Monday, July 18, 2016

Capital punishment at Catholic World Report


UPDATE: The second installment of the article has now been posted at CWR

Over at Catholic World Report today you’ll find “Why the Church Cannot Reverse Past Teaching on Capital Punishment,” the first installment of a two-part article I have co-authored with Joseph M. Bessette, who teaches government and ethics at Claremont McKenna College.  Joe and I recently completed work on our book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty, which is forthcoming from Ignatius Press.
 
The fruit of many years of research and writing, our book is, so far as we know, by far the most thorough and systematic defense of capital punishment yet written from a Catholic point of view, addressing in depth all of the crucial philosophical, theological, and social scientific aspects of the issue.  We put forward an exposition and defense of the Thomistic natural law justification of capital punishment and a critique of the “new natural law” position.  We offer detailed analysis of the relevant statements to be found in scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the popes, along with an account of the different levels of authority enjoyed by various magisterial statements.  We provide an in-depth treatment of the questions of whether the death penalty has significant deterrence value, whether its application in the United States today reflects racial discrimination or discrimination against the poor, whether there is a significant risk of execution of the innocent, whether capital punishment removes the possibility of the offender’s repentance, and whether considerations of retributive justice are still applicable today.  We provide a detailed evaluation of the theological and social scientific objections raised in recent years by the American bishops.

We demonstrate in our book that the case for preserving capital punishment is very strong, that the case for abolishing it extremely weak, and that the kind of rhetoric that has dominated Catholic discussion of the issue in recent years cannot be reconciled with the irreformable teaching of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the popes.  We do so in a non-polemical way.  In recent discussion of capital punishment within Catholic circles there has been far too much emotion and simple-minded sloganeering, and far too little careful reasoning and attention to the actual facts.  When the facts and arguments are set out dispassionately, they speak for themselves.

More on the book before long.  Part 2 of our article will appear at Catholic World Report later this week.  Links to previous posts and articles on capital punishment can be found here

114 comments:

Daniel said...

The Dostoevsky quote would make more sense were we to take it as part of a denial of the Retributive account of Justice as a whole, however I doubt the current Pope would be willing to instigate such a radical change in ethical theory (one assumes it would have far reaching effects in terms of doctrines such as the official theory of Atonement).

The second paragraph above though stating that the death penalty is impermissible today, looks to be an affirmation of the old view that there are situations in which said punishment is not intrinsically wrong.

If I might venture a conclusion: the Pope wants to affirm that use of the death penalty is immoral in contemporary society and, unlike on older accounts, its morality is not to be justified by Utilitarian/Prudential reasons. This is all well and good but if he does believe it was ever justified he ought to provide some alternative canon as to decide what those situations would be.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Daniel,

Well, it's not clear what he thinks. In fact, Pope Francis has several times condemned even life imprisonment and said other very unusual things about punishment in general that go well beyond anything JP2 ever said, and certainly well beyond anything you'll find in the tradition. This has gotten less attention than one would have expected, and I suspect that the reason is that even the pope's most ardent admirers do not quite know what to make of it.

Anyway, we discuss all this in the book.

Ruben said...

If capital punishment cannot now be forbidden because Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and many previous popes viewed it as permissible, why can the Church now forbid all forms of slavery (CCC 2414) despite Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and many previous popes viewing some forms of slavery as permissible?

ccmnxc said...

Did all those authorities unanimously, or near-unanimously agree that chattel slavery such as we saw in the 17th-19th centuries (note the whole "selling humans like merchandise" quote in your Catechism reference) was okay, as opposed to something more like indentured servitude? I'm not sure this parallel holds.

Anonymous said...

Unless Dr. Feser believes "The Catechism of The Catholic Church" is a heretical book, here is the Church's OFFICIAL position on the death penalty:

2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Note that it says: "if this is the ONLY POSSIBLE WAY of effectively defending human life..."

Note also that it says that if "non-lethal means are sufficient to defend people's safety, AUTHORITY WILL LIMIT ITSELF TO SUCH MEANS...."

The Catechism, not Pope JP II or Pope Francis, has already severely restricted the use of the death penalty.

malcolmthecynic said...

Anonymous,

The Catechism is a summary of Catholic teaching; if Dr. Feser can successfully demonstrate that the summary presented there is a poor one, your claim isn't really relevant.

That's pretty much the point.

Edward Feser said...

Anonymous,

First of all, I am of course well aware of what the Catechism says, and Joe Bessette and I have a lot to say about it in the book. Merely quoting it as you have done proves exactly nothing, because what is at issue is whether the words you emphasize represent an actual change in doctrinal principle, or instead merely a prudential application of principle. Cardinal Ratzinger himself -- who was the Church's official spokesman on doctrinal matters -- explicitly said that it was not a change in doctrinal principle, and we argue at length in the book that it could not have been. Nor is this "prudential" interpretation some exotic opinion of our own (it was e.g. the view of Cardinal Dulles, who was himself opposed to capital punishment).

Second, merely quoting the catechism does absolutely nothing to address the specific arguments we gave in the article. E.g when we argue that given (a) the explicit teaching of scripture and (b) the binding nature of traditional interpretations of scripture together with (c) what the Church teaches about the infallibility of scripture, it follows that (d) capital punishment can in principle be legitimate even just for retributive reasons (say), merely to quote the catechism does nothing to show that that inference is wrong.

Anonymous said...

Were any Joseph de Maistre quotes included?

Anonymous said...

It is also worth pointing out that the CCC is not authoritative in and of itself, as a distinct act of the Magisterium, but as serves as a kind of compendium, guide, and reference to the authoritative acts of the Magisterium.

Most of the time that is OK, but for really official use, you end up with the same kind of issues that you would attempting to reference a book in court summarizing the major cases which comprise a particular legal precedent rather than the texts of the cases themselves. The Court will say, "No, I am not interested in the summary of what this particular scholar, no matter how learned, reported about the case, I want the case itself."

Same with the CCC. It is a reference guide. If you want magisterial heft, you have to go to the documents themselves.

This can be demonstrated empirically easily enough by noting that the relevant text in the Catechism changed between 1992 and 1997 without a corresponding doctrinal definition that could have warranted such a change. They cannot both be correct, since they say different things.

The editor of the CCC summarized the reason for the change this way:

"[JPII] never expressed it publicly, but as we worked on this chapter, we knew that he wanted to limit the death penalty to the maximum.

The first edition of the Catechism was not so explicit in saying that the death penalty was no longer necessary.

What caused the change in the official definitive version was that John Paul had published Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). It includes passages where he explicitly congratulates modern societies for banning the death penalty."

It is easily observed that JPII congratulating modern societies for banning the death penalty is insufficiently authoritative to alter immemorial Catholic doctrine, though it had sufficient influence to allow for a change in the text to give a different impression of what that doctrine is.

For what it's worth, I do not think this comes off very well, as it is hard to read this as much beyond, "I thought my boss would like it if I made it say this other thing instead..."

George R. said...


Ruben writes:
"...why can the Church now forbid all forms of slavery (CCC 2414) despite Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and many previous popes viewing some forms of slavery as permissible?"

The Church cannot condemn all forms of slavery... and neither do you, and neither does anyone else, unless he is a complete anarchist. Do you want proof? OK, do you believe that criminals should be imprisoned? Well, that's a form of slavery, isn't it? Now you will say, "That's not he kind of slavery I'm talking about." And I will say that the Church has always taught that some forms of slavery are good, some forms are clearly bad, and some instances of slavery are rather difficult to judge one way or the other. As for chattel slavery, which is the form of slavery that fills people today with the most indignation, it was universal in the world when the Church came into political power in the 4th century. And without directly abolishing a single bond of servitude, but rather by simply promulgating the Gospel, the Church almost completely eradicated this form of slavery in a few generations.

Gerard O'Neill said...

When it comes to genocide, terrorism, or mass shootings, I would definitely leave the capital punishment window open. I happen to live in a part of the world that is quite peaceful, so hopefully we will never have to re-introduce the death penalty.

I note that Edward Feser only embraces the "pro life" position when it interferes with the rights of women. This is no surprise, as brazen hypocrisy is the staple of Roman Catholicism.

Daniel Joachim said...

I note that Edward Feser only embraces the "pro life" position when it interferes with the rights of women. This is no surprise, as brazen hypocrisy is the staple of Roman Catholicism.

Add "innocent" to pro-life, and the equation suddenly adds up. A distinction you would no doubt have discovered, given a minimally charitable reading. This is no surprise, as brazen sophism is the staple of ardent anti-Catholicism. :)

(Written as a non-Catholic)

John said...

In medieval Europe, the death penalty was used extensively for crimes less than murder (for all felonies, including robbery and sodomy). What are Aquinas and Feser's position on that? How about the death penalty for blasphemy and heresy, both of which are approved by scripture and tradition? I don't know if there's a strong theological tradition on the other corporal punishments used before the modern era, but how does Feser feel about them? Public floggings, branding thieves, etc.

Scott W. said...

This is no surprise, as brazen sophism is the staple of ardent anti-Catholicism. :)

Ha! It's like we have a combox Jack Chick meme generator. Of course all Catholics I know and quite a few Protestants find Jack Chick funny like Refer Madness rather than disturbing.

Seamus said...

"...why can the Church now forbid all forms of slavery (CCC 2414) despite Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and many previous popes viewing some forms of slavery as permissible?"

I've been told that, not only did they view some forms of slavery as permissible, but that the Sacred Congregation for the Holy Office, speaking with the special approval of the Holy Father, stated positively that "servitude itself, considered in itself and all alone (per se et absolute), is by no means repugnant to the natural and divine law, and [that] there can be present very many just titles for servitude, as can be seen by consulting the approved theologians and interpreters of the canons."

