Is Pope Francis changing church teachings before our eyes? (ANALYSIS)

San Quentin death chamber

San Quentin death chamber

(RNS) Of all the many questions Pope Francis has raised in his brief papacy, perhaps none is as insistent, or as crucial to his legacy, as the debate over whether he represents a real change in the church.

Critics who look at the gushing reception for the pontiff -- much in evidence during this visit to the U.S., the pope’s first -- say that while he has changed the tone of the papacy, he hasn’t done anything to change church teachings. And that, they say, is where the rubber hits the road.

Yet on two issues, Francis may have provided some answers during this visit, though the import of his comments received little attention amid the blanket coverage of everything from his embrace of a young immigrant girl to his decision to ride in a modest Fiat instead of an armored limo.

The first concerns the death penalty.

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In his address to Congress on Thursday (Sept. 24), Francis covered a range of issues that sparked much discussion. Almost overlooked amid the clamor of the historic moment was his call “for the global abolition of the death penalty.”

To be sure, that a pope is against the state executing someone may not seem like news; previous popes have often decried the injustice of the death penalty, in the U.S. and elsewhere, and have made personal pleas for the commutation of the death sentences for some convicts.

After a sweeping revision of the church’s official catechism in the 1990s, St. John Paul II had the section on the death penalty amended to narrow, though not entirely close, the possibility of capital punishment, saying the cases in which a prisoner must be executed “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

But since he was elected in 2013, Francis has gone a step further.

In March he declared that capital punishment today “is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.” It “contradicts God’s plan for man and society,” and he said, “there is no humane way of killing another person.” (For good measure, he added that even life sentences are “a hidden death penalty” that should also be abolished.)

A number of critics have argued that “the Catholic Church’s Magisterium has never has advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty,” as the Rev. C. John McCloskey, a prominent conservative commentator, put it.

McCloskey is right. But the line that Francis is taking on the death penalty may simply mean that church doctrine in that regard is changing, or “developing,” as the theologians prefer to frame it.

Despite the popular image of the Catholic Church as “semper idem,” always the same, the church is also constantly evolving, and over the centuries several teachings have flat-out changed.

The most recent example was Rome’s endorsement, during the Second Vatican Council, of the principle of religious freedom, which a century earlier had been officially declared anathema.

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A second example of developing doctrine may have emerged in Francis’ address to the United Nations General Assembly on Friday.

In the first papal letter dedicated to the environment, Pope Francis uses a tone of prophetic urgency to describe climate change as “a global problem with grave implications” and one that requires a “bold cultural revolution” in mankind’s thinking. Photo courtesy of Carmel Communications

In the first papal letter dedicated to the environment, Pope Francis uses a tone of prophetic urgency to describe climate change as “a global problem with grave implications” and one that requires a “bold cultural revolution” in mankind’s thinking. Photo courtesy of Carmel Communications

As expected, the pope made protecting the environment a central theme, picking up on his groundbreaking and controversial encyclical from June, "Laudato Si’."

That encyclical was the first by a pope devoted to the environment and in particular climate change. But Francis had in fact picked up on themes and statements elaborated by St. John Paul II and to a greater extent those of his immediate predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who was known as the “green pope” for his eco-friendly stances.

Francis, however, seemed to take Benedict’s teachings even further.

The anticipation of that encyclical prompted Notre Dame theologian Robin Darling Young to wonder whether Francis would declare that “created nature -- the environment -- has rights of its own.”

“Such a view on the part of the pope,” she wrote in Commonweal magazine, “would be a significant development in Catholic thinking about the inherent worth of creation apart from the humans who dominate it.”

The encyclical itself did indeed seem to be, as the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, put it, “a major contribution to the ongoing unfolding of a body of coherent social teaching.” And writing at Religion News Service, Jay Michaelson called the encyclical “theologically revolutionary.”

