THERE has been an off-and-on debate within the Catholic circle on the issue of the death penalty. Those who are in favor contend that it remains to be part of the Church’s traditional moral teaching. Meaning to say, that the Church continues to uphold it as morally justifiable. The bone of contention is something to this effect: despite the teachings of recent popes on the dignity of human life, the Church has not ruled out with finality the morality of the death penalty. And even if one would say that it can be applied by legitimate authority only under extreme circumstances, this does not disprove the reality that morally or ethically it may be acceptable.

I don’t want to delve into the validity of this argument. My concern is that the running debate on death penalty in a country that is predominantly Catholics shows the lack of “religious literacy.”

It was Stephen Prothero of Boston University who said that many (Americans) don’t know a lot of things about their religion. We can say the same with Filipino Catholics. There are many who don’t know about Catholicism. In other words, after almost 500 years of evangelization, many Catholics don’t know a lot of their Church’s basic teachings. It seems that the key to understanding the credo is in the hands of a chosen few.

Take for example the difference between a dogmatic teaching and a moral teaching. The case of the death penalty is a good example. The Church’s teaching on the matter is a moral one--it is grounded on scripture and in the Church’s tradition of moral theology. But it is not dogmatic. The Church’s teaching in the field of morality, such as the death penalty, is not the same when the Church speaks about the Trinity or Purgatory. Matters of dogma are matters of truth, and may therefore be taught (and thus should be received) objectively. We cannot say of the same at all times and for all times with moral teachings.

The Church cannot state with finality and absolute infallibility that the death penalty is immoral. The same is true and the same can be said with other moral teachings: reproductive health, just war. One need not mention what history would tell us: the Church’s moral teachings in the sphere of politics, society, and economics have never been frozen, fixed, and firm. Before, the Church was in favor of monarchy but its recent documents arguably favor democracy.

Another point: Catholics seem not to know that in matters of dogmatic statements they are to give their absolute assent to the Church’s teaching. For example, there is no point debating that Jesus Christ is the true God and true man. This cannot be the case with matters of morality. For one good reason, the Church teaches that conscience is the arbiter of morality, not the pope nor the bishops.

Before any debate on death penalty could seriously and genuinely happen, Catholics should first converge at some common points of understanding.--Rhoderick John S. Abellanosa