I have tried to find the complete document from which this quotation came (apparently it was published in Collectanea S. Congregationis de Propaganda Fide: seu decreta, instructiones, rescripta pro apostolicis missionibus, n. 1293, I, 719 (Romae: Ex Typographia Polyglotta, 1907)) so as to make sure that it isn't being quoted misleadingly out of context, but the relevant volume appears to be permanently off the shelf where it should be at the Catholic University of America library (call number BV 35 1907).

But assuming that Pope Bl. Pius IX and the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office in 1866 actually did issue the magisterial statement I've quoted, and that it means what it seems to mean, I wish that modern moral theologians would spend a lot more time explaining how we can reconcile that statement with what appear to be more recent categorical moral condemnations of slavery. Instead, what we get is an implicit hermeneutic of discontinuity, in which everyone pretends that the earlier statement had never been made. (Except, of course, for those who quote it in order to argue that the Church can change and has changed its magisterial teaching, and that it should now find contraception, sodomy, divorce and remarriage, fornication, and masturbation to be morally permissible.)

Seamus said...

"I note that Edward Feser only embraces the "pro life" position when it interferes with the rights of women. This is no surprise, as brazen hypocrisy is the staple of Roman Catholicism."

I would guess that Prof. Feser also embraces the pro-life position when it interferes with the right of men such as, say, Michael Schiavo to kill his wife, or Richard Kretschmar to kill his son (Gerhard Herbert Kretschmar--look him up on Wikipedia), or the right of people of either sex to kill their aged but inconvenient relatives.

DNW said...

"I note that Edward Feser only embraces the "pro life" position when it interferes with the rights of women. This is no surprise, as brazen hypocrisy is the staple of Roman Catholicism."

What rights are those, how do you know they have them, and what makes you think that the rights you have in mind deserve the categorical respect or consideration of others?

Fred said...

Gerard is a regular gnu atheist troll here and is silly and shallow even for a gnu atheist troll. I'd ignore him.

Brandon said...

Just-title servitude would be the kind of situation other commenters have noted -- forced labor as a punishment for crimes and voluntary servitude. (The first of these, incidentally, is still legal and actively practiced in the United States, France, and Japan; it was abolished by the United Kingdom in the mid-twentieth century and by Ireland about twenty years ago).

The question, of course, is whether more recent condemnations of slavery are including under the term 'slavery' things like penal labor and contracting oneself out in such a way that another person has indefinite right to make use of one's labor, or are simply including chattel slavery, or chattel and similar forms of slavery, which is what most people mean by the term. Determining this would require a rather close analysis, which nobody seems ever to have done properly.

Incidentally, Seamus, most quotations of the Instruction are derived fairly obviously from J. F. Maxwell's 1975 survey, Slavery and the Catholic Church (which explicitly argues that there was a change), but the quotation you give has features that strongly indicate that it is from a different source (e.g., including a fragment of the Latin, slight differences in translation). Where did you find it?

Anonymous said...

I'll be interested to read about how it addresses the problem of wrongful conviction. If the wrong person is convicted, then there's no chance to fix the problem after they're dead. This is a bigger problem than you might think given how unreliable eyewitness testimony is and how DNA testing is only as reliable as it is handled. And problems of racial bias, with white juries more likely perhaps to give the death penalty to blacks.

It's also interesting how sociologists say the death penalty would be a far better deterrent (assuming it is one now) if the penalty came much sooner in relation to the crime.

DNW said...



" Anonymous Fred said...

Gerard is a regular gnu atheist troll here and is silly and shallow even for a gnu atheist troll. I'd ignore him.

July 19, 2016 at 9:31 AM"


While probably, and evidently true, here is little Gerard's big chance to explain and defend his own theory of rights; to explain why, say, physically and mentally weak men of no apparent utility, and only annoyance value to others, should not be eliminated at will by those who have more physical power.

If no one bothers to complain, has any wrong been done?

Anonymous said...

Brandon, I believe the translation may be from, Joel S. Panzer, "The Popes and Slavery"

Seamus said...

Incidentally, Seamus, most quotations of the Instruction are derived fairly obviously from J. F. Maxwell's 1975 survey, Slavery and the Catholic Church (which explicitly argues that there was a change), but the quotation you give has features that strongly indicate that it is from a different source (e.g., including a fragment of the Latin, slight differences in translation). Where did you find it?

Here (the second hit from a Google search for "slavery 1866 june holy office"): https://suchanek.name/texts/atheism/slavery.html

Greg said...

I'll be interested to read about how it addresses the problem of wrongful conviction. If the wrong person is convicted, then there's no chance to fix the problem after they're dead. This is a bigger problem than you might think given how unreliable eyewitness testimony is and how DNA testing is only as reliable as it is handled. And problems of racial bias, with white juries more likely perhaps to give the death penalty to blacks.

These are largely prudential considerations that, I'm sure, the Bessette collaboration is supposed to handle.

But in large part, concerns about the reliability of eyewitnesses and DNA, as well as racial bias, apply to lifelong imprisonment in the same way as they apply to the death penalty. With lifelong imprisonment, further evidence could surface and a ruling could be overturned--but if the problem was unreliable eyewitness or DNA or racial bias, how often does that happen? Perhaps frequently, perhaps infrequently. That's an empirical question.

Ivan Knezović said...

Looking forward to the new book. Feser has been in general one of the most educational authors I've read and as a law student this particular topic is of great interest to me.
On the "I note that Edward Feser only embraces the "pro life" position when it interferes with the rights of women." I would like to point that human rights and women rights as something more specific are not something an aristotelian would believe in and I'm finding it difficult to see how anyone can ahere to the modern theory of human rights. It was flimsy with Locke, but remove God and you've got something Max Striner would rightfully call a "spook".
They do not exist outside of the will of the legislator as Kelsen would put it.
On a kind of related note, profesor Feser, what is your opinion on Afrer Virtue and other aristotelian works by Alasdair MacIntyre?

Brandon said...

Seamus & Anonymous,

Thanks; that is helpful.

DNW said...

"I would like to point that human rights and women rights as something more specific are not something an aristotelian would believe in and I'm finding it difficult to see how anyone can ahere to the modern theory of human rights. It was flimsy with Locke, but remove God and you've got something Max Striner would rightfully call a "spook".
They do not exist outside of the will of the legislator as Kelsen would put it.
On a kind of related note, profesor Feser, what is your opinion on Afrer Virtue and other aristotelian works by Alasdair MacIntyre?"



Any considering responding to your remarks, will be advised to first carefully notice that you used the term political term "human rights", as opposed to "natural rights" which conceived of legally, are inferences from a presumptive human nature expressing an intrinsic teleology. Even Herbert Hart recognized this. Though what Kelsen thought is apparently disclosed by his terminology of a "pure theory of law" free of most elements but fiat.

"Human rights", as near as I have been able to discover from people who pretend to know, are: "... rights are rights possessed by people simply as, and because they are, human beings." Whatever that is supposed to mean or count for. And that "The term has only come into common currency during the 20th century."

DNW said...

Oops ... read "you used the term political term" as "you used the political term"

DNW said...

In attempting to do a quick check on what I had hastily asserted, I found myself at the website of that most honorable of all human institutions, The United Nations, wherein I was informed that,

"In 539 B.C., the armies of Cyrus the Great, the first king of ancient Persia, conquered the city of Babylon. But it was his next actions that marked a major advance for Man. He freed the slaves, declared that all people had the right to choose their own religion, and established racial equality. These and other decrees were recorded on a baked-clay cylinder in the Akkadian language with cuneiform script.

Known today as the Cyrus Cylinder, this ancient record has now been recognized as the world’s first charter of human rights. It is translated into all six official languages of the United Nations and its provisions parallel the first four Articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. ...

From Babylon, the idea of human rights spread quickly to India, Greece and eventually Rome ..."



Being excited by this amazing news that the founder of a Persian dynasty that eventually invaded Greece was actually the precocious liberator of mankind, I rushed off to the site of the British Museum in order to read these amazing passages in translation.

Unfortunately the UN must have been referring to a different Cyrus Cylinder, since the translations for the one the British Museum had, were nothing like what was being claimed for the one the United Nations was referring to. You know, the one proclaiming peace, freedom, liberation of conscience, the end of servitude, and probably all that other good sh-t like the abolition of capital offenses, social or redistributive justice, gender equity, and polyamory.

But it was not there. Like I said, must be different cylinder.

Anonymous said...

John Paul 2 on a few occasions called not only for the end of the death penalty but also for the reduction of sentences and made no exception for, say, mass murders.

So I don't think it's accurate to say that the current Church teaching is that there shouldn't be the death penalty but there should be life w/o parole. I don't believe that JP2 and Francis would have supported life w/o parole even in the case of Jeffrey Dahlmer.

-Neil Parille

R.C. said...

Dr. Feser,

I am a Catholic (as of 2010, having read my way into the Church from Evangelical Protestantism after the usual -- and apparently somewhat clichéd! -- process of reading the Church Fathers and finding them Catholic).

I don't mean to ask an offensive question or a "gotcha" question, here...but, am I correct in thinking that certain acts by Pope Francis, if he were to do them, would constitute a falsification of the Catholic faith...or, at least, of the valid election of Francis? Is that right?

See, at first I had thought that, were Pope Francis to teach firmly and repeatedly that the death penalty was intrinsically immoral, this would constitute a contradiction with earlier "irreformable" teaching...and thus, a falsification either of Magisterial infallibility, or Francis' claim to be the real Pope.

But then, after reading your (and Prof. Bessette's) article, I realized that I needed to add an additional qualification: His opinion would not falsify either Catholicism or his papacy, unless he taught it ex cathedra. But, if he did teach a "capital punishment is intrinsically immoral in all times and places" view, and did so ex cathedra, then that would either falsify Catholicism or the validity of his election...correct?

Please understand: I am not looking for an excuse to run off and become...oh, I dunno, some flavor of Eastern Orthodox, I suppose it would have to be.

But I do want to know the full implications of what I'm supposed to believe, here; and to act in logical accord with those implications.

And, especially, if I've forgotten some other critical component required for a falsification, please remind me what that is.

Thanks,

R.C.

Ivan Knezović said...

DWN, I'm aware of the difference between human and natural rights, hence why I used it. But people nowadays don't believe in the natural law and human rights are something completely different, without a solid basis in anything.
So when someone says a woman has a human right to abortion, I'd say she has no human rights whatsoever, unless we mean rights in the legislation itself.

Anonymous said...

@Gerard O'Neill
Yeah I imagine Catholics would have no problem with the actions of those on this list, well since they aren't women.
http://www.thomism.org/atheism/atheist_murderers.html
or even this one
http://listverse.com/2010/06/05/10-people-who-give-atheism-a-bad-name/


Also, it happens I am going to be in disagreement with Edward Feser & co. in relation to his interpretations offered in this new book. As controversial as the following statement will be I sincerely hope Americans will ponder an outsider view. Americans, or those with capital punishment laws, are much more likely to desire the status quo. American Catholics confuse American Conservatism with Catholic Orthodoxy. It is much like being taken in by the zeitgeist of the age and being too afraid to speak out against the ideological overstep of X, because one will be assaulted and called an 'X'aphobe.

I respect the vast majority of Prof. Feser's work, I do however disagree with the insistence on the death penalty in a modern context (with prisons and a large criminal justice system).

Anonymous said...

BTW the Anonymous above is different to the one Prof. Feser responded to earlier.

Gerard O'Neill said...

Anonymous
Many of the people on that list at the Catholic site are quite cool imo, especially the Unabomber.

I'm actually an advocate for "Nuclear Nirvana" -- detonating a large number of nuclear weapons around the planet in the hope of sterilizing it. This isn't a popular opinion, but I happen to take my Nihilism seriously thank you very much.

DNW said...

van Knezović said...

DWN, I'm aware of the difference between human and natural rights, hence why I used it. But people nowadays don't believe in the natural law and human rights are something completely different, without a solid basis in anything. "


Yes, I assumed that you did, and that that is why you used that particular terminology. I also figured that someone new here and who read through your comment hastily, might assume otherwise. Hence my "heads-up" to them.

DNW said...

To Ivan Knezović,

Looking back on my initial terminological remark concerning your comment on "human rights", I see that the subject who was being advised to notice, would have been clearer if I had used "any" as a determiner, rather than a pronoun.

It would have been better had I written:


"Any persons considering responding to your remarks, will be advised to first carefully notice that you used the political term "human rights", as opposed to "natural rights" which conceived of legally, are inferences from a presumptive human nature expressing an intrinsic teleology. Even Herbert Hart recognized this. ..."


If I seemed to imply that you personally were unaware of the difference, it was not my intention to do so. I figured anyone who knew who Kelsen was would necessarily know.

Vincent Torley said...

Hi everyone,

I'd like to side with Ed on the issue of capital punishment.

I live in Japan, where capital punishment is still administered, but usually only to people who have murdered twice - which makes it extremely unlikely that an innocent person will be executed by mistake.

For those who would argue that capital punishment is intrinsically immoral, I have a question. Suppose that the Allies had captured Hitler in April 1945, before he could take his own life. Would it be wrong to execute him? Surely not.

Regarding slavery, however, I find the notion (defended by some commenters) of selling your future labor without selling yourself to be utterly absurd. It is a distinction without a difference: your labor is physically inseparable from you. Were it possible to sell one's future labor in this way, then it could no longer be argued that the Civil War was a clear-cut battle between right and wrong. What's more, given that in any society, some dim-witted people will inevitably make stupid choices for the sake of short-term gains, we could never hope to eradicate this kind of slavery from the land: there would always be someone willing to sell themselves.

The notion of the State acquiring ownership over your future labor if you commit a crime (i.e. prisoners having to work in chain gangs) is even more ridiculous: for what could possibly give the State such a Godlike right? A prisoner has the basic right to food, clothing and shelter, regardless of whether he works or not, although he may justly be required to work, in order to earn extra privileges (e.g. cigarettes or a supervised day out).

If it be objected that people who join the army are selling their future labor, I reply that such people should be free to leave at any time, but that if they do so, the government should have the right to seize their property, in order to recover training expenses and/or foregone revenue.

In response to R.C.:

You pose an interesting conundrum. One could just as well ask: what if Pope Paul VI had approved contraception back in 1968, instead of condemning it as intrinsically immoral?

The standard answer, I suppose, would be that not even a Pope can overturn the infallible ordinary magisterium of the Church, condemning contraception as a sin against natural law; hence any purported ex cathedra statement allowing the use of contraceptives would be null and void.

Two problems with that answer: (i) what if the issue isn't as black and white as contraception? I imagine the licitness of capital punishment has been affirmed by hundreds of theologians down through the ages, as well as Popes and bishops; but very few have said flat-out that no Catholic can believe capital punishment to be illicit, and that anyone who does so is a heretic. (But see http://www.onepeterfive.com/getting-it-wrong-about-the-death-penalty/ .) So what is a Catholic to do if a Pope declares ex cathedra that capital punishment is wrong, given that it's only probably (but not certainly) part of the infallible ordinary magisterium? (ii) Some Catholics might make a personal judgment call on such an issue, but that's essentially the same as Protestantism: essentially, they're judging for themselves what belongs to the infallible ordinary deposit of faith.

Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

@Gerard O'Neill

I sincerely hope that response was a joke.

Anonymous said...

@ Vincent

I wouldn't say capital punishment is intrinsically evil myself. It is unnecessary, can cause injustices etc. I don't believe it should be an ordinary punitive measure that the civilian courts have recourse to.

I here have greatly simplified my position on CP.

Gerard O'Neill said...

I'm not joking. I'm a sick man, but I hate suffering enough to destroy it forever.

Ruben said...

George R. wrote

"The Church cannot condemn all forms of slavery... and neither do you, and neither does anyone else, unless he is a complete anarchist. Do you want proof? OK, do you believe that criminals should be imprisoned? Well, that's a form of slavery, isn't it? Now you will say, "That's not he kind of slavery I'm talking about." And I will say that the Church has always taught that some forms of slavery are good, some forms are clearly bad, and some instances of slavery are rather difficult to judge one way or the other. As for chattel slavery, which is the form of slavery that fills people today with the most indignation, it was universal in the world when the Church came into political power in the 4th century. And without directly abolishing a single bond of servitude, but rather by simply promulgating the Gospel, the Church almost completely eradicated this form of slavery in a few generations."

I am not sure I would consider imprisonment to be a form of slavery. Could it not be a form of reciprocity in which the criminal repays his debts to society for the crimes he/she has committed? I am aware that it arguably the Church has always condemned chattel slavery and assisted in substantially reducing if not eliminating slavery in general. That said, there are forms of slavery, such as the permanent/long term enslavement of enemy soldiers (even after fighting has ceased), that the Church appears to have condoned in the past. In more recent statements the Church has condemned slavery in general and has not commented on whether or not forms of slavery such as these are still morally permissible. (Would it have been morally permissible to permanently enslave German or North Vietnamese soldiers during our wars with them?) The more recent statements make it easy to conclude the Church has modified its position on this issue. If the Church has not, the more cynical might conclude the Church is purposefully obfuscating its position.

Regarding capital punishment, Church support for the practice is a huge headache for the pro-life movement. I understand one can distinguish between innocent and non-innocent life but it simply adds an appearance of hypocrisy on top of an already complicated debate. If consistent life ethics helps the pro-life cause why not embrace it, particularly since we have other means of containing these criminals?

DNW said...

Gerard O'Neill said...

I'm not joking. I'm a sick man, but I hate suffering enough to destroy it forever.

July 20, 2016 at 10:57 AM"



Not everyone is suffering, or experiencing the same drama you are, or causing suffering in others, or causing you to suffer.


Better look back at where your real problem lies.

Try getting out more and getting a little physical exercise.

Brandon said...

Regarding slavery, however, I find the notion (defended by some commenters) of selling your future labor without selling yourself to be utterly absurd.

Since no one has made such a distinction in this comments thread, much less defended it, I am not sure what you have in mind.

Carl Rossini Jr. said...

Dr. Feser, I hope that you and your collaborators are just getting warmed up, because there are probably several dozen specific questions that need review, using the same theme -- the use of scripture, tradition and reason to define the limits of authentic renewal.

Daniel said...

If you're a Nihilist how do you get off with morally advocating anything? Likewise you may genuinely hate suffering and wish for humanity but what does this say beyond arbitrary preference?

God, Nihilists were more interesting when they were bloody, maddened nietzscheans and not incoherently moralising saccharine pessimists.

Sobieski said...

@R.C.

You may find this article helpful as regards a wayward pope.

