Retired Pope Benedict XVI greets Pope Francis at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery at the Vatican, 2013 (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters).

The publication of Pope Francis’s motu proprio Traditionis custodes last summer marked a decisive moment in the history of the reception of the Second Vatican Council. The pope’s concern for the legacy of Vatican II is apparent in the document itself, and even more so in the accompanying cover letter. In essentially revoking Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum pontificum, which gave sweeping permission to celebrate the preconciliar Latin Mass, Francis regretted that his predecessor’s good will had been abused. The “instrumental use” of the preconciliar Mass, according to Francis, “is often characterized by a rejection not only of the liturgical reform, but of the Vatican Council II itself.” The recent motu proprio is in many ways the juridical codification of a position that Pope Francis had already given voice to a number of times. He did so most bluntly in a 2017 speech, describing the liturgical reforms of Vatican II as “irreversible” judgments of “the magisterium” of the Church.

Francis’s recent decisions have greatly intensified accusations that he has repudiated the so-called “hermeneutic of continuity” often attributed to Pope Benedict. In truth, Francis and Benedict are in basic agreement regarding the nature of continuity and change at Vatican II. Despite popular belief, Benedict did not advocate for a stagnant hermeneutic of continuity that seeks to explain away all discontinuity. Rather, he taught that Vatican II should be understood through a “hermeneutic of reform” that includes both continuity and discontinuity, albeit “on different levels.” In his own understanding of the relationship between continuity and change, the Argentinian Jesuit is following the path his Bavarian predecessor described, most clearly, in a 2005 address to the Roman Curia. His words on that occasion will be of interest not only to theologians, but to all Catholics intellectually engaged in their faith. 


In issuing Summorum pontificum in 2007, Benedict hoped that the celebration of what he named the “extraordinary,” or preconciliar, form of the Roman Rite of the Mass would complement the celebration of the “ordinary” postconciliar form. Traditionis custodes makes clear that Francis believes his predecessor’s project has been a failure. It opens with the striking declaration that the conciliar Mass is the “unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.” Francis seems to doubt that it is still possible to break the link between preconciliar liturgy and anti-conciliar theology. At any rate, he has judged that it is no longer prudent to keep trying to do so. 

It is clear that Francis disagrees with Benedict about some important liturgical questions and the best means of reconciling traditionalists with Rome. But has he departed from Benedict’s theological understanding of continuity, discontinuity, and Vatican II? Many of Francis’s critics seem to think so. Fr. Peter Stravinskas, writing in the Catholic World Report this past August, accused Francis of departing from the “hermeneutic of continuity” authoritatively taught by popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI for over thirty years. According to Stravinskas, Francis “has given clear signals for eight years that he holds to the hermeneutic of rupture.” The pope himself thus “calls into question the indefectibility of the Church.” EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo told his millions of viewers that Traditionis custodes revealed a “preferential option for innovation.” To Arroyo, Pope Francis “seems to be saying everything before Vatican II is null and void.” For Arroyo, the foil for Francis’s instability and radicalism was, of course, the always dependable Pope Benedict. 

On Gloria Purvis’s America Media podcast, the Benedictine liturgist Anthony Ruff commented that some “Catholics were misled about the traditional Latin Mass.” It’s a claim that would, and did, infuriate many traditionalists. Ruff’s comment reminded me of the many bitter, shocked, and sometimes sarcastic reactions to the motu proprio that I’ve seen on the internet, reactions expressing not only disappointment but also a sense of betrayal. One could expand on Ruff’s observation, for if some Catholics were misled about the traditional Latin Mass, many of them were also misled about the “hermeneutic of continuity.” The confusion and tumult now afflicting parts of the Catholic Church, especially in the United States, is not only liturgical but also theological and ecclesiological.

Of course, there are many practicing Catholics who are uninterested in these debates. Yet the tide of perplexity and anger rising against the current pontificate is undeniable, and it is rising farthest and fastest among highly engaged American Catholics, many of whom hold ministerial and educational roles. Such Catholics claim to feel a sense of disorientation; they are bracing themselves for what this totally new kind of pope could do next. Such sentiments are expressed not only by peddlers of outrage on YouTube and Twitter, but also by some voices with broader appeal among ordinary Catholics. They thought they knew where they stood, on the firm ground of “continuity,” and now that ground seems to be giving way beneath them. 


