‘Never, Ever Think About Leaving the Church’

Fr. Zuhlsdorf Rebukes Desperate Reaction to Current Scandals

For the Catholic faithful who are scandalized by sexual corruption in the Church and thinking about leaving the faith because the pope has changed perennial teaching on capital punishment, Father John Zuhlsdorf issued a stern warning during his Sunday homily on Aug. 5: don’t do it. 

In an impassioned, 25-minute sermon during the 7:30 a.m. Latin Mass at St. Mary of Pine Bluff Catholic Church, Father Zuhlsdorf sought to steady frayed nerves brought about by the Archbishop Theodore McCarrick homosexual-corruption scandal and Pope Francis’ decision to reverse Church teaching on capital punishment by way of edits to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The slightly edited text of Father Zuhlsdorf’s sermon is below:


If you leave with no other point as you go your ways today, remember this: reparation for sins. Mary told the children at Fatima that we all had to make reparation for sins: sins against her heart, sins against our Lord’s heart. She said that if we didn’t, greater evils would befall us. It seems these days that every time we turn around, greater evil is befalling us, in society and in the Church.  

Right now we have learned of grave evils committed not committed by predatory priests but predatory bishops; and other bishops looked the other way and covered it up. As shocking as this is and as outrageous as it is, it is not a surprise. The devil knows that when you strike the shepherd, the sheep will be scattered. The enemy, the forces of hell, continually work on all of us to make us choose to fall. But hell saves its greatest attacks for the most highly placed. 

We can and should be furious at the predations of the pastors of souls, and we must also take action. That action might take many forms. I’m not here today to tell you what that action is supposed to be. However, whatever we do, we have to start with an examination of our own conscience and a good confession. Let us not fall into the trap of pointing and shouting, ‘Sinner!’ if we haven’t cleaned up our own lives and hearts. 

Also, while we must not abandon justice in pursuit of the ideals of mercy, we have to keep firmly in mind that Christ established our Church precisely for sinners, not for the pure. It must never shake our faith that there are sinners in the Church who fall, or that agents of hell work in our midst. Belonging to this Church, this Body of Christ, means not just daisies and sunshine and kitties, but also suffering and dark times and struggles. Let us make reparation for sins and for sinners — our own sins and those of others. 

You will have heard that Pope Francis changed the text of Paragraph 2267 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, about capital punishment. From the Old Testament and the New Testament, we know that by divine revelation, the death penalty was at times obligatory and even after the lex talionis, the eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, was superseded by God’s mercy and the Lord’s admonition for great patience and forbearance, it was nevertheless permitted. 

Perennial Teaching of the Church

From apostolic times onwards and in the writings of innumerable fathers and doctors and theologians and Roman pontiffs, we know that the Church has always taught that the death penalty was an admissible option for the state. Even Pope St. John Paul II, who was firmly, so very much against the death penalty and who in Evangelium Vitae argued that, given modern circumstances, it really should not be applied, nevertheless that saint / pope upheld the Church’s teaching that it could be applied in some circumstances. Benedict XVI argued that the death penalty should be abolished, saying the circumstances in which it could be applied are practically nonexistent. But he did not contradict the Church’s perennial teaching.

But Pope Francis has changed the text of the Catechism of the Catholic Church 2267 to say that while the Church once accepted that the death penalty was legitimate, now the Church teaches that it is inadmissible. This is a contradiction to what the Church has always taught. What did Paragraph 2267 say before? Here’s the text: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is the only effective way of defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” 

What does Paragraph 2267 say now? “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 and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” It’s admissible, then it’s inadmissible. That’s a contradiction. According to the principle of non-contradiction, a thing can’t both be something and not something at the same time and in the same respect. So what’s going on here? The letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that accompanied the change says that this is an authentic development of doctrine. However, we have always understood development of doctrine to mean there cannot result a direct contradiction to what was taught before. 

In the fifth century, St. Vincent of Lérens said that authenticity of doctrine is tested by three criteria, namely: quod ubique quod semper quod ab omnibus creditum est — “what has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” By this triple test of ecumenicity, antiquity and consent, the Church identifies true and false traditions. Remember what Paul said, “I delivered to you first of all what I also received.” He handed it on whole and entire; didn’t change it, he handed it all in an integral fashion. Now that does not preclude genuine and authentic development of doctrine. That threefold Vincentian canon of “always, everywhere and by everyone” goes hand in glove with another twofold canon of Vincent which was enshrined in the document from the First Vatican Council called Dei Filius. If there’s a change of expression, the doctrine must be expressed eodem sensu eademque sententia — with the same sense and with the same meaning.

This has become a central structural support in the Church’s Magisterium. That’s why, for example, Pius IX rested on it when infallibly teaching in Ineffabilis Deus in 1854 the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. St. Pius X used it in his anti-modernist Pascendi Dominici Gregis. The concept was in the Oath Against Modernism that all clergy had to take until 1967. John XXIII used the phrase in his speech at the opening of Vatican II. John Paul II, in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor, cites it. Benedict XVI cited it in his monumentally important address to the Roman Curia in 2005. Moreover, this passage from Vincent of Lérens is not unknown to clergy today because it must be read in the modern Liturgy of the Hours on Friday of the 27th week of Ordinary Time. There is no excuse not to know this principal if you are a priest. 