Also, look up "True or False Pope" as the website and corresponding book have a lot of additional material on the topic. Keep the Faith.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Feser

I didn't say it was a change in doctrine; the church still sanctions the death penalty. Nevertheless, even if this just turns on the prudential application, the CCC words stand as they are written. You may try to attenuate them by quoting the fathers, scripture and the magisterium, but as Pope John Paul II the Great said of the Catechism,

"A catechism should faithfully and systematically present the teaching of SACRED SCRIPTURE, THE LIVING TRADITION AND THE AUTHENTIC MAGISTERIUM as well as the spiritual heritage of the FATHERS, DOCTORS AND SAINTS OF THE CHURCH. The pope very tellingly goes on to say, "IT SHOULD ALSO HELP TO ILLUMINE WITH THE LIGHT OF FAITH THE NEW SITUATIONS AND PROBLEMS WHICH HAD NOT YET EMERGED IN THE PAST." Hence the change in application of the death penalty. There is no escaping that.

Greg said...

@ Anonymous

Yes, a catechism should faithfully and systematically present the teaching of Sacred Scritpure, Tradition, and the authentic Magisterium, etc. etc. It should also help to cast light on new situations.

So what? That is what a catechism should do, or what is the same, how the drafters of a catechism should conceive their project. That does not mean that the catechism speaks authoritatively on issues on which other documents do not speak authoriatively, or that doctrine is developed in a cetechism. So the questions about what Catholics are required to believe about the death penalty remains and can't be resolved by reference to the catechism.

Anonymous said...

@Vincent Torley

There was a case in the Netherlands,where a nurse was convicted of murdering 6 elderly people. The conviction was based on statistics, ther change that these people would have died from natural causes while she was nursing them at the time of their dead were deemed to be astronomically small. She also confessed after prolonged police interrogations, she withdrew the confession later. And there was a lot of bad-mounpthing by her collegues, she was not loved by her collegues and had a troubled background in drug taking.

The case was reopenend while he had served quite some time, because it was found that the statistical argument was complete bogus. Even though the calculations were made by a proper professor in statistics. She was found not guilty at all.

Apparently she would have been executed in Japan.

This case in my opinion shows quite clearly that capital punishment is a bad idea in almost all cases. It is very hard to argue agains a statistics professor, and the only reason this case was reopenend was because a number of other professors, some in statistics were able to convince the Staten-Generaal (think Supreme Court, but a part of the State) that the case had to be reopened. The Staten-Generaal relented as this was not the only case in which the Dutch Courts had convicted the wrong people in high profile murder and murder-rape cases. Basically, they made a mess of it.

dudleysharp said...

Anonymous:

2267 is a prudential judgement, which I do not believe has ever been put into a Catechism, before, because a prudential jugement is contrary to why there are Catechisms.

2267 has not only sowed confusion, but is in error factually and rationally.

Re: CCC 2267:

from Kevin L. Flannery S.J., Consultor of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Flannery was, also, appointed by SPJPII.

“The most reasonable conclusion to draw from this discussion is that, once again, the Catechism is simply wrong from an historical point of view. Traditional Catholic teaching did not contain the restriction enunciated by Pope John Paul II." (4).

“The realm of human affairs is a messy one, full of at least apparent inconsistency and incoherence, and the recent teaching of the Catholic Church on capital punishment—vitiated, as I intend to show, by errors of historical fact and interpretation—is no exception.” (4)

4) “Capital Punishment and the Law”, Ave Maria Law Review, 2007 (30 pp), by Kevin L. Flannery S.J., Consultor of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (since 2002) and Ordinary Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University(Rome) and Permanent Research Fellow - Mary Ann Remick Senior Visiting Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture (University of Notre Dame. http://lr.avemarialaw.edu/Content/articles/V5i2.flannery.copyright.pdf

dudleysharp said...

contd


3) from 2267: " the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor."

Reply: Such does not appear to exist in traditional or any other Catholic teaching and, since this 1997 amendment (18 years), I am unaware that anyone has found that it does. It seems to have just appeared, out of thin air. It is, in fact, contrary to much of the traditional teachings.

4) from 2267: ""If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person."

Reply: This is opposite the confirmed facts and is in error, by reason.

Sufficient does not mean better, does not mean worse. It is no standard.

In 2258-2266 the standard is a requirement to protect innocents from unjust aggressors: 2265: "the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm."

Now, within 2267, the common good requires us to do everything we can "not to render the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm.", or, to put it another way "the unjust aggressor must always be able to harm, again" - the opposite of 2258-2266.

Pope Francis has, personally, confirmed his support of that positions, calling for the removal of the death penalty, life in prison and solitary confinement (6), which conflicts with:

CCC 2260: "For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning.... Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image." "This teaching remains necessary for all time."

This is an eternal command, contradicted by 2267's "bloodless means".

"surely require a reckoning" and "shall" overwhelm a "sufficiency" standard, which is no standard, at all.

"Require" and "shall" rules over "sufficiency". Also problematic is the lack of compassion, as detailed.

Later, the Church amended, again 2267, replacing "bloodless" with "non- lethal".

Why?

Because the secular "bloodless" was too obvious a conflict with that eternal command within 2260 - "by man shall his blood be shed;" - and 2260, further, establishes that execution is most "in conformity to the dignity of the human person", as it is a commandment from God, which defines the dignity of man, made in God's image.

I cannot find where Church teachings define which sanctions are "most in conformity to the dignity of the human person".

The dignity of each human person is the result of the actions and beliefs of each individual, as observed with Sodom and Gomorrah and the like and what became of those individuals, just as with the Saints and Fathers of the Church, with their actions and beliefs and their dignity.

Upholding human dignity cannot be anything but the foundation of the Genesis passage, as man was made in God's image. By their heart and actions, with free will, men may accept or reject that dignity, following the teachings of Christ or rejecting them, respectively.

dudleysharp said...

2267 Another Rational Error

A significant rational error is that SPJPII attempts to erase execution, if it is not the "only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings".

There is nothing within reason or Catholic teachings that says we must either include or exclude a method of sanction, because there may be another "practicable way to defend the lives of human beings".

Our obligation is to find the "best way to defend the lives of human beings", which, in many cases, means the death penalty, which better protects innocents than do lesser sanctions, in three ways (2) and is a sanction which more corresponds with justice, the primary function, in some cases, as recognized by the Church.

It is astounding that the Church could say that such moral and protection failures are "very rare, if not practically nonexistent . . . ". in the secular world, when She has such horrendous failures Herself, so well observed, the exact moment of Her statement, when such secular failures are just as well known (2&5) and continue to occur, every day.

So what does the Church say?

Avoid reality, instead establish what "means are possible", thus, irrationally, excluding reality from the discussion, repeating Her same errors, as She, again, looks the other way as more and more innocents are harmed. Horrendous.

Both SPJPII and the CCC invented the fiction that such criminal justice failures, with our modern standards are "very rare, if not practically nonexistent . . . ". The CCC avoided fact and reason. Why and how?

This may reflect the mindset: The majority of Pope Francis' 2014 speech to the INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF PENAL LAW looked at the unjust aggressors as the victims and left out discussing the true innocent victims until the near end of his speech (6).

Responsibility demands a considering of reality which must rule over the irresponsibility of the speculative "possibility" and "means", if innocent lives and compassion are relevant and they must be, but were neglected by both SPJPII and the CCC, in that regard.

Man errs and sins and any "err" by the Church and man should be on the side which protects more innocent lives (see 2258-2266) as opposed to what the CCC has now, in 2267, which is sacrificing more innocent lives, again (2&5).

How the Church jumped from a standard of "requires", "shall" and reality to one of speculation - "possibility" "means" and "sufficiency" - within this same section, is a sad and dangerous mystery.

To paraphrase: "Today, in fact, 'given the means at the State's disposal', countless innocents are murdered and harmed, every day, by known repeat offender/unjust aggressors, because of the reality of widespread human error and harm committed in the world's criminal justice systems (2&5), just as with the Church's 'mismanagement' of the priest sex horrors, whereby "possibilities", "means" and "sufficiency" had zero relevance to the reality of Her not protecting the innocent."

Such reality is the factual opposite of: "very rare, if not practically nonexistent . . . ".

contd

dudleysharp said...


contd

It is astonishing that neither Evangelium Vitae nor the CCC show any consciousness of this, when EV and the 1997 CCC amendment were written as the firestorm of the priest sex scandal raged.

As Catholic theologian Steven Long places the arrow:

" . . . (it) is symptomatic of a society that can garner more support to spare the guilty than to save the innocent."

"The crowd still wants Barrabas." (7)

2) a) The Death Penalty: SAVING MORE INNOCENT LIVES
A Review of All Innocence Issues
http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-death-penalty-do-innocents-matter.html

b) Catechism & State Protection
http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2014/10/catechism-state-protection.html


5) see footnote 2, above

and

Do a google search: I am sure this was not done for either Evangelium Vitae of the CCC.


a) crime recidivism -- 852,000 results (0.34 seconds)
b) prison violence -- 179,000,000 results (0.24 seconds)
c) prison "cell phone" crime -- 1,780,000 results (0.37 seconds)
d) recruit terrorism prison -- 12,800,000 results (0.40 seconds)
e) prison escape news -- 5,720,000 results (0.31 seconds)
f) repeat offender -- 1,170,000 results (0.63 seconds)

and on and on and on

6) ADDRESS OF POPE FRANCIS: TO THE DELEGATES OF THE INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF PENAL LAW, Hall of Popes, Thursday, 23 October 2014
https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2014/october/documents/papa-francesco_20141023_associazione-internazionale-diritto-penale.html

7) Four Catholic Journals Indulge in (anti death penalty) Doctrinal Solipsism,
Steven Long, THOMISTICA, March 5, 2015,
http://thomistica.net/commentary/2015/3/5/mutationist-views-of-doctrinal-development-and-the-death-penalty

David M said...

The book promises to be a very interesting read. I think the prudential judgments of JPII, BXVI, and F are post-traumatic judgments, reflecting extensive experience of horrific abuse of state-sanctioned killing in defense of grossly perverted visions of 'the common good' (Nazism, Stalinism, Argentina's 'dirty war,' abortion, euthanasia, militant Islam, etc.). The sword of Caesar has legitimate uses, but the actual illegitimate uses are so overwhelming that it seems better to disarm the state, as much as possible. It's a bit like nuclear disarmament. You might resolutely argue for the benefits of 'mutually assured destruction' - but once the bombs start flying one might well quail and say "better to get rid of the damn things!"

Anonymous said...

Dr. Feser in his reply to me quoted then Cardinal Ratzinger as saying that what the Catechism teaches about the death penalty is not a change in doctrine. Yet when he became Pope Benedict, Ratzinger publicly supported a group advocating for the abolition of the death penalty on Nov. 30, 2011

"I EXPRESS MY HOPE that your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries TO ELIMINATE THE DEATH PENALTY and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.

Pope Benedict did not have to make that statement. But the fact that he did so is instructive. Indeed, the fact that the LAST THREE POPES have all come out strongly against the death penalty obviously signals a change in the prudential application of the death penalty. Or do you think that as pope, Ratzinger lost his orthodoxy?

@dudleysharp

You quote from Fr. Flannery, a consultor of the Cong. for the Doctrine of Faith. I will take the Catechism, the first universal catechism since the Reformation, over the musings of a disgruntled priest. The Catechism of the Catholic Church will stand long after Fr Flannery has gone to face his maker and long after Dr. Feser's book has gone out of print.

Much as it may pain some on this blog, the Catholic Church of today is not that of the medieval Catholic Church. The Church no longer calls for the burning of heretics and the extirpation of witches. The death penalty, IN THEORY, will never be opposed to Catholic doctrine, but as a practical matter, the church and future popes will continue to inveigh against it and work to eliminate it. Those of you here, members I suppose of the "remnant church," will just have to get used to it.

Brandon said...

Anonymous,

You seem to be boxing with shadows in your head. Ed above says, "what is at issue is whether the words you emphasize represent an actual change in doctrinal principle, or instead merely a prudential application of principle"; he argues, explicitly, that there is no change in doctrinal principle, but only in prudential application of the principle. With what, precisely, do you disagree here?

Much as it may pain some on this blog, the Catholic Church of today is not that of the medieval Catholic Church....Those of you here, members I suppose of the "remnant church," will just have to get used to it.

You know absolutely nothing about most of the people here; stick to what they actually say, and recognize that they are very different, rather than making up lies about them.

Anonymous 2 said...

I am the Anonymous above at July 20, 2016 at 4:41 AM.

I really do want to hear the thoughts of those for and against CP, especially those who do not support it who are none Americans and those who support it who are Americans (especially Catholics). i don't buy this 'argument' that CP is something that should be in law because the Catholic Church taught it. That doesn't appropriately reflect either Catholic doctrine or a proper understanding of its theological legitimate development.

Anon 2 said...

* non-Americans

ccmnxc said...

Anons, when you post, there is a Name/URL option where you can enter a name without the use of any type of account. That should streamline the process of trying to differentiate between anonymous posters.

DNW said...

" Much as it may pain some on this blog, the Catholic Church of today is not that of the medieval Catholic Church. The Church no longer calls for the burning of heretics and the extirpation of witches. The death penalty, IN THEORY, will never be opposed to Catholic doctrine, but as a practical matter, the church and future popes will continue to inveigh against it and work to eliminate it. Those of you here, members I suppose of the "remnant church," will just have to get used to it.

July 21, 2016 at 11:04 PM"



Keep pounding that shoe. It's proven to work wonders.

Anonymous said...

I'm not going to read your book of rationalizations you disgusting murder apologist satanist

Anonymous said...

The church's evolving position on the death penalty is analogous to how the annulment process has evolved over the past 30 years. In 1968, American Catholic tribunals granted 600 annulments. By 1998, that number had grown to 60,000. The doctrine on the indissolubility of marriage has never changed. What has changed is its prudential application. This is what is happening with the death penalty. While still recognizing its moral legitimacy, the church will work to see that its prudential application is, as Pope John Paul said, "practically non-existent."

Anon2 said...

@ Anonymous
I partly agree with what you just said. Although I think the issue of annulments is a lot more complex. I think that social issues have contributed to the breakdown in the understanding and use of Sacramental marriage.

I think orthopraxis is important however and would reject an illegitimate seperation of praxis and theology.

On the issue of the CCC I would advise you to read what Card. Ratzinger/Pope Benedict had to say on it.

Anonymous said...

For your consideration....

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2016/07/colorless-green-ideas-sleep-furiously-as-reasonable-as-the-trinity/?ref_widget=trending&ref_blog=dispatches&ref_post=dnc-considered-using-sanders-alleged-atheism-against-him

Timocrates said...

To be consistent Dr. Feser we would have to offer the death penalty to abortionists too and the women who knowingly procured their services also.

Frankly, I am definitely for the death penalty in any number of cases, especially crimes against women and children of various sorts; however, we do not live in Catholic societies and countries or even really Christian ones anymore. There is a ludicrous amount of moral corruption in our legal system. I think it is often insane to gives these people a right to put anyone to death, in my humble opinion.

Greg said...

A couple questions about the principled argument for the death penalty.

First, it is pointed out that, in the United States, the death penalty is reserved for particularly heinous crimes: not merely murders but often rape-murders, etc. It is also pointed out that to punish these particularly heinous crimes with something less than the death penalty, like a life sentence, would be unjust: "Put another way, to sentence killers like those described above to less than death would fail to do justice because the penalty – presumably a long period in prison – would be grossly disproportionate to the heinousness of the crime."

That claim seems just to apply to particularly heinous murderers, "those described above." Would the argument also show, though, not just that the present approach of executing particularly heinous murderers is required by justice, but also that it would be required by justice to expand the death penalty in America? Should every murderer be killed, since for each murderer, mere life imprisonment is not commensurate with the crime? One could limit this conclusion with prudential considerations; there is less certainty about whether less heinous murders occurred, etc. But that doesn't seem sufficient to say that it is just for the state to execute only 43 murderers in 2012.

Second, I guess the big objection from Catholic crowds will be that the whole argument is moot if it would always be immoral for any individual to kill any other individual, even a murderer. And the challenge might be put this way: It would be immoral to rape a rapist, event though that seems proportionate to the crime. Why wouldn't it also be immoral to kill a killer? He might deserve it, but no one is morally permitted to inflict it upon him.

Feser responded to this sort of criticism in a Public Discourse article. While the rapist deserves the "humiliation and bodily harm" that he inflicted on his victim, "there is also the sexual perversion and sadism by which the rapist harms his own character". Anyone who punished a rapist by rape, even a legitimate authority, would also inflict that sexual perversion and sadism on himself, and that is always impermissible.

But, I think, there are two problems that prevent me from endorsing such an approach. First, it seems possible that the state could create "rape machines" that inflict the humiliation and bodily harm of rape on rapists without involving any individual very directly in the matter. Would that be acceptable? Or would even remotely involved individuals (the person who has to turn the machine on, for instance) damage their characters by indulging in a sort of sexual perversion and sadism? That sort of response seems like a stretch, and in any case requires some account of how the moral psychology works out in the particular case.

Second, to approach from a different angle, why are there not any harms parallel and analogous to sexual perversion and sadism that result in the state-authorized minister of capital punishment? Is this just an anthropological claim: those administer capital punishment do not tend to develop wicked characters? Or is there something we can say about the difference between the kind of wrong that is involved in killing the innocent and the kind of wrong that is involved in sexual perversion--before we broach the topic of commensurate punishment at all?

Greg said...

Or would even remotely involved individuals (the person who has to turn the machine on, for instance) damage their characters by indulging in a sort of sexual perversion and sadism? That sort of response seems like a stretch, and in any case requires some account of how the moral psychology works out in the particular case.

To say something about why this sort of response seems like a stretch: We want this sort of argument to rule out the punishing of torturous murderers by torturous killing. Say a murderer whipped his victim to death while sprinkling pain-inducing chemicals on the wound. Professor Feser will (I presume) want to say that justice demands he be killed by, say, lethal injection, or something similar. To whip the criminal while sprinkling pain-inducing chemicals on the wound might give the criminal what he deserves, but it is ruled out as a legitimate form of punishment because it would tend to generate sadism in the minister.

The point, then, is that some of what the criminal inflicted can be inflicted on the criminal; by maintaining a sort of distance from the obviously heinous aspects of the murderer's crime (the torture, the slow death by mechanical means, the inflicting of additional pain by chemical means), the minister of the crime can avoid the character-damaging aspects of what would really be a commensurate punishment. Since he can't indulge in those character-damaging aspects himself, he, or rather the state, does not fail in justice when he does not bring about those special consequences of the criminal's crime in the criminal himself.

Fair enough. But if that sort of distance can be achieved, so that damage to character is avoided, in the case of torturous murder, then why not in rape, when the minister is not engaging in the full "festival" of doing it himself, but is inflicting the punishment on the rapist by way of some machine?

Anonymous said...

"...Deserves death! I dare say he does, many who live deserve death, and many who die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be so eager to deal out death in punishment for even the wise cannot foresee all ends." Tolkien

Kiel said...

Anonymous needs to stop cherry picking Tolkien out of context and read the articles. There is no argument in those articles for an individual to murder.

Anonymous said...

Cherry picking!? Out of context!? Hmmmm. The point I was making, and the point Tolkien was making (at least according to the current consensus of his critics and others) is that placed as we are, and knowing (and not knowing) what we do we are not competent to make the decision on the death of another. This may have been slightly out of context with regards to the question of the death penalty and Catholic doctrine BUT if true it renders the question of the death penalty and Catholic doctrine moot. It's not new or obscure argument and I rather suspect the last two Popes, and Francis agree with it. At any rate Dr Fesers intro blurb, and the first article do not consider it. I have not read the second article yet.

Greg said...

Well, one can certainly find Catholic thinkers on both sides of the question. The recent popes, and perhaps Tolkien, lean toward prohibiting the death penalty. But so what? Their opinions aren't decisive; they are worth considering, certainly, but given the weight of previous Church teaching, quoting them just is not sufficient in resolving the question.

And Tolkien is great. But that doesn't mean every argument he made was a good one. And that one seems to have the same fault as many others: it would rule out other punishments, like life imprisonment, as well as the death penalty. Who on earth arrogates to himself the authority to end another's life? Well, who on earth arrogates to himself the authority to take away another man's freedom, for good?

Anonymous said...

@Greg
I guess the first and obvious difference here is the fact that death cannot be undone (by us at least) Does it have to be a choice between judging everything and judging nothing? I'm not sure I would be willing to go down that road as a matter of practicality.

Brandon said...

The Tolkien quote is not relevant because (1) it explicitly says that some people deserve to die; (2) it depicts a conversation between people who do not have any authority to punish anyone at all; (3) it is not about the death penalty but about the moral importance of pity (which is a recurring theme in Tolkien's work).

I guess the first and obvious difference here is the fact that death cannot be undone (by us at least)

Neither can lost time; if you imprison someone, they never get that part of their life back.

Anonymous said...

@Brandon
1-Which is the point. Despite deserts or lack of them we do not have the competence to take life
2-They are debating their legitimacy in taking on the authority (amongst other things)
3-Good point, but it seems pretty clear that many critics and readers think he is also making a comment on death as a judgement, that was my gut feeling when I first read the line...albeit at 14 years of age.
4-As I maintained above its not all or nothing surely there must be an arguement directed at degrees of punishment.

DNW said...

I wonder if those who argue against the death penalty would also argue against irrevocable expulsion or banishment to some out of the way location?

Many of us would in fact be content with the simple removal of the offender from society and any of its benefits, such as continued support, permanently.

Generally, I believe that capital punishment opponents would so object; that there is a deep rooted masochism in numerous death penalty opponents, and that it is their own emotional neediness, and their own desires for inclusion and acceptance over life itself, which motivates them. When that is, their objection is not just in aid of the subversion of the existing political or social order.

Yes, errors can occur. Justice can miscarry: especially when the suspect is already morally dubious on other counts. But the real objection to the death penalty seems to be emotionally rather than logically based; motivated by the feelings of those who would rather die as victims, than kill the demoniacal victimizer. Many, as news reports reveal, are not even capable of rousing themselves to protect their own children.

It, this emotional disorder of theirs, fits with certain common misreadings of Christian doctrine, it seems to me. They go shambling to their own extinction singing Kumbaya.

Anonymous said...

@DNW
I guess we are all pretty much the same...no wait a minute..
This advocate against the death penalty has no problem with banishment, or life, or lots of unpleasant expulsions. But I do have trouble with your emotional attachment to the irrevocable. It isn't necessary. Why not have a fail-safe?
If someone tortured and killed a loved one I cannot say I wouldn't take revenge, even long planned revenge. But again I would fully expect prosecution. Revenge is bad enough, revenge by proxy is worse.
The potential for miscarriage just makes it worse.
I remain unconvinced it is a misreading of Christian doctrine:-)

Brandon said...

1-Which is the point. Despite deserts or lack of them we do not have the competence to take life

This really makes nonsense of the concept of desert. If some people deserve to die, the question of to what extent we can act on this is purely a matter of overall practicality -- otherwise, we are merely saying that they don't in fact deserve to die.

2-They are debating their legitimacy in taking on the authority (amongst other things)

No, they are not -- there is no real debate, only a discussion that doesn't go into all that much detail, and the point has nothing whatsoever to do with taking on the coercive power of the state, but wishing someone dead. It's not as if they are discussing whether Denethor has actually has the competence and authority to put to death people who sell out soldiers' positions to Sauron. Further, no one simply "takes on the authority" to punish anyone in any way whatsoever; no one has the right to do so, even if we are talking about fining people.

The passage in question sets up for Frodo's growth; we will later see him pity Saruman -- who certainly and without any question whatsoever deserves to die. And that's the whole point -- you are reading it backwards. It is not about our not having competence regardless of desert but about the fact that we should pity regardless of both competence and desert. While there's no way they can know it yet, the entire set-up is that sometimes we may be in a position of authority and faced with someone who certainly deserves to die (with Saruman both Gandalf and Frodo will be put in precisely this position later on), and we should still pity, and still recognize that greater good might come of pity than of justice.

4-As I maintained above its not all or nothing surely there must be an arguement directed at degrees of punishment.

You explicitly said that the difference between imprisonment and death punishments is that the latter can't be undone. In fact, neither can actually be undone; they are both taking away something extraordinarily precious that can never in any way be replaced. There may be degrees in the preciousness of what you take; but there is no 'whoops, rewind' for seizing control of someone's life for years.

DNW said...

Anonymous Anonymous said...

@DNW
I guess we are all pretty much the same...no wait a minute..
This advocate against the death penalty has no problem with banishment, or life, or lots of unpleasant expulsions. But I do have trouble with your emotional attachment to the irrevocable. It isn't necessary. Why not have a fail-safe?


If you mean a fail safe in the case of someone convicted of a crime they did not commit, then, their banishment, their expulsion, rather than their death, would act as a brake, if not a fail safe.

Now, the critic of say, banishment to South Georgia Island rather than imprisonment, would have several objections, even if there were some procedural allowance made to return the felon to civilization if it were eventually demonstrated that he had not committed the crime.

These objections are based on their theory of just punishment and or rehabilitation as being primary, as opposed to my theory that simple removal of the malefactor is the main - or only real consideration.

The social pietist does not believe, or feel, that it is proper to simply cast someone out into the outer darkness: not even a murderer for profit or pleasure.

Their feelings of "fellowship" and projective identification are stronger than their urge for self-preservation.

In addition they would return to risk arguments and say that dropping a murderer off on a frigid coast with nothing but a shovel, a stock of canned goods, and bag of kale seeds (figuratively speaking) would be tantamount in effect to a capital sentence; as the criminal would inevitably die either from the effects of his own sloth, the ravages of nature, or victimization by other outcasts.

In this age of popular media we are all familiar with cases in which there can be no doubt as to guilt or motivation. That would not matter to them.

I'm not interested personally in revenge; nor even "justice" in the abstract. As policy, I merely want the thing gone.

And that is really the main problem for those who oppose the death penalty. Even if every conceivable safeguard against misapplication is in place and functioning, even if every doubt as to guilt is removed, even if the heinousness of the act is such that all humankind finds it utterly evil and revolting, there will still be many, including most of those activists currently objecting on ostensibly prudential and equity grounds, who, when push came to shove, would just be too emotionally traumatized by the concept of alienating the offender completely from society forever, to endorse it.

For them - probably unbelievers for the most part - it is the equivalent of Hell, the very denial of what counts as human life and value; i.e., the received recognition of others and their affirmation of your acceptability and value on some level.

Socrates preferred to die rather than just go away. That piece of crap John Rawls famously summed up the pseudo-liberal collectivist point of view when he stated that others had a right to our esteem, as it was one of their fundamental needs: not freedom, but the esteem of others.

There are lots of organisms like that.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear we are becoming LOTR geeks...I guess I started it so mea culpa...but if I end up at a Comic-Con convention you have my permission to shoot me...that is if I had the authority to give you the authority to take a life...which I don't. Anyway to business.
@Brandon
1- one persons desert, and another's authority are 2 separate things. They are not inextricably linked. They might be if humans were the only authority (materialists would agree), though it would be an arbitrary authority. However nothing says we must act against these deserts. God may, but for the sake of brevity that's none of our business.
2-I agree with most of what you say as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Now I suppose you may think I'm seeing subtext, or arguements that are not there I simply think it can be read at another level. When Gandalf refers to the wise not seeing all ends it calls into question all judgement insofar as death is concerned. If Gandalf, who speaks for Tolkien advocates pity for Gollum and Saruman , arguably the second and third most culpable characters in the story it seems not much of a stretch to suppose that he finds the whole notion of judgement too much for us to handle.
3-Yes the difference is in the degree ( of preciousness if you like). Precious...precious...oh for crying out loud!

Brandon said...

one persons desert, and another's authority are 2 separate things. They are not inextricably linked.

They are in fact inextricably linked; to say that someone deserves to die but no one has the authority to impose that punishment is a contradiction in terms. Deserving a punishment requires that someone have the authority to punish in that way; if no one has the authority to punish in that way, no one deserves to be punished in that way.

When Gandalf refers to the wise not seeing all ends it calls into question all judgement insofar as death is concerned.

Only if it calls into question all judgment involving any kind of severe punishment; people don't magically begin to see all ends when it comes to lesser punishments than death. In any case, Gandalf's explicit conclusion is weaker than you are suggesting: it is that we should not be eager for the death of another. And it is indeed a good reason for not being eager to punish in general.

Yes the difference is in the degree

Then, since it's not a matter of difference in kind, the question is why you should draw the line between life imprisonment and death when imprisonment is also an irreversible taking of something extraordinarily valuable. Let's suppose that life is more precious than freedom -- this is arguably not always true, but let us suppose it. Then why not make exactly the same argument for life imprisonment? What principled reason is there for distinguishing them?

Anonymous said...

