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.