In effect, recent Vatican interventions on matters such as the Hussein execution suggest the Catholic church now has two categories of moral teachings: what we might call "ontic" or "inherent" absolutes, such as abortion, euthanasia, and the destruction of embryos in stem cell research, which are considered always and everywhere immoral because of the nature of the act, and "practical" absolutes, i.e., acts which might be justified in theory, but which under present conditions cannot be accepted.[snip]
Nowhere in Vatican commentary was there a concession that the church's position on the death penalty is not absolute, nor any indication that it's up to the secular authorities rather than religious leaders to make this sort of decision in concrete circumstances. Instead, the tone was of clear moral condemnation, suggesting that as a practical matter, the execution of Hussein -- or of anyone in this day and age -- is unambiguously wrong.[snip]
The fact that neither the death penalty nor war (for reasons other than what John Paul called "humanitarian intervention") are considered "ontic" evils probably means there will always be room for differing opinions in the church about the extent to which existing circumstances render them justifiable.
For example, in a recent interview with me, Cardinal Avery Dulles said he would prefer a more "traditional" position on the death penalty than that espoused by John Paul II. (Dulles laughed that the pope's record on such issues, among other things, illustrates the emptiness of media labels of John Paul as a "conservative.") While Dulles said capital punishment should be used "sparingly" and only "with absolute certainty of guilt," he argued that in some cases it's justified, and that such a permissive stance is more consistent with the church's tradition. Dulles added that he would say much the same thing about "just war" theory.