Some conservatives are huffing and puffing about Pope Francis’ statement disallowing the death penalty. They are raging against his over reach or they are biting their nails over the idea that “if he can change this he can change anything!!!” They’re wondering “What next? Does this mean cafeteria Catholics were right? We can pick and choose after all?”

No you can’t pick and choose. You have to be 100% Catholic. However, there is a hierarchy of truth and practice. There are some things that are not optional. There are others that should be received with faith, good will and obedience and there are some teachings and practices that are optional.

The Catechism has this to say about it:

 “In Catholic doctrine there exists an order or hierarchy of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith.”

For the sake of discussion we can distinguish between dogma, doctrines, disciplines, prudential judgements and devotions.

Dogma is a belief that is taught de fide. This is a divinely revealed truth of the first order that a Catholic must hold to. The Virgin Birth, the Incarnation etc. must be accepted fully by Catholics

A doctrine is a worthy teaching of the church that is not of the first order of revelation or which may still be under discussion or which has not been fully defined. The invalidity of Anglican orders is an example, as is the belief in Mary as Co-Redemptrix. We are to accept doctrines with good will and in a spirit of faith even though they are not of the first order.

Disciplines include the ordinary moral teaching of the church to which we are to “receive with religious assent.” The moral teachings of the first order, like the dogmas, are given directly from the Lord.

Prudential judgements are applications of the  the moral teachings–usually on social issues. We are to receive these with an open heart and mind, but they are not binding. The pope’s teachings on environmentalism or economics for example, are not of the same order as the moral teaching against murder and adultery.

Devotions are the rules of prayer, worship and Christian life that are optional and vary from place to place and individual to individual and which can be altered by the proper church authority.

I have written is a popular expression of the church’s teaching. For an excellent and more technical explanation go here.

So how does this apply to the pope’s decision about the death penalty?

My friend Fr Jay Scott Newman has given me permission to publish a letter which sums things up nicely:

Dear Friends in Christ,

A letter was published in Rome today which announced the modification of one paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and headlines around the world proclaimed that Pope Francis had changed Catholic doctrine on the death penalty. This, of course, is not what happened, and I write to you to explain what did take place.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church contains 2865 numbered paragraphs which cover an astounding array of subjects in a format that is part dictionary and part encyclopedia. The Catechism was published in 1992 to assist Catholics in understanding the Gospel more deeply and living the Gospel more faithfully, and it is offered as a compendium of Catholic teaching on faith and morals for that purpose.

Within the Catechism there are many levels of doctrine bearing different levels of authority and calling for different kinds of responses. For example, when the Catechism teaches something revealed by God in Holy Scripture or defined dogmatically by the Church’s solemn teaching under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then the response called for by Catholics is divine faith. But when the Catechism states what the Church believes about prudential matters, then the response called for is not divine faith but respectful attention by all Catholics to what the Church asks and why she asks it.

This means that if a Catholic rejects a doctrine that must be believed because it has been revealed by God, then the one who rejects that teaching is no longer a Catholic. But if a Catholic has given respectful attention to a prudential intervention of the Church in a matter of public policy but reaches a different conclusion than the one reached by our bishops, then that person remains a faithful Catholic and has not in any way damaged his or her communion with the Church. A good example of the first kind of teaching is our belief that the Lord Jesus has no human father and is the Eternal Word made flesh, and a good example of the second kind of teaching is that we should no longer use the death penalty as a judicial punishment. All Catholics should give this teaching respectful attention, but that doctrine does not bind the conscience of anyone, including Catholics.

Pope Francis has modified paragraph 2267 of the Catechism which is found in the discussion of the Fifth Commandment in the context of respect for human life and the requirements of legitimate defense for both individual persons and entire societies. The letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which announced this change explains that Pope Francis is building upon the development of doctrine which began under Pope Saint John Paul II and continued under Pope Benedict, and the explanation makes clear that the Church is not teaching that capital punishment is intrinsically immoral but rather that the circumstances of modern life now make it unnecessary and counterproductive. Moreover, because of the many dangers to respect for human life and the dignity of the human person, it seems better today that we should affirm the right to life of every person from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death and therefore set aside the abstract right of society to use capital punishment as a measure of last resort.

In summary, do not be dismayed or misled by the headlines which scream that Pope Francis has fundamentally changed a doctrine of the Catholic Church. He has not done that, and such a thing is an impossibility. To understand what did happen today, I encourage you to read the letter from the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and give it respectful attention. You may or may not be persuaded by the arguments given, and that is fine. But everyone should see this one small dimension of respect for human life in the context of the much larger picture of the Church’s desire that we should heed the Law of Love in every part of our lives, including the Fifth Commandment: You shall not kill.

What is my opinion? I think the pope’s decision is a good one from a moral point of view and I am glad he made the decision. For the reasons Fr Newman has stated I don’t think this is a watershed moment. I do have concerns about the philosophical foundation of this prudential judgement which I wrote about yesterday here and since the moral decision and philosophical foundations should not clash I wish certain elements of the decision were re-phrased and clarified, but we know clarity is not really one of Pope Francis’ strong points.

Once again I’ll recommend Feser and Bessette’s recent book on the subject: By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed