but rejecting of the teaching authority of the Church.

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