In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the late Pope John Paul II defended capital punishment, ‘…to redress the disorder caused by the offence’. While the pontiff considered the problem ‘in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity,’ it was heavily caveated; it was an almost reluctant accession to conservatism. Nevertheless, ‘[p]ublic authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime,’ the pope wrote. Within two years, however, it was no longer church teaching. The update in 1997 to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, while recognising that the death penalty had long been considered appropriate on the part of legitimate authority, that was no longer the case. ‘Today,’ the Catechism goes at section 2267, ‘there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.’ In 2020, Pope Francis cemented the position of the Church in the encyclical Fratelli Tutti. ‘There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that “the death penalty is inadmissible” and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide,’ Pope Francis writes in section 263. How could an institution so committed to dogma, doctrine, and a unitary truth shift so dramatically in such a short period of time?
The Magisterium of the Church is the guardian of Church teaching, and is the sole body responsible for the interpretation of the Word of God. Conservatives in the Church have long taken the general position that there’s nothing new – there’s never anything new! – in the Church, because the Gospel is just that – gospel! Liberals on the other hand look to interpretation and old texts to move the Church forward. Nevertheless the Magisterium is theoretically unmoving. But the language of the documents referenced above is interesting, even if in translation. There is now ‘an increasing awareness’; ‘a new understanding has emerged’. In Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti, he quotes several passages from scripture and theological writings to support the position, including Lactantius, Pope Nicholas I and Augustine, evidence perhaps of new interpretations enabling the church to move forward. This battle between dogma and progressiveness perhaps reveals a more essential character of faith and theology: that claims to truth are fundamentally temporal in nature. This means that they are subject to physical time, and of this world.
I wrote before about Richard Rorty and his distinction between ‘the world is out there’ and ‘the truth is out there’, and his contention that a detached truth, independent of the human subject, was essentially absurd (as I understand his position). Part of both Francis and John Paul’s positions in rejecting the death penalty refers to modern methods and techniques. Pope John Paul II refers to the fact that ‘more effective systems of detention have been developed’, while Pope Francis refers to modern media and tendencies (in particular towards revenge) which are in some sense novel. In essence, it seems to me, the position of the church acknowledges to some degree a necessary contemporary dialogue, an engagement with the world of today within which to situate ‘The Truth’, which therefore becomes less absolute in itself. That the Word of God somehow retains within it an expectation for future temporal context and a variability of interpretation to accommodate changes for example in technology appears to me a possible theological device, though it is, to say the least, stretching it.
This also of course – perhaps inevitably, given the extent to which I am taken by his writing – brings us back to Deleuze, and his concept of philosopher-as-ontology-maker. In order to understand the world, we need to agree on its basic concepts, in our time. The idea of ‘inherited ontologies’ – as with absolute dogma, or persistent doctrine – is strained by time, inviting innovation, controversy, and heresy. Hence we constantly reinvent ourselves, we redefine ourselves, we re-identify ourselves, and so what it means to be human changes over time.
Much of this latest consideration of theology, and in particular Christian theology, was stimulated by an awareness that many modern philosophers that I’ve read began in Christian theology and grew from there; similarly, both Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben ground their political and economic theologies respectively in a distinctly Christian foundation. My own Catholic upbringing doubtless influences my own thinking profoundly. To that end I have just completed the excellent History of Christian Theology by Dr Philip Cary, and I strongly recommend it to those who have an interest in the domain, but no formal training.