Temporal Gospel

In the modern lexicon, the phrase ‘gospel’ means something that is undeniably true. But does truth change over time?

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.

3 thoughts on “Temporal Gospel”

  1. Yo Mr. Behan,

    Leaving to one side the nonsense inherent in the notion of ‘eternal verities’ (or the doctrine of infallibility, for that matter – a whole other frontier which wisely the Church is chivvying out the back door and quietly forgetting about) and leaving entirely to one side the utter poverty of any credibility in which the beggarman Church of Rome comes knocking at our door….

    Mary McAleese taught me criminology and penology in the 1970’s. The conclusion of her project was thoroughly and unashamedly Marxist – property is crime – and as for penology, thoroughly dismissive. The various theories: revenge; retribution; deterrence; prevention (by incarceration or obliteration through death or other objectification and nullifying ‘treatment’): none of the theories (and there were probably others that I have forgotten) justified any sanction of any kind and could not be demonstrated to work. I think deterrence had some good outings, but failed unless the sanction was administered instantaneously, and this was rendered impossible by the practical consequences of offering due process.

    I realise your focus is on the mobility of dogma, and not the particular topic of any dogma of which capital punishment is only a recent example, but thought the insincerity of the Church’s past teaching in this, as in so many areas really does make it impossible to treat seriously any pronouncements that it utters.


    1. I don’t disagree Kev. What’s fascinating however are the knots the theologians twist themselves in, in order that they persist the contemporary relevance of the church, and navigate this tension between conservatism and liberalism. In Protestantism too, the Lutheran position (everything I do is a mortal sin / free will is a myth / God pre-selects the saved) had to constantly battle against nascent nihilism, because it was a self-defeating kind of philosophy. If I’m already saved, can I go off and murder people for the rest of my days? No, say the theologians, that’s not how it works; God only saves you because it’s already baked in that you’re not going to do that. This is the temporal problem rearing its head again; God is beyond time, but we’re stuck in it. If you thought Catholic theology was mad, the protestants are asking you to hold their beer: theirs is the mobius strip of modern theologies!

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