Saturday, March 7, 2015

Capital punishment should not end (UPDATED)


Four prominent Catholic publications from across the theological spectrum -- America magazine, the National Catholic Register, the National Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor -- this week issued a joint statement declaring that “capital punishment must end.”  One might suppose from the statement that all faithful Catholics agree.  But that is not the case.  As then-Cardinal Ratzinger famously affirmed in 2004, a Catholic may be “at odds with the Holy Father” on the subject of capital punishment and “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty.”  Catholic theologian Steven A. Long has issued a vigorous response to the joint statement at the blog Thomistica.net.  (See also Steve’s recent response to an essay by “new natural law” theorist and capital punishment opponent Christopher Tollefsen on whether God ever intends a human being’s death.) 

Apart from registering my own profound disagreement with the joint statement, I will for the moment refrain from commenting on the issue, because I will before long be commenting on it at length.  My friend Joseph Bessette is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.  Joe and I have for some time been working together on a book on Catholicism and capital punishment, and we will complete it soon.  It will be, to our knowledge, the most detailed and systematic philosophical, theological, and social scientific defense of capital punishment yet written from a Catholic perspective, and it will provide a thorough critique of the standard Catholic arguments against capital punishment.

More on that before long.  In the meantime, interested readers are directed to my previous writings on capital punishment.  In 2005, at the old Right Reason group blog, I engaged in an exchange with Tollefsen on the subject of capital punishment, natural law, and Catholicism.  My contribution to the exchange can be found here:


In a 2011 post I commented on the failure of some churchmen to present the entirety of Catholic teaching on the subject of capital punishment, and their resulting tendency to convey thereby the false impression that the Church’s attitude on this issue is “liberal”:


In 2011 I also engaged in a longer exchange with Tollefsen on the subject of capital punishment, both at Public Discourse and here at the blog.  My side of the debate can be found at the following links:





Finally, in a 2012 post I addressed some common confusions about retributive justice and its relationship to revenge:


Joe Bessette is also currently completing his own, separate book on capital punishment: Murder Most Foul: a Study and Defense of the Death Penalty in the United States.  Some of his previous writings on capital punishment and criminal justice more generally are linked here:

Why the Death Penalty is Fair (with Walter Berns)


In Pursuit of Criminal Justice

UPDATE 3/10: Canon lawyer Edward Peters, Carl Olson at Catholic World Report, and Matt Briggs have now also responded to the joint statement.

70 comments:

Max said...

Will you also be crafting defenses against standard arguments against the death penalty -I am personally against the death penalty, not in principle mind you, but because I do not trust civic powers to enact them and the weight of enacting them strike me as too high - or, will it be purely on a Catholic basis? If it is the latter, could you direct me to a source you would suggest?

Edward Feser said...

Yes, though the book is focused on the debate within Catholic circles, we will in the course of it be addressing the standard secular objections too.

Daniel said...

If, to go by some of Ed's older blog posts where he argues the difference between retribution and vengeance and claims that those lawfully subject to the death penalty have earned death, then why must it fall to the State per see to carry out that punishment? If to say that an individual has earned death means that to fail to bring them death would be a moral failure, just as refusing to go out of one’s way and save an innocent life were one placed in a situation where that arose, then why does the obligation only apply to the State when in the latter case I outlined it wouldn’t?

Let us imagine that there remained only two men on Earth, myself and an individual, Z, who had recently killed off the last couple of other survivors solely for his own sadistic amusement. Would I be morally obliged to kill Z in the sense that my failing to do so would be a mortal sin akin to saving an innocent life?

On a less important note there is an analogy in one of those blog entries which seems suspect:

Indeed, what they need salvation from, according to the Catholic tradition, is a punishment which is both richly deserved and far, far worse than the death penalty, namely eternal damnation. (Which gives us yet another reason to dismiss any suggestion to the effect that Catholic teaching implies rejecting the legitimacy of capital punishment as retribution: if a person can deserve Hell, he can surely deserve a few seconds in the electric chair.)

Those who know more about Sacred Theology are welcome to correct me here but the first statement appears distinctly odd since the reason human beings deserve damnation, understood without reference to any suffering for sins in life merely as the denial of the Beatific Vision (i.e. to be shut from God for all eternity), is because of themselves they never deserved anything else in the first place. So to call damnation understood as denial a punishment is wrong.

If we are going to put that aspect aside and talk of people deserving Hell solely on the basis of the Principle of Proportionality then, as before, we’re on shaky ground for how could any crime, which is of its very nature finite in effect, warrant a punishment of infinite effect?

Daniel said...

A further thought:

If the death penalty is only legitimate if understood as part of a larger ethical theory which in turns follows from a certain metaphysical background then any government which wishes to defend the legitimacy of the former must surely defend the legitimacy of the latter. With this in mind if a person who has just been sentenced in court gets up and claims 'your claim to moral legitimacy rests on specious grounds - there are no universals only sets of resembling tropes' then must no the judge, court and nation collectively reply that trope theory is false? Call me cynical but I think few governments are going to go along with that.

Likewise in the modern context a condemned criminal might plead philosophical ignorance and claim that the only ethical systems he'd been introduced to were Rawlsianism and Utilitarianism and that he realised that neither of this were sufficient to establish any form of objective morality. Cynically and irresponsibly I would like this to happen more often*.

*I wish one of the high up Nazis and the Nuremberg Trials had defended their actions on Nietzschean grounds arguing that the Allied Nations may well kill him but that they in fact have no more moral right to do so or not do so than he would in torturing another to death solely for personal enjoyment.

Scott said...

"My friend Joseph Bessette…and I have for some time been working together on a book on Catholicism and capital punishment, and we will complete it soon. It will be, to our knowledge, the most detailed and systematic philosophical, theological, and social scientific defense of capital punishment yet written from a Catholic perspective, and it will provide a thorough critique of the standard Catholic arguments against capital punishment."

I very much look forward to reading this.

John West said...

Daniel,

Likewise in the modern context a condemned criminal might plead philosophical ignorance and claim that the only ethical systems he'd been introduced to were Rawlsianism and Utilitarianism and that he realised that neither of this were sufficient to establish any form of objective morality. Cynically and irresponsibly I would like this to happen more often*.

Out of curiosity, given such a government, do you think that would be an acceptable defense?

Tony said...

then why must it fall to the State per see to carry out that punishment?

In the situation where the state claims the sole right to use force except emergency situations (like self-defense from an immediate attack), only the state could carry out either the act of forcibly putting a criminal behind bars for 20 years or killing him. State monopoly on force and violence is the answer to your question.

If to say that an individual has earned death means that to fail to bring them death would be a moral failure,

It does not follow that (a) someone has done a crime for which they deserve death, and (b) there is an entity with authority to carry out the execution, that (c) it is a moral failure to not so execute. There are, at least some of the time, OTHER goods besides that of justice which must be accounted for, where pursuing those other goods is impeded by carrying out the just sentence. However, it is TRUE that in some cases the state's refusal to carry out a just execution is a moral failure.

So to call damnation understood as denial a punishment is wrong.

It is adequate to the argument to take only those cases where Hell is not only a denial of good but a positive pain to those who deserve such punishment for actual sins willed.

for how could any crime, which is of its very nature finite in effect, warrant a punishment of infinite effect

You are confusing different senses of finite and infinite. Obviously, a crime of murder is finite in one sense but infinite in another. In whatever senses the crime is finite applies also to the punishment of death, since they are _manifestly_ equal as regards death.

With this in mind if a person who has just been sentenced in court gets up and claims 'your claim to moral legitimacy rests on specious grounds - there are no universals only sets of resembling tropes' then must no the judge, court and nation collectively reply that trope theory is false? Call me cynical but I think few governments are going to go along with that.

A valid government does indeed have a moral foundation for its authority, including the authority to punish. Excellent governments not only have that moral foundation, but understand it clearly and explicitly. But they don't have any obligation to explain that foundation to a criminal's satisfaction in order to act upon him with that authority. It is sufficient that the foundation be real.

Modern liberal democracies that try to follow Rawls (or other modern philosophers) may have difficulty successfully stating a moral foundation that is sound through and through. The problem is on Rawls or the attempt to follow Rawls as if his theory is the ACTUAL foundation of the state's authority. The theory by which some in the state describe the state's authority isn't the actual source of the authority, and this is particularly true when the theory is erroneous - such a state can still actually have authority.

JohnD said...