But in his speech to the U.N. on Friday, Francis may have provided an even clearer answer about what he is thinking as he declared that “a true ‘right of the environment’ does exist.”

Francis elaborated somewhat on what he meant by that unusual statement, and it made for fascinating, if often dense, reading. (His recasting of the term “pro-life” as one that encompasses care for creation as well as a host of issues beyond abortion is also intriguing and important, but not as significant doctrinally.)

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Late Friday, his spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was asked point-blank by the Tablet's Christopher Lamb whether Francis was indeed developing Catholic social teaching on the environment.

Lombardi confirmed that the pope's language was in fact a “new expression," adding, “there is something new there, yes.”

He also confirmed that the pope's teaching on capital punishment was also a development of doctrine, and he added, referring to Francis' call for a ban on life imprisonment, that "maybe he will also deepen this expression in the future."

Just what Francis’ statements will ultimately mean for Catholic teaching is something the theologians will argue over, because that’s what theologians do, and that’s how doctrine changes -- or is reaffirmed.

Just as many will fiercely resist any suggestion that the church can or should change the teaching on the death penalty. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, for one, says that would be wrong. Many will also resist any suggestion that nature has “rights.”

The bottom line is that if one aspect of church teaching changes it doesn’t mean everything and anything can change. The creed is pretty solid, for example, as are declared dogmas and matters of revealed faith.

But how other doctrines develop is a complex matter; it’s not just about a pope waking up one morning and deciding to switch things up. There must be solid arguments developed over many years, a certain accord with the sense of all the faithful, and the assent of much of the hierarchy as well. Change in the church is about realizing more clearly a truth that already existed.

It’s a process, and it may well be happening again right before our eyes, though it’s hard to detect when everyone is instead looking for a doctrinal change to arrive in the form of some clear and imperious edict from Rome -- and on other teachings. (Good luck with the ordination of women anytime soon.)

Not that Rome likes to admit that the church changes at all, in any form. The Vatican fears the slippery slope, and worries that if the flock realizes that one teaching can be modified then the flock may think anything can change, at any moment.

As church historians like to joke, when an announcement from Rome begins with the preface “As the church has always taught … ,” then you know something is about to change.

Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson



  1. Church teaches have always eventually shifted, generally too late, to suit what is barely acceptable to some portion of the populace. So much for the unchanging word of “god”.

    The horrid and inconsistent Christian dogma is no basis for morality.

    Ask the questions. Break the chains.
    Join the movement. Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.

  2. On the Contrary, the Catholic Church has never changed ANY doctrine, or dogmatic elements of its foundation. What it has done, is adapt the age old principles of the Faith, to address the age it finds itself in.

  3. “The most recent example was Rome’s endorsement, during the Second Vatican Council, of the principle of religious freedom, which a century earlier had been officially declared anathema.” Can you give us a reference to both of these comments?

    Thank you for your assistance, it is appreciated.


  4. Looking at the 5th commandment we should never kill. However, doctrine has always permitted for a person or society to defend themselves if attacked or put in danger by killers. In old times, it was relatively easy to escape prison, hence, the death penalty was used as both deterant to crime and to prevent reoffence in case of prison escape. No question that it was abused many times. Even today.

    Recent popes just explain that given the high security of prisons nowadays, the risk of escape and reoffence is almost 0% rendering the self defence argument mute.

    The doctrine of self defence of self and society remains unchanged, it is just the application given new circumstances that have.

  5. I completely agree. Religious freedom was always àdvocated by the Chuch, except for Satanism (considered anit religion and pure evil) or religions that do not respect that tenant. For instance, if you provide religious freedom to a religion that does not believe in religious freedom then there is a risk of that religion or sect to destroy all others and impose itself.

  6. At the Congress, Pope Francis did not give a speech against killing of the eternally innocent, with abortion, occurring about a million times a year in the US and identified as an intrinsic evil which no Catholic may support.

