Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Hart that pumps bile


Strangely, as David Bentley Hart has gotten more gratuitously nasty and unhinged in his attacks on me, I find myself less offended, or even having much of an affective reaction at all.  It’s like dealing with a mental patient or a surly neighborhood dog.  You simply navigate the situation, aware that there is no point in getting angry with someone or something that isn’t rational.   It’s too bad.  Our last contretemps, on the subject of eternal damnation, ended with a pleasing amicability in the combox here at the blog.  I had real hope that our future exchanges could be more positive.  Alas, fast forward a few months and Hart is suddenly spitting venom at straw men again in his review of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed in Commonweal (to which I recently replied at Catholic World Report).  And now, at Church Life Journal Hart doubles down on the vitriol and the caricatures.  Perhaps he can’t help it – just as, when reading Hart, I can’t help thinking of the fable of the scorpion and the frog.
 
What comes out of the mouth proceeds from Hart, and this defiles a man

No one has ever accused Hart of rhetorical subtlety, but passages like this one do make one wonder whether there has been an outbreak of rabies in his vicinity:

[Feser’s] book… is, to put the matter simply, an exorbitantly bad book, one that contains not a single compelling or solvent argument… [I]ts uses of scripture, theology, and the Church Fathers are almost fantastic in their awkwardness and crudity…It is also a book whose moral coarseness borders at times on the surreal… Hence the poor, or at least lukewarm, reviews the book has tended to receive.

Yikes.  To start with the latter claim, it is discouraging to see that Hart can’t go three paragraphs without once again succumbing to the temptation to play fast and loose with the truth.  In fact, almost all of the reviews so far – those of Janet Smith in the Claremont Review of Books, Daniel Lendman in the American Academy of Religion’s publication Reading Religion, James Jacobs at Crisis magazine,  William M. Briggs at One Peter Five, and Christopher Manion at The Wanderer – have been strongly positive.  Even the mixed review by David McClamrock at Today’s Catholic made some very positive remarks about the book.  Furthermore, as anyone who has looked at the back cover of the book knows, it has received warm endorsements from many prominent scholars and writers: theologians Steven Long, Fr. Kevin Flannery, and Fr. Thomas Petri; canon lawyers Edward Peters and Fr. Gerald Murray; philosophers Fr. James Schall, Michael Pakaluk, and J. Budziszewski; professor of criminal justice Barry Latzer; and Robert Royal, Fr. George Rutler, and Fr. Robert Sirico (this despite Fr. Sirico’s personal opposition to capital punishment). 

Then there are the further positive notices about the book at Catholic Herald, Catholic Culture, Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s blog, and elsewhere.  And as regular readers of this blog are aware, the book has also gotten a fair amount of attention on radio, television, and other media, and been the subject of a recent academic panel discussion.  Naturally, not everyone who has commented on the book in these contexts has agreed with it, but the general tendency by far has been to treat it as serious and worthy of respectful engagement. 

Meanwhile, the only “poor” reviews have been those of Hart himself and of Paul Griffiths – who, not coincidentally, is as notoriously cantankerous as Hart.  A Thomist getting a bad review from either Hart or Griffiths is about as surprising as Hart or Griffiths getting a bad review from Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins.  And it tells you about the same vis-à-vis the actual quality of the book under review, viz. absolutely nothing.  (I replied to Griffiths in the same article in which I responded to Hart). 

It is also true that E. Christian Brugger and Christopher Tollefsen – prominent Catholic opponents of capital punishment, whose views are subjected to detailed criticism in the book –have replied to that criticism.  But it would be tendentious to call their replies “reviews” of the book, much less “poor” reviews.  For one thing, their concern was primarily to respond to what the book says about their own work, rather than to comment one way or the other on its other contents or its general merits.  For another, where they do comment on the book, they by no means trash it, but simply express polite and scholarly disagreement.  In any event, it would, of course, be rather silly to take the disagreement of two scholars who are themselves major targets of attack in By Man as an objective indicator of the quality of the book.  (I replied to Brugger and Tollefsen at Public Discourse.) 

So, Hart is simply badly misrepresenting the reception the book has been getting.  But then, he knows that most readers sympathetic to his position and hostile to mine won’t bother to fact-check his assertions.  Hart isn’t one to let a scrupulous concern for accuracy get in the way of a useful rhetorical trick.

As to the alleged “moral coarseness” of the book, Hart tries to justify this characterization by once again fulminating at length about the excesses of Giovanni Battista Bugatti – the 19th century executioner for the Papal States, to whom Joe and I briefly allude a couple of times in By Man.  Bugatti looms vastly larger in Hart’s two articles about the book than he does in the book itself, for reasons that are, once again, transparently rhetorical.  Since, in my Catholic World Report piece, I already said everything that needs to be said about this red herring, I’ll leave Hart to his Bugatti fixation and move on. 

Coming to the overheated stuff about the book lacking “a single compelling or solvent argument,” etc., this would cause eyes to roll even if Hart were able to develop a single compelling or solvent objection to the arguments of the book.  Which, as it happens, he is not.  For when one looks past the invective to the substantive criticisms Hart raises, one finds that in nearly every case Hart either misses the point or begs the question. 

Because he does so at tedious length, the unwary reader is bound not to see this.  As his longtime readers know, prolixity is one of Hart’s stock rhetorical techniques.  Another is showy scholarship. (To quote from Hart’s widely consulted Rules for Rhetoricians: “Rule 3: Impress the rubes with some Greek.  If you really want to wow ‘em, leave it untransliterated.”)  Hart counts on his fans being so impressed with his erudition that they overlook the fact that his entire case rests on premises which he has not defended, and which only people who already agree with his conclusions would accept.  A Hart essay is like an elegant and solidly constructed chandelier that someone has hung from a paperclip.  You’re so distracted by the light and all the shiny baubles that you don’t see it crashing down at your feet until it’s too late.

What part of “Catholic” didn’t you understand?

Here’s the main problem.  Late in his article, Hart makes a concession which – though, amazingly, he does not realize this – gives away virtually the entire game.  He writes: “It is perhaps easier for me as an Orthodox Christian than it is for a Catholic to dismiss Feser’s arguments.” 

Bingo.  Hart speaks as if this were an incidental point, when in fact it is the whole point.  Perhaps Hart’s copy of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed was missing the subtitle, but here it is: “A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.”  Perhaps he also failed to notice that it was published by a Catholic press, Ignatius.  To be sure, there is much in the book that a non-Catholic should find of interest, such as its purely philosophical arguments and its treatment of the social scientific evidence.  Even some of the theological material will be of interest to non-Catholic readers who take evidence from scripture and/or Christian tradition seriously.  All the same, Joe Bessette and I do not expect many of the theological arguments to be compelling, at the end of the day, to non-Catholics.

In particular, the theological arguments in the book presuppose a Catholic approach to the interpretation of scripture, a Catholic understanding of the authority of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and a Catholic conception of the authority of the popes and the magisterium.  Of course, these presuppositions stand in need of justification, but since you can’t do everything in one book, we take that much for granted and go from there.  The reason this procedure is legitimate is that the book is primarily aimed at a specifically Catholic audience and concerned to address current controversies in Catholic theology.  Joe and I are defending one side of an intra-Catholic dispute.  Non-Catholics are of course welcome to look on, but we aren’t trying to convince them in the first place.

Hart almost entirely ignores this crucial context.  He’s like a guest who shows up at a funeral and loudly complains about the absence of birthday gifts and party hats.  Take, for example, remarks like the following:

Feser is incorrect in saying that what the Pope demanded from the Waldensians was assent to a “doctrinal” point (at least, if the Enchiridion Symbolorum is to be trusted)…

“Orthodoxy,” “doctrine” … these are fairly unequivocal terms.  Yet neither is actually appropriate.  There is in fact not a single dogma of the Catholic Church that requires the liceity of the death penalty.  The Pope could tomorrow declare all capital punishment sinful and incompatible with Catholic teaching ex cathedra, and he would not be contradicting a single recognized doctrine.  If you doubt this, tolle, lege any copy of Denzinger.  And the current catechism of the Church bears this out.

End quote.  Now, as his remarks and links to Denzinger illustrate, Hart is here using the term “doctrine” very narrowly, as a synonym for “dogma.”  But that is not how Joe and I or other Catholic writers use the term.  As we explain at length in our book (building on Cardinal Avery Dulles’s discussion of the CDF document Donum Veritatis), there are five categories of magisterial statement in Catholic theology.  “Dogmas” (such as the Trinity and the Incarnation) are the first category, but two other categories of statement would also count as “doctrinal” in a broader sense (while the last two categories are “prudential” statements of varying types). 

Why does Hart ignore this explicit explanation that we gave of our usage?  Here is what he has to say about the section of the book in question:

Feser complains that Griffiths and I do not deal with the fifty pages of arguments he and Bessette devote to their procrustean attempt to blunt the catechism’s piercingly unambiguous statements on the matter.  But that was a mercy on our parts.  To refute those arguments it is enough to recite them.

End quote.  I would say that this is shockingly dishonest and frivolous, except that after much bitter experience, nothing about Hart shocks me anymore.  If Hart has actually read the pages in question, then he knows that we there make it crystal clear how we are using the term “doctrine,” in which case he is deliberately misleading his readers about what we meant when we characterized the Waldensian-related statement as “doctrinal.”  If he has not read the pages in question, then he is once again guilty of breathtakingly sloppy scholarship.  The only third alternative is that, in addition to his manifest “anger management” issues, Hart is suffering from a memory disorder. 

In any event, it should go without saying that to dismiss fifty pages of scholarly, non-polemical argumentation with a single bitchy remark like “to refute those arguments it is enough to recite them” is the kind of stuff one expects from a Facebook pissing match or Jerry Coyne’s combox – not from a man some people seem to fancy a veritable St. David Bentley Chrysostom. 

Then there is Hart’s response to what I said in my Catholic World Report article about Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.  Hart appeals to what he claims to be “Christ’s repeated prohibitions against retributive justice,” and asserts that a distinction between “public and private morality for Christians” is “a ridiculous anachronism” when applied to the Sermon, “as any good scholar of the New Testament or of late antiquity could tell [Feser].”  Hence, he alleges, I have failed to reconcile capital punishment with Christ’s moral teaching.

But all of this simply begs the question.  Yes, in the context of first-century Judea, people didn’t draw a sharp line between the public and private spheres.  So what?  They also didn’t use words like homoousios, or pray with icons.  Now, Hart would acknowledge that the latter are perfectly legitimate extensions and applications of the Christian teachings and practices of the first century, or are at the very least perfectly compatible with those principles. 

But traditional Catholic moral theology would say the same thing about distinctions like those Hart either ignores or dismisses.  “Retribution” can mean either (i) the infliction by public authority of a deserved penalty on an offender, or (ii) a private individual taking the law into his own hands or someone punishing out of hatred rather than justice.  Rightly understood, what Christ’s teaching in the Sermon rules out is “retribution” in sense (ii), not in sense (i).  Similarly, the way mercy is shown differs depending on whether the person showing it is a public official responsible for preserving social order, or private individuals in their everyday dealings with each other. 

These are just standard, longstanding principles of Catholic moral theology, and they are explicitly spelled out in By Man.   If Hart wants to argue against them, fine.  But instead Hart simply asserts, without argument that they are wrong, and writes as if Joe and I hadn’t already considered and responded to claims like the ones he makes.  In any event, since they are longstanding ideas in Catholic moral theology, they are available for deployment in the intra-Catholic debate that Joe and I are concerned with, whatever non-Catholics like Hart think of them.

Nor is it remotely reasonable for Hart to be so dismissive of these ideas, given another concession he makes in his latest article.  In my Catholic World Report response to his review, I noted that Hart’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount would, if consistently applied, entail giving up all punishments (not just capital punishment), which would be incompatible with even the most rudimentary social order.  In response, Hart is at first flippant, writing:

[N]onsense.  Twaddle.  Dare I say, Balderdash?... [T]here is no dilemma here to resolve.  Forgiveness precludes the principle of retribution, but not every form of punishment or coercion… It is quite possible that there is such a thing as force that is purely non-retributive in intent...

End quote.  There is a serious problem with this position, though, which Joe and I already set out in the book (in yet another passage that Hart simply ignores without answering).  As C. S. Lewis pointed out, when retributive justice is entirely left out of consideration, punishment necessarily becomes unmoored from desert.  The sequel is that, in principle, offenders might be given little or no punishment for heinous crimes, and extremely harsh punishments for minor infractions, if we decide that this is conducive to getting them to do what we want them to.  Offenders cease to be free and responsible moral agents, and become instead cases to be managed or objects of social engineering.  Hart would, presumably, be as horrified at such a prospect as Lewis, Joe, and I are, but if so he says nothing to show how to avoid it. 

He is also once again missing the point, since Catholic teaching certainly insists that retributive justice must always be part of the story where punishment is concerned, even if it is not the whole story.  Again, that is all that matters for the intra-Catholic debate Joe and I are engaged in, whether Hart agrees with this teaching or not.

And yet, no sooner has Hart made the “balderdash” remark than he goes on to write:

That said, and perhaps somewhat shockingly, I am willing to grant that here Feser has at least raised an interesting point…

I confess too that my understanding of Christianity (at least, that of the earliest centuries) is far more otherworldly and socially irresponsible than Feser’s is.  On the whole, he assumes that Christianity must be compatible with a well functioning society, and that therefore Christianity in some larger neutral sense “works” as a way of promoting the social good.  But perhaps Christianity, as presented in the New Testament, does not “work” very well at all, or at least would not do so if it were consistently applied to life in this world…

[I]t seems likely that a genuinely Christian social order [as Hart understands it]… might be impossible in practice, and therefore unimaginable in theory.  I really do not know.  I do not pretend to have any clear sense of whether a Christian social order could ever flourish this side of the Kingdom.

End quote.  Now, how what I said can be both “nonsense, twaddle, and balderdash” and at the same time “an interesting point” is a puzzle I leave for the Hart adepts to solve.  Suffice it for the moment to note that the Catholic moral tradition that ended up interpreting the Sermon on the Mount the way Joe and I do was concerned precisely to address the difficulty Hart admits not having an answer to.  Since that tradition at least has an answer and Hart by his own admission does not, you would think that he’d show a little more humility when evaluating it.  Or rather, you would do so if you could stop laughing once you’ve put the words “Hart” and “humility” together in the same sentence.

What part of “intrinsically” didn’t you understand?

Over and over again in our book, Joe Bessette and I emphasize that there are two fundamental questions that we are addressing.  First, can a Catholic hold that capital punishment is always and intrinsically wrong, wrong even in principle?  Second, even if capital punishment is legitimate at least in principle, does Catholic teaching allow it to be applied in practice, and if so, under what conditions?  Some of what we have to say is meant to address the first question, and some of it is meant to address the second, and we try always to be clear about exactly which of them we are addressing at any particular moment.

The reason the first question is so important is that a large and influential school of thought in contemporary Catholic theology and philosophy – the “new natural law” theory represented by Germain Grisez, John Finnis, and Robert P. George, as well as Brugger, Tollefsen, and many others – has taken the extreme view that capital punishment is contrary to natural law and thus always and intrinsically wrong, wrong even in principle, wrong for everyone and at all times and not merely wrong for Christians or in contemporary society.  The “new natural lawyers” would like the Church to adopt this novel position, and writers like Grisez and Brugger have exerted much effort to try to make such a doctrinal reversal plausible.  This is a matter of great controversy in Catholic circles, because in the view of the critics of the “new natural law,” such a doctrinal change would contradict the clear and consistent teaching of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and two millennia of papal teaching.  It would thereby undermine the credibility of the Church and have a ripple effect across the entire body of Catholic teaching. 

I set out this crucial context very clearly in my Catholic World Report response to Hart’s review, because in that review he ignored it, especially when commenting on what Joe and I have to say about the Fathers of the Church.  I explained that when we cite the Fathers, we do not deny but indeed explicitly acknowledge that many of them were strongly opposed to Christians actually making use of the death penalty.  Rather, our concern was to emphasize that even the Fathers who oppose capital punishment in practice affirm that it is legitimate at least in principle, that it is not per se contrary to natural justice.  Hart had alleged that Joe and I claim that the Fathers are agreed in supporting capital punishment, and that we are therefore guilty of poor patristic scholarship.  As I explained, this allegation rests on an ambiguity.  We do not claim that the Fathers all support the actual infliction of capital punishment.  We claim only that they are agreed that capital punishment is not intrinsically evil.

Bizarrely, and exasperatingly, in his latest article Hart once again ignores all of this, and simply repeats, at tedious length and with even higher dudgeon, the same false allegation that I have already refuted.  For example, he attributes to Joe and I the thesis that “Origen is willy-nilly on the side of capital punishment” and then castigates us for holding such a ridiculous view.  Yet what we actually say in the book is:

To be sure, like other Church Fathers in the pre-Constantinian period, Origen and Cyprian also teach that Christians should avoid bloodshed.  But the right of the state to execute criminals is not denied.  In holding Christians to a more rigorous standard than the (as yet unconverted) governing authorities, these Fathers do not claim that the latter’s resort to capital punishment is inherently wrong.  (p. 114)

There is no way an intellectually honest person could read that and then attribute to us the ridiculous view that “Origen is willy-nilly on the side of capital punishment.”  Hart also misrepresents what we say about St. John Chrysostom and other Fathers.  And all this despite the fact that Hart himself seems to allow that the Fathers did not regard capital punishment as intrinsically contrary to natural law.  In other words, on the very narrow issue that Joe and I appeal to the Fathers to help settle, Hart appears actually to be in agreement with us.  And yet he pretends that we are guilty of howlers of patristic scholarship!

How does one explain such weird behavior?  Several hypotheses suggest themselves.  First, I honestly am not certain that Hart actually reads an entire book or article before dashing off a vituperative response to it.  Like Don Quixote, Walter Mitty, or Jerry Coyne, Hart seems always to have some fantasy enemy in view – a manual-wielding Neo-Scholastic Thomist, say – and simply hurls his stock insults and objections at that phantom, certain that he has thereby refuted whatever happens to be there on the pages he can’t be bothered actually to read.

Second, Hart appears to be so enamored of his patented “Trust me, I’m a patristic scholar” shtick that he is hell-bent on somehow convicting me of getting the Fathers wrong.  Since I am not in fact guilty of that, all he can do is flail at the same straw men in a louder voice and with extra invective thrown in.  He’s like Richard Dawkins: He really knows only one thing (evolution in Dawkins’ case, the Fathers in Hart’s) and he’ll be damned if he isn’t going to make every dispute he gets into a dispute about that one thing.

Third, Hart once again shows a tin ear for the contemporary intra-Catholic debate that Joe and I are primarily addressing.  He writes:

It may be that the greatest problem with Feser and Bessette’s book is that their central argument is not so much false as irrelevant.  They expend a great deal of energy on trying to prove that the death penalty is a just requital for certain crimes, and that both scripture and Catholic tradition acknowledge as much.  But this is not the issue.  Part of the confusion, I imagine, is that they have taken their disagreements with certain proponents of the “new natural law theory” (who do indeed argue that capital punishment is inherently unjust) as applying to the more specific question of whether Christians are allowed to impose or support capital punishment.  But the question of justice has never been a matter of much contention.

End quote.  The trouble with this, of course, is that the question of justice very much is a matter of contention in contemporary Catholic circles, as anyone knows who has actually kept up with the debate.  Again, even some of the most influential “conservative” voices in recent Catholic moral theology – Grisez and his followers – claim precisely that capital punishment is intrinsically contrary to natural justice.  The whole point of the most significant abolitionist work in recent Catholic moral theology – Brugger’s book Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition – is precisely to facilitate the making of this novel view of Grisez’s into the official teaching of the Catholic Church.

If Hart is uninterested in this debate, fine.  But since that is in large part what our book is about, it is quite absurd for Hart to dismiss that debate’s significance when reviewing the book.  In effect, what Hart attacks in his review and follow-up article is some book he thinks we should have written, not the one we actually did write.

When in Rome

Finally, Hart revisits the issue of how to interpret Romans 13:4 (“He does not bear the sword in vain,” etc.), and repeats his linguistic arguments to the effect that the sword-bearing referred to here has to do with the general use of violence by state authorities, rather than a specific reference to capital punishment.  He then comments:

Feser grants that I may be right in my interpretation of the passage, but then cites a host of New Testament scholars (some of whom are indeed very fine scholars) who say otherwise, and so dismisses my observations as debatable.

End quote.  Actually, I never granted what Hart says I did.  He is not right in his interpretation of that passage, and he would not be right even if one were to agree with his remarks about the literal meaning of the Greek words translated “carry” and “sword.”  For one thing, as some of the New Testament scholars I cited point out, even if St. Paul intended a general reference to the state’s power to use violence, that would by no means exclude a reference to capital punishment.  On the contrary, such a reference would – especially in the Roman context that Paul had in view – be included, implicitly as one of the several ways the state uses violence.  An indirect reference is not a non-reference.

For another thing, here too it is crucial to keep in mind the specifically Catholic approach to interpreting scripture, according to which an interpretation endorsed by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church carries great weight, especially when they are unanimous.  (See By Man for discussion of the authority the Church attributes to these sources.)  Now, as I noted in my Catholic World Report response to Hart, the Fathers who comment on the subject agree that Romans 13 refers to capital punishment and that it teaches that it is legitimate at least in principle, as a matter of natural justice.  (Remember, contrary to what Hart keeps falsely alleging, I am not using the patristic evidence to make a larger claim than that.)

The Doctors of the Church who address the subject also agree.  (On top of that, several of them cite Romans 13 in support of the legitimacy of capital punishment even among Christians.  One finds this position in St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, and St. Alphonsus Liguori.)

Now, from the point of view of Catholic theology, if the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are unanimous on some point of scriptural interpretation, then that interpretation cannot be mistaken.  But they are unanimous that Romans 13 refers to capital punishment, and that it teaches that the practice is legitimate at least in principle, as a matter of natural law.  The matter is settled, then, whatever creative reinterpretation this or that 21st century New Testament scholar tries to cobble together.

As I keep saying, what Joe and I are doing in the book is showing what follows from the premises to which Catholics, specifically, are committed.  And as Hart himself admits, “it is perhaps easier for me as an Orthodox Christian than it is for a Catholic to dismiss Feser’s arguments.”  If Hart had only meditated a little on the implications of that concession, he could have saved us all a lot of time. 

113 comments:

  1. Hart is starting to sound like a more intelligent Mark Shea.

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  2. This sort of thing makes me wonder whether I should even bother with the copy of The Beauty of the Infinite sitting on my shelf.

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    1. Hart is typically much better in his books than in his interactions with Feser. For some reason, the mere existence of Feser seems to provoke Hart into a utterly incoherent rage.

      I'm rereading The Experience of God and it makes a wonderful counterpoint to Feser's more rigourous exposition of Classical theism. In fact, I myself didn't really "get" Feser until I read Experience.

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    2. Hart is always worth reading, even when he's wrong, because he's such a delightful writer. Even his insults to Feser & Bessette, though thoroughly unfair, were fun to read.

      Besides, if everyone started treating Prof. Feser reasonably, he would never have the opportunity to exercise his own acerbic wit, and we'd be doubly deprived of entertainment!

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    3. If there is some stigma leftover, just put a post-it note over his name on the cover, maybe write someone else's name in. Then you can enjoy the book.

      But really, what I've read of Hart bookwise - just two books - is good.

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  3. A lot of Hart's objection to punishment per se may be as a result of his universalism, though I must note that in his new translation of the NT he cannot avoid the implication that there has to be some kind of punishment in the afterlife.

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    1. Thursday,

      ”A lot of Hart's objection to punishment per se may be as a result of his universalism [..]”

      I think that’s likely.

      ”[..] though I must note that in his new translation of the NT he cannot avoid the implication that there has to be some kind of punishment in the afterlife.

      Universalism does *not* entail that there is no punishment in the afterlife. If anything universalism provides the logical space for more proportionality than the more traditional hellistic view. There is unfortunately much confusion about this matter.

      In my judgment the far more powerful theodicy we have (indeed in my mind the right theodicy) is John Hick’s so-called soul-making theodicy. (I consider Hick to be the greatest theologian of the 20th century, and I believe that the reason why the soul-making theodicy has not yet won more ground is first that it entails universalism which contradicts the official position of all three great theistic traditions, and secondly that Hick was an inclusivist which made his thought doubly distasteful for the powers to be.) So on the soul-making theodicy in the afterlife we shall experience the natural implications (and thus not “punishment” properly speaking) of the way we have chosen to follow in this life and thus of the charity in our soul when we leave this world. Is this just? Quite clearly yes. Is this retributive divine justice? In a sense it is, but is one governed only by love for creature and nothing else. There is no “divine justice” in the sense of “wrathful God” who is insulted by creaturely sinning and disobedience. I must say I find that this is a far more sophisticated metaphysics, and one that far better comports with Anselm’s insight that God is the greatest conceivable being.

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    2. Hart's view of Christianity in these articles is quite odd: he seems to relate Christianity to society as a whole as monasticism is related to Christianity — something specially set off for the few who can live up to its exalted standards, but not something that could realistically apply to everyone. Which sounds ghastly — except if you're a Universalist, because it doesn't matter whether you're a Christian, everyone gets to go to heaven anyway. So you can leave the dirty job of running society (with icky things like locking up criminals and handling filthy lucre, etc.) to pagans, while the elect get a free ride simply floating along on top of civilisation (or being ground under its heel, as the case may be).

      (To be sure, Christians are called to a higher standard, and must to some degree float alongside society or be crushed by it; but only insofar as society or the state isn't Christian — not because it can't be.)

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    3. That's what I meant by saying that Hart's view of Christianity sounds - to me, at least - Manichaean.

      jj

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    4. Mr. Green:

      What you describe is pretty much exactly how the pacifist version of the Anabaptist tradition has viewed things.

      There are similar issues with interpreting the early father's attitude towards Christian participation in the warfare.

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    5. Thursday:

      Though the Anabaptists tried violence and violent insurrection first and only became pacifists after being beaten down.

      If Hart has an anabaptist understanding of early Christianity, then it suggests that he also has an anachronistic reading of the fathers and the NT.

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    6. Mr. Green,

      except if you're a Universalist, because it doesn't matter whether you're a Christian, everyone gets to go to heaven anyway

      This is like saying: Why leave this house through the door, we may leave it through the window too. Or through the chimney.

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    7. Hart doesn't seem to be against imposing unpleasant consequences on a sinner when that is aimed at reforming them, but he doesn't seem to think that Christianity is incompatible with retribution per se.

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    8. @Dianelos
      "This is like saying: Why leave this house through the door, [when] we may leave it through the window too[?] Or through the chimney[?]"
      I like that analogy, but it seems to weaken your case. In suggesting that the Sermon on the Mount is a socially irresponsible teaching, you make Christianity into a window or chimney, rather than a door. If "leaving the house" is analogous to "leading a good life," then we would find that the person who does not follow the Sermon's teachings in such an extreme way can more conveniently lead a good life than someone who follows them so strictly as you have in mind. After all, the truly good life, seeking harmony with God, requires virtue, and virtue is the mean between the extremes of vice.

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    9. Grace and Rust,

      In suggesting that the Sermon on the Mount is a socially irresponsible teaching, you make Christianity into a window or chimney, rather than a door.

      The purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to reveal the way for the salvation of the soul (“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”), not a manual for social administration. This is one basic point of Hart which many people appear to misunderstand. Having said that, as I wrote in my comment to John Jensen bellow, I disagree with Hart’s and Feser’s view that the realization of the Sermon on the Mount would socially irresponsible.

      As for the analogy that it is better to leave the room (which stands for our fallen condition) through the door rather than through the window or the chimney - that was in response to the common misunderstanding that universalism somehow entails that it doesn’t matter how one lives. Quite on the contrary universalism guarantees justice in the sense that no sin will ever have been a smart move and no good deed will ever have been in vain.

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    10. @Dianelos
      We agree that the Sermon's purpose is to reveal the way of salvation, but
      1. I clearly didn’t say anything about social administration (although the Sermon inevitably impacts social administration)! Remember, I talked about leading a good life, since the Olivet Discourse says a lot about how we should live.
      2. I don't believe the Sermon’s purpose helps your case anyway.
      I touched these points, but only in a rough way, when I noted that every virtue is a mean between the extremes of other vices. Let me expound on that observation.

      Now it would be insane for God to command us to go against our true nature [1] - it would make His creative act vain, and make living by His Law almost impossible, so that His prescribed way of salvation would be like leaving the house through a window or chimney instead of a door. Since you said several times that God is rational (our squabble at "Rucker's Mindscape"), I hope you would agree that God never commanded us to go against our true nature. Yet administering justice is essential to our true nature, because we are in the image of God, and He is just [2]. Thus, God never commanded against true justice; this is consonant with the two videos I linked to on a previous thread. Justice is a virtue, and therefore when we properly understand it, it will not be in conflict with genuine mercy, even when we judge it best to exercise one but not the other (and there clearly are times when being just without being merciful are appropriate). Moreover, because we are social beings, it must be that the Sermon is consistent with our need to live in society, and this requires administering different kinds of justice. As such, the Sermon must be consistent with true social justice. However, your reading of the Olivet Discourse seems to tell us to go against our true nature, by embracing a particular vice, and sets justice and mercy in opposition. These are all grave errors, and should be abandoned immediately. These are your difficulties, and they work against your analogy, whether we talk about our fallen state, or leading a good life.

      NOTES:
      [1] You might profit from Budziszewski's "The Natural, the Connatural, and the Supernatural." We must instead hold that the way of salvation involves (but is not exhausted by) perfecting our nature.
      [2] I believe that you have no problem with justice per se, but even saying that, I want to point out that you can't sensibly turn around and object that justice is a defect in our nature. Otherwise, giving a man his wages is somehow a defect in human nature, which is manifestly false. It would also entail that you cannot allow for Divine Justice in any way, because a defect in us assumes some failure to reflect God's Nature, so that our justice never reflects His Nature, and perhaps tends to make us even less like Him. On the other hand, you try to make your universalism compatible with His Justice.

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    11. Grace and Rust,

      Thank you for the thought provoking comments. I will need some time before responding.

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    12. Grace and Rust,

      Now it would be insane for God to command us to go against our true nature

      Agreed. The question then is what our *true* nature is. I say our true nature is that of becoming perfect. After all Christ explicitly asks us to be as perfect as our heavenly Father is - how more clearly could He possibly have spoken? Given our fallen nature and the confusion that this entails, Christ’s message reveals to us what our true nature is.

      So if becoming perfect is our true nature then it follows that God would never command us to go against it, and thus would never command (or ask or advise or countenance) us to do any less than what leads us to perfection. Rather, like Christ responded to the rich youth, we should at least do A and B but to be perfect we should also do C and D. I find this is a simple idea. The path to perfection is a long one, so it’s not like an all or nothing thing.

      We must instead hold that the way of salvation involves (but is not exhausted by) perfecting our nature.

      I haven’t read that book, but the above strikes me as complicated. I find that for lack of faith we often complicate things. Christ’s last commandment (by which all others are to be understood) is the very plain “Be like I am”.

      His prescribed way of salvation would be like leaving the house through a window or chimney instead of a door.

      Ok, I think I now see what you mean: Should we understand the Sermon literally then it would amount like asking of us impossible things and indeed damaging things.

      First we should never lose sight of God’s love: God is both divinely demanding of us and divinely gentle on us. The path to salvation is really not one of all-or-nothing, but one of taking steps, of gradually building up the treasure in heaven which is the charity in our soul. God created the world knowing that all of his creatures would go wrong to a greater or lesser degree but through Christ prepared for them the path back home. Recall how the good father in the parable of the lost son was joyful when his son found his way back. It sounds kind of strange, but the certainty of sin is part of the foundations of creation. This is a matter we can fully understand only through theodicy, but I notice that in Catholic liturgy the words “felix culpa” are spoken. So let us not fear when we consider the God-sized demands of Christ. I think that question came up from the beginning and that Christ in the gospels answers it with the following divinely beautiful words:

      “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

      Or consider such wonderful saints as Francis of Assisi or Julian of Norwich and the joy which permeated their lives. I say the more one sees Christ’s light the more joyful one’s being becomes and the more light Christ’s impossibly heavy yoke is felt.

      In practical everyday terms, while being completely aware of our fallen condition we should fix our eyes on the goal which is Christ’s perfection as described in the Sermon on the Mount. There is no ontological tension between our current imperfection and the perfection of Christ, and only a mistaken understanding of theodicy and the eschaton may trouble us. I think it is a spirit of deception that troubles our trust in the gentle goodness of God, for being thus troubled makes it existentially much more difficult to follow Christ. And indeed confuses us into fudging Christ’s clearest call in the gospels.

      The other day I was listening to a video by Thomistic philosopher Eleonore Stump where she suggests the idea that in the moment of death we decide either for the good or against it. Is there anyone among us who would not right now decide for the good? So let us not be troubled and follow Christ as closely as we can from now until our moment of death – while having complete faith in the goodness of God.

      [continues below]

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    13. [continues from above]

      “Yet administering justice is essential to our true nature, because we are in the image of God, and He is just.”

      Yes, I think the larger issue of justice is really what undergirds the ongoing debate about the ethical legitimacy of capital punishment. Even more so than the preoccupation about the Church somehow losing face if it were to reverse previous teachings.

      So the key issue is justice. Now as there are both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Ceaser we should distinguish the concept of justice as a divine law of all creation, and the concept of justice as a practical matter of contingent law for ordering human society. These are clearly distinct concepts which we should discuss on their own merits. My own view is that pragmatically speaking earthly justice is compatible with divine justice, but this is in any case irrelevant to the current discussion about Christ’s ethics. Should they not be compatible then so much the worse for earthly justice.

      Now divine Justice is a law of creation. God requires as much our help for upholding it as our help for upholding the law of gravity. I hope we agree that it is the summit of folly to assume that we are to help God in realizing his Justice. We may only discuss which theodicy or which theory of atonement or view of the eschaton serves God’s Justice better.

      As far as Ceaser’s justice goes, justice as a good and necessary institution for ordering human society in this fallen world, I find that reason serves us perfectly well. We know that good education and a just society (just laws and effective law enforcement) make crime and any other kind of antisocial behavior less likely, and I think it is obvious there is a lot to improve in this regard. When antisocial behavior does obtain then justice calls for an appropriate response, which many will characterize as “punishment” but he reason of which is not retribution but deterrence and rehabilitation (for society’s institutions are about the good of the citizens). It seems to me this is a scientific matter pertaining to the sciences of politics, sociology, psychology, and so on. What’s more different societies have implemented justice in different ways, so we can learn from each other and implement the policies which have proven to work better for diminishing antisocial behavior.

      Is there some incompatibility between Ceaser’s and God’s justice? I don’t see where. It’s not like when implementing the institution of justice in our society we are accounted to God’s justice. They both are normative, but they work on different levels (or kingdoms if you will), divine justice being about what you should do for the salvation of your soul and earthly justice about what you should do for building a civilized society. The principle sounds simple, but of course in the praxis things become complicated. So for example since we live in a fallen world it may be the case that a good law of earthly justice (in the sense that it serves the needs of society) may contradict God’s commands (which serve the needs of the soul). That is part of the evil present in the world. So here each one of us should do her duty: the one who assumes the duty of defining and enforcing society’s laws should decide as well as she can, and the Christian should follow Christ’s command as well as she can.

      If we accept that such conflicts are real then the following practical question presents itself: Is a good idea that public officials be faithful Christians and thus more subject to such conflicts?

      I would like to finish stating what I think is the right understanding of God’s Justice – one of the foundational laws of creation: That no good deed (deed moved by charity) is ever in vain, and conversely that no evil deed (deed moved by lack of charity) is ever profitable.

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    14. Hello, Dianelos.
      This wouldn't be the first time I complained about how hard you are to pin down.
      I find it problematic when you say "our true nature is that of becoming perfect." For one thing, if I take it at face-value, it follows that if we become completely perfect, we are no longer fulfulling our nature (because we are no longer becoming perfect), and I'm certain you don't believe that, but I don't know what else you might have in mind; your two posts failed to clear it up for me. Without that, you have nothing to say against most of my arguments. For another, perfect according to what standard? The simple answer of "perfect according to God's standard" tells us nothing because we still don't agree on what His standard is; we even disagree in important ways on what Jesus meant when He said to be like He is. This is important, because the rest of your case seems to proceed by building up a rather problematic idea of perfection.

      Unfortunately, you appear to go everywhere while writing, so I don't want to say very much about it. But I will say that notion of perfection seems very dualistic, even after denying that following the path of salvation is "all-or-nothing." You basically divided the human person in making this broad distinction between two kinds of justice. This is why, even though you said you see no conflict between the two, you implied that we may need to forgo "Caesar's justice" for the sake of Divine justive. The problem is that the two fit together perfectly, because giving someone his due for the right reasons is good for our own souls, so that "Caesar's justice," when carried out properly and for the right reasons, is always subservient to Divine justice.
      I should also add that you can't validly deny retributive punishment. I do not deny that deterrence and rehabilitation are important, but they do not exhaust punitive justice - it is only because a person deserves to be treated in a certain way that we can call it a just punishment at all, and deterrence only finds its significance in light of desert. To give up retribution is to make deterrence as a matter of "justice" incoherent.

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    15. Grace and Rust,

      I find it problematic when you say "our true nature is that of becoming perfect." For one thing, if I take it at face-value, it follows that if we become completely perfect, we are no longer fulfulling our nature (because we are no longer becoming perfect

      On the contrary, it seems to me that if we become perfect then we shall have fulfilled our nature which is of becoming perfect. To use an analogy, the nature of an apple tree is to grow and give fruits; it’s not like if it grows and gives fruits it will no longer be fulfilling its nature.

      Having said that, at least logically it may never come to pass that we become completely perfect.

      The simple answer of "perfect according to God's standard" tells us nothing because we still don't agree on what His standard is

      That’s not just the simple answer but given that God is the metaphysical ultimate it’s the necessary answer.

      As for not easily knowing what that standard is and therefore disagreeing that’s an implication of living in this fallen world. The good news is that we have God’s self-relevation in Christ. And He tells us specifically and as clear as water to be as perfect as God in heaven is. There is no way around this passage in the gospels, there is no opening for interpreting it away. Incidentally in the end of John, Christ repeats the same message: Be like I am. He, God incarnate, calls us to be and to love and to live like He did, plainly in front of our eyes. And to have faith and consider the birds and the lilies and leave worries behind. Christianity is nothing but a call to divine perfection, and that’s that.

      In my mind the only question worth discussing is how to get there. Indeed to that question all great Christian denominations have turned their attention.

      you implied that we may need to forgo "Caesar's justice" for the sake of Divine justive. The problem is that the two fit together perfectly, [..]

      There are many situations in our lives, too many to count, where we must choose between doing our duty towards Ceaser and doing our duty towards God. Suppose for example our country enacts an unjust law or starts an unjust war. Our duty towards our country is to obey; our duty towards God is to disobey no matter the personal transient cost.

      [..] because giving someone his due for the right reasons is good for our own souls, so that "Caesar's justice," when carried out properly and for the right reasons, is always subservient to Divine justice.

      Who told you that God wants us to decide and meter out our neighbor’s “due”? Christ asks us to turn the other cheek, and if a thief wants our coat to offer her our shirt too.

      That’s a basic point in my previous comment, and I don’t know how to explain it any better. Divine Justice is a foundational law of creation, so we couldn’t stop divine Justice from obtaining, indeed we couldn’t make the slightest mark on it, if we jumped up and down all day. So we should only care about how to realize human justice according to the interests of society in the way that best comports with the divine Ethics, which is the call to perfection. For this is what Christ plainly asks of us. I happen to think that in measured steps the interests of society are best served by having its laws be guided ever more by Christian ethics, but that’s a different issue.

      I think we have exhausted this discussion.

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    16. @Dianelos
      You're right that we exhausted this conversation, but the reason is because neither of us has taken anything away from it. Which is a shame; even though our other arguments left us vehemently disagreeing, I think I still learned something in those others. I could leave it at that, but you've seriously mangled my last response.

      On the contrary, it seems to me that if we become perfect then we shall have fulfilled our nature which is of becoming perfect.
      That is little more than a reassertion of your statement, while ignoring the reasons I gave for calling it problematic; nothing you said below seems to justify it, nor does any of it help explain what it means to say "our nature is of becoming perfect."

      The rest of your reply seems to fall into this same kind of problem and more. When you say "[Perfect according to God's standard is] not just the simple answer but . . . the necessary answer," you're only being flippant, and completely ignore the issues I raised about perfection. Again, it doesn't seem as if anything you've said even justifies this "necessary answer"--the only thing you've said in favor, that God is the metaphysical ultimate, does not adjudicate between our views--and it does need justification, because I've already given you a better-developed "alternative." Similarly, your follow-up is useless, because you act as if what Christian perfection is like is somehow obvious, when that's exactly why we're having these arguements right now, and we've already seen exactly why it's not obvious. Of course, it seems you have to pretend that it is, or else you can't use it to bludgeon our religion into your quasi-Gnostic image.

      Another case where you completely ignore me is when you assert that, "There are many situations . . . where we must choose between doing our duty towards [Caesar] and doing our duty towards God." The fact is, that only works if you, once again, overextend the nature of so-called "Caesar's justice," and I called you out for making that mistake earlier, but it surfaces again. Giving an authority what he is due is not always the same as giving him what he tells us to, and you should have been able to see that without being told. That is why Pope Peter said we must obey God rather than men, not because two genuine kinds of justice can conflict. All you have is outrage that I said giving someone his due is good for us. "Who told you that God wants us to decide and meter out our neighbor's "due"?" Well, I'm not appealing to a 'who' when I make my assertion, so I suppose that my only sincere answer, the natural law, is unacceptable. But since you're badly reading the Olivet Discourse, as I've shown you before (you could alo see here, especially "Ver. 39"), and being so silly, I'm sorely tempted to give you your own methods and answer "Saint Paul did (Romans 13.4)." I won't because I respect the Scritures enough not to let my tastes control my intepretation.

      Goodbye Dianelos.

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  4. RE: Hart on scripture on hell

    Hart argues that the word often translated as "eternal" when describing the afterlife, should really be rendered "of the Age (to come)" There is some ambiguity in the Greek.

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    1. This seems to be another case of the 21st century scholar being better at interpretation of the Scripture and understanding of the Greek language than the entire body of saints, doctors and fathers. It all makes the epistemics of Christianity so weak if we all had to wait for Hart or someone like him to enlighten us all on such a basic point.

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    2. This seems to be another case of the 21st century scholar being better at interpretation of the Scripture and understanding of the Greek language than the entire body of saints, doctors and fathers.

      Sometimes earlier writers have advantages, but often modern scholars have advantages too. Modern scholars definitely have the advantage over medieval interpreters.

      It all makes the epistemics of Christianity so weak if we all had to wait for Hart or someone like him to enlighten us all on such a basic point.

      I don't think Christianity stands or falls on this issue.

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    3. "Modern scholars definitely have the advantage over medieval interpreters."

      In the west maybe, but not in the east. And besides, the earliest fathers lacked the fully standardized NT, unlike the later ones, so they have a slight disadvantage compared to fathers of late antiquity.

      "I don't think Christianity stands or falls on this issue."

      Not on the issue of capital punishment alone, but it is unfortunate that the issues of how much a Christian may punish, use self defense, go to war, participate in government, and criticize government are still so controversial after two millennia.

      It seems like whenever someone tries to actually find an answer to these questions, a person like Hart comes along to tell us that Christianity is really just another abstract, utopian political ideology.

      The claim that real Christianity has never been tried echos similar statements by communists, anarchists, and other utopian weirdos.

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    4. Without standardization languages could vary quite a bit from place to place and time to time in the ancient world. Modern scholars often have (some) advantages over even native speakers of the same time, much less people working a century or two later.

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    5. @Thursday:

      True, up to a point. But moderns work (as do all people in all ages) under disadvantages particular to our time and place. That includes a lot of ignorance.

      Let me give an example from history. Dodge's and Fuller's books on Alexander are often slighted by later historians. And there are reasons for some of this. But having read them, I cannot help but trust D&F over their successors on one point: these guys actually served in cavalry units. When they reject the notion of the Companions waiting, like a phalanx, to take a Persian charge, I believe him. They know what moderns cannot.

      Ignorance and hidden assumptions are ubiquitous. My attitude toward history is a bit like Tolkein's toward stories: it all goes into the pot. At least, all that is worth anything to begin with. (That excludes almost any view which imposes patterns, forces, and laws on history.)

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    6. @George LeSauvage,


      The interesting question though would be; how does this apply to Christianity? Should we listen to modern Bible scholars or earlier ones? Especially considering how recent anthropology unearthed quite big cultural differences between the ancient world then (collectivist and agonist culture) and the modern world now (individualist-leaning and non-classical)?

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    7. Listen, but don't put too much weight on what moderns say. There is nowhere fads are more likely. (Well, journalism.)

      I agree with you about the cultural differences, though I don't think "collectivist" is a good word for this. It is, in itself, a reading of modern concepts onto older societies. (Don't put too much weight on modern anthropology, either.)

      I would recommend recalling that, in our own reading of modern era writers, how often particular ones have idiosyncratic usages. And the question of when something is a figure of speech. Lacking a big enough corpus of a writer's, and his contemporaries', work, this would be easy to miss. Think of the points Ed makes about misreadings of Aquinas.

      I could go on. Of course, I must also admit I am, by temperament, distrustful of "modern" anything.

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    8. The idea that the problem could simply be settled by modern scholarship and surviving textual evidence is atheistic it supposes that the development of Doctrine early on and the convergence around these matters was in no respect guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

      The fathers do not have weight simply because it is believed that they are better Scholars, but because it is also believed that the Holy Spirit guided them to their consensus such that we do not have to worry about issues of minor textual interpretation. A contradiction with the consensus of the fathers would have to be overwhelming not some issue of 'well you could look at it another way' or 'a couple of surviving manuscripts from Palestine might indicate that they preferred sense one of this word to sense two' or 'you could choose to read the word in a non metaphorical sense in which case it would not entail....'

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  5. The core of the matter appears to me to be here:

    That said, and perhaps somewhat shockingly, I am willing to grant that here Feser has at least raised an interesting point…

    I confess too that my understanding of Christianity (at least, that of the earliest centuries) is far more otherworldly and socially irresponsible than Feser’s is. On the whole, he assumes that Christianity must be compatible with a well functioning society, and that therefore Christianity in some larger neutral sense “works” as a way of promoting the social good. But perhaps Christianity, as presented in the New Testament, does not “work” very well at all, or at least would not do so if it were consistently applied to life in this world…

    [I]t seems likely that a genuinely Christian social order [as Hart understands it]… might be impossible in practice, and therefore unimaginable in theory. I really do not know. I do not pretend to have any clear sense of whether a Christian social order could ever flourish this side of the Kingdom.


    Nearly 40 years ago, when I was a new Christian and a Protestant disciple of Francis Schaeffer, I recall Schaeffer's discussion of what he thought was wrong with Thomas Aquinas: Thomas thought that grace perfects nature. Schaeffer said that was an impossible position - that, inevitably (according to Schaeffer), nature would drive out grace.

    It seems to me that Schaeffer's position amounts to a kind of Manichaeism - that we can only every choose between nature and grace - and that nature is simply evil.

    Hart's musings there sound the same to me. But if Hart is wrong, then it means that, not only do I have both the right and duty to take care of my body's needs, but also that (man being inherently a social being), society has the right and duty to take care of its needs - one of those needs is the administration of justice.

    It was Lewis's discussion of the question of desert in punishment that, in those same days of my early Christianity, taught me that if punishment were not deserved, it always amounted to the imposition of the will of one person against another.

    Dunno if I am right, but that's how it sounds to me as a non-philosopher.

    jj

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    1. John Jensen,

      Interestingly enough on this point Hart and Feser seem to agree: they both appear to think that to take the Sermon on the Mount literally would be socially irresponsible. But Hart thinks this doesn’t matter since that is what Christ commands. Whereas Feser appears to think that therefore one must interpret the Sermon in a way that makes it socially responsible. I happen to disagree with both positions. I think that we should accept the Sermon for what it says: what we should do to become as perfect as God in heaven. And also set this as the ultimate goal or ideal state of society – and plan accordingly. I would go further: Unless we do this - unless we define the realization of Christian ethics as the ultimate goal of politics and plan the slow but certain steps to be taken - then the human race is doomed.

      Incidentally I speak of “Christian ethics” because I am in a Christian forum. I think what all the great world religions teach about the ideal ethical way of life is essentially the same. So what I am saying is that humanity’s future will either be a religious one or a bleak one.

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    2. "I think what all the great world religions teach about the ideal ethical way of life is essentially the same." I assume from this that you regard all the obvious differences as just inessential details!

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    3. Michael C,

      I assume from this that you regard all the obvious differences as just inessential details!

      The ideal ethics of all great religions strike me as practically identical. What are the obvious differences which you see?

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    4. The ideal ethics of all great religions strike me as practically identical. What are the obvious differences which you see?

      Supposedly Mother Theresa was inspired to start her charity work after seeing how the beggars were neglected in India. When she asked why no-one was helping them, she was told that they were being punished for the sins they'd committed in a previous life, so helping them would be unjust. "Help the poor and alleviate their suffering" vs. "Don't help the poor, they deserve what they're getting" strikes me as a pretty significant difference.

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    5. But surely the ethics of particular religion is not just what any one in a religiously influenced culture says or does, especially when they are caricatured? Do Mother Theras's peculiar ideas about the virtues of suffering that she brought to these beggars exemplify the Christian position?

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    6. Gaius,

      I am no expert but I feel pretty certain that Hinduism at its best has nothing to do with that answer given to Mother Teresa. We don’t learn about a religion by asking somebody of that religion – people say the strangest things. Including in Christianity. As for what Hinduism teaches about charity here’s a souce. I particularly liked is “three characteristics of a good, developed person are self-restraint (damah), compassion or love for all sentient life (daya), and charity (dāna)

      I suppose my point is that should I describe the life of a saint without revealing what her religion was nobody will be able to guess her faith. Saintly life is the same in all great religions.

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  6. the catechism’s piercingly unambiguous statements on the matter

    Anyone who describes the Catechism on capital punishment as "piercingly unambiguous" is lying to himself.

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    1. Agreed. I tried to point this out in a prior thread. The Catechism, sadly, is seriously confused and is part of what brought about the current situation of dispute.

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  7. Having been spurred by this exchange to purchase and read the book, here are my reflections on the first two chapters.

    In no way does Feser's tone ever deviate from the "temperate and modest." To accuse Feser (and Bessette) of bloodthirstiness is beyond weird.

    The chapter on natural law theory is very strong.

    When it comes to scripture, it is pretty clear that Feser has the upper hand over his opponents.

    When it comes to the fathers, things are a little bit more ambiguous. It is clear that the fathers regarded the non-Christian state as having some sort of legitimate authority to impose the death penalty. The question that Feser didn't deal with to my satisfaction is whether that legitimacy carries over to a Christian state. In other words, do Christians have a higher moral obligation when they are in charge of the state?

    This muddy water though doesn't really get Hart where he wants to go. The interpretation of the fathers may be somewhat ambiguous. In that respect, Feser may have overstated his case. But Hart desperately wants it to be absolutely clear from the early fathers that Christians are not to participate in the death penalty. But, alas, no such clarity is to be had. Things are simply . . . a bit muddier than Feser lets on.

    Furthermore, since we are arguably now no longer in operating under Christian rulers anymore, it would seem to be entirely legitimate for the secular state to resume imposing the death penalty again. The allegedly higher moral obligations placed on Christians in power no longer apply. Perhaps we are not to directly participate in its application, but there is no reason for us to condemn the non-Christian state for doing so.

    Since I'm not Catholic, I kind of lost interest in the later arguments about papal pronouncements and such. It does appear though that Feser again is more correct than his opponents.

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    1. Many of the same issues arise when interpreting the early fathers on participation in war. It is clear they thought that the non-Christian state was doing God's will in keeping order through means of war. Yet, several were ambivalent about direct Christian participation in the military. What their reasoning was and how that applies to Christians when they are in charge of the state, is a bit ambiguous.

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    2. I commend the later anonymous response, but would like to offer my two cents.

      First, I think we should keep in mind the early context, that of pagan Rome. First, I think it is manifest in the early Fathers and ecclesiastical writers that they do mot want to condemn the empire as such, hence the apologia. Tertullian making the delightful claim that Christians were the only imperial subjects offering real effacacious sacrifices for the Emperor is, I think, indicative.

      But then, would you want to have your flock working as part of a criminal justice system uninformed by the true religion and its ethics?
      An example: as a Russian Catholic, I do not really admire the Soviet Union, although I do recognise that this terrible regime did enjoy basic legitimacy. Were we contemporaries, I would most certainly be prepared to do a lot to avoid even an apparent association with its criminal justice system. Nor would I sign up for the Red Army to help bring socialism to Afghanistan, even if that wouldn't entail joining the party and participating in Communist 'liturgy' (my suggested analogon for Roman legion religious praxis; as I understand it, the soldiers were expected to take part in the army counterpart of domestic cult). That wouldn't have to be motivated by pacifism or a general condemnation of killing, rather the worry that a state uninformed by Truth is a less than ideal sword-bearer.

      I think that its not a unfitting example. At any rate, the point is that the stance in question doesn't clearly indicate either Hart's or prof. Feser's position. The latter has the benefit of being traditional, both East and West. I fail to understand how anyone with a mainstream Eastern Orthodox understanding of the teaching authority of the Church can suggest that for centuries from the moment the state became her friend she failed to condemn the supposed grave error universally adopted by states governed by Christians and viewing themselves as Christian.

      The only abolitionist example I recall would be that of medieval Georgia, but I am unable to confirm even that the moment.

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    3. *earlier comment
      **at the moment

      The suggestion that Hebrews failed to distinguish between public and private spheres, at least to the extent Hart needs for his argument to work, at least when it comes to killing (as opposed to murder). Unless, of course, we have to believe that the Old Testament and the commentary tradition were in no way familiar to them.

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    4. The suggestion <...> is ludicrous.

      Apologies for the typos.

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    5. Many of the same issues arise when interpreting the early fathers on participation in war. It is clear they thought that the non-Christian state was doing God's will in keeping order through means of war. Yet, several were ambivalent about direct Christian participation in the military.

      Thursday, it always struck me that the early Christians who were opposed to Christian participation in wars in principle were failing to look at the whole of the NT: Both Christ Himself and the Apostles, when presented with soldiers who were believers, refused to condemn the profession. Soldiers were, instead, told to avoid extortion, not to avoid warfare.

      More than likely, most of the early Christian antagonism to soldiering was due at least in part the facts that (a) the Roman state used soldiers to carry out the persecutions of Christians, and (b) many of the wars were clearly those of conquest and not just. Hence in the circumstances many soldiers would be expected to do immoral things, and this would make the profession troublesome.

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    6. Georgy and Tony:

      You've nicely summarized the some of the arguments against the early church being pacifist. While these argument have real power, they are not knock down obvious either and somewhat conjectural. As is often the case with the early fathers, interpretation is somewhat murky.

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    7. Fair enough: an argument from absence is not strong. "Christ did not condemn" is an argument from absence, and it can't be overwhelming. John the Baptist's response to the soldiers asking "what must we do" was significantly more clear:

      Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” “Do not take money by force or false accusation, he said. “- Be content with your wages.”

      Here the absence of condemnation of their profession - especially in the presence of "be content with your wages", carries quite a bit of weight. But no, it's not conclusive.

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    8. @Thursday

      Certainly, the arguments presented are not themselves conclusive, however, given a certain ecclesiology, they are, in a way: if the Church is divinely ordained and led as magisterial, it cannot change the moral doctrine revealed and entrusted to her.
      Hart seems to agree with this, at least as a correct understanding of the Catholic view, hence his - albeit informed by misunderstanding - discussion of the Magisterium. The mainstream Orthodox view, as I understand it (no Dz.Sch. available, unfortunately), is the same. With such a background, Hart has to agree with Feser in viewing further development as not that of substance, but rather clarity, anything else seems to falsify the ecclesiology (that is clearly patristic, I would argue).

      All reconstructions are conjectural, of course. But so are Hart's, and his seem to depend on an understanding of dominical ethics that is also not determinately supported by NT, nor is it clearly backed by traditional theory and practice (rather, excluded by it).

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    9. I speak of Hart because I think his view is representative of the pacifist reading of patristic evidence. I'm prepared to reconsider this, naturally.

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  8. "The question that Feser didn't deal with to my satisfaction is whether that legitimacy carries over to a Christian state. In other words, do Christians have a higher moral obligation when they are in charge of the state?"

    feser doesn't answer this question in the book, but I imagine that since paul speaks of authorities in general and not just of pagan authorities, Christian rulers are also allowed to punish with violence.

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  9. Hart is a typical protestant convert to eastern orthodoxy, he sees EO as just an oriental and exotic version of anabaptism.

    Notice he has puts greater emphasis on "pre-constantinian" fathers, implying (just like anabaptists such as Yoder) that Christianity somehow changed for the worse after Constantine's conversion.

    This is despite the fact that Constantine is revered as a saint in EO churches.

    Any scholar who uses terms like "pre-constantinian", "constantinian shift", and "pauline Christianity" should be under suspicion.

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    1. There really was a shift of some kind in Christian thought after Constantine. So, it's fair to talk about pre- and post-Constantinian thought. Exactly how to characterize that shift, however, is a matter of some controversy.

      You are right about this though: Hart does seem to adhere to a highly personalized quasi-Anabaptist version of the faith, as opposed to actually existing Eastern Orthodoxy, where Constantine is a saint, and Origen is not.

      You may be interested in a recent book by Reformed theologian Peter Leithart called Defending Constantine, which takes on the neo-Anabaptist line taken by people like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas: https://www.amazon.com/Defending-Constantine-Twilight-Empire-Christendom/dp/0830827226/

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  10. Feser writes: “As I keep saying, what Joe and I are doing in the book is showing what follows from the premises to which Catholics, specifically, are committed.

    Right, from the very beginning of this quarrel between two fine Christian minds I thought that they were talking past each other, the one arguing about the truth concerning Catholic teaching and the other arguing about the truth simpliciter.

    As far as the truth simpliciter goes, in my mind things are very clear. Let CP be the belief that capital punishment is at least in principle legitimate. Let C be Christianity. And let H be the human condition. Then I hold that p(C | H) < p(not CP | C). In other words I am more confident that given Christianity capital punishment is not legitimate than that Chistianity is true. Why? Because of the deliverances of the sensus divinitatis, because of the gospel, and also because of the early Christian thought and practice Hart speaks about, which is particularly relevant to this issue since in the first centuries Chistendom was *not* part of the administration of this fallen world and thus was more free to speak its mind.

    As far as the truth concerning Catholic teaching – which is Feser’s argument - I don’t know what to think and in any case it is of secondary importance to the truth simpliciter. I have two comments:

    This is a Church matter. Since I have not the time nor the interest to study the issue I judge that what the Magisterium of the Church says about it is far more reliable than what Feser says. I understand the Magisterium has not yet given a completely clear pronouncement, so until then I will remain an agnostic. I am not Catholic but I think that’s the safest position for any Catholic to take also.

    I understand Feser in his book argues that CP is an infallible teaching of the Catholic Church. Since I believe that CP is false I hope he is wrong. One way or the other I trust the Catholic Church will continue to grow in perfection and will therefore sooner or later speak against CP. The suggestion that if the Catholic Church were to correct any previous teaching on this issue then something terrible would happen to her standing in the world – is I think wildly melodramatic. In fact I think the opposite will be the case.

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    1. "in the first centuries Chistendom was *not* part of the administration of this fallen world and thus was more free to speak its mind. "

      The assumption that Christian theology changed dramatically in the fourth century isn't really tenable though, and it's something that most Christians historically denied.

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    2. why would Christendom be less free to speak its mind under a christian ruler than under a pagan ruler?

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    3. @Anonymous (December 22, 2017 at 7:52 AM),

      "in the first centuries Chistendom was *not* part of the administration of this fallen world and thus was more free to speak its mind. "

      The assumption that Christian theology changed dramatically in the fourth century isn't really tenable though, and it's something that most Christians historically denied.

      The claim is not that Christian theology changed when Christianity became the official religion, but the factual observation that the relationship between the Church leadership and state power changed.

      Also, whether state executions are at least in principle legitimate when certain conditions are met is not really a central matter of theology.

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    4. @Anonymous (December 22, 2017 at 1:36 PM)

      why would Christendom be less free to speak its mind under a christian ruler than under a pagan ruler?

      From what I understand:

      Before Christianity became an official religion, starting already with Paul, the general idea was to advise Christians to obey the Roman law and concentrate on the salvation of their souls. This was sound advice both regarding the personal safety of the brethren and regarding the needs of the incipient church in a rather hostile environment.

      After Christianity became an official religion there Church leadership was under pressure to accommodate the pragmatical needs of state administration. Give Christian ethics this was a difficult balancing act. That some not exactly Christ-like people became church leaders did not help. We all love our respective Churches and recognize them as the vessels of our tradition - but their history has not always being exemplary, never mind saintly.

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    5. This is a Church matter. Since I have not the time nor the interest to study the issue I judge that what the Magisterium of the Church says about it is far more reliable than what Feser says. I understand the Magisterium has not yet given a completely clear pronouncement, so until then I will remain an agnostic. I am not Catholic but I think that’s the safest position for any Catholic to take also.

      Go soak your head, Dianelos. Feser has been point out - what a LOT of people have been saying - that the Magisterium has already given a definitive position that must be held by Catholics. That same Magisterium says that all later comments by the teaching Church about a matter that has been made definitive in Magisterial teaching must be read and understood in conformity with the already existing Magisterial teaching. It makes no sense to talk about accepting "what the Magisterium of the Church says" when you reject what the Magisterium of the Church has ALREADY said that is irreformable, and to which all later teaching must conform. A Catholic is not allowed to "remain agnostic" about what has already been taught definitively.

      As a non-Catholic who rejects the principle of infallibility - and neither do you understand that principle nor the issue Feser wrote on because you haven't read the book or the thousand other things the book is based on - you should not be interjecting yourself into a Catholic debate that hinges on things you do not accept and do not understand. Why don't you go debate neuro-surgery or something?

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    6. Tony,

      Feser has been point out - what a LOT of people have been saying - that the Magisterium has already given a definitive position that must be held by Catholics.

      Only what Feser and a lot of people have been saying is irrelevant: In relation to the teaching of the Magisterium the only thing that matters is what the Magisterium says. If, as you claim, the Magisterium has already clearly and irrevocably spoken then there wouldn’t be any ongoing debate in the Catholic church about the legitimacy of capital punishment. But there is an ongoing debate, and that’s why Feser was moved to write a book with such a long argumentation.

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    7. Dianelos, since you haven't the foggiest idea of Catholic teachings and methods, you are blowing smoke out your pie hole. There are always all sorts of people who object and insinuate "doubts" when the Church magisterially teaches and does so clearly. They did it when Paul VI spoke in Humanae Vitae. They did it when JPII did in in Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor. They did it, notably and idiotically, when JPII did it in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. Indeed, they did it when they were Gnostics and Arians and Marcionites and Pelagians and Protestants as well.

      You don't have the foggiest idea what it looks like when the Catholic Church teaches magisterially, so how would you know that "there wouldn't be any ongoing debate." The people who go on making up all sorts of doubts and debates are, generally, what we may call "heretics", though they don't like to think of themselves that way of course.

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    8. Tony,

      you haven't the foggiest idea of Catholic teachings and methods

      That’s close enough to the truth.

      There are always all sorts of people who object and insinuate "doubts" when the Church magisterially teaches and does so clearly.

      Well, let me copy recent texts from the official website of the Catholic church (www.vatican.va):

      Today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned's crime may have been.

      I trust that this Congress can give new impulse to the effort to abolish capital punishment.

      The Holy See has engaged itself in the pursuit of the abolition of capital punishment and an integral part of the defence of human life at every stage of its development and does so in defiance of any assertion of a culture of death.

      St John Paul II condemned the death penalty (cf. Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, n. 56), as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2267) as well.

      The above does not look as a “clear” statement about the death penalty being ethically legitimate. If anything it looks as a clear statement to the contrary. I am sure that Feser, as smart and hardworking as he is, has put a very good argument in his book pointing out many other texts in scripture, in the Fathers, in tradition, in other statements by the Church, all to the effect that the death penalty is ethically legitimate. Given the above, the situation is not really clear today (and please notice the qualifier “today” in the first quote above). If it were, if the Church herself had arrived at a clear and definitive conclusion on this matter, then it would be a simple thing for a pope (current or previous) to declare so ex cathedra, and thus give an end to any possible debate. But this hasn’t happened and the Church permits the ongoing debate. Wisely in my judgment.

      As a non-Catholic I don’t at all feel troubled with the current state of affairs, because I trust that Christ will continue to guide the Catholic Church as well as all other Christian churches to ever greater wisdom and perfection.

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    9. So it's true enough that you don't have the foggiest idea of Catholic teachings and methods, and you are not a Catholic, Prof. Feser has explicitly said that this is an intra-Catholic debate, and yet you insist on entering your opinion into the discussion as if you thought it held merit:

      But this hasn’t happened and the Church permits the ongoing debate. Wisely in my judgment.

      But that's just it: when a Catholic insists on "debating" teaching that have been taught infallibly as magisterial teaching, they do not do so by "permission" but by sin. Since the Church has no secret police to go out and "end" such "debate" by force, she cannot "end" debate the way you seem to imply, where people of bad will are physically unable to continue to urge their own errors on others, (however much that would contravene Church teaching). Merely declaring something ex cathedra doesn't do it.

      If you Catholic, and were educated in Catholic teaching, and were trying to follow the arguments Feser has been making, you would see that his primary thesis in the book, and the 4 quotes you listed, are not in conflict.

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    10. He's barely even a Christian. His idea of Christianity is heavily filtered through liberal ideology and extreme sentimentalism.

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    11. Tony,

      Merely declaring something ex cathedra doesn't do it.

      Do you know of one other case where Catholics continue to debate among themselves some ex cathedra teaching?

      If you Catholic, and were educated in Catholic teaching, and were trying to follow the arguments Feser has been making, you would see that his primary thesis in the book, and the 4 quotes you listed, are not in conflict.

      Well, let’s take the first quote. Are you saying that “Today capital punishment is unacceptable” is consistent with “Capital punishment is ethically legitimate”? Are you saying that according to the Catholic Church something may be both ethically legitimate and unacceptable?

      If so then I have to say that I don’t believe you. Something that characterizes the Catholic Church is intellectual acumen, which entails logical consistency. I find much more plausible to believe that there is a genuine and ongoing debate within the Catholic church about whether capital punishment is ethically legitimate. And it seems to me that the current pope Francis but also the much respected John Paul II are leaning towards the view that capital punishment is not ethically legitimate and that societies should move towards its abolition. Here’s a quote from John Paul II:

      the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society”.

      Please observe that in this instance John Paul II does not care about the deliverances of natural law ethics or about what the Church had previously taught, but judges that the execution of a person is an “extreme” measure which may be taken only when “absolutely necessary”.

      So do you know of a single execution performed in the US the last 50 years that was absolutely necessary? If you don’t and if you agree with John Paul II then you should be sorry that have been performed.

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    12. Well, let’s take the first quote. Are you saying that “Today capital punishment is unacceptable” is consistent with “Capital punishment is ethically legitimate”?

      You seem completely unable to grasp the meaning of the terms being used. Dr. Fastiggi made this very same point in the previous thread: DP can be morally licit in principle and unacceptable given certain additional conditions, for example. When JPII defends THE PRINCIPLE of using it in the extreme cases where it is absolutely necessary, he is upholding it being morally licit in principle. Since you don't understand the debate, nor the terms of the debate, nor are you invested in this intramural debate, you should butt out.

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    13. Tony,

      DP can be morally licit in principle and unacceptable given certain additional conditions

      Right, and according the first quote from the Pope the additional condition being “today” : -)

      And what he explicitly states as *not* being a condition is the seriousness of the crime. There goes the theory of proportionate punishment.

      When JPII defends THE PRINCIPLE of using it in the extreme cases where it is absolutely necessary, he is upholding it being morally licit in principle.

      This doesn’t follow. The natural understanding of what John Paul II says is that in extreme cases and when absolutely necessary the lesser evil is acceptable.

      But in any case, do you agree with John Paul II that capital punishment may be performed *only* in extreme cases and when absolutely necessary? I notice you have not answered my question about capital punishment in the US. I suppose you are free to disagree with John Paul II since he has not declared this ex cathedra.

      In any case I feel like I am trying to ram truth down your throat. Perhaps you are right in a sense I fail to understand, so I think that to continue this discussion serves no good purpose.

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    14. “When JPII defends THE PRINCIPLE of using it in the extreme cases where it is absolutely necessary, he is upholding it being morally licit in principle.”

      This doesn’t follow. The natural understanding of what John Paul II says is that in extreme cases and when absolutely necessary the lesser evil is acceptable.

      The “natural understanding” of what JPII said must be taken as in agreement with what HE HIMSELF said in Veritatis Splendor. And in that encyclical he repudiated in most strenuous terms possible the kind of thinking that would morally permit an action as a “lesser evil” unless it was, definitively, morally licit in principle. For every species of action that is morally ILLICIT in principle is wrong in every and all cases no matter what the circumstances -this is the WHOLE POINT of the encyclical. That you would posit his defense the DP as moral when absolutely necessary NOT implying the DP is morally licit in principle is the most vile, obtuse, and revolting co-opting of his words directly contrary to his own explicit teaching that I have ever come across.

      So, yes, your discussion serves no good. So stop.

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  11. I misread the title of the post. Thought that it said: A Hart that pumps BIBLE, and thought was going to be a positive review of Hart's translation of the New Testament...oops.

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  12. Doesn't Hart actually concede the main point i.e. that there are some circumstances on which the death penalty is licit? I refer to:

    'Hence the modern Catholic Church’s refusal to allow for any possible just application of capital punishment except in those vanishingly rare (or possibly nonexistent) cases when it is the only way to save the lives of others'

    This doesn't work with Feser's postivie case for the death penalty, which is uncomfortably Utilitarian but it does grant the death penalty is not immoral in toto.

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    1. OA Police: Doesn't Hart actually concede the main point i.e. that there are some circumstances on which the death penalty is licit?

      He certainly seems to, in several places. How he can't see that he's agreeing with one of Feser's & Bessette's key points eludes me. (I'm starting to wonder whether he really didn't read the book — maybe just a random assortment of pages from the Amazon preview?)

      This doesn't work with Feser's positive case for the death penalty, which is uncomfortably Utilitarian

      I'm not sure why you think that, but utility per se is not a bad thing. In fact, if your moral schema is not useful, that's a pretty good sign you've gone off the tracks. The problem with Utilitarianism is not the the inclusion of utility, it's the exclusion of anything else (which obviously doesn't apply to Feser's case).

