Capital punishment no longer an option as Pope Francis changes the Catechism

o-DEATH-PENALTY-facebookSister Helen Prejean, renowned American anti-death penalty advocate, called it “the last remaining loophole in Catholic teaching on the death penalty”: the paragraph in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which allowed the death penalty, if only when it was “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor”. Par. 2267 continued by stating that, if there are other and bloodless means of defence against an aggressor, these should always be used instead of the death penalty.

Yesterday Pope Francis changed this paragraph, and it now states that the death penalty is inadmissable in all circumstances.

The full text of the new paragraph 2267 is as follows:

catechism-of-the-catholic-church2628lg“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, 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.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”,[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

[1] Francis, Address to Participants in the Meeting organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, 11 October 2017: L’Osservatore Romano, 13 October 2017, 5.

With the press release came a letter from Cardinal Luis Ladaria, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addressed to the world’s bishops. He explains how the changes to the Catechism are rooted in past teachings of the Magisterium, especially Pope St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitæ, and teachings from Pope Benedict XVI and Francis himself. The cardinal therefore concludes:

“All of this shows that the new formulation of number 2267 of the Catechism expresses an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium. These teachings, in fact, can be explained in the light of the primary responsibility of the public authority to protect the common good in a social context in which the penal sanctions were understood differently, and had developed in an environment in which it was more difficult to guarantee that the criminal could not repeat his crime.”

In his blog, canon lawyer Bishop Jan Hendriks explains why past teachings, which did allow for the death penalty to be implemented, do no invalidate this new text:

“The reason lies in a greater awareness of human dignity and the various developments in society which make it no long necessary to implement the death penalty to protect citizens. That was also the reason why Pope John Paul II could hardly imagine the death penalty to be necessary, as the Catechism has stated since 1995: the state has such good means that the cases in which the death penalty is necessary to neutralise the aggressor are very rare, if they even occur. The new text takes a further step and unequivocally states that it is no longer necessary to implement the death penalty, and that a greater awareness of human dignity makes this even more inadmissable.”

Is this change as major as some media would have us believe? Yes and no.

Yes, because it is evidence that the Church has the luxury to say that capital punishment is no longer a necessity, no matter how rare. Past reasons for a state to kill a person are no longer valid, as there are other ways in which society can be protected from dangerous people.

And no, because it is a logical consequence of the pro-life position of the Church. Every person is created and willed by God and as such has an innate dignity which we must respect. Among other things that means that we have no right to take a life. This is a position that the Church has always held, even when it allowed for certain situations in which capital punishment was the only resort. The death penalty as such is always sinful. But, being also practical, the Church knows that sometimes there are no ideal solutions.

But that no longer flies. As Catholics we are pro-life, even if that life belongs to a murderer or other criminal.

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Hidden dangers – Bishops of Belgium on decriminalising abortion

logo bc_0As Belgian politics are once more on the verge of discussing the topic of abortion and whether or not it should be decriminalised, the bishops of Belgium warn against the risks of doing so. Their concerns are not unrealistic, as recent developments in other countries have shown. The slippery slope of further liberalisation, actively sought out or not, is real, When abortion comes to be seen as a right, the room to disagree, to conscientiously object, starts to disappear. The bishops write that there are only ever losers in these cases, especially when abortion is considered as a normal procedure.

“In our country, abortion has been legalised under certain circumstances for quite some time now. Several proposal have now been presented to the Belgian parliament to completely depenalise abortion. Current practice will perhaps not change much because of it, but it is nonetheless a serious decision with a strong symbolic meaning. The opinions on the termination of pregnancy will fundamentally change. And the consequences are significant. Hence, we ask ourselves questions. These are questions which transcend ideological boundaries.

In a democracy the criminal code guarantees the protection of human dignity and the physical integrity of every person. Can this protection be disregarded when it is about human life developing before birth? The life that many people desire, which many protect and fight for, for which medicine makes the greatest progress, that precious life. Why should that life in its earliest beginnings not be protected as if it isn’t life yet?