    He did give a speach against the death penalty, with guilty murderers being executed, about 38 times per year in the US, and identified as a moral sanction, within 2000 years of Catholic teaching and which remains a sanction that any good Catholic can support, which support may extend to calling for more executions, based upon those 2000 years of teachings and the rational, factual conclusion that innocents are more protected when the death penalty is retained and used.

    As Catholic theologian Steven Long places the arrow:

    ” . . . (it) is symptomatic of a society that can garner more support to spare the guilty than to save the innocent.”

    “The crowd still wants Barrabas.” (1).


  7. contd

    Archbishop Charles Chaput: “Both Scripture and long Christian tradition acknowledge the legitimacy of capital punishment . . ..” “The Church cannot repudiate the death penalty) without repudiating her own identity.” “Archbishop Chaput clarifies Church’s stance on death penalty”, CNA, Oct 18, 2005, Chaput is, now, archbishop of Philadelphia

    2105, Pope Francis calls for the end of capital punishment, in all cases and, according to Chaput, disavowing the Church’s identity.

    Saint (& Pope) Pius V, “The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder.” “The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent” (1566).

    Paramount obedience.

    From the newest Catechism

    CCC 2260 “If ANYONE sheds the blood of man, by man SHALL his blood be shed.” “This teaching remains necessary for ALL TIME”


  8. Is Pope Francis changing church teachings before our eyes? Not even close.

    The resurrection con remains as does the absurd beliefs in angels and satan, x-mas, the ascension, the assumption, the immaculate conception, the papacy, original sin, limbo. an all-male, “celibate” clergy and an literal view of the NT even though rigorous historic testing shows it to be only ~20% authentic.

  9. the word is “murder” not kill and that changes the meaning substantially. Issue is one of proportionate justice and may I suggest you spend a few minutes speaking with some detectives who work on investigating capital cases before you make such broad brushed pronouncements. There are certainly cases where it is justified only remaining issue arises from how many on death row are there unfairly convicted.

  10. The Pope seems to forget that keeping jailed for a full life some dangerous psychopathes has a huge price, notwithstanding the mortal risks these men are making to weigh on their room mates, their warders and the people outside in the case they succeed in escaping from jail.
    The RC Chuc until recently always considered that the society has the duty to protect itself and its citizens by all means, including the death penalty. The new stance of the Pope on that issue isn’t “de fide” nor it is endorsed by the papal infallibility. Every catholic is free to disregard it, like he too is free to disregard thE Pope’s opinion on the environmental issues.

  11. Mario, that is incorrect. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that the Vatican came out for religious freedom. Today, it is a staunch and eloquent defender, but it wasn’t always so. Far from it.

  12. Agreed, Jack. I would add that anyone who is a blanket opponent of the death penalty needs to explain why someone like Adolf Hitler, Dr. Josef Mengele, Josef Stalin, or Pol Pot should not be executed if caught and convicted.

    The main reason for the death penalty is that the only penalty appropriate for certain crimes of murder is forfeiture of one’s own life.

  13. Jack,

    Saving Christians from the Infamous Resurrection Con/

    From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15: 14, Paul reasoned, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

    Even now Catholic/Christian professors (e.g.Notre Dame, Catholic U, Georgetown) of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

    From a major Catholic university’s theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

    “Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.

    Jesus and Mary’s bodies are therefore not in Heaven. ”

    “Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. ”

    No bodies, no resurrection, no ascension.


  14. Yes the fruits of Vatican II …The winds of change. Christ was despised by the world. The Vatican II boys loved by the world. Interesting.

  15. Sorry Bernardo, but I don’t have reference to what I wrote, because RNS erased it, apparently through some glitch.

  16. I took them to task for their over-the-top obsession with the Pope — as evidenced by virtually 100% of published articles over the past week on him alone.

    I guess they didn’t take too kindly to that.

  17. Bernardo, that’s just warmed-over Gnosticism, which has little to do with the question of whether Christ did or did not bodily rise from the dead.