Dr. Feser,

What theory of rights entails that a person who commits murder forfeits his own right to life? Surely it cannot be any system of inalienable rights, since if a person's rights are truly inalienable, then it would be unjust to take actions against such rights, even if such actions are taken against criminals (e.g. imprisonment, death penalty, etc.).

So, if rights are not "inalienable" in the sense of absolutely protected, then what is their status?

Daniel said...

@Tony,

Thank for the responses.

State monopoly on force and violence is the answer to your question.

Yes, but I am asking why this should be so. Why should the State have this monopoly if the criminal in question is morally deserving of X punishment? The last two men on Earth bit which follows was cut the State out of the picture and raise the question solely in the context of persons. The State is nothing more than the individuals within acting moraly so why should the obligation to carry out an execution be any different from the obligation to order it?

It is adequate to the argument to take only those cases where Hell is not only a denial of good but a positive pain to those who deserve such punishment for actual sins willed.

Okay, in regards to punishment I accept the analogy. I just thought it odd a Catholic should draw that analogy when no one is of themselves deserving of Heaven.



Yes, about the latter sentence - how so in the case of the former?

A valid government does indeed have a moral foundation for its authority, including the authority to punish. Excellent governments not only have that moral foundation, but understand it clearly and explicitly. But they don't have any obligation to explain that foundation to a criminal's satisfaction in order to act upon him with that authority. It is sufficient that the foundation be real.

No not to the criminal's satisfaction, but surely such a government has to have a publically acknowledged stance i.e. if Natural law theory then realism about universals is true which has to be considered true for reasons other than 'we say so'. So if challenged they must respond to the criminal's argument in a way that can be considered more satisfactory than the converse. Otherwise, and in most cases with regards to modern governments I'd say, it just comes down to a matter of physical force.

@John,

If the person could make a reasonable case for ignorance then 'yes'. If not I can't see how it doesn't just amount to an admission that the government doesn't rule by right only by power.

(I'm ambivalent about Natural Law and don't approve the practical application of the death penality anyway)

Tony said...

So if challenged they must respond to the criminal's argument in a way that can be considered more satisfactory than the converse.

Surely some 99% of governments before the last 300 years never thought that the claim they had the right to execute needed an argument. If one was needed, during the Christendom era they might have pointed to St. Paul: "for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer." The fact that a certain individual criminal doesn't recognize the government's authority in general, or its authority to wield the sword in execution, doesn't mean that the government must come up with an answer or forego its power. The government isn't answerable to him individually, it is answerable to God and to the people. Yes, the government as a whole should be able to say where it gets it authority. Generally there is an account.

Yes, but I am asking why this should be so. Why should the State have this monopoly if the criminal in question is morally deserving of X punishment? The last two men on Earth bit which follows was cut the State out of the picture and raise the question solely in the context of persons.

It sometimes happens where there is no write of state authority, such as in frontier places, that an evil person must needs be restrained and punished. Good men can together do that punishing even without calling themselves a government. Even one man acting alone can if there is no plausible means to resort to the help of many. But even there the obligation to see to justice between persons of equal rank has more difficulty, because it takes into account things like "no person is a good judge in his own case," and other principles. Thus there can be cases where a person in a stateless place should NOT execute justice merely because he is the only person available to do it. Taking into account all of the particulars, though, he should be prepared to fulfill justice when he is available and no competing goods impede that.

The State is nothing more than the individuals within acting moraly

That's a particular theory of government that is very contentious. It trends very libertarian, and Ed Feser has written extensively why he doesn't think that can be supported finally.

St. Thomas gives a reason why execution is OK for the state which doesn't apply _equally_ to individuals. It runs through the common good, of which the state is especially the caretaker in a way that individual men are not.

Timocrates said...

Antichrist, when he comes, be sure, will be at war with religious liberty and the sentiment that the death penalty should not end.

It's up to each Christian, here and now, to decide how ripe the opportunity will be for him to apply them.

Ismael said...

I partially disagree with you Prof. Feser on this one.

On one end I do agree capital punishment might be necessary in some occasions, hence morally acceptable, but I think that such occasions should be extremely rare and we ought to try to reabilitate criminals, not kill them.

Also the way it is applied in the US, where mainly African-Americans are the target of it, is clearly unfair.

Kevin said...

Great news about the book; you certainly seem to have kept news under your hat for a while. Will be looking forward to reading it.

I've never bought the 'culture of life' argument about ending the death penalty. Surely punishing say, murder, with capital punishment shows our commitment to the sanctity of life and not the reverse? Societies that denigrate the death penalty show their respect for liberal humanist ideas at the expense of the sanctity of life.

Anonymous said...

I assume someone guilty of torture or of ordering drone strikes aimed at funerals or similar actions would be a suitable candidate for the death penalty. How about police and prosecutors who cover up evidence of innocence in capital cases?

I don't know if the death penalty is just--I know it is applied unjustly. Which for me makes this an exercise in siding with an unjust and unfair system. Fix that first.

Incidentally, if you invoke hell, can't someone also argue for torture and also for the death penalty for heretics? What is so bad about torture if God does it to sinners for all eternity? And isn't the preaching of heresy worse than murder? I gather that used to be what many Christians believed. it was the far left, so to speak,of the Reformation that questioned this--Catholics and Calvinists both were willing to execute heretics, while people like Sebastian Castelio opposed this.

Daniel said...

I must admit I find it slightly disturbing how so many Christians feel there is a need to argue for capital punishment on religious grounds. Why is this? I’m not talking about the Natural Law justification for it of course.

(cherry-picking quotes from the Gospels doesn’t really get one anywhere - if anything one is more likely to end up with a moral system like that of the late Tolstoy)

@Kevin,

Societies that denigrate the death penalty show their respect for liberal humanist ideas at the expense of the sanctity of life.

Not really. A society that does so may have its own reasons e.g. that it considers any termination of life a categorical violation of that sanctity that holds above questions of proportionality or that correct action towards criminals is one of retribution. Neither of these is innately secular humanist, indeed the former is positively incompatible with secular humanism (which is really not entitled to use the ‘sanctity’ word).

@Ismael and Last Anon,

To Anon’s first point, ‘Yes’ depending on the magnitude and if they were judged to be war crimes.

One could agree with Ed that capital punishment is morally licit but in practice should not be carried out due to considerations you mention.

@Tony,

The government isn't answerable to him individually, it is answerable to God and to the people. Yes, the government as a whole should be able to say where it gets it authority. Generally there is an account.

I was speaking more of there having to be an answer to the criminal's objection even if not to them personally. To draw out my example if the Natural Law government acts when under the criticism then it tacitly affirms Realism about Universals is correct and Trope Theory isn't. This, in terms of coherence at least, is fine but I think a government which seeks to avoid metaphysical commitments may not get it so easy. It’s one thing just to assert that 'human life is sacrosanct' or 'it's wrong to cause harm' and another to attempt to prove it.

It sometimes happens where there is no write of state authority, such as in frontier places, that an evil person must needs be restrained and punished.

Re that paragraph, okay, that makes more sense.

That's a particular theory of government that is very contentious. It trends very libertarian, and Ed Feser has written extensively why he doesn't think that can be supported finally.

To clarify: I am not denying that a State might and should carry out activities which do not normally fall within the range of an individual's moral obligation e.g. maintaining justice on a civic scale, keeping the peace, providing care for the sick and so forth. What I'm claiming is that a governing body is only a group of individual men working together to achieve goods it would be impractical for one person to achieve alone.

rank sophist said...

Timocrates,

Antichrist, when he comes, be sure, will be at war with religious liberty and the sentiment that the death penalty should not end.


What a bizarre non-argument. Three consecutive popes have criticized the death penalty's use in modern society, and you unreflectively assert this to be a view of the Antichrist? The idea that capital punishment is appalling to Christians (even if it is technically "just") dates back at least to St. Athenagoras (see A Plea for the Christians, ch. 35), if not earlier. Disagreements on this issue are understandable, but you help no one by poisoning the well with unargued blither like the above.

DNW said...

"... I think that such occasions should be extremely rare and we ought to try to reabilitate criminals, not kill them."



Assuming that you do not mean murderers, most people would probably agree.

In the case of murderers, they would probably ask "Why?"

You know as in "What's my obligation to a murderer?"


"I will be deaf to pleading and excuses;

Nor tears nor prayers shall purchase out abuses ...

Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill."

The William ....

Parker said...

Rank Sophist, I think you might be misreading Timocrates argument. The double negative might be throwing you off. I think he Timocrates was saying that the antichrist would be all for the death penalty although his syntax is a little confusing

Timocrates said...

@ Rank Sophist,

My apologies here the confusion is my fault. What I meant to rather say was,

"Antichrist... will be at war with... the sentiment that the death penalty should end."

This will of course be necessary as we are told that Antichrist will produce many martyrs, and the persecution will be even more fierce than under the worst Roman Emperors.

Now, I should qualify here that I can perfectly understand the belief that certain crimes really are so horrific as to merit in man's moral sentiment the death penalty. But I do not think it is morally necessary and I do believe that ending the death penalty, like affirming, defending and promoting religious liberty, is a bulwark against
Antichrist, notwithstanding the inevitability of his coming.

John West said...

Timocrates wrote: Antichrist, when he comes, be sure, will be at war with religious liberty and the sentiment that the death penalty should not end.

I think rank sophist's issue was more with the fact that this was presented as an unargued assertion.

Tony said...

While I share Rank's dissatisfaction with Timocrates lack of an argument, I also think that whatever argument might be behind the sentiment (based on a putative future Antichrist of which we know very little) it would be no better an this probable argument: that whatever kindling the Antichrist has to work with in building his bonfire, the sticks in the kindling will be composed at least partly of men and societies REFUSING to pursue justice in law, REFUSING to give voice to the ineradicable testimony of the death penalty to man's dignity made in God's image (cf Gen. 9:6), and haring off after false images of man that confuse secular humanism with superficial aspects of Christianity. Thus, if the Antichrist misuses the death penalty, it will be due to prior society setting up the conditions in which they defected away from the proper use of the state's authority. Reaction against that defect pushes too far into the opposite defect.

rank sophist said...

Timocrates,

Oh--I didn't realize that it was a typo. Apologies for jumping on you so quickly. I see where you're coming from now, but I still think that drawing in the Antichrist (of which, as Tony said, we know next to nothing) is unhelpful. Firstly, the sins of modern society are already more than great enough to provide the Antichrist, when he arrives, with his tools of persecution. In that regard, a non-sin like the death penalty is the least of our worries--I'm much more concerned about many Christians' growing distaste for martyrdom, and their willingness to do anything to avoid it, for example. Secondly, Christian tradition has almost universally affirmed the technical morality of the death penalty, even though it generally decried its application before the Middle Ages. With that in mind, it makes little sense to equate support of the death penalty with support (even indirect support) of the Antichrist.

Tony,

I would read that Genesis passage as a descriptive rather than prescriptive statement--most obviously because, taken at face value, it results in an infinite regress of blood-shedding. A descriptive reading would fit far better with Matthew 26:52, among other passages. Either that or Gen 9:6 could be read as invalid after the New Testament, as was the case with Gen 9:4. I'll have to see if the Church Fathers talked about this.

Timocrates said...

@ Tony,

God did not order Cain to be killed. He certainly had the authority to grant that Cain should be put to death; however, we in fact read that Cain indeed feared this prospect and far from ordering Cain to be killed God placed a mark on him such that he would not be killed.

We see later also the blood for blood logic increasing violence exponentially amongst the antediluvians. The argument could therefore be made that the Bible is quite sceptical about man's judgement to use killing as a form of securing or honoring justice.

Indeed, as one commentator on America magazine's article about this pointed out, only under Moses was the death penalty instituted, with the end being atonement of blood; however, that obviously pointed to Christ's sacrifice on the Cross, which is the true and only sufficient atonement of blood for sins. Arguably, the death penalty logic is especially uncongenial with Christianity especially in non-Christian contexts, as underlying it is a potentially very hazardous view or assumption - the need to keep society pure by shedding human blood to make atonement or satisfy justice for serious human crimes and sins.

Tony said...

only under Moses was the death penalty instituted

God did not order Cain to be killed. He certainly had the authority to grant that Cain should be put to death

And now thou art robbing me of the ground, and I shall be cut off from thy protection, and wander over the earth, a fugitive; anyone I meet will slay me.

When I read the passage of Cain and consider it in the context of the death penalty, one thing, to me, stands out: so far from protesting against Cain's observation that anyone shall kill him as being wrong, God more or less confirms that, unless something is done, yes, anyone might kill him. Now, this might be descriptive rather than prescriptive, but read the passage carefully and you will find NO HINT that this reaction of Cain's fellow man is wrong or unjust. God, rather, sets a mark of mercy, a special exception, upon Cain. Nowhere does it seem that God is saying THAT ACT of mercy is, rather, the rule for all murderers.

Tony said...

rank, I don't see a way to read Genesis 9:6 as descriptive. The whole passage consists of prescriptive permissions or commands or prescriptive limits: "Increase and multiply", "I give you dominion", "you must not eat". The context is not descriptive generally.

It is possible to read the prescription as bound to the Old Testament rule, which becomes invalid with the New Covenant, I will grant the possibility. But this is a troubled account, not smooth sailing. For one thing, the rationale given is universal in character: for man is made in the image of God. This is not a rule just for the Old Testament.

Even more strongly: when Jesus rebukes the Jews for their divorce practices, he unravels Moses' permission for divorce by taking the root of marriage right back to Genesis 1: "male and female he created them." And in chapter 2, "That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh." Both of these come before the fall, and thus tell us a rule more deeply grounded than those built from accommodating damaged, sinful man. Yet Genesis 9:6 DOES EXACTLY THAT also: it takes us back to Genesis 1, the words with which God creates man: "in Our own image."

It is very hard to see anything in the New Testament that creates a GENERAL PRESCRIPTIVE that overturns this prescription in Genesis 9.

Timocrates said...

@ Tony,

"Nowhere does it seem that God is saying THAT ACT of mercy is, rather, the rule for all murderers. "

I think that is debatable. Is not mercy the general rule of God? Indeed, underlying biblical logic, is there not the premise that man cannot exist without mercy? That all men, being sinners, need mercy?

In your next post you claim,

"he whole passage consists of prescriptive permissions or commands or prescriptive limits:"

That is the Protestant interpretation. Catholics understand this not as a commandment but as a blessing and indeed a vocation already present in our nature. There is a desire in our nature to increase and multiply, and God blesses this, promising it will indeed be good and bear fruit. No doubt, considering the mass of mankind was by and large done away with in the story of the flood, this is ultimately anchored in a view to Christ and ultimately, by extension, the Church; notwithstanding, it does hold promise for procreation and, indeed, given God's mercy and forgiveness offered through Christ, means every human being has hope and promise of redemption and salvation.

Again, returning to Cain, we might understand the mark God placed on Cain as a preemptive attempt to limit violence on the earth exactly by contradicting the blood for blood justice logic. Notwithstanding, however, we see the mass of the antediluvians engaging in it.. exactly to the end or effect that violence and bloodshed proliferated exponentially upon the earth.

Joe K. said...

To add to Genesis 9, an actual prescription from Numbers 35:

16 “But if he struck him down with an instrument of iron, so that he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. 17 And if he struck him down with a stone in the hand, by which a man may die, and he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. 18 Or if he struck him down with a weapon of wood in the hand, by which a man may die, and he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. 19 The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death. 20 And if he stabbed him from hatred, or hurled at him, lying in wait, so that he died, 21 or in enmity struck him down with his hand, so that he died, then he who struck the blow shall be put to death; he is a murderer; the avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death, when he meets him.

22 “But if he stabbed him suddenly without enmity, or hurled anything on him without lying in wait, 23 or used a stone, by which a man may die, and without seeing him cast it upon him, so that he died, though he was not his enemy, and did not seek his harm; 24 then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these ordinances; 25 and the congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge, to which he had fled, and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. 26 But if the manslayer shall at any time go beyond the bounds of his city of refuge to which he fled, 27 and the avenger of blood finds him outside the bounds of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood slays the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood. 28 For the man must remain in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest; but after the death of the high priest the manslayer may return to the land of his possession.

29 “And these things shall be for a statute and ordinance to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings. 30 If any one kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses; but no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. 31 Moreover you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death; but he shall be put to death. 32 And you shall accept no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the high priest. 33 You shall not thus pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of him who shed it. 34 You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.”

Besides clearly making a distinction between what we would call "murder" and "manslaughter" or "accidental homicide," death is undoubtedly prescribed for murder. And there's even a reason given: "You shall not thus pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of him who shed it." This, at least in my estimation, echoes Genesis 9. Nothing, at least in the context of Numbers, can be "put in place" of the capital punishment, as death demands death, and the only way to cleanse death is by death.

Timocrates said...

@ Rank Sophist,

No need to apologize. You read and interpreted as the rules of English dictated.

"but I still think that drawing in the Antichrist (of which, as Tony said, we know next to nothing) is unhelpful"

I am inclined to disagree with this.

I would argue that we know plenty about Antichrist, even enough to assign particular foreshadows of him, as greater or fewer aspects of Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, Nero and the other Roman Emperor persecutors as well as more recent figures like Napoleon and Hitler each, again, in their own way, foreshadowed something of the actual Antichrist. In prophesy the Bible typically uses a lot of allegory and metaphor that requires a really deep acquaintance with the Scriptures; however, once these are understood, the Bible is actually quite clear about the figure of Antichrist. We also have supplied for us in the Scriptures historical figures who foreshadowed Antichrist, as quite clearly in the books of the Maccabees. Indeed, the Church will recognize him, even in spite of his marvels and pretenses though, to be sure, the temptations and persecutions of the Antichrist will make fidelity to Christ and His Church most difficult. I mean, there will no doubt be a great apostasy from the faith and the Church; however, this will not be done in total ignorance but rather "willful" denial - I mean willful not as being perfectly voluntary but done through self-deception, in keeping with the lapsed of the early Church, who apostatized out of fear of persecution and desire to be reconciled to the powers that be.

Joe K. said...

And Tony,

When I say "actual prescription," I'm not throwing doubt on the idea that Genesis 9:6 is a prescription (which I think it clearly is). I mean more "an unquestionable prescription, in case there's any doubt." I brought Numbers 35 up, which I think fleshes out that general prescription from Genesis 9:6 into a more specific prescription, to echo this.

Timocrates said...

@ Joe K.,

Thank you for sharing the relevant passages from the OT and Mosaic law.

A few things I would like to point out though.

Context. These are laws for God's people. The persons involved are assumed to be God's people. That is why I earlier mentioned that the logic in from a secular or non-Christian point of view or general social context.

Christologically, I would also point out the connection between the ransom of the manslayer being tied to the life and death of the high priest.

Legally and practically, I would point out the necessary criteria for putting someone to death. To be faithful, we would need to amend secular law to require for the death penalty the minimum necessary criteria and considerations prescribed; however, that would be tantamount to imposing a theological legal system. We should also note that any case of an innocent being killed would implicate the whole congregation or assembly - the whole society would become guilty of the slaying of an innocent, at which point I imagine most people would definitely hope that there is some possibility of mercy or forgiveness.

Joe K. said...

Even if that prescription were somehow for just Israelites in the context of Mosaic law (which I am extremely skeptical of; note "And these things shall be for a statute and ordinance to you throughout your generations in all your dwellings"), it's sort of besides the point.

Clearly God is down with subscribing death as the punishment (the ONLY punishment) for murder. And not just by the Catechism's standard (when there's no other option available). The principle cited by God in the Numbers passage is the idea of justice. That one thing can Only (and it is specific about this) be enough for spilling the blood of another.

If you want to make the argument that this somehow changed once Christ showed up, fine (I'm completely skeptical of this as well, and I think it's totally untenable), but my point was merely that God does prescribe death, and the reasons he does so is not for protection or anything else. It's for justice. Because man is so sacred (because he is made in the image of God), if he is murdered, all the land is polluted.

Timocrates said...

Alright Joe K, but I would still insist that in secular and non-Christian contexts proscribing the death penalty is usually rather motivated for the wrong reasons.

Again, as Saint Paul noted, if you're going to live by the law of Moses, then you have to live and die by all of it. And obviously we can't make a parallel between modern, secular law and the laws of the OT - modern secular ordinances proscribing the death penalty are not governed by the biblical requirements for its application. It is therefore not protected by biblical law either. It is therefore rather obvious that the motivation is not fidelity to God. Indeed, man is in a way rendered innocent in applying the OT exactly because man's will is bound by God's in it, such that the consequences of carrying it out are not so much the product of his own will but rather God's; whereas, in secular systems, we carry out rather our will. There is therefore arguably greater responsibility and culpability.

I should also note that in the OT, and again to my earlier point, the Israelites were notoriously hesitant to carry out God's decrees totally. Consequently they did not kill all the Caananites, which failure later haunted their children as the Caananites acted as a fifth column in society and generally seduced Israel into infidelity to the covenant via idolatry. And again, the stonings as punishment were hardly an enjoyable act. These people were often members of your community and even your relatives, and carrying out God's decree on them was to that extent painful and torturous. Purging society of the wicked involved an interior, painful purging of each individual member also. We can contrast that to the killing motivated by hatred, fear, misunderstanding, rage or anger where the actors desperately wanted to inflict punishment on the first Christians, for instance.

Joe K. said...

I was merely trying to address the debate concerning whether Genesis 9:6 was prescriptive or descriptive with additional, relevant scripture.

As to your other point, we're discussing Catholics and the question of whether there is scriptural justification for the death penalty. The reasoning provided in this passage clearly does not, to me, sound like a specifically Israelite or Mosaic thing. It, like "man and woman, he created them" is for Christians as much as it is for Israelites. Both Genesis 9 and Numbers 35 are clearly speaking to the idea that man as man (not as Israelite) is sacred, and the appropriate punishment for snuffing out man is death. My point is not that Numbers gives specific legal justification for Christian support of the death penalty (nobody is calling for "living by the law of Moses"), but that it speaks to the absolutely valid and moral principle underlying the use of the death penalty. This is a general point about human nature that the OT is simply speaking to.

Which is why I think a purely secular society could understand this and apply it appropriately. Most secular societies have understood this as a matter of fact. That's why most societies have had the death penalty, in some shape or form, as punishment for murder. "Justice" isn't a uniquely Israelite or Christian thing. In the same way, upholding justice is "for God," even if God isn't specifically in view. If it's good, it's for God, in one way or another. I see no reason to degrade secular will for the death penalty especially, but not for things like life imprisonment (or any other punishment), which are clearly part of the good. The good sought in the death penalty is an actual good that it good for us just because we are human, not one that is simply an extension out of obedience to YHWH.

Daniel said...

Secondly, Christian tradition has almost universally affirmed the technical morality of the death penalty, even though it generally decried its application before the Middle Ages. With that in mind, it makes little sense to equate support of the death penalty with support (even indirect support) of the Antichrist.

I don't think Timocrates would require one to deny its technical morality only the wisdom of its practical application in the modern world. Nothing is more effective in blinding the eye of the soul than scape-goating or knee-jerk morality, and for the vulgar the death penalty offers a very cut-and-dry 'satisfying' spectacle of justice, one which appeals to man's more base and bestial instincts. A moral society which employs it will of course try to keep that at a minimum but an immoral one may use it to encourage the immoral facets of man's nature (of course it will use many other things too).

If I'm asked to imagine an Antichrist I imagine them along the banality of evil lines as combining various superficial and contradictory popular opinions e.g. wringing their hands about the Holocaust and waxing forth with pious indignation about children dying of meningitis in earthquakes whilst at the same time extolling the virtue of Transhumanist master race building and infanticide qua baby-farming on Consequentialists lines.

(I am sceptical of any last judgement or physical resurrection so cannot be said to have any doctrinal stake in it)

rank sophist said...

Tony,

If Gen 9:6 is taken as a prescriptive command, then it means (deep breath) that the people who shed the blood of those who have shed blood must have their own blood shed. At least in the English translation, there is no distinction made between murder and just execution. I agree that the other lines are clearly prescriptive, but scripture is read line-by-line for a reason. Could the argument be made that Gen 9:6 is prescriptive? Certainly; but more groundwork would need to be done.

Regarding the New Testament potentially overturning this principle, I think the examples should be obvious enough. Right off the bat, Matthew 5:39 and 26:52 and John 8:11 stick out, as does the general principle expressed by Jesus's refusal to use state power to punish his persecutors. These bled into the early church's skepticism toward the carrying out of capital punishment. The insistence upon a strict system of corporal punishment for certain actions is at home in ancient Israel and most forms of Islam, but Christianity did not, at first, follow suit.

Joe,

The Old Testament cannot be read without the context of the New Testament. It is only coherent insofar as its books (like the ever-infamous Leviticus) are seen as unfulfilled signs of the New Testament. A long quote from the Book of Numbers might settle the matter in Judaism (probably not, though, given their vast exegetical tradition), but it's incomplete in Christianity.

Timocrates,

I mean willful not as being perfectly voluntary but done through self-deception, in keeping with the lapsed of the early Church, who apostatized out of fear of persecution and desire to be reconciled to the powers that be.

Which is exactly why I'm more concerned about Christians' distaste for martyrdom than the existence of the death penalty. We'll all die one way or the other, whether we're persecuted or not. Keeping or abolishing the death penalty will not affect the Antichrist's ability to kill souls--in fact, real persecution tends to embolden the faithful. Modern society is fertile ground for the Antichrist not because of capital punishment but because of weak, nominal Christianity. I remain skeptical of the death penalty for various reasons, not least that it was broadly disliked by the early church; but I don't think that it has anything to do with the apocalypse.

rank sophist said...

Daniel,

Nothing is more effective in blinding the eye of the soul than scape-goating or knee-jerk morality, and for the vulgar the death penalty offers a very cut-and-dry 'satisfying' spectacle of justice, one which appeals to man's more base and bestial instincts.

This is true enough. Particularly in the days of public execution, it could be used to satisfy man's bloodlust, which (if Augustine is to be believed) is a mortal sin. I could see this line of argument against capital punishment being effective in a society with public executions--although it's a bit weaker in modern America.

Joe K. said...

Rank,

"If Gen 9:6 is taken as a prescriptive command, then it means (deep breath) that the people who shed the blood of those who have shed blood must have their own blood shed. At least in the English translation, there is no distinction made between murder and just execution."

Seriously...? I can't believe that you actually think that. It seems patently unjust to read it this way for the sake of proving that it shouldn't be read prescriptively (I'm going to read something as ridiculous to prove that it can't be read that way!). I can't imagine any person, especially in the context of law, would ever read it the way you've suggested here. The listeners of the verse would have obviously known of "just execution." Notice that Numbers uses the exact same "shed blood" language in the explicit context of murder. ("You shall not thus pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land, and no expiation can be made for the land, for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of him who shed it.") The readers/listeners would have understood them the same exact way. Unless you want to make the even more absurd argument that reading it "line by line," we can't know that Numbers there is talking about murder and just execution and was really just YHWH telling all of Israel to wipe itself out!

And I feel like you didn't even read what I wrote. I didn't cite Numbers to say, "Hey look, the Bible says to do it! So Christians should do it!" I cited it to support the (in my opinion obvious) fact that the OT (including Genesis 9:6) speaks to the idea that murder requires, by its nature, the punishment of death, as is explicitly laid out by YHWH Himself in Numbers. There's no "because YHWH says so," as is usually the case. He's speaking directly to the underlying principle of justice. Murder by its nature (as it is an offense to what man is) pollutes the land Because it's murder, and it is despicable to have YHWH himself live in a land that is polluted in such a way. As such, since the only way to remedy this pollution is by death of the murderer, it ought to be done.

Joe K. said...

I'm honestly having trouble reading Genesis 9:6 as descriptive. I can't even imagine such a reading.

Because man is made in the image of God, he will inevitably (by his nature?) shed the blood of those who shed blood? Being made in the image of God somehow Causes him to shed the blood of other men who shed blood??

What is your descriptive reading exactly here?

rank sophist said...

Joe,

The actual text of Genesis 9:6,

Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.

Where is the distinction between murder and just execution in this passage? In fact, where can it be found in the entirety of Genesis 9? It isn't there. Perhaps it exists in the original, pre-English text--I couldn't say. Read literally and in English, this passage (on its own) entails an infinite regress of bloodshed. I would therefore tend to read it descriptively, as a Matthew 26:52-style statement. The mention of God's image could be rationalized, in this context, as a reference to the sanctity of human life causing people to lash out when it is violated.

This reading could be disputed, certainly. But I think it's presumptuous to take Genesis 9:6 as an "obvious" endorsement of capital punishment, as Tony did. The stuff from Numbers is such an endorsement, but its legalistic logic was invalidated by Matthew 5:39 and 26:52 and John 8:11, among other New Testament passages.

Joe K. said...

Rank,

Both of those readings (that it's descriptive and that "because you are made in the image of God" is somehow providing some psychological explanation as to why people might kill (which exists, as far as I know, nowhere else in the Pentateuch; and, incidentally, I wasn't aware that people murdered because they were mad about the image of God being desecrated?)) are incredible stretches of the language, both in English and in Hebrew (wherein the verb is used in the "shall" prescriptive context elsewhere in the OT, see Deut. 12:27 ). If you want to make an argument that somehow this particular verse is "invalidated," fine (though I find this silly), but that reading is beyond a stretch.

This is especially true in light of Genesis 9:5, which contains God saying that He will require an accounting or reckoning for the killing of man. And then the next verse (9:6) repeats that accounting is, with explanation as to why. In 9:4, God tells man not to eat the lifeblood of animals (their blood). And He says, "and like animals, your lifeblood will demand an accounting or reckoning too; that is, man's life." This is, without any question, a prescription. God is personally demanding this reckoning (man's death) in 9:5.

Now, I'll grant that 9:5 is usually translated awkwardly, but to read everything up to and including 9:5 as prescriptive, 9:6 as descriptive and totally disconnected from the previous verse, and then 9:7 as prescriptive is just to be intentionally obtuse for the sake of arguing. That this refers to the punishment of death for death is as obvious as any other verse.

I'll leave Numbers aside for now, as I still don't think people understand what's going on in those verses, and there's no need to get into a big "THE NT INVALIDATES THIS PART OF OT LAW!" debate.

Son of Ya'Kov said...

Deep down I feel there was something too St John Paul II opposition to the Death Penalty.

I wished we lived in a world where it wasn't necessary.

But at the end of the Day I too support Capital Punishment.

Son of Ya'Kov said...

BTW like my new moniker?

I'm BenYaacov btw.

Timocrates said...

@ Rank,

Most Christians are weak. And you are right that lambs become lions when they perceive something their Christian souls revolt against, which is exactly what it makes it so holy: they are not acting so much from their own will as the need to do God's and bear witness to goodness.

But I am sorry. Capital punishment in the USA is totally divorced from the Christian ethic. You might as well try to convince me that greed is good is an extension of the Bible's defense of private property.

Defend the death penalty all day long. That is your human right. But remember that each time it is inflicted on an innocent you are also, especially from biblical law, entirely culpable of blood.

Daniel said...

@Rank,

I agree though conversely in the ancient world the news of a trial and proposed execution wouldn't be spread anywhere near as widely and as quickly it is nowadays, and thus wouldn't affect so many people. In other words it couldn't become a cause celebre and whip up the passions of the crowd the way it does now (of course a lot of this is thanks to our old friends the modern media). If a man was hung for killing a child on Copenhagen I doubt there would be crowds of angry parents fulminating and screeching 'the bastard deserved it, he should have been made to suffer' and so forth in Southern Italy or thereabouts.

Romanitas Press said...

A great explanatory piece about capital punishment has just been announced at sspx.org: http://sspx.org/en/news-events/news/capital-punishment-catholic-perspective-7309.

Tony said...

This reading could be disputed, certainly. But I think it's presumptuous to take Genesis 9:6 as an "obvious" endorsement of capital punishment, as Tony did.

I do dispute it, for mutliple reasons. First, because the context of the passage as a whole doesn't readily admit of mere description.

Second, (and this is only probable, not definite), the "shall" is in form the language of prescription. "Thou shalt not steal" is a prescription. If you want to describe, you say "will", not "shall", because "shall" means something else, it implies an "ought". (That's "shall" in modern English. Some of the translations are in modern English, some in the older archaic English of King James or whatever. I don't claim to know exactly whether "shall" carried the same sense in Elizabethan English, though my sense is that it did.)

Third, because description doesn't AT ALL admit of supplying a reason right after. Not like that. The "for in the image of God" we find the *explanation* for the "shall their blood be shed", and there is simply NO way to way to construe that as explaining a description. It just doesn't work. It's ghastly to even try.

I didn't merely presume to say that the passage is an "obvious" endorsement of capital punishment as an off-the-cuff presumption on my part, but because it REALLY IS the obvious _first_ reading, AND because that first reading holds up to examination, careful parsing, contextual comparison, exegesis, etc. As I showed with the comparison to Christ overturning the divorce rule.