Blessed John Henry Newman wrote a treatise on the development of doctrine which explains the conditions and parameters of authentic development. Newman identified seven “notes,” or characteristics, of authentic developments, as opposed to doctrinal corruptions. The first, and the most important, is unity of type or the external expression of an idea. Does the main idea change or remain unchanged if the manner of expression changes? If the content remains, then the expression is a genuine development of doctrine rather than a corruption. For example, a bird doesn’t have much resemblance to an egg, but the bird is the development of the egg, not its corruption. An acorn rightly and legitimately changes into an oak tree, not into a palm tree. 

As you can guess, legitimate development of doctrine does not include direct contradiction of what has always been taught by the Church. But, Pope Francis has changed the text of Paragraph 2267 to mean something the opposite of what it said before and what perennial teaching has meant before. Whereas the Church has always taught, everywhere taught, that capital punishment is admissible, even if in incredibly rare cases. Francis has now taught that it is now always inadmissible.

Now I’ve been working on this problem, laboring over it, as a matter of fact. I wrote to an expert on the question, a brilliant philosopher by the name of Edward Feser, who recently wrote a book about the death penalty, published by the reliable Ignatius Press. And I asked him, “Is this a direct contradiction?” That’s the key. Is this really a direct contradiction? Is there any kind of hedge possible? He said in the reply to my email that it is not a manifest contradiction, but it at least seems to be. You see where we’re left, where we’re now even hedging about hedges? That in itself is problematic. 

Opportunity for Greater Knowledge and Clarity

Since when can’t our doctrinal formations and catechisms be clear? Isn’t clarity what catechisms are for? Let’s put it this way: if Francis had said that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, then we would have crystal clear and a manifest contradiction. But, inadmissible is not the same thing as saying intrinsically evil. Inadmissible does not go right up to the line. Inadmissible does not toe the line. Inadmissible straddles the line, and that’s what makes it so very difficult to understand. 

Now this is really confusing and it’s angered a lot of people. I have received numerous notes from people who say that they are thinking about leaving the Church because of this. To which I respond, BALONEY! Never, ever think about leaving the Church. Let me repeat something that I’ve often told people who write to me, and what I write on the blog and what I have told you before from this pulpit. When confusing statements come from the pope or anyone else, take it as an opportunity to crack open your copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church or other sources to find what the truth is. Each instance of confusion is an opportunity for greater knowledge and clarity, and I stand by that. 

The same Vincent of Lérens whose Magisterium-reinforced threefold rule, “always, everywhere and in the same sense,” also wrote about being a true Catholic. He wrote something along the lines of my admonition to study when you are troubled. Here’s a little bit of an extended quote of Vincent. It’s very moving in a lot of ways, because it touches on what it is to be a Catholic in difficult times in the Church Militant, in this vale of tears, where we’re moving along with the tangle of our minds and the difficulties that we have of seeking our way to Heaven. Vincent wrote:

Whatsoever new and unheard of doctrine you shall find to have been furtively introduced by someone or other besides that of all or contrary to that of all the saints, this you will understand does not pertain to religion, but is permitted as a trial, being instructed especially by the words of the blessed apostle Paul, who writes thus in his first epistle to the Corinthians: ‘There must needs be heresies that they who are approved be made manifest among you.’ As though he should say, ‘This is the reason why the authors of heresies are not forthwith rooted up by God. Namely, that they who are approved may be made manifest.’ That is, that it may be apparent of each individual how tenacious and faithful and steadfast he is in his love of the Catholic faith.

These are trials. They are tests. They’re opportunities. 

Now tracking back to that other theme. The fact that there are sinful clerics, priests, bishops and popes in the Church, who have through history done horrible things or have taught strange teachings, this is a proof that this is not a Church only of men, but it is from God and God alone guarantees that Holy Church is indefectible, which is one of the attributes of the Church. If it depended on human beings alone, it wouldn’t have lasted a day. Remember that the first collective act of bishops was to run away from the Lord in the garden, and that one-twelfth of the bishops sold the Lord for money. 

Christ Protects His Indefectible Church

Also, the fact is that certain hell-inspired secular groups, such as communists, homosexualists and Masons, purposefully infiltrated the priesthood during the 20th century in order to twist, distort and destroy her from within. Why wouldn’t they try to do that? Why wouldn’t they try that tactic? If I were an enemy in the Church, that’s what I would do. I’d try to infiltrate it, bring it down and weaken it from within. But, God has other plans. The Church may take this blow, take that loss. The Church may be raked over the coals and persecuted; blasted from without and from within. She may be beaten down and suffer losses, and her beauty may be slimed over by the filth of her sinful members, but she will never, ever fail. Our Church remains one, holy and apostolic, and she has her attributes of authority, infallibility and indefectibility.