The pope’s most ardent supporters and most vehement critics would agree on one thing at least: Francis believes that, under certain circumstances, doctrine can change. His words and actions concerning everything from Vatican II to Amoris laetitia suggest such a position. But the clearest evidence is to be found in his teaching on the death penalty, now reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Does such a perspective not contradict Pope Benedict, the guardian of orthodoxy who censured those who maintained there could be “discontinuity” in Catholic doctrine? 

Catholics pushing a static understanding of Benedict’s “hermeneutic of continuity” should reconsider the extent to which their understanding of doctrinal development is rooted in the thought of the man who wrote these words:

If it is desirable to offer a diagnosis of [Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes] as a whole, we might say that (in conjunction with the texts on religious liberty and world religions) it is a revision of the Syllabus of Pius IX, a kind of countersyllabus.... Let us be content to say that the text serves as a countersyllabus and, as such, represents, on the part of the Church, an attempt at an official reconciliation with the new era inaugurated in 1789. (Principles of Catholic Theology, 1987; originally published in German in 1975)  

If this statement was presented without attribution to theologically informed Catholics, and they were asked to guess the author, then I suspect that Hans Küng or Walter Kasper would receive far more votes than Joseph Ratzinger. At any rate, Ratzinger’s statement would certainly be censured by many traditionalists as self-evidently heretical. Orthodox Catholics, surely, should speak of Pius IX’s teaching being “organically developed”; talk of “revision” and the production of conciliar texts “counter” to previous magisterial documents smacks of liberal Catholicism or, even worse, modernism. 

The confusion and tumult now afflicting parts of the Catholic Church is not only liturgical but also theological and ecclesiological.

And yet the historical record is clear: whatever changes that Ratzinger’s thinking underwent during his long career, he always understood Vatican II reform as involving both continuity and discontinuity. It is easy to see how someone might miss this fact. Ratzinger was certainly well known for his deep frustration with the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture,” a phrase he coined. He sometimes sounded bitter about the state of the postconciliar Church, as in the widely publicized Ratzinger Report (1985). The progressivist paradigm for interpreting and implementing Vatican II was definitely a—if not the—main target for Ratzinger during his long tenure as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981 to 2005. 

By the 1980s, Ratzinger was known to hold that there were basically three positions on Vatican II. Two of them were erroneous and theologically dangerous, even potentially schismatic; only one was orthodox. First, Ratzinger impugned a traditionalist hermeneutic that he associated primarily with Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, the founder of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). Second was a far more popular progressive hermeneutic that saw Vatican II not as reform but as revolution, a totally new beginning. (Some vapid postconciliar Gather hymns I suffered through as a young man sum up this paradigm—e.g. “sing a new Church into being”). Both of these two paradigms were hermeneutics of discontinuity, unorthodox because they posited a break or rupture in the Church’s continuous, Spirit-led journey through history. 

Thus, Ratzinger was understood to believe that Vatican II, if read correctly, did not and could not change doctrine; it could only update pastoral strategies or amend Church discipline. Figures such as First Things editor Richard John Neuhaus, neither a traditionalist nor an enemy of the council, fell into this unhelpful continuity-discontinuity binary. He slammed the Jesuit historian John O’Malley’s What Happened at Vatican II, a moderate and judicious overview of the council that takes seriously both its deep continuities with previous councils and its striking innovations. Neuhaus condemned O’Malley’s work as belonging to the “the Lefebrvrists of the left”: just like SSPX, these progressives believed the council brought “a radical break from tradition” and “in effect, a different Catholicism.” 

Neuhaus’s reaction to O’Malley’s book represented a perspective common among conservative U.S. Catholics, and predominant in many seminaries and campus ministries. Media organizations like EWTN and a host of new apologists and popular speakers often promote this kind of narrative. Surely one of the main reasons that Pope Francis shocked so many American Catholics was that they had been formed by this catechesis of rigid continuity. I was well schooled in this kind of catechesis as a high-school and college student: we Catholics stay the same; the Protestants change. That was the party line. And the secular world changed even more, because it was in thrall to the “dictatorship of relativism.” I recall a meme that summed up this simplistic worldview: a skeleton, sitting on a park bench, above which appeared the words “still waiting for the Catholic Church to change.” This was intended as a boast, not a criticism. When I first explored Vatican II as an undergraduate, I began wondering if I had been misled. Why, if Cardinal Ottaviani’s motto was semper idem (“always the same”), did he lose so many arguments? 