The stuff from Numbers is such an endorsement, but its legalistic logic was invalidated by Matthew 5:39 and 26:52 and John 8:11, among other New Testament passages.

Matt 5:9 "Blessed are the peace-makers; they shall be counted the children of God."

Matt 26:52 "Whereupon Jesus said to him, Put thy sword back into its place; all those who take up the sword will perish by the sword."

John 8:10 "Whichever of you is free from sin shall cast the first stone at her.

I do not dispute that these are often used to support the thesis that with the New Covenant the use of capital punishment is dis-favored. However, I would say, first, that if the dis-favor is of a universal, formal sense that it is to be proscribed always and everywhere, then the Catholic Church has formally taught error for 1600 years or so, right up through JPII and Benedict XVI. The better sense would be more like "we should lean against using it even as much as we are justified in using it." Which, I think, does not contradict Ed's claims at all.

Secondly, these passages by no means get away with UNDISPUTED claims against capital punishment. Just as an example, in John, Christ is not even seemingly making a prescription of general character. Does what he says apply specifically to this woman, or to all similar cases? Some would claim that only one - like Christ - who can both cause repentance in the sinner before you and forgive the sin can do what Christ did in that passage and generalize about it. But the state has no such power. The other passages have their own problems for the anti-death penalty stance.

Tony said...

Rank, I have a question for you. If you think that the "by humans shall their blood be shed" doesn't admit of a distinction between murder and execution, (because there is no direct hint of such a division in the language), then wouldn't you have to be held to the same standard for Exodus 20:13 "Thou shalt not kill"? Isn't it really a little silly to say, though, that Exodus 20:13 is a universal prescription that doesn't distinguish - and doesn't ALLOW us to distinguish - between murder and execution, and then say that Numbers 35 requires the death penalty and clearly distinguishes that from murder, with a time frame within a modest period of the men involved in the two books (i.e. the same individuals were present for both utterances)? That demands a kind of schizophrenia of us, doesn't it?

Deota said...

"A valid government does indeed have a moral foundation for its authority, including the authority to punish"

So we first need to formulate a theory of "valid" govt. Does the Islamic State constitute a "valid" govt? Did Nazi Germany, Stalin-era USSR?

When is a govt "valid" and what "validates" or "invalidates" it, these questions seem to form an essential components of the ethics of capital punishment.

Deota said...

What about the use of capital punishment for non-murder crimes such as treason or buggery (Bible and also some Middle-East states).
England had capital punishment for thefts and poaching. Was it ethical or were all such executions unjust per se?

Anonymous said...

This is not a place where anybody has the right to be self-righteous about anything whatsoever.

There is no true self-knowledge process for real without being willing to have any and every thing be true of you. In fact, you will discover that every thing IS true of you. It is! Everything! It is all there. There are no exceptions. All the potential, both positive and negative, are there.

You know the saying, "But for the Grace of God go I - in the same circumstance, you would do the same. Be grateful you are not in such a position. If anybody did it, you could have and can do it; if anybody suffered it, you can suffer it too. Anything anybody will ever suffer could be yet suffered by you in your own case, in the case of the body-mind with which you are sitting on a chair right now, you see.
So who is pure?
The appearance of being self-righteously pure is a sales job, it is pernicious nonsense. Any genuine purity is not merely a characteristic of the body-mind. it is a Divine or Ultimate characteristic that has replaced the egoic-patterning of the body-mind. It is not something that the ego can claim. The ego has to be transcended for such Brightness to be manifested. So there is no pride in it, no status in it.
Just think of all the things you have attributed to yourself over time, both positive and negative. It is all fiction, it is nonsense. All the good and bad things about anybody could just as well be true of you, too. It is just a spontaneously arising pattern patterning.
The totality of humankind is the biography of every single person.

Anonymous said...

It's not like Christianity is a religion based on the misapplication of the death penalty.

Georgy Mancz said...

re: the nonsense anonymous
who reads like the other anonymous in the comment section under "Augustine and Heraclitus on the present moment" post


Did Scarecrow go on a trip to South Asia and embrace some new and very rigid version of no-self doctrine there, and going anonymous in accordance with this decision?

Robert Barzilauskas said...

Dr. Feser,

The text from the Statement by the Permanent Observer of the Holy See, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, to the United Nations was released today. Below is an excerpt that echoes the Pope's and UCCSB's consistent position on abolishing the death penalty internationally.

While we all know the unfortunate emotive and inaccurate language used in the editorials last week on this matter, while holding that there was a time for the just use of the death penalty to prevent those who could neither be reasonably contained or released to kill again, it is very clear that the Magisterium is opposed to its use in practice today. I understand that you and the authors of the articles you cite at the Thomistica were deeply disturbed when capital punishment was loosely labeled as abhorrent, but please also consider that many are deeply disturbed by these public arguments against the Church and her efforts, by making your case to maintain the death penalty in practice.

We can understand reflection on how the principle of this penalty can be just, but to lobby for its use today, I think is in error.

Peace to you. Robert
------------------------

"...the Holy See Delegation fully supports the efforts to abolish the use of the death penalty. In order to arrive at this desired goal, these steps need to be taken: 1) to sustain the social reforms that would enable society to implement the abolition of the death penalty; 2) to improve prison conditions, to ensure respect for the human dignity of the people deprived of their freedom." - Archbishop Silvano Tomasi

http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2015/03/12/0181/00410.html

http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/death-penalty-capital-punishment/upload/5-723DEATHBI.pdf

Scott said...

@Tony:

I agree with you about Genesis 9:6, but I don't think Exodus 20:13 supports the precise point you make here:

"If you think that the 'by humans shall their blood be shed' doesn't admit of a distinction between murder and execution, (because there is no direct hint of such a division in the language), then wouldn't you have to be held to the same standard for Exodus 20:13 'Thou shalt not kill?"

The problem is that, as I understand it, the Hebrew here (לא תרצח, lo tirtzach) specifically refers to illegal killing (ordinarily murder) and so already has the distinction built in. The root רצח (retzach) is never used in the Torah to refer e.g. to execution or killing in war.

That observation does support your case generally, though. In particular it makes clear that there's no contradiction between Exodus 20:13 and Numbers 35, and no need for schizophrenia in reconciling them.

Tony said...

Scott, I welcome the infusion of more information. I don't know Hebrew, so I can't get behind the translations very well.

Can you provide comparable material about Genesis 9? For example, is the phrase that we have seen translated as "shed blood" an idiomatic phrase that could be used ONLY for illegal acts (like murder, maiming, etc), or is it just a literal rendering of the two individual words for "shed" and "blood"? Or some third alternative? A simple transliteration would be a use of "shed blood" that could also be applied to animals - a sacrifice of a lamb might be described as "shedding the blood of the lamb". But in modern English that is a somewhat inapt usage, because "shed blood" really refers to an act somewhat different than merely letting blood out of the body. We would not, for example, say that a surgeon is has "shed the blood" of his patient, nor that the nurse has done so when she takes blood from a donor. It refers to something of violence, and more to violence against a human.

More to the point, though, is the word exactly the same in both parts of the verse?

Scott said...

@Tony:

"For example, is the phrase that we have seen translated as 'shed blood' an idiomatic phrase that could be used ONLY for illegal acts (like murder, maiming, etc), or is it just a literal rendering of the two individual words for 'shed' and 'blood'?"

I'm no expert on Hebrew either, but that question I can answer: it's the latter. "Whoever sheds the blood of man," for example, is sopek [who sheds/spills] dam [blood] ha-adam [(of) the man]; variants of the same root words are used for "by man shall his blood be shed." So the answer to this question…

"[I]s the word exactly the same in both parts of the verse?"

…is essentially yes, although the words have different grammatical forms.

It means "kill" in each part of the verse, but that this particular phrase doesn't distinguish between murder and execution (or other forms of killing) doesn't mean the distinction is irrelevant. I neither see nor know of any reason to think that the verse is intended to suggest an infinite sequence of killings-in-turn.

Tony said...

Rank,

John Paul II points out something about responding to violence with violence. Suppose you are attacked unjustly, and you respond with force to defend yourself and end up killing the attacker. JPII says that the violence with which you respond to the attacker is to be laid at the attacker's door:

"Unfortunately it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life. In this case, the fatal outcome is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about" [EV 55].

I suggest that this attribution of responsibility for violence takes place in the case of the death penalty, also. The violence with which the state responds to the injustice is laid at the offender's door.

