This wouldn't be the first time a pope has been in tension with Catholic teaching

Thursday’s update to the Catechism, in which the death penalty was redescribed as “inadmissible”, has troubled more than a few Catholics. Friends who don’t normally bother with Church politics have brought it up in conversation. The news has dominated social media, helped by headlines like “Pope changes Church teaching”. Those headlines are misleading: the edit does not change any teaching. But it has created confusion and anxiety.

To recap, the Catechism previously said that “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty”, while recommending that it be “very rare, if not practically non-existent”. But this was practical guidance, rather than a firm doctrinal statement. Cardinal Ratzinger, the Vatican’s doctrinal chief when the Catechism was issued, said there was a “legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics” about whether, and how much, modern states should employ capital punishment.

Pope Francis’s tweak to the Catechism changes that guidance into something apparently much stronger: the death penalty is now said to be “inadmissible”. This is confusing because “inadmissible” is a vague, non-technical term. It could mean “inadmissible in today’s societies, in the Pope’s view”. On this reading, the Pope wasn’t talking about the theoretical legitimacy of the death penalty; he was just making a statement that today’s political regimes are so universally awful that they can’t be trusted to administer it.

But the wording will be widely interpreted is as meaning that the death penalty is always and automatically immoral, like euthanasia or adultery. Most news sources implied that, using some version of “Pope changes Church teaching”.

The problem is that Church teaching on this point is remarkably well-established. As Edward Feser reminded us yesterday, the saints and the popes (up to St John Paul II and Benedict XVI) have consistently taught that the death penalty is in principle legitimate. Some popes have seen it as a litmus test for orthodoxy.

Over time, once things have been taught with a certain consistency, they become binding on Catholics. We aren’t free to say, “I have zero responsibility to help the poor – they deserve everything they get,” or “Devotion to Our Lady is a waste of time.” Our duties to the poor, and the honour paid to Mary, are part of what Catholics have signed up to. And a close look at the evidence suggests that the theoretical legitimacy of the death penalty probably belongs in that category. Fiddling with doctrine on the death penalty would imply that many other teachings can be changed, the way a party changes its manifesto from one election to the next.

Again, it’s not clear that the Pope is fiddling with doctrine. You can defend a narrow reading of the new words: that Francis is just offering a political statement about criminal justice today. But some will find that unconvincing. What if the broader reading – that the death penalty is always and everywhere wrong – seems unavoidable?

Two kinds of overreaction are possible here. The gloomy will ask, “Why should I believe the Church about anything, if popes can just contradict each other?” The blasé will say, “I’m sure Pope Francis has called this one correctly – he’s the Pope, after all, so we should just trust him.”

Both reactions ignore doctrine and history. It is part of Church teaching that popes can sometimes wander into error. It happens. If in the 1330s you had gloomily asked, “Why should I believe the Church about anything, if Pope John XXII can contradict such well-established doctrine on the beatific vision?” you would have had the surprise, a little while later, of hearing Pope John shamefacedly withdraw his statements.

If in the 630s you had cheerfully said, “I’m sure Pope Honorius has called this one correctly on Monothelitism – he’s the Pope, after all, so we should just trust him,” you might have lived to hear, a half-century later, the Third Council of Constantinpole solemnly declare: “To the heretic Honorius, anathema!”

So it’s more than possible for a pope to be in tension with Church teaching. Nevertheless, given that the Pope is the successor of St Peter, you can see why Catholics find the situation distressing.

Matthew Walther, a columnist for The Week whose writing will also be very familiar to Catholic Herald readers, once praised Pope Francis as “a good and pious shepherd of souls”. On Thursday Walther retracted those words, saying that while he still admired much of Francis’s pontificate, “he has undermined my faith today”.

One priest tweeted that “some of us who have the responsibility for the care of souls have been dealing with messages asking us how the Church can be who She claims to be if she isn’t indefectible in moral teaching”.

At the risk of sounding glib, people shouldn’t be too alarmed by this. The Catechism is not infallible, even if some of its contents are. As Cardinal Ratzinger noted in his Introduction to the Catechism, “The individual doctrines which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess.” By the same token, a wrong opinion is still a wrong opinion if you can write “(CCC 2267)” after it.

There is, nevertheless, a pretty serious problem if our most-circulated doctrinal compendium contains a big mistake, and if Catholics are having to differ from papal announcements. Unfortunately, the Pope’s ambiguities have placed Catholics in such a position on several occasions, particularly on questions of morality and the sacraments. This instance may be worse in degree – because it was so public, and because changing the Catechism is so symbolic – but not in kind.

Some people will be able to say, serenely, that God protects His Church from error, and that a highly ambiguous form of words, in a not-very-authoritative context, is no big deal. To those finding it harder to stay calm, maybe it’s worth reflecting on the testimony of Catholics who have contemplated history most deeply. They tend to say that, when things look really bad, a glorious recovery is imminent. As the historian Christopher Dawson put it, “When the Church possesses all the marks of external power and success, then is its hour of danger; and when it seems that no human power can save it, the time of its deliverance is at hand.”