Soon after his election as Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger gave his landmark speech on the nature of continuity and change in the Church. It was his Christmas 2005 address to the Roman Curia. He began by observing that conflicting hermeneutical models are the reason it has been so difficult to implement the council “in large parts of the Church.” He then rehearsed his well-known arguments against the “hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” The alternative, however, he did not call “the hermeneutic of continuity,” but rather the hermeneutic of reform. Indeed, the pope explicitly clarified that reform sometimes includes “discontinuity” alongside continuity, though the two are “on different levels.” Benedict grounded his hermeneutic of reform in the positions of John XXIII and Paul VI, citing Pope John’s famous inaugural speech opening the council in October 1962 and Pope Paul’s concluding address in December 1965. Benedict was thereby claiming continuity with the now-sainted conciliar popes—a subtle but clear reassertion of papal interpretive sovereignty against both progressives and traditionalists. 

Benedict begins his 2005 address by discussing theological anthropology and the Church in the modern world, themes that the council tackled most explicitly in Gaudium et spes. This is one of the documents, along with Nostra aetate (on world religions) and Dignitatis humanae (on religious liberty), that he considered a “countersyllabus” to Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors. It is no coincidence that those now attacking Vatican II—including, sadly, some prelates in full communion with the Church—focus upon these texts. 

Benedict provides context for his “hermeneutic of reform” by identifying a number of questions that emerged in the past several centuries. These questions—scientific, historical, philosophical, and political—demanded responses from the Church that were both practical and theological. “It is clear,” Benedict said, “that in all these sectors, which all together form a single problem, some kind of discontinuity might emerge.” Such discontinuity is a real change, but it is always connected to a deeper continuity of Catholic principles that can never be abandoned. Indeed, “it is precisely in this combination” of continuity and discontinuity that Benedict located “the very nature of true reform.” The pope thus recognized the “contingent” nature of some Church teachings, even some that had been held for centuries. What he calls an “innovation in continuity” can and sometimes must occur, provided certain “principles...remain as an undercurrent, motivating decisions from within.” 

How, then, should one distinguish “true reform” from false? And what do Pope Benedict and Pope Francis mean when they say that the Vatican II “reformed” the Church? Theologians and historians often identify Vatican II reform as consisting of three elements: aggiornamento, ressourcement, and the development of doctrine. Benedict’s defense of doctrinal change regarding religious liberty and Francis’s justification for doctrinal change on the death penalty in 2017 both appeal to this set of elements. 

Let’s briefly consider each of them. Aggiornamento is an Italian word that can be translated as “updating.” For Catholics, especially of a certain generation, it immediately brings to mind John XXIII and his calls for letting “fresh air” into the Church. The aggiornamento of Vatican II included some disciplinary and administrative changes, but everyone agrees that it also included some deeper changes, whether these are to be celebrated or lamented. In Ratzinger’s provocative phrase, the council attempted “an official reconciliation with the new era inaugurated in 1789”—a reference to the French Revolution.

Ressourcement, a French neologism associated with nouvelle théologie thinkers like the Dominican Yves Congar and the Jesuit Henri de Lubac, means a return to the sources, in this case Scripture, the Church Fathers, and the liturgy of the early Church. As an element of reform, ressourcement means searching historical texts in order to apply the theological wisdom of the past to the present.

Finally, not only did doctrine develop at Vatican II (as at many other ecumenical councils), but the development of doctrine was explicitly named and recognized as a fruitful reality of the Church’s life (Dei verbum, article 8), and the council fathers explicitly claimed to be developing doctrine in Dignitatis humanae (article 1). It was novel to embed such a claim in a doctrinal document itself. 

Whatever changes that Ratzinger’s thinking underwent during his long career, he always understood Vatican II reform as involving both continuity and discontinuity.

Taken together, aggiornamento, ressourcement, and the development of doctrine can shed light on different aspects of the same reform. Pope Benedict demonstrated this in his discussion of religious liberty in the 2005 Christmas address, though he did not use this terminology explicitly. In Vatican II reform, one or more of these phenomena is present, and sometimes all three. Only a hermeneutic of reform that acknowledges “continuity and discontinuity on different levels,” in full awareness of the complexities and challenges of history and the Church’s own doctrinal legacy, can make sense of such changes in a way that is both theologically responsible and intellectually coherent. 