Abortion will never become commonplace. Not even when it is removed from the criminal code. It will never become a normal ‘operation’. It will never happen gladly. There are only ever losers. Certainly, circumstances can make people desperate and hopeless. Exactly then man is so distraught en lonely. If the law would then only suggest that it is a normal operation, no justice is done to what those involved experience and go through. Why then look for advice or assistance? The requests themselves run the risk of not being taken seriously from the start. It will only increase the desperation and loneliness.

That is the danger we wish to point out: when abortion is removed from the criminal code, there is the risk that it becomes a normal medical intervention like any other. It is no longer an infraction in those cases provided for by the law. It becomes a right. Those questioning it or refusing abortion, will then have to justify themselves. And that is true for both the doctor and the woman involved. Even when the clause of freedom of conscience is maintained, it will be able to be invoked increasingly less. A medical intervention requires a medical decision, after all, and not so much a decision of conscience.

Our society increasingly struggles with everything that blocks our plans, with everything that disrupts our way of life. That goes for people who are old or sick, for people with physical disabilities, for the poor, strangers or refugees coming to us. It is also true for unborn life. In his encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis says that this is all connected: “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away” (n. 120).”

Cardinal Jozef De Kesel and the bishops of Belgium

By acknowledging that abortion is never considered gladly, never becomes normal, and that those seeking it out are often desperate, seeing no other option, the bishops show the way in how to deal with such situations. Not by presenting abortion as just another medical operation, but by acknowledging the pain and loneliness felt by the people involved, and by finding new ways of alleviating that. Not by killing an innocent person, but by standing with the parent or parents (because too often the mother stands alone in these situations).

 

Seventeen years in the see of Boniface – Heinz-Josef Algermissen retires

It couldn’t have come on a more fitting day for the Diocese of Fulda. On 5 June they celebrated the feast day of their patron St. Boniface, which was celebrated over the weekend with the annual Bonifatius Fest which drew some 8,000 visitors, among them the bishop of that other diocese closely linked to St Boniface: Msgr. Ron van den Hout of Groningen-Leeuwarden.

Algermissen2On the same 5th of June it was announced this had been the last such day presided over by Bishop Heinz Joshistef Algermissen. That was not unexpected, as the bishop reached the age of 75 in February, and there was no reason to assume that his retirement would not be accepted within the following months. Bishop Algermissen led the Diocese of Fulda since 2001. Before that he served as an auxiliary bishop of Paderborn for five years.

The Diocese of Fulda, which traces its origins to the establishment of a monastery by the aforementioned St. Boniface in 744. In 751 the monastery became an abacy nullius under the direct responsibility of the Holy See, making the abbots independent from the local bishops. The prosperity of the abbacy grew, in 1220 it became an abbey-principality, and in 1752 it became a diocese in its own right, taking the name of Fulda. Over the subsequent centuries its borders were changed repeatedly, gaining territory in 1821 and 1929, and losing it in 1930 and 1973. The last change was a reflection of Cold War reality: parts of Fulda had been under Communist rule since the end of World War II, and in 1973 those parts, as well as parts of the Diocese of Würzburg, became a separate apostolic administration: Erfurt-Meiningen. In 1994 this became the Diocese of Erfurt.

Karte_Bistum_FuldaToday, the Diocese of Fulda covers the northerns and eastern parts of the Land of Hesse, a small part of Thuringia and and exclave in Bavaria. Within its 10,318 square kilometres live some 400,000 Catholics a little of 20% of the entire population. It remains a pilgrimage site because of St. Boniface’s wish to be buried there, instead of in Mainz or Utrecht. He had been killed in the Frisian swamps near what is now Dokkum in the Netherlands (hence the connection to the the Diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, hinted at above). With the acceptance of the retirement of Bishop Algermissen, and until the catedral chapter has chosen a diocesan administrator, Bishop Karlheinz Diez leads the diocese. He is Fulda’s sole auxiliary, making him the automatic choice for the role.

During his years in office, Bishop Algermissen had a clear eye on the future, creating 43 parish communities in ten deaneries by 2006, and in 2017 he created the strategy for the next decades until 2030. “When many today see an ever denser curtain blocking heaven from view and when the emancipation from God becomes a program, we are urgently called to establish a countermovement,” the bishop declared.