St. Thomas says:

sin incurs a debt of punishment through disturbing an order. But the effect remains so long as the cause remains. Wherefore so long as the disturbance of the order remains the debt of punishment must needs remain also. Now disturbance of an order is sometimes reparable, sometimes irreparable: because a defect which destroys the principle is irreparable, whereas if the principle be saved, defects can be repaired by virtue of that principle.

and

Consequently, whatever rises up against an order, is put down by that order or by the principle thereof. And because sin is an inordinate act, it is evident that whoever sins, commits an offense against an order: wherefore he is put down, in consequence, by that same order, which repression is punishment.

Accordingly, man can be punished with a threefold punishment corresponding to the three orders to which the human will is subject. In the first place a man's nature is subjected to the order of his own reason; secondly, it is subjected to the order of another man who governs him either in spiritual or in temporal matters, as a member either of the state or of the household; thirdly, it is subjected to the universal order of the Divine government.

Consequently, the force which the state uses to execute a murderer is violence laid at the murderer's own door in terms of responsibility, and this in turn is to be understood as the political/social order "putting down" that which rises up against that order. That which is "against" the order is the injustice, which condition remains as long as the offense is not punished. Hence the act of the state in using violence to restore justice in the case of a murderer is fundamentally different than that of an individual responding to murder in his capacity as an individual. The state's act of killing to redress justice, is a completely different species of act than that of murder. To infer that the execution incurs (under Gen. 9:6) the exact same censure as the murder, to infer that the passage leaves no room for us to bring in the distinction between the first "shed blood" and the second, is unreasonable. That they are both shedding of blood is true. That they are both to be censured in the SAME WAY because the same species of act is not reasonable. Shedding blood out of self defense is not censured the same way, nobody (except absolute extremist pacifists) thinks Gen. 9:6 puts self defense off limits - self-defense a different kind of act even though it too is shedding of blood. So neither does the passage put execution in the same category as censured murder.

rank sophist said...

Daniel,

True again. I'll have to think about this.

Tony,

While you may be correct about the Genesis passage in question, the problem of regress remains. There's some kind of explanation for it, but I couldn't say what it is.

I do not dispute that these are often used to support the thesis that with the New Covenant the use of capital punishment is dis-favored. However, I would say, first, that if the dis-favor is of a universal, formal sense that it is to be proscribed always and everywhere, then the Catholic Church has formally taught error for 1600 years or so, right up through JPII and Benedict XVI. The better sense would be more like "we should lean against using it even as much as we are justified in using it."

I agree. Early Christianity held pretty much that opinion of the death penalty: the state may justifiably enact it, but it is regrettable and nothing that Christians should actively desire. No one familiar with the early church could dispute that the death penalty, generally, was considered valid in the technical sense. Hence the Athenagoras quote I mentioned earlier, viz. "we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly".

Regarding the Exodus passage, I agree with Scott. The word usually translated as "kill" has connotations of unlawfulness in Hebrew.

I suggest that this attribution of responsibility for violence takes place in the case of the death penalty, also. The violence with which the state responds to the injustice is laid at the offender's door.

I'm not sure this works. The context of the JPII line (from what I Googled) is self-defense, and a self-defensive reaction to an act of aggression occurs in the moment. It makes perfect sense to say that, in the moment, an aggressor's actions resulted in his own death. If someone hits an inflatable clown punching bag and it rebounds into that person's face, we can justifiably point to the original blow as the root of the counterattack. If someone were to hit that punching bag only for it to delay its response, work through red tape and then strike, the cause-and-effect relationship would be less than clear. This does not invalidate the death penalty itself, but it makes that specific defense of the death penalty much shakier.

Consequently, the force which the state uses to execute a murderer is violence laid at the murderer's own door in terms of responsibility, and this in turn is to be understood as the political/social order "putting down" that which rises up against that order.

Retributive justice is not the question. It could be agreed even by an ardent opponent of the death penalty that those who rise up against an order--should their disruption of that order be an ongoing event--must be in some way suppressed. This is the root of the church's excommunication policy, which dates back to the earliest Christian communities: those who disrupt the community without repentance must be banished. In fact, it's the root of the classical understanding of sin, viz. that one who remains out of alignment with God's order is (by one's own will) cast out of it.

The issue is, instead, what measures a Christian should take while suppressing or removing the order-disrupting person. The early church and contemporary Catholic magisterium have argued that the death penalty is an undesirable measure. Other options are to be preferred. Those in favor of the death penalty would have to rebut that argument: defense of the death penalty's mere validity is not enough, because both sides agree there.

On its own, Genesis 9:6 lacks the clarity and rigor necessary to defend government-enacted capital punishment. And, in light of the New Testament, it loses its legalistic strictness. I don't think it's a worthwhile prooftext in this matter.

Scott said...

@rank sophist:

"The context of the JPII line (from what I Googled) is self-defense, and a self-defensive reaction to an act of aggression occurs in the moment."

Here's the relevant part of Evangelium Vitae; see §§ 53-56. As far as I can tell, there's nothing in it that contradicts either Ed or Tony—or, for that matter, you, apart from your suggestion that the passage itself concerns only self-defense "in the moment."

Tony said...

The issue is, instead, what measures a Christian should take while suppressing or removing the order-disrupting person. The early church and contemporary Catholic magisterium have argued that the death penalty is an undesirable measure. Other options are to be preferred. Those in favor of the death penalty would have to rebut that argument: defense of the death penalty's mere validity is not enough, because both sides agree there.

The measures under consideration for the entity (the polity) to eradicate the violation of its integrity are not "removing the order-disrupting person." That doesn't deal with the real problem. The integrity is resolved fully when the ORDER DISRUPTED is restored. This is not by getting rid of the person who did it, it is by resolving the offense and its ongoing offensiveness. The remedy is a penal imposition that redresses the offensiveness of the act itself.

If you stab flesh with a knife, it is not enough (to restore integrity) that you take the knife away. You have to do something about the wound. If you unjustly insult the mayor's honesty, it is not enough that you leave the vicinity, you have to redress the INSULT - like with an apology and a sacrifice of some good. A crime is an insult to the flesh of the body politic. Removing the person who decided upon such an insult is like taking the knife out of the wound. The correction of the damage, the restoration of integrity, is still to come. The penal imposition is what corrects the wound.

This too explains why the time in between the offense and the penalty does not create a major difference in comparison to the self-defense. In the cells of the body, if damage is done to the cell by injecting a toxin that unravels some structures, the body's reaction must be two-fold. The cell must get rid of the toxin itself, if that still is extant, and it must re-build the structures damaged from the toxin. It makes no sense to call only the ridding of the toxin the "natural response to the invasion" and not the re-building. Both acts by the body are "in response" to the invasion, they are just timed differently. Both are needed to recover full integrity. To call only the ejection of the toxin the "response" because only that action is directly ON the toxin itself is too narrow-sighted.

Similarly, the natural response of the body politic to malicious damage is to first put an end to the INCREASE of damage - stop the bleed, constrain the offender. (This does not address the malice of the offence, it only addresses the physical danger of ongoing or renewed acts of malice.) Then the state must redress the order upset by offence, by a penal imposition that addresses the malice of the act. Restraint from further malice prevents future evils possible, but does not deal with past evils that offend the common good.

Banishment acts as a penalty on the basis that one assumes the offender loves his country and being forced to leave is painful. Without that pain it is not penal, it is only ejecting the toxin from the body. It also has the advantage of removing the offender from the possibility of more attacks on the state - at the cost of his possibly doing so elsewhere. Now that effectively all lands are already claimed, there is no reasonable prospect of banishing a murderer except by exposing some other society to grave harm, so it is no longer feasible in general for capital violent crimes.

Glenn said...

In homage ('homage') to the so-called recursion problem, and a certain cynical and irresponsible argument:

"Johnny, it’s not right to hit people. Don’t do that again. If you do, I’ll have to spank you as a reminder."

But Little Johnny was oh so clever for a lad so young, and he experienced a certain anticipation with a silent glee.

The next day he again hit Little Bobby. And again his father found out.

"Johnny, you remember what I told you about hitting people?"

Little Johnny -- who, it may be recalled, was oh so clever for a lad so young -- lowered his head, and said, with just the right touch of faux contrition in voice and manner, "Yeah, I remember."

"Okay. Then you must also remember that I'm going to have to spank you."

There was a flutter of excitement in Little Johnny's heart, for this is just what Little Johnny was waiting to hear.