A hermeneutic of reform also serves the Church by helping Catholics narrate and understand our own history. On the one hand, it helps us avoid an intellectually narrow triumphalism that uses the past only as an apologetic tool, thus avoiding the real moral and theological challenges raised by history. On the other, the hermeneutic of reform is a properly theological paradigm and not a reduction of theology to politics or an abandonment of trust in God’s providence. This approach is evident in Benedict’s treatment of Catholicism’s struggle with modern political, social, and scientific developments—and, in particular, in his defense of Vatican II’s landmark teaching on religious liberty. 

After long and protracted debate—maybe the most heated of the council—Dignitatis humanae proclaimed that “the human person has a right to religious freedom” and immunity “from coercion” by any human authority (article 2). Today, this seems like an obvious statement that no sensible person could ever have denied, least of all a Christian. But Vatican II’s full-throated approval of religious liberty was one of the most stunning doctrinal changes in Catholic history. The council could have justified its teaching by appealing to prudence and the obvious reality of new political circumstances; contemporary Catholic “integralists” who yearn for the Church to return to the politics and theology of coercion wish that the council had limited itself to contingencies. But Dignitatis humanae justified doctrinal development by appealing to properly theological concerns: “The right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.” 

The Vatican II fathers did not attempt a sleight-of-hand and claim that Dignitatis humanae was just reconfirming what the Church had always taught. (No one would have believed them had they tried.) Rather, the council fathers acknowledged that they were innovating. But they did so while seeking out a deeper continuity with the tradition of the Church and the message of Jesus, one that relied on fundamental Christian principles. They also left room for future Catholics to further explain and justify this momentous change. 

Joseph Ratzinger had to face this challenge squarely as John Paul II’s right-hand man in negotiations with traditionalists after the council. While best known for their refusal to accept the new Mass, SSPX actually found Dignitatis humanae to be the most obviously unacceptable product of the council. While much of what disturbed them in, say, Lumen gentium could potentially be categorized as further development of accepted doctrinal concepts or as ressourcement, Dignitatis humanae clearly involved, in the theologian Thomas Guarino’s words, the “reversal” of past teaching.

Ratzinger had thought deeply about these problems for decades. He never thought of trying to fit square pegs into round holes. That is, he knew that one could not demonstrate continuity in all matters, and that it was futile and dishonest to try. Just as modern historical criticism could not be met by the denials or tortured textual contortions of biblical fundamentalism, neither could the problem of history and the demands of reform be met by an equally dubious magisterial fundamentalism. Real doctrinal change had occurred at Vatican II—and needed to occur—and this change required a theologically rigorous and historically conscious explanation. 

At the council, the religious-liberty issue was tightly linked both to ecclesiology and ecumenism. As some wryly pointed out at the time, it is hard to ask Protestants to dialogue as brothers and sisters in Christ while also maintaining that the ideal church-state arrangement would relegate them to second-class citizenship or even coerce them. In his 2005 speech, Pope Benedict correctly connected Dignitatis humanae to “a single problem, the problem of modernity.” Benedict recognized that the Church’s “bitter and radical condemnation of this spirit of the modern age” was understandable in light of the violence of the French Revolution and anticlerical regimes that marginalized or even persecuted Catholics. As a result, the path to “positive and fruitful understanding” between the Church and modern societies had been tragically impeded, and there was more than enough blame to go around. 

Nevertheless, after low points like the Syllabus, there was a growth in mutual understanding. Politically, a realization grew that not all lay states need be oppressive; the American Revolution was very different from France’s, and the American tradition of religious freedom very different from France’s laïcité. The interwar period in twentieth-century Europe was marked by a number of political enterprises that reimagined the lay state, drawing on rich Catholic and Christian heritages. Indeed, Catholic social doctrine in particular “became an important model between radical liberalism and the Marxist theory of the State.” What Pope Benedict described was the long process of aggiornamento, though he didn’t use the term. The Church, true to its own tradition and principles, was meeting the concrete demands of the world in which it found itself. This is not so different, Benedict noted, from “the events of previous epochs.” One is reminded of his esteem for St. John Henry Newman, who acknowledged not only the reality of growth and change within the Church, but the necessity of it. It is, after all, living things that change, not dead things. 