Now to those who would even think for a second about leaving the Church, I remind them that outside the Church, there is no salvation. I remind them of what we read in Lumen Gentium, that document of the Second Vatican Council, and I’ll quote, “Hence, they could not be saved, who, knowing that the Catholic Church was founded as necessary by God through Christ, would refuse to enter it or to remain in it.” You know that the Church is the Church and you know that her claims are true. If you leave the Church, you cannot be saved.

Every challenge from sinners and from confusing statements is a test and an opportunity and a sign from God that we are not in charge. He is. Also, let’s be clear about the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Things are not true because they are in the Catechism. They are in the Catechism because they are true. Insertion of something into the Catechism that contradicts previous Catholic teaching is, like every pontificate of every pope or mandate of every bishop or priest in the parish — a momentary blip in the history of salvation. Paragraph 2267 is about one issue involving contingent moral choices rather than about matters that lie at the core of our identity of faith, such as the Trinity or the Incarnation or the Resurrection. Moreover, this new Paragraph 2267 seems to have the primary purpose of asking the world’s nations not to use the death penalty. Its aim seems to be mainly pastoral advice to the world. 

Ok, 2267 now contradicts the Church’s perennial teaching about the death penalty. Therefore it does, we have to admit … you know it doesn’t really serve any good to deny the obvious, does it? I think it weakens the credibility of Pope Francis in a way and it weakens the credibility of the Catechism itself. However, the new paragraph does not say that the death penalty is intrinsically evil. It says that it’s inadmissible. Inadmissible is a very strong word: “it cannot be done.” Nevertheless, it doesn’t say that it’s intrinsically evil. I don’t know what that means; I don’t know why there’s language like that used.  There’s even more confusion now to pile on top of the confusion caused by the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia, but I digress; I won’t get into that. 

The final version of Paragraph 2267 has not yet been published. Every time there is an official text, it can be released in the press, it can be released in L’Osservatore Romano, the daily newspaper of the Vatican, but the real instrument of promulgation of anything is called the Acta Apostolicae Sedis — the acts of the Apostolic See. When it appears in the Acta, that’s the official final text. We have to wait a little longer before we see the official, final text of this paragraph in the Acta. Maybe this will get cleaned up in the mean time. Please pray that it will. 

Do not, if you hear about all of this business about prelates doing horrible things, or confusion on teaching about capital punishment, do not let your hearts be troubled. We’re going to feel frustration and anger from time to time about what happens, but keep your perspective on things. The Church is from God — for sinners. The devil hates the Church and especially hates her pastors. While we are shocked at the predilections of prelates and their incompetence, we are not surprised that hell drags them down. That’s because the devil wants to see us give up and leave the only thing standing between us and eternal damnation — which is the Catholic Church.

Take your copy of the Catechism, and with an erasable pencil, draw a circle around 2267 and put a question mark by the new text. Then let’s see what happens next. Do not put that Catechism down. Keep it, and other good catechisms, keep it close. Use good catechisms of the past as well as the sound tools of the faith that we’ve been given more recently. 

Make reparation through sacrifice, through mortifications and prayers for sinful clerics, starting with me. I am a sinner like everyone else, and I am a cleric, which means I that have a huge bullseye on my front and on my back and on my forehead, for the devil’s attacks. For your sake and for others, make a good confession soon. Offer your good, Holy Communions, even at this Mass, in reparation for the sins of our shepherds, including myself. Please uphold all of us with prayers, asking Our Lady Queen of the Clergy to protect and help all of us. May God bless you.

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  1. Grace Jezek

    my understanding of a catholic position on death penalty goes something like this:
    just like “legitimate defense” dictates you can kill a person to save your life or another person’s life from being killed by that person, in the same sense a person could be put to death if they are very dangerous to peoples’ safety and are unable to be properly contained by a life sentence. think about organized crime for example: if you’ve got some mafia type person who’s bought out half the town and is in the habit of literally getting away with cold-blooded murder, then if you’ve finally found a witness willing to risk his life to testify and you finally manage to convict mr. mafia for his crimes, you’re not gonna want to give a life sentence and gamble that he won’t use his bribes and blackmails and dirty money and dirty cops to simply escape a few years later and/or put hits on your witnesses while continuing his deadly crime life from within prison; you’re gonna want to do whatever it takes to make sure he does not get away and can never take an innocent life again, even if that means the guilty party’s death.
    on the other hand, even when death is the necessary penalty, it should be done in a spirit of mourning that a human life must be taken — however guilty or evil the man may be — and many prayers should be offered for the soul now facing judgement. the death penalty’s motive should NEVER be one of revenge or hate or “he deserves it” or with any other attitude that would try to ignore the fact the man in question is actually a human being. vengeance and hate set us up to become the very monster we claim to oppose. neither should the death penalty be used because of budget or crowd control because that’d be putting a price tag on human dignity.
    in summary, all facts and motives of each case should be taken into careful consideration, and it’s a decision that should never be made lightly, but there are certainly case scenarios that might deem it necessary.
    also there should be ongoing work to increase the humaneness of the method used so there is no chance of unnecessary pain or suffering.

  2. Elizabeth

    My Catholic faith is not built upon sinful mankind, but on Jesus Christ in the midst of a sinful world.