"But dad, that's not right. The good book says, 'He who hits will himself be hit.' And spanking is hitting. So if you spank me, you yourself will have to be spanked."

Now, usually it was no big deal when Little Johnny was spanked. It was a gentle reminder, and that was that. But this was no usual case. And 'twasn't until the day after that Little Johnny could sit comfortably again.

Little Johnny didn't understand. He knew he was clever, but he couldn't work out where he had gone wrong.

One day, when Little Johnny no longer was so little, and was old enough to drive, he was pulled over for doing 90 on the highway.

The trooper said, "You were exceeding the speed limit. I'll have to write you a ticket."

Johnny, still clever, though not yet schooled in the ways of variation, retorted, "But you caught up to me. And if I was exceeding the speed limit, you must've been too. So if I'm to be ticketed for speeding, then you yourself will have to be ticketed."

Now, usually it was no big deal when the trooper pulled over a driver for speeding. He'd issue a speeding ticket, and that would be that. But this was no usual case. And when the trooper walked back to his car, Johnny was left with not one but several tickets in his hand (speeding, failure to signal when changing lanes, broken taillight, overly tinted windows, tire flaps with bottoms too close to the ground, etc.).

Johnny didn't understand. He knew the troopers in that state tended to be lenient, but, despite his cleverness, he could not work out why he wound up with so many tickets in hand.

Some years later, while standing in a dock, Big Johnny was sentenced to death for crimes against humanity. When asked if there was anything he wished to say, Big Johnny, still clever after all these years, and now adept in the ways of variation, replied, "If you knew Nietzsche, you would understand why I justified my actions on the grounds that I had no moral right to do what I did."

Now, the judge was unperturbed. He must've been, for he immediately responded without the slightest delay, "I know Nietzsche well, Mr. Johann. And Marx just as well. So be advised, educated and informed that this court justifies the sentence imposed on the grounds that it has no right to impose it."

Big Johnny didn't understand. All his life he had known he was clever, and his cleverness invariably enabled him to work things out to his own satisfaction. But with a sentence of death hanging over his soon to be hung head, he knew he hadn't the time needed to work out where and how he had gone wrong.

Daniel said...

Now how pray tell is that relevant, save perhaps for the well-worn New Atheist strategy of appeal to 'custom and habit'? 'Hurbehurhur we all know the brick is actually going to smash the window so there's no need to worry that Induction and Causation problems we rely on might even be a tiny bit difficult for the scientific laws we rely on elsewhere'.

That if one has more power than another one can dominate them is nothing I'm sure anyone even remotely acquainted with the world need be persuaded of. What we are interested is what it is right to do regardless of whether one has the power or not. otherwise a certain famous conversation between Aristotle's pupil and a ship's captain is likely to occur.

Glenn said...

Daniel,

What we are interested is what it is right to do regardless of whether one has the power or not.

If so, then one likely would be better served by paying more attention to Tony's comments (particularly that one of his prior to that one of mine which troubles you so), and less attention to my parodies of the so-called recursion problem and the asinine argument that one might justify his right to do something on the grounds that he has no right to do it.

rank sophist said...

Tony,

The integrity is resolved fully when the ORDER DISRUPTED is restored. This is not by getting rid of the person who did it, it is by resolving the offense and its ongoing offensiveness.

Order is restored when its disruption is removed. I see no evidence that the restoration of order and the removal of disruption are two separate actions. If one jams a screwdriver into the gears of a machine, the machine will be disrupted. One must remove the screwdriver to fix the problem. If one insults the mayor, one causes a scandal. To fix the scandal one must make amends. If one steals property, another is deprived of it. One must return the property.

Retributive justice is a matter of allotting proper punishments given the injustice performed. In most cases restitution will suffice, but some will refuse to reform and repair. The final punishment for someone who disrupts order is expulsion from that order. This is why we imprison thieves and drug dealers: they undermined social order, and so were removed from it. Murderers were once executed because they disrupted social order. Heretics are excommunicated because they disrupted the church's order. Corrupted people are condemned to hell because they rejected God's order. When the law lets someone off with a warning, it is a warning that they will be expelled from order X if they do not reform. Chronic traffic violations void one's license.

Given the above, I see no unquestionable reason for a Christian to apply the death penalty. Life imprisonment is an incredibly debilitating expulsion from social order. One in this state has been effectively removed from the order that they disrupted. And execution has many negative side-effects, not limited to the impossibility of reconciliation with God. The death penalty is not inherently unjust, but it is undesirable for a Christian.

Tony said...

Order is restored when its disruption is removed. I see no evidence that the restoration of order and the removal of disruption are two separate actions.

You are conjoining "the disruption" with "the person who did the crime". But the disruption clearly is more the crime itself, not the person. And the transitory crime is over when the criminal ceases acting, isn't it? But wait, there's more. St. Thomas clarifies:

sin incurs a debt of punishment through disturbing an order. But the effect remains so long as the cause remains. Wherefore so long as the disturbance of the order remains the debt of punishment must needs remain also...
Duration of punishment corresponds to duration of fault, not indeed as regards the act, but on the part of the stain, for as long as this remains, the debt of punishment remains...
Two things may be considered in sin: the guilty act, and the consequent stain. Now it is evident that in all actual sins, when the act of sin has ceased, the guilt remains; because the act of sin makes man deserving of punishment, in so far as he transgresses the order of Divine justice, to which he cannot return except he pay some sort of penal compensation, which restores him to the equality of justice; so that, according to the order of Divine justice, he who has been too indulgent to his will, by transgressing God's commandments, suffers, either willingly or unwillingly, something contrary to what he would wish. This restoration of the equality of justice by penal compensation is also to be observed in injuries done to one's fellow men. Consequently it is evident that when the sinful or injurious act has ceased there still remains the debt of punishment.


The disorder to be restored is the out-of-kilter relation between parts in the state and between the criminal and the state. The restoration thereof is the re-establishment of justice in those relations by a penal compensation. The debt of punishment remains after the injurious act has ceased.

If one steals property, another is deprived of it. One must return the property.

Returning the property indeed restores the damage of the private individual whose property was taken (unless he also suffered loss of income during the period). But it does nothing to restore the disruption of the relationship of the criminal to the state, when he has unjustly created danger and unnatural risk of loss of property, and has been disobedient to law, contrary to common good (not just private good). These disorders need to be redressed also.

Retributive justice is a matter of allotting proper punishments given the injustice performed.

True. The injustice must be understood fully, and includes the relationship of the criminal to the whole order, including his disobedience and defiance of the common good.

The final punishment for someone who disrupts order is expulsion from that order.

Clearly, expulsion in the form of banishment is a kind of penalty but is more a removal of opportunity to continue damaging the order. But it does not complete the penal compensation, it leaves to God the restoration of justice.

Tony said...

This is why we imprison thieves and drug dealers: they undermined social order, and so were removed from it.

I do not think prison is to be viewed as "expulsion from the order". First, because the order is still responsible for them and their upkeep. Second, because they still interact with the order (appeals, etc). Third, because they also interact with others in the order (family visits, etc). Fourth, because the prison itself remains a part of our order - it is run by our rules, under our supervision, etc. It is a constrained part of our order, as is a juvenile detention center, a public school (but I repeat myself), etc.

Note, also, that a "prison" sentence can be worse or better: solitary confinement, hard labor, or country-club prisons. The confinement cannot be mere expulsion from the order if it admits of degree.

Scott said...

@rank sophist:

"In most cases restitution will suffice[.]"

How might that work in the case of murder?

Don said...

Avery Cardinal Dulles, 2004

“The reversal of a doctrine as well established as the legitimacy of capital punishment would raise serious problems regarding the credibility of the magisterium. Consistency with scripture and long-standing Catholic tradition is important for the grounding of many current teachings of the Catholic Church; for example, those regarding abortion, contraception, the permanence of marriage, and the ineligibility of women for priestly ordination. If the tradition on capital punishment had been reversed, serious questions would be raised regarding other doctrines." --- Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Catholic Teaching on the Death Penalty”, in Owens, Carlson & Elshtain, op. cit., p. 26.

Confused Anonymous Joe said...

I admit I haven't read any of the linked material. Is this an effort to show that the Catechism of the Catholic Church is wrong? Or an argument with entirely nothing to do with the Catholic faith?

Scott said...

@Confused Anonymous Joe:

"I admit I haven't read any of the linked material."

Please allow me to suggest gently that you might find that a helpful first step. ;-)