Anticipating objections, Benedict agreed that some kinds of change are not defensible. If, for example, religious liberty had been justified in terms of a “human inability to discover the truth,” it would be a corruption and a false reform. Agreeing with Catholic critics of religious liberty, Benedict insisted that humans are “capable of knowing the truth about God” and are thus “bound to this knowledge” by their consciences. He then made a striking statement. In “making its own an essential principle of the modern State” the council “has recovered the deepest patrimony of the Church.” It would be difficult to find a stronger claim to ressourcement, or a more compelling justification for a development of doctrine: “By so doing she [the contemporary Church] can be conscious of being in full harmony with the teaching of Jesus himself (cf. Matthew 22:21), as well as with the Church of the martyrs of all time.” 

A hermeneutic of reform serves the Church by helping Catholics narrate and understand our own history.

Thus, Pope Benedict’s defense of doctrinal change at Vatican II was rooted not only in important socio-political conditions that demanded aggiornamento, but in a richly theological ressourcement that claimed a deeper continuity with the earliest sources of the faith—and above all, with the teaching and example of Jesus:

The martyrs of the early Church died for their faith in that God who was revealed in Jesus Christ, and for this very reason they also died for freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess one’s own faith—a profession that no State can impose but which, instead, can only be claimed with God’s grace in freedom of conscience. 

Traditionalists opposed to Vatican II are right to focus on Dignitatis humanae. This document, more than any other, is manifestly at odds with some previous teachings. The reason the Declaration on Religious Liberty is so often attacked—or subjected to tortured revisionist readings—is that it is not just about prudential social and political questions. It has deep ecumenical, interreligious, and ecclesiological implications, which were highlighted in Pope Benedict’s 2005 address. Dignitatis humanae marked an abandonment of ecclesial triumphalism, and an embrace, at the level of principle, of nonviolent witness and evangelical love over coercion and domination. 

Benedict’s hermeneutic of reform is undergirded by an honest and rigorous theology of history. His appreciation of the contingencies of history, together with a humbler and more biblical ecclesiology, allowed Benedict to conclude that Vatican II had given us “a new definition of the relationship between the faith of the Church and certain essential elements of modern thought.” In doing so, the council “reviewed” and “even corrected certain historical decisions, but in this apparent discontinuity it has actually preserved and deepened her inmost nature and true identity.” In short, the Church had to change in order to stay the same. It had to change in order to be faithful to the Gospel. 


Benedict’s language of “reviewing” or even “correcting” certain past decisions brings to mind the thought of his friend, Yves Congar. Congar argued that “autocritique” formed an essential element of reform. Before he became Pope John XXIII, Cardinal Roncalli reportedly scribbled “A reform of the Church? Is such a thing possible” on his copy of Congar’s True and False Reform in the Church (1950). While Vatican II opened the door to ecclesial self-critique in a new way, reckoning with ecclesial sins and errors is still a challenge for the Church as it reels from the abuse crisis and suffers from deep polarization and dysfunction.  

Certain reforms pursued at Vatican II—especially those having to do with ecumenism, religious liberty, and a new perspective on the Jewish people—demanded a reckoning with the dark parts of Church history. This reckoning could not limit itself to recognizing the sins of individual Catholics. Honesty about the historical record demanded addressing not only attitudes and policies but also doctrines. And revisiting this history could bring to light a need for repentance. The Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis redintegratio, gets closer than any other Vatican II document to articulating this difficult dynamic in article 6: 

Christ summons the Church to continual reformation (perennem reformationem) as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of men here on earth. Thus if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated—to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself—these can and should be set right at the opportune moment.

This is the only time Vatican II applies the fraught term reformatio to the Church. It is deeply significant that this term, a loaded one since the sixteenth century, was applied to the formulation of doctrine. Although Unitatis redintegratio makes it clear that reform cannot alter an unchangeable “deposit of faith,” the council called here for something more than just the overhauling of discipline. This is thoroughly Congarian. His True and False Reform argued that the Church had to go beyond merely addressing abuses or misunderstandings, though without touching dogma. Of course, this is easier said than done, as the tense and at times explosive debates at and after the Council have shown. 

A recent example of this tension is the reaction to Pope Francis’s change to Church teaching on the death penalty. Those disturbed by this change do not necessarily want their own governments to execute criminals. Many of these critics accepted (sometimes grudgingly) John Paul II’s de facto rejection of the death penalty as a punishment virtually never necessary in modern societies. The reason that Francis’s amendment to the Catechism in August 2018 caused such controversy in some circles was that it seemed to entail a de jure repudiation of the death penalty. (Some, feverishly parsing the word “inadmissible,” disputed this interpretation.) This response is similar to the traditionalist acceptance of a de facto toleration of non-Catholics, but not a de jure endorsement of religious liberty. They oppose Dignitatis humanae—or try to empty it of meaning—precisely because it raised religious liberty to the level of theological principle. Pope Francis’s justifications for his teaching on the death penalty are more or less the same in this regard. He has appealed to the same kind of understanding of human dignity as well as to ressourcement principles, citing the example of Jesus and the early Church. And his critics have appealed to the same arguments used by opponents of contemporary Church teaching on religious liberty—long lists of theological authorities and magisterial texts that do indeed prove a discontinuity between what the Church teaches now and what it used to teach.  

