When there was such a thing as institutional slavery, the Church recognized this as a fact of the world and gave teachings based on those given in Scripture on how those who “owned” slaves should treat their servants. Over the course of time, the Church recognized that, because each human person has an inalienable dignity, nobody could possibly be “owned” by anybody and to be a person who “owned” slaves was inherently evil. This happened at a time when the Christian world was sufficiently awakening to the evil of this practice it was possible to bring this abomination to an end.
This was not a change in the teachings of the Church. It was a development in the understanding of the inherent worth of each individual human soul. It was a slow and painful path. But the moment there was any recognition that the oppressed person was in fact a person with a soul, with dignity and worth, who was saved by the Passion of Jesus Christ, it was inevitable that slavery would be done away with. The very idea of a “slave owner” was poisoned with the first drop of Christ’s blood and every subsequent teaching and recognition of the value of life brought it closer and closer to death.
In my opinion, the recent teaching of Pope Francis on the death penalty can be seen in the same light. What he now says (though I understand the difficulty in the way he said it) does not negate the realities and teachings of the past. By the time we get to St. John Paul II, because of the advancement of culture and our ability to detain and isolate persons who are a serious threat to society, he had difficulty imagining any scenario in which the death penalty could be used. He stood at the precipice of the seamless garment of the respect of human life, unable to imagine the need for civilized Christians to resort to killing an otherwise detained person for the sake of the salvation of the world.
As there was a point in which slavery was no longer a tenable option for Christians, Pope Francis says such has the time come for the death penalty.
Many will disagree. Many will disagree with the way he said it. Many will disagree with the format in which he said it. Indeed, the reader of his article may think the pope was either premature in this declaration or a bit of a Pollyanna in his worldview or that he took one step too far, but, in my opinion, the one wagon that no one should jump on is that he has been speaking heresy. It is not only unhelpful to the conversation it does not display an understanding of how the Church has operated for 2,000 years.