@Brandon
Again your arguement pre-suppose only one authority. We are not called upon to do Gods job for him, even if we could, which we can't.
So if I say the death penalty is wrong, I really mean any penalty is wrong! That is absurd.
Why don't we just suppose that there is some degree of return available to non lethal punishment, but none to death. Actually we don't have to suppose.
@DNW
Yes.

Ruben said...

Neither can lost time; if you imprison someone, they never get that part of their life back.

Sure but you can attempt restoration them by giving them the remainder of their life back and giving them monetary compensation. With CP there is no chance in even partial restoration if the judgment is later found to be wrong.

Greg said...

@ Ruben

Sure but you can attempt restoration them by giving them the remainder of their life back and giving them monetary compensation. With CP there is no chance in even partial restoration if the judgment is later found to be wrong.

There will still be cases where you accidentally imprison innocent individuals for life, and they will never get that time back. So if the finality of the death penalty, along with the possibility of error, is a principled objection to the death penalty, then it is also a principled objection to life imprisonment (and, indeed, any punishment where error in conviction is possible).

But it is appropriate to punish people, even when there is a chance you are wrong, although you should take measures to moderate against error. So these concerns are, ultimately, prudential and are not likely to underwrite a blanket ban on the death penalty; they certainly won't do so without empirical considerations.

Anonymous said...

@Greg
Yes there will be errors in the justice system. It is administered by humans who are fallible, agreed. Yes death is final insofar as we have power and to take it is an irrevocable act, agreed. Yes to take liberty either temporary or permanent is a final act insofar a it cannot be returned, agreed. Yes it is appropriate to punish, agreed. However all this notwithstanding it requires a certain hubris to suggest they are therefore equally defensible. As you say paying a parking ticket is irrevocable as well, but to equate them stretches credibility as a matter of common sense...I think.

Brandon said...

Again your arguement pre-suppose only one authority. We are not called upon to do Gods job for him, even if we could, which we can't.

Then it's inconsistent also to say that they deserve to die -- if it's out of our hands to impose a punishment, it's out of our hands to say that anyone deserves it. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

So if I say the death penalty is wrong, I really mean any penalty is wrong! That is absurd.

Then you should have some actual rational principle that prevents you from being committed to such an absurdity. You've yet to give us anything, though.

Why don't we just suppose that there is some degree of return available to non lethal punishment, but none to death.

Now you're trying to go back to what you originally said. You can't magically undo the past; there is no 'return' to freedom lost for years in imprisonment. No return. At all. It was taken away and will never be given back.

Brandon said...

Sure but you can attempt restoration them by giving them the remainder of their life back and giving them monetary compensation. With CP there is no chance in even partial restoration if the judgment is later found to be wrong.

You aren't "giving them the remainder of their life back"; you're just no longer taking even more of it away, and monetary compensation is no more than a token of apology for having done what cannot be undone at all. Nothing is actually restored. By such a low standard one could just as easily 'compensate' for the death penalty by paying for a nice tombstone or making sure their family is cared for. It's a token of repentance; it's not a restoration, even a partial one.

Both of you seem to underestimate just how severe a penalty imprisonment is. It takes something very precious to human beings, their self-dominion, and often as well the most promising years of their lives. What it takes away can never be restored -- the best you can do is to stop doing it and apologize, inadequately, but what you have taken is in fact lost forever, drawn from a precious finite resource that cannot be replenished by any human power.

No severe punishment admits of real return or restoration; when you punish the innocent with severe punishment, there is no option available for redress beyond contrition and tokens of contrition. That's precisely why they are severe. And the question at hand is: why don't the arguments against the death penalty apply to all punishments, that like the death penalty, take something of great value that can never be returned? There doesn't really seem to be an answer here beyond an assumption that there's just obviously some fundamental difference.

Greg said...

@ Anon

However all this notwithstanding it requires a certain hubris to suggest they are therefore equally defensible.

Perhaps. But I didn't suggest that capital punishments and life sentences are "equally defensible". I was making a very specific claim. My point was that the finality of the death penalty does not amount to any principled objection to the death penalty, and therefore it is a matter of prudence. So anyone who cites finality, without referring to empirical considerations regarding, say, the amount of wrongly executed and wrongly life-sentenced, is making a mistake, and making an argument that proves too much.

Are they different? Sure. That it is impossible to exonerate someone after you kill him is a good reason to be more moderate with applying the death penalty than with imprisonment. But it is a far cry from an argument against using the death penalty in general.

Anon2 said...

I still say this is a uniquely traditionalist or American (or countries that have the death penalty) issue. I think the rest of us have a more nuanced view and can understand there has been a development in our understanding of balance. That a state can theoretically take a life in appropriate circumstances isn't that controversial. That a state should make it a normal choice among others in the criminal justice system, well that is very controversial.

Catholic Orthodoxy DOES NOT EQUAL American Conservatism.

Greg said...

@ Anon2

Insisting that your position is more nuanced isn't an argument.

Also the view that the state can, in theory of practice, intentionally take a life is controversial, because controverted, by the new natural lawyers for instance. And that seems to me the best argument against the death penalty.

Greg said...

in theory of practice

Correction: in theory or in practice

Anon2 said...

@Greg

"Insisting that your position is more nuanced isn't an argument"

Indeed. I considered it a statement.
I was thinking of just war theory.

Anonymous said...

@Greg(and Brandon)
I can't say I agree with you on the notion that finality does not constitute a principled objection and must always be aided by empirical data. I said we have not the capacity judge on the taking of a life in any case. The finality of death is merely one facet of that along with the power of the state, the viability of options etc...Now Brandon seems to be saying that once we establish desert any problem of legitimacy is solved. Ergo you deserve it so we can do it. We may choose not to for any number of reasons, but our legitimate (right?) is clear. But if we are not the ultimate authority we should stick to punishment that can be amended. If we are the ultimate authority then debating Catholic doctrine is pointless. DNW has proposed a perfectly valid albeit logistically troublesome model above. I can get on board with that. I choose the word amended advisedly.

@Anon2
I too am from a different jurisdiction dividing my time between Canada and Europe. While on many, even most of the issues raised here I am in some agreement, on a few like the death penalty and especially guns I stand amazed.

Greg said...

@ Anon

But if we are not the ultimate authority we should stick to punishment that can be amended.

But most punishments cannot be amended. Suppose that a man seems to have murdered someone. We give him a sentence of 25 years in prison. After 3 years, new evidence surfaces, and he is shown to have been innocent. He has lost 3 years of his life, and the state can do nothing to give that back. It could attempt to compensate him in various ways, but even that is not amendment; suppose that the man recently became a father, and has now missed out on some of his child's childhood.

Of course, there is no guarantee that new evidence surfaces anyway.

So if the state's non-ultimate authority is reason for withholding the death penalty, it is also a reason for withholding sentences of any duration, which is absurd.

The fact of the matter is just that, in this vale of tears, some people will be punished incorrectly. The frequency of that occurrence, and the magnitudes of the punishments, are certainly relevant political considerations when we are crafting penal policy. But that applies to all punishments and not just the death penalty.

Anon2 said...

The death penalty is unique in its finality. There is no chance of reform or correction of any legal injustice.

@Anonymous
Yes it is shocking. Although I get the wider arguments and history involved in the gun laws in America. There is a fear that the Left just want to erode freedoms, rights etc. Although an appropriate increase in regulation seems like a good idea (depending on the who and the why). Removing guns from everyday lay abiding Americas could actually make the problems worse. Criminals won't just go with tighter restrictions or amnesties or whatever.

Brandon said...

Now Brandon seems to be saying that once we establish desert any problem of legitimacy is solved.

I have not said anything about legitimacy in general. But it is contradictory to go around claiming that desert of a particular punishment can be determined independently of the actual authority and power to punish in that particular way. The two are not detachable. If we do not have the authority to punish with death, at least in principle, we do not have the authority to judge someone deserving of it in the first place.

Brandon said...

The death penalty is unique in its finality. There is no chance of reform or correction of any legal injustice.

As already previously noted, this is absolutely not true; all severe punishments have a finality, because they are cases in which what is done cannot be undone. Nor can one "reform or correct" an unjust punishment; all one can do is repent of it and express one's repentance. The notion that death is somehow a uniquely final punishment (1) fails to do justice to the actual severity of lesser punishments and (2) is linked with the ridiculous and nonsensical notion that you can somehow 'make up' for wrongly imprisoning someone for years.

Anon2 said...



I do not understand why people are simply avoiding what I am actually saying. If you kill someone then they are dead. If you lock someone up for life and some time later it is discovered they are not guilty etc. then the person can be released. Sure they don't get the time back but at least they were alive. Both these things happen in real life. Beyond arguing on the internet or in a book this issue has consequences for real people (not that you don't know that, but it is easy to drift off into abstraction and forget that). I also think that the death penalty is too harsh to be included as an ordinary option in the criminal courts in countries with a sufficient prison system and wealth. There are certainly situations in which a state may be permitted to kill (think Osama Bin Laden) but I do not think the death penalty sufficiently represents the demands of mercy or even justice when there are other options such as imprisonment (and possible reform and restitution).

I find people arguing that the Church teaches we must have the death penalty as absurd and just as misinformed as those who quote early statements of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, under the false premise that they are infallible declarations propping up Creationist claims. Not the purpose, nor how it works.

Also lets play a fun game. Consider the following assertion "Slavery should be legal based on exactly the same arguments and misunderstandings (of at times quite learned people)."

I will say it again... this is an American and traditionalist thing. People are defensive because of the "culture war" in the West, but Orthodoxy isn't a retreat into some perceived historical era where we all (supposedly) marched to a legalistic drum. That isn't how the unfolding of revelation or the illumination of reason has worked in our walk with Christ.