I believe that one reason this kind of discontinuity of doctrine is either rejected or denied is that it raises the issue of ecclesial sin and repentance. Many Catholics remain wedded to the idea that, while individual Catholics may sin, the Church itself remains faultless. But any plain reading of the actions and words of the postconciliar popes suggests that ecclesial repentance is sometimes necessary. John Paul II’s “Day of Pardon” and his famous apologies for the Inquisition, colonialism, the Galileo case, and even the burning of the proto-Protestant Bohemian preacher Jan Hus are either incomprehensible or repugnant to those who insist on a triumphalist reading of Church history. 

Of course, such apologies can be—and have been—interpreted as apologies for individual abuses. For example, no one would deny that some inquisitors sinned in some circumstances (perhaps because they were motivated by money or a grudge rather than an appropriate zeal against heresy). An apology for the Inquisition is thus transformed into an apology for certain corrupt Inquisitors. While such contortions might seem rather pathetic in light of contemporary Catholic teaching and John Paul II’s obvious intent, they do in fact highlight a deeply serious theological problem that postconciliar Catholicism has not fully resolved. When, and in what way, can the Church apologize for something it consistently taught for centuries—for example, that it was okay to punish recalcitrant heretics with imprisonment or even death? Some contemporary “integralists” clearly believe that the Church should not apologize for past teachings or practices, but only for particular excesses attributable to individuals. This is, I think, the main reason for the tortured re-readings of Dignitatis humanae, and for much of the opposition to Pope Francis’s teaching on the death penalty.  

Pope Francis has never treated these issues systematically, but he has made his own views plain. In a fascinating morning meditation given in April 2014, he spoke of those persecuted “from outside” the Church but also “from within.” Without naming him, Francis focused on Antonio Rosmini (1797–1855), calling him “a true prophet, who in his books reproached the Church for falling away from the path of the Lord.” How, Francis asked, could someone “be a heretic yesterday and a blessed today?” He answered his own question with typical Bergoglian bluntness: “Today, the Church…thanks be to God, knows how to repent.” (The complicated story of Rosmini, who was never excommunicated, was addressed by Ratzinger in a somewhat convoluted 2001 CDF decree.)  

In an October 2017 address, a year before the Catechism’s teaching on the death penalty was changed, Francis showed how his ideas about ecclesial sin and repentance inform his own view of doctrinal development. When it comes to the death penalty, a “mere résumé of traditional teaching” isn’t enough. An adequate perspective must take “into account not only the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent popes, but also the change in the awareness of the Christian people” concerning human dignity. He then made a striking theological claim: the death penalty “is per se contrary to the Gospel.” What does this say about the centuries of official Catholic support for the death penalty? Francis offered a familiar historical sketch of how this doctrine had developed over time. Then he expressed his own regret that the death penalty had even been carried out in the Papal States, calling it an “extreme and inhumane remedy that ignored the primacy of mercy over justice.” Catholics, according to Francis, should “take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.”

In support of his condemnation of the death penalty, Francis cited Dei verbum 8, which depends on the work of Cardinal Newman and St. Vincent of Lérins. Francis’s understanding of the development of doctrine makes plenty of room for departures and reversals. He writes that “the harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth.” True, he doesn’t seem to like words such as “change” and “contradict”—he even argues, rather unconvincingly, that his revision of the Catechism’s teaching on the death penalty “in no way represents a change in doctrine.” Benedict was more frank in his recognition of the change regarding religious liberty, but he too insisted on a deeper continuity of principles. 

Change and discontinuity are certainly manifest in both these cases. But if Benedict’s hermeneutic of reform is correct, that is as it should be. Contrary to those who fear that the magisterium is undermined by any hint of discontinuity, the ability to change, self-correct, and sometimes even repent increases the credibility of the Church. 

Shaun Blanchard teaches at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He is author of The Synod of Pistoia and Vatican II (Oxford University Press).

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