Commenting in Bishop Algermissen’s retirement, Cardinal Reinhard Marx expressed his gratitude for his service and hospitality (the German bishops meet in Fulda for their autumn plenary meetings), but also referred to his pro-life stance: “Regarding your work, I emphasise the special attention to unborn and dying life: protecting life from beginning to end has, also in public debates, always been a heartfelt concern for you.”

Bishop Algermissen was  a member of the Liturgy Commission and the Ecumenism Commission in the German Bishops’ Conference. He was vice-president of the latter commission.

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At last weekend’s Bonifatiusfest, a toast from Groningen-Leeuwarden canon Fr. Paul Verheijen to Bishop Algermissen (Credit: R. Leupolt)

The election of the new bishop follows the usual rules laid down in the Concordat between Prussia and the Holy See of 1929: the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Nikola Eterovic, requests suggestions for the new bishop from the dioceses covering the former territory of Prussia and sends these to the pope. The pope, or rather the Congregation for Bishops, and following the collection of further information on the candidates by the nuncio, selects his three favoured candidates, and this list is then sent to the cathedral chapter, who elect their new bishop from that list. After approval from the governments of, in this case, Hesse and Thuringia, the cathedral chapter sends the name of the elected to the pope, who then appoints him. Following the publication of the name of the new bishop, a date for consecration (if the new appointee is not a bishop yet) and installation. The consecration of the new bishop falls to the metropolitan of the Church province of which Fulda is a part: Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker of Paderborn. Before this, however, the new bishop makes an oath of loyalty to the German state and the Länder of Hesse and Thuringia.

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^On the day that Bishop Algermissen retired, the newly-appointed bishop of Würzburg, Msgr. Franz Jung, made his oath of loyalty to the prime minister of Bavaria, Markus Söder. Bishop-elect Jung will be consecrated and installed on 10 June. (Credit: Markus Hauck (POW))

Against Limburg bishop, Catholic conservatives aim, shoot and completely miss the mark

csm_Portrait-Bischof-Baetzing-im-Bischofsgarten_int_20f2d8ef34Flyers, an online petition, a banner in front of his residence, security measures at Mass… What has Bishop Georg Bätzing done to warrant such an outpouring of protest? Well, according to reports by Katholisch.de he has done nothing more than correct a mistake made by a local parish community.

In November, the community of Hochtaunus in the Diocese of Limburg  was revealed to feature a PDF-file of contact addresses for ‘people in need’ on their website. Among these was a Lutheran charity which assists people in the first bureaucratic steps towards procuring an abortion.

Following this revelation, the diocese had the address removed immediately from the list, as abortion is, of course, completely incompatible with the Catholic faith. Nonetheless, Bishop Bätzing is now being accused of directly promoting the murder of children in the womb. Diocesan spokesman Stephan Schnelle rightly condemns this accusation as “nonsense” and “perfidious”. The diocese is now taking legal action against web portal Katholische.info, which has set up the online petition against the bishop* and continues making the accusations against him, as well as to others who can be held accountable for the aforementioned protests (it is, for example, as yet unclear who actually erected the banner in front of Msgr. Bätzing’s home).

Obviously, katholisches.info was right in pointing out that the charity on the Hochtaunus list provided services which are incompatible with Catholic teachings regarding the dignity of life. While one can wonder how it ever ended up on that list, the diocese acted appropriately in removing it immediately. Asked for a comment, spokesman Schnelle stated back in November, “The protection of life is of the highest priority for the bishop and the diocese”.

The actions against Bishop Bätzing and the Diocese of Limburg are grossly disproportionate. In fact, it does more harm than good to the goal of defending human life, not just to the persons undertaking these actions, but to all who think that killing unborn children is no solution to anything.

*The petition calls for legal action against bishop and diocese. According to German law, the dissemination of advertisements for abortions “for financial benefit or in a grossly offensive manner” is punishable with imprisonment for up to two years or a fine.