Greg said...

@ Anon2

I do not understand why people are simply avoiding what I am actually saying. If you kill someone then they are dead. If you lock someone up for life and some time later it is discovered they are not guilty etc. then the person can be released. Sure they don't get the time back but at least they were alive.

How am I avoiding it? I am responding to it directly. When you wrongly punish someone, you cannot undo it. That isn't something special about the death penalty. The punishment in the death penalty case is permanent, yes, but so is a life-time sentence permanent if you die before the exonerating evidence is found. And since people sit on death row for some time, there is even a chance that you will be exonerated if you are given the death penalty; the difference with respect to being able to stop a false punishment before it is complete is a matter of degree, here.

It's not that you aren't insisting on a distinction, or that Brandon and I are not recognizing that you are doing so. It is that you are insisting at a distinction which you have failed to show is the morally relevant one.

And yes, it has to do with real people. That is why it matters that, even in the case of sending someone to prison by accident for a few years, you are depriving them of great goods that you can never replace. In penal justice, though, it is appropriate, and indeed necessary, to risk depriving people of great goods that you can never replace. That's just what punishment is like where we are not all-knowing.

I find people arguing that the Church teaches we must have the death penalty as absurd and just as misinformed as...

First of all, I am not arguing that the Church teaches we must have the death penalty, and neither (I think) are Feser and Brandon. Feser and Bessette are arguing that the death penalty is permissible in principle and (further, based on empirical evidence) in some actual cases in the United States.

I have been arguing that certain arguments against the death penalty are not good arguments, until they are supplemented with empirical data.

But in none of these cases is anyone arguing that we must have the death penalty. It is consistent with Feser and Bessette's position that in some society, the prudential considerations rule out applying the death penalty. It is possible that that is our society. But you'd have to amass empirical evidence to argue that.

I am, in fact, not even arguing for the death penalty. On July 24, 2016 at 9:12 AM, I raised a couple concerns with what I understand Feser's argument to be (from what I have read elsewhere), and no one has attempted to answer them. Some of my concerns are about the scope of the argument; one of the concerns, though, is an objection to the death penalty in principle, based on the difficulty of arguing that the death penalty is not malum in se in the way that punishment by rape (say) would be.

Greg said...

My hunch, though, is that the death penalty is in principle permissible. On the one hand, I think just wars and self-defense can involve intentional killing, so I am inclined to think that the death penalty could too; the new natural lawyers, who think the death penalty is impermissible always, think that you can engage in just wars and legitimate, lethal self-defense without intending to kill, and I have my doubts about that. On the other hand, the evidence from scripture and tradition in favor of the in-principle permissibility of the death penalty is just overwhelming. The new natural lawyers can try to hold that their position is acceptable from the standpoint of tradition, by pointing out that it has never been infallibly declared that the death penalty is sometimes permissible, though there are a lot of things that strongly suggest it is that are less than infallible. That's fine for the sake of consistency, but it's a torturous way to think of the Church's tradition, and should be avoided if possible. So until I'm convinced that the malum in se argument against the death penalty is unimpeachable, I will lean towards thinking it is sometimes all right.

Greg said...

And finally, I'll admit, I am American, but not hugely traditionalist, although I think that the arguments of recent popes against the death penalty have been less than decisive.

It is also easy to speculate about the psychologies of those who oppose the death penalty. On the one hand, it springs from a false (in my view) understanding of the seamless garment / consistent ethic of life. But unless you think the death penalty is immoral in principle, that is a non-starter, for what makes the death penalty wrong would not be the same thing that makes abortion or euthanasia wrong.

Similarly, I think it is sometimes treated as a way to find common ground with liberals, so that it can be used as leverage in arguments against abortion and euthanasia. That is misconceived on, I think, two counts. First, if I'm right about the consistent ethic of life, then the similarities between abortion/euthanasia and the death penalty are material (concerning life and death) and not formal (with respect to what makes the action wrong); thus it is hard to leverage common ground on the latter issue to argue against abortion and euthanasia. But I also think liberals tend to oppose the death penalty out of determinism (no one is really, truly, guilty, and retributive punishment is evil) and sentimentality (what matters is conscious life and what is bad is pain and the frustration of desire, etc.). So I think the common ground is superficial.

Ultimately, what makes the death penalty seem so bad is the thought that this life is all we've got. Hence it seems intolerable to secularists. But I think that attitude is also prevalent in the Church, at least in the form of doubt or the sense that the traditional understanding of the last things should be kept out of secular politics. Punishing someone who turns out not to be guilty seems quite intolerable if there is no cosmic justice. I think when one works out the logic of that objection, though, it is not very decisive--but that the feeling is there, is not surprising.

DNW said...



"Anon2 said...



I do not understand why people are simply avoiding what I am actually saying. If you kill someone then they are dead. If you lock someone up for life and some time later it is discovered they are not guilty etc. then the person can be released."


Ok then: can you conceive of any possible scenario in which you would think that there could be no mistake regarding guilt?

You don't even have to take that in a judicial context. Make it a personal scenario if you like. Suppose a man broke into your house and was beating your wife to death. He stops when you enter the room and stands up to face you. Could you be sure, by your own standards of evaluation, that that man was the man who had just committed the act? I won't ask you if you feel justified in killing him.

The man who killed Robert Kennedy: do you take it as certain beyond all reasonable - or rational for that matter - doubt that the killer was Sirhan Sirhan?

How about Jack Ruby's killing of Lee Harvey Oswald: do you consider that a moral certainty?

What would it take to establish that there was no possibility of error?

DNW said...

" ... I also think liberals tend to oppose the death penalty out of determinism (no one is really, truly, guilty, and retributive punishment is evil) and sentimentality (what matters is conscious life and what is bad is pain and the frustration of desire, etc.). So I think the common ground is superficial."

That is a good observation, and leads us on to naturally ask the following question: once moral agency is abolished in the name of secular humanism; what is the residuum of the object to which secular humanism attends so solicitously?

And of course, once you abolish teleology and try to anchor your major premise in the free floating construct of a pointless locus of appetite, what deductions, or even persuasive inferences are you capable of drawing from such an "anthropology"?

As you know, the answer is "none".

Anon2 said...

I do not see the issue of the death penalty as a pragmatic matter of common ground with liberals, not even subconsciously. That a state, in an appropriate situation, can take a life or that a person can use reasonable force to take a life, as a matter of defense, are not an issue for me. What is problematic is that it shouldn't be seen as a 'good'. Where applicable it should simply not be part of the possible punishments applied by a normal civilian court.

Of course miscarriages of justice can happen even without the death penalty. That only goes to strengthen the argument I am making i.e. that the death penalty, in most places in the world today, is theoretically permissible but ethically detestable since it goes well beyond the limit of what a punishment should reflect in a Christian context when, in truth, it is unnecessary and can undermine many of the goods to which the Christian and Christ's Church have been directed. Remember the woman caught in adultery? Jesus could have chosen to let her be stoned according to the law of Moses. He did not.

The death penalty is in theory directed towards the unjust. Abortion and Euthanasia are directed towards the innocent (in the context of punishment for particular crimes etc.). I see the issues as separate.

Anonymous said...

I too have seen the "generous " nods of condescending tolerance from liberal colleagues when upon finding I am against the death penalty they seem to allow I am not without hope. But apart from consistency in anti-death I am tempted to point out all these issues are frustrations of Gods will. They would be so embarrassed they wouldn't know where to look, or hey would explode in arguement. It got me thinking about corporal punishment in schools which I had the opportunity to enjoy...twice. It was simply something you put up with. I am against it but it occurs to me that students today would be traumatized. Just goes to show the importance of the ethos with which one is familiar. And I still disagree with Geg et al.

Anonymous said...

...regarding the death penalty. I also probably would argue practical implementation of policy surrounding most of these issues would be rife with compromise. Leave that for another time.

matthew murray said...

"To be consistent Dr. Feser we would have to offer the death penalty to abortionists too and the women who knowingly procured their services also."

Very disturbing thought. I would like to hear dr. Federal thoughts on this.

matthew murray said...

LOL...leaving post as is.

Jonathan Watson said...

There's nothing in Natural Law that says you have to punish all crimes to the fullest extent of justice. St Thomas, in fact, argues that there are cases where it makes sense for the state to look the other way if the effort to stamp out the offending evil would cause even more evil as a result.

Jonathan Watson said...

It got me thinking about corporal punishment in schools ... Just goes to show the importance of the ethos with which one is familiar.

Exactly. Hence the US Constitution's prohibition of cruel or unusual punishment. I, too, experienced corporal chastisement in (private) school in the 80s, and it was much less traumatic for me than it would be for my students today for whom it would represent a radical departure from everything they have hitherto experienced.

Anonymous said...

@Jonathan Watson
I would be very interested to know where Saint Thomas says that.

@Everyone
Does Thomas ever say we should limit a sentence where something lesser can be offered?

Jonathan Watson said...

@Anonymous:
From Summa Theolgiae, II.II.10.11:

I answer that, Human government is derived from the Divine government, and should imitate it. Now although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority, rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred: thus Augustine says (De Ordine ii, 4): "If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust."

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jonathan

Seamus said...

But I also think liberals tend to oppose the death penalty out of determinism (no one is really, truly, guilty, and retributive punishment is evil) . . . .

What's this "evil" stuff they're talking about? Don't they understand that people who legislate and carry out the death penalty can't help doing so, because their actions are determined by forces outside their control, and that it therefore makes no sense to describe those actions as either blameworthy or meritorious, good or evil?