    The belief that He did is not some mystical notion, but based on what the apostles themselves witnessed, namely Jesus alive again in a very literal and straightforward way. These were not Hellenistic philosophers, but Jewish fishermen who wrote down (John) or told others who wrote down (Peter) what they witnessed.

    I believe their testimony because it fits with the surrounding facts….all of them….and because skeptics have had 20 centuries to refute it convincingly and have failed spectacularly to do so.

  18. Jack,



    “Since “the higher criticism” of the 19th century, some historians have largely rejected the gospel of John as a reliable source of information about the historical Jesus.[3][4] “[M]ost commentators regard the work as anonymous,”[5] and date it to 90-100.”

    “The authorship has been disputed since at least the second century, with mainstream Christianity believing that the author is John the Apostle, son of Zebedee. Modern experts usually consider the author to be an unknown non-eyewitness, though many apologetic Christian scholars still hold to the conservative Johannine view that ascribes authorship to John the Apostle.”

    And from Professor Gerd Ludemann, in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 416,

    “Anyone looking for the historical Jesus will not find him in the Gospel of John. ”

    continued below:

  19. See See Father Raymond Brown’s epic 800+ page book, An Introduction to the New Testament, for added information on the contemporary conclusions as to the real authors of the NT. Said book has received approval by the RCC.

    For more on the infamous Resurrection con, see Professor Gerd Ludemann’s review in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, (Mark 16) and also

    For more on the infamous Ascension con, see the same book, Luke 24:50-53 and

    So where are the bones???

    According to Professor JD Crossan’s many exhaustive studies, they still are a-mouldering in the ground outside of Jerusalem or were eaten by wild dogs and are now cycling through nature’s recycling system.

  20. False, Greg1. The article specifically states several of the changes to church doctrine. Read it.

    Now, regarding your “faith”, it is based on crazy and false premises; the Jesus-sacrifice story is a steaming pile of nonsense. How is it again that your omnipotent being couldn’t do his saving bit without the whole silly Jesus hoopla? And how was Jesus’ death a “sacrifice”, when an omnipotent being could just pop up a replacement son any time with less than a snap of his fingers? Not only that, but an omnipotent “god” would have known that Jesus wouldn’t really stay dead. That is no sacrifice at all.

    It’s also worth asking why such a claimed wonderfully kind, “god” has to put us through thousands of years of anxious waiting before “saving” us from a flawed life that he supposedly created. The Christian beliefs are just plain ridiculous.

    Ask the questions. Break the chains.
    Join the movement. Be free of Christianity and other superstitions…

  21. Jack forgot to change his name to Shawnie when “she” “replied”…

  22. Thanks to Pope Francis and his way of proceeding – Church is beginning to be dynamic all over again. Praise the Lord.

  23. contd

    . . . the source for which is the Noahic Covenant, Genesis 9:6, an eternal command, for all peoples and all times.


    Pope Francis was expressing, only, his personal opinion, in conflict with the newest Church teaching, which is a limitation on the death penalty, confirmed as a prudential judgement, with which any faithful Catholic may disagree and support more executions (1).


    1) Catholic Church: Problems with Her Newest Death Penalty Position:
    The Catechism & Section 226

    2) Four Catholic Journals Indulge in (anti death penalty) Doctrinal Solipsism, Steven Long, THOMISTICA, March 5, 2015

    3) “Archbishop Chaput clarifies Church’s stance on death penalty”, CNA, Catholic News Agency, Oct 18, 2005. Chaput was then archbishop of Denver, now of Philadelphia

  24. Balogna! So this guy who knows NOTHING about the travails of the innocent (obviously) would let death row and “lifers” out of prison to despicably rape and murder good people—thus condemning THOSE GOOD PEOPLE TO DEATH! Sorry, Mr. Pope. You need to stay within your authority as head of a church, and stay out of politics (and science) which you are not an expert in.

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