New cardinal appointments reveal papal focus

Yesterday, some of the new cardinals created by Pope Francis in his latest two consistories (November 2016 and June 2017) were given their duties in the Roman curia. More than simply an honorary title (although it sometimes is just that), a cardinal is expected to sit on various councils and congregations and so assist the Pope in running the affairs of the world Church. They are expected to be in Rome regularly to facilitate this, which, I imagine, does little to make life easier for some. Cardinal Mario Zenari, for example, serves in daily life as the Apostolic Nuncio to war-torn Syria. He has now been assigned to serve as a member of the Congregation for Oriental Churches as well.

763Among the cardinals in question are Jozef Cardinal De Kesel (at left), archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, and Anders Cardinal Arborelius, bishop of Stockholm. They have been appointed as members of the Dicastery for the Laity, the Family and Life, and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, respectively.

The appointments of both cardinals are logical ones. Cardinal De Kesel has spoken out on numerous occasions on the role of the laity in the Church, and the dignity of human life. His appointment will undoubtedly herald his continued role in the debate about these topics, not least in the context of the Amoris laetitia its interpretation. Cardinal Arborelius has long since been involved with ecumenism, which is unavoidable in a country like Sweden. The Catholic Church is small but growing and has to relate to the secular society of the country and its Lutheran background.

The dicastery to gain the largest number of new members is the Dicastery for Integral Human Development. With five members (Cardinals Patrick D’Rozario (Dhaka, Bangeldesh), Maurice Piat (Port-Louis, Mauritius), John Ribat (Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea), Louis-Marie Ling Mangkhanekhoun (Vientiane, Laos) and Gregorio Rosa Chávez (auxiliary of San Salvador, El Salvador), all from Pope Francis’ favoured ‘peripheries’, it perhaps shows the importance he attaches to the dicastery which he established at the start of this year.

Photo credit: Reuters

 

Bishop de Korte’s election advice – the problems of voting Catholic in the Netherlands

While bishops usually tend to avoid giving voting advice, at least when it comes to specific parties, Bishop Gerard de Korte of ‘s-Hertogenbosch recently did do so on a personal title. In an interview with Katholiek Nieuwsblad he said,

bisschop-de-korte“As bishops we realise that you can’t say that, if you are Catholic, there is a single party to vote for. From a Catholic perspective, something can be said in favour of all parties.”

But the bishop makes one exception to this rule. Geert Wilders’ PVV, which has ideas which are “contrary to the Catholic idea about a just society. They way that they pit populations against one another, abandon the freedom the religion, attack the rule of law – “fake parliament”, “fake judges”… These are things that should make us very reserved.”

The PVV continues to score in the opinion polls, also among Catholics, and Bishop de Korte’s remarks have had their share of criticism. But while the bishop’s comments focussed on the positives to be found in irtually all parties, the criticism focussed on those elements in party’s programs which are incompatible with Catholic teaching. How, critics asked, could any Catholic in good conscience vote for a party which promotes anti-life measures such as abortion and euthanasia? As I mentioned in my recent article for The Catholic Herald, only two parties, both Christian, are pro-life: the Christian Union and the SGP, although it must be added that the PVV is at least hesitant about further liberalisation on these topics.

This is a valid criticism, and a Catholic vote must take the position of parties on these (and other) topics seriously. But Bishop de Korte is not saying that all positions of all parties, except those of the PVV, should be supported by Catholics. On the contrary, he merely acknowledges that all parties promote positive aspects which a Catholic can get behind, while, although he does not say so explicitly, they may also support things a Catholic should oppose. There is no clear black or white when it comes to casting a Catholic vote in these elections.

pvv-logo-560x190Why single out the PVV, then? Are their positions more abhorent than those of other parties? The tone of their way of doing politics is certainly not one we should promote, and their singling out of parts of the population and disrespect for the rule of law when it does not agree with their positions are indeed problematic. For Bishop de Korte these seem to be decisive factors. For others, like myself, the respect for life (both born and unborn) may be equally decisive, and in that context the left-wing parties such as GroenLinks and SP are just as undeserving of my vote. Singling out the PVV is too simplistic: no party is perfect, and when you say that  “something can be said in favour of all parties,” an honest reading wil also show that that includes the PVV.

Bishop de Korte gave a personal opinion, the reasoning of which I do not fully agree with, although I share his decision not to vote for the PVV. But that is my opinion. Others may reach another conclusion in good conscience, based on the priorities they focus on. As long as it impossible to cast a vote which is in full agreement with Catholic teaching, this is the situation we are stuck with.

An archbishop’s first tempest

de keselLess then two months in, Archbishop Jozef De Kesel weathered his first true storm these past few days, as his comments about the freedom of Catholic hospitals to refuse performing euthanasia led to strong criticism, even from politicians.

In an interview last Saturday, the archbishop was asked what he thought about freedom of choice in matters of abortion and euthanasia. He answered:

“I can understand that someone with a secular view of life has no problems with it. But it is not evident from my faith. I think I am allowed to say that, and what’s more: I also think that we have the right, on an institutional level, to decide not to do it. I am thinking, for example, of our hospitals. You are not free to choose if there is only one option.”

Critics then accused Archbishop De Kesel of disregarding the law in Belgium and urging others, namely Catholic hospitals, to do the same. But others, among them politicians, lawyers and legal experts, soon countered that no such thing was the case. They pointed out that the law does not create a right to be euthanised or have an abortion performed. Institutions, parliamentary documents indicate, are free to refuse such life-ending measures within their walls. However, their obligation to offer all the necessary medical care available does include the option of referral to other institutions or persons who do offers euthanasia or abortion. This is problematic from a Catholic point of view, but that is not what the hubbub was about. Archbishop De Kesel was correct in his statement that institutions should be free to make the choice to not end the lives of their patients.

Even before his appointment to Brussels, Archbishop De Kesel has been criticised for his perceived lack of support for the Catholic doctrines regarding the sanctity of all life. At his installation, there were protesters in front of the cathedral emphasising just this.*

Some said that the archbishop should have used the occasion to say that no Catholic institution can offer to end a life, be it unborn or elderly (or otherwise deemed unsuited to live). And unequivocal statements like that remain necessary, especially in a society where euthanasia and abortion are considered normal medical procedures and even part of a person’s rights. On the other hand, it will not always be effective to do so. The interview in question focusses on the person of the archbishop, and his experiences and thoughts, rather than official Catholic teaching. Of course the latter gets a look in, and a bishop can’t go and deny or ignore it when it does, and Archbishop De Kesel doesn’t. He sheds his personal light on it, not that of the official magisterium. And more often than not, these two overlap (about priestly celibacy, for example, he says: “I am not opposed to celibacy. I think it can be very useful, and personally I have never had the idea that I was a loser or that I missed something because I am celibate. Married people also miss all kinds of things. It is simply a matter of choice”).

Of course, bishops and priests (and lay Catholics, for that matter) must take care not to keep the pendulum on the side of personal experiences and thoughts alone. In the end, a bishop has the duty to teach and communicate the faith that has been taught and communicated to him, regardless of what he personally thinks of it.

In the context of this question, it is clear that the Church opposes the killing of people, no matter the situation. That includes abortion and euthanasia. Persons or institutions calling themselves Catholic are obliged to uphold this. Archbishop De Kesel has said that they should be free to do so, and the law supports this. The Church does not oblige non-Catholics to follow her teachings (although she greatly hopes and desires for them do so).

Archbishop Jozef De Kesel is in the spotlight, now that he is the primus inter pares of the Belgian Church, and that can be both positive and negative. He is experiencing much the same things as his predecessor, Archbishop Léonard, when he took up the job.

*This makes me wonder: why are we always looking at prelates and other Church officials to vocally defend life, when it is clear what the Church teaches? Why only them and not us? Are we less Catholic? Are we somehow less obliged to uphold the sanctity of life? I think that if we take our own responsibility (and not just in these matters either) in defending our faith, we would soon discover the bishops and priests, that we now look towards with expectation, at our side.