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  13. "This doesn't work with Feser's postivie case for the death penalty, which is uncomfortably Utilitarian"

    What do you mean utilitarian? HE argues that it is justified as a matter of retributive justice, not to avoid certain bad consequences or because of its utility.

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    1. He claims that if it is not intrinsically immoral then its application is to be decided by prudential concerns.

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    2. Prudential concerns are not utilitarian concerns.

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  14. "Hart begins by reassuring his readers that, despite his opposition to capital punishment, he is as unsympathetic to murderers as the next man. He sheds no tears for the Nazis executed by the Allies; he admits to having desired the deaths of those who killed a friend of his."

    So Hart is happy to benefit from capital punishment, but complains when someone says that it might be beneficial in some cases.

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  15. For early Christianity being "socially irresponsible", that's very possible, if you take a view of Jesus that he was predicting a near end of history-as-we-know-it. That's one of the main historical Jesus viewpoints, and on that view of things, Jesus presumably wouldn't have cared about the earthly social order much at all, as it was about to be replaced.

    Nevertheless, the texts in question are far from clear when it comes to the issue of state punishment... unless we buy into a "but first century Jews would have understood them such" style argument, which risks being a modern projection onto the texts.

    Also, I would point out that desire for executing someone hardly has to be a desire for retributive punishment. It could be a desire to simply follow God's law. Or it could be a desire to keep Israel pure. In the story in question, at least partly, it appears as a test of orthodoxy for Jesus in how he will reply. So isn't the concern more Torah obedience than giving a criminal what they deserve?

    Jesus had a clever kind of reply I guess, but that's not the same thing as an intelligent reply; and he should really have faced more questions on whether/how the Torah should be followed and how his suggestion would work when it comes to society and punishment. (If Jesus was just warning against lynch mobs then he could just have made a legal style argument from the Torah presumably.)


    Greg

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  16. A Hart Bypass operation

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  17. Dear Dr. Feser,
    Would you please answer this question: should the church execute heretics? This is a question that has been directed towards you and as yet been unanswered. Hart seems to hope you don't hold this belief, but I am not as hopeful. Your arguments certainly imply it, and your unwillingness to address this exact question is unsettling.

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    1. No, the Church should not execute heretics. Nor do my arguments imply that she should. I haven't commented on it because it has only come up tangentially in the recent debate, and it's a red herring.

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    2. But do you think that the state should execute those deemed as heretics by the Church?

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    3. I think his point is that heresy does not warrant capital punishment.

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    4. > But do you think that the state should execute those deemed as heretics by the Church?

      No. Jeez.

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    5. I suppose I'd better add that The Punisher shouldn't execute them either. Nor should the Knights of Columbus. Does that cover everyone?

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    6. Do you have a post on this anywhere? I’m not sure that the issue can be set aside so quickly or easily, given that the Doctors of the Church seemed to take seriously the view that the state should execute obstinate heretics, particularly St. Thomas.

      I don’t know the history of the discussion, though.

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    7. Does that cover everyone?

      Of course not. You clearly ducked any mention of Paul Betany or any agent of Opus Dei. Caught you!

      Merry Christmas.

      (Waiting for my wife to wake up. She worked hard yesterday in the kitchen.)

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    8. The Church has never executed heretics: God has.

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    9. Seriously, isn't the real point that different societies come to different conclusions about which punishments are appropriate, and which are not. Our society, for instance, eschews corporal punishment and mutilation. But both have been common enough in other times and places, including our own past. This goes beyond the question of CP alone, but it applies there. If a society's mores (a) believe CP is acceptable, and (b) a particular crime merits death, then they'll prescribe the death penalty.

      Note, this is not an argument for relativism. It is merely an acknowledgement that, as no society EVER is all that good at obeying natural law, and that each has its own history and development, then every society will adopt its own set of values. Just as every individual, in search of virtue, adopts a set of habits. But no such set actually works perfectly.

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    10. But I think the question is not how well or ill any particular society obeys the natural law, but what the natural law actually is - in particular, does the natural law mean that capital punishment is inherently wrong. Whether or not a particular society does or does not practise capital punishment doesn't tell us whether it is lawful to do so.

      jj

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    11. Right, John.

      then every society will adopt its own set of values. Just as every individual, in search of virtue, adopts a set of habits. But no such set actually works perfectly.

      I should think that the habits carried out by Mary at Nazareth worked perfectly as fulfilling the natural law, and God's laws for that time and place. The proposition that there is no such thing as a perfectly proper action given a set of circumstances, or habit of action given a specific social situation, sounds a lot relativism to me.

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    12. OK, but Mary is not a typical example. Perhaps I should have used the word "fallen" in what I said.
      That no society will ever do more than approximate its laws to Natural Law, I take as given, until He comes again. Now, how you respond to this may vary. You seem to be coming close to the proposition that all post-Fall humanity (Our Lord and Our Lady excepted) are in a state of such fallenness that EVERYTHING is hopelessly reprobate, and that human action is inherently vile, all the way down. That sounds like Luther or Calvin to me. Or even like the Manichees.

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    13. George - aren't you missing the point of this blog post? No one is questioning that every society will at best approximate obedience to natural law. The question Ed is talking about is what the natural actually says regarding capital punishment - not whether we obey the natural law or not.

      The fact that no society obeys natural with perfection is irrelevant to the question of what the natural law actually is.

      jj

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    14. " The question Ed is talking about is what the natural actually says..."

      1. That's not the whole thrust of the article (or the debate.)

      2. More important, this particular thread of comments starts with the (all too common) argument that the Church used to be OK with burning heretics. (Or pick your horror from the past - the Inquisition is a popular one.) And THAT is what I had in mind.

      3. I do believe that philosophically minded people tend to underrate the importance of what Thomas says in II-II 97 about the importance of custom and the danger of precipitously changing laws, even flawed ones. Most of the worst offenders have not been Catholic (at least until the 20th C), but Savonarola is an example of where perfectionist enthusiasm can lead.

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  18. What do you think of the new punisher?

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  19. Well, there are really 4 different questions that can be asked: (1) Is publicly promoting heresy a crime against the state? (2) Is it a crime of sufficient gravity that death is a proportionate punishment. (3) Should the DP be an available civil punishment for the crime in principle, or is there general civic reason to prohibit it for that crime universally? (4) Should the Church have direct input into the civil matter? and (5) Should the Church either urge the DP in some cases, or should she generally, or even universally object to using it even apart from the civil basis for the punishment?

    I dare say that effectively ALL of these logically might depend on the manner and degree in which the state is a confessional state, or is a respecter of the true religion without being confessional, or attempts to be "neutral" and pluralistic and a respecter of religion in general without any inclination toward any, or whether it is prescriptively antagonistic to religion (or toward the true religion).

    In any case, one might easily think that neither should "the Church" nor the state execute heretics (nor the state), without holding the position that it's evil is of sufficient gravity as to be proportionate to the death penalty. There are reasons to withhold the death penalty even when it is warranted, in some situations. Or, one might hold that heresy is a sin without being a civil crime, so that it WILL be punished, but should not be punished by the state. Or any number of other positions.

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  20. With the idea of Christianity being perhaps "socially irresponsible", it's basically saying something like, "I don't care if these values I promote are good for society". Now you can say that you are speaking only to a particular religious audience with a certain scripture; and a theist could always appeal to the hypothetical that God may have bigger things going on behind the scenes, which are far more important than the functioning of earthly society, and actually require you to ignore the good of earhtly society.

    Nevertheless, there is something kind of extreme in an ethical position that is happy to just throw society out the window!



    Also from Hart's article:

    "A large fine, a period of confinement, a life sentence, even the force exerted against a criminal to prevent him from harming another person (even if that force should prove lethal)—all of these can be imposed without complicity in the logic of retribution, at least ideally."


    Hart is reading the New Testament as having a prohibition against retribution, but apparently allowing for other justifications of punishment or physical force against criminals; but why isn't he reading the New Testament as against the use of force more generally? Where is it ever delineated in the text that the specific problem, or one specific problem, is retribution?

    "do not resist an evil person" is open to interpretation on how far you take that. It isn't like we have clear words from Jesus that retribution is banned, but violence in defence is acceptable.

    So what is really stopping this going to a truly crazy level if someone has a "take the issue up with Our Lord" attitude?


    Greg

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    1. Right. The worst problem Hart has to face in his silly comment is that if you have "a period of confinement, a life sentence, "etc without any element of retribution, then it isn't punishment AT ALL it falls under another species of action altogether. The primary purpose of punishment is retribution, and all the secondary purposes hinge on the primary (or they turn into accidental ends rather than secondary ones), and you cannot achieve secondary ends while defeating the primary.

      A period of confinement for someone who is mentally ill does not end when they have "served their time", it ends when they are no longer mentally ill to the degree where they pose a danger to others or themselves. That isn't punishment. A period of confinement that does end after a certain pre-specified time JUST IS retributive, and Hart is blowing smoke and saying the silliest, most benighted things.

      Plus, as you say, Christ is seemingly just as down on ANY sort of resistance to the evil ones as to "retribution", if not more so. Hart just likes to pick and choose his Gospel tenets, as he insinuates Feser does. Pot, kettle, and all that.

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  21. Hey Ed, do you agree DBH's response could be classified as a Hart Bypass Operation?

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  22. Hi everyone. I thought readers might be interested in a book review written by Hart in 2004, of The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classic Christian Traditions East and West, by Alexander F. C. Webster & Darrell Cole, in which Hart vigorously defends the doctrine of the just war and extols war as a work of charity:

    http://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=17-09-040-f

    "...[W]hile Orthodoxy has never developed an explicit theory of war, the evidence against the pacifist or semi-pacifist account of Eastern tradition is nevertheless so plenteous that Webster’s half of the book has for the most part the character of a simple recitation...

    "He is especially good at demonstrating that the Eastern fathers recognize the legitimacy and merit of the military life (as do the prayers and liturgies of the Church), that the defense of piety and order (even by force of arms) has always been regarded in the Orthodox world as a virtuous undertaking...

    "Cole’s argument acquires a considerable degree of theological depth when he turns to Augustine and Thomas for support. Here he finds a cogent account—though one, no doubt, somewhat scandalous to modern ears—of justifiable violence as a work of charity."

    Of course, Hart (writing in 2004) has reservations about war waged on behalf of a post-Christian political order, and about the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. Nevertheless, his remarks stand in stark contrast with his fulminations against capital punishment. Just saying.

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    1. Hart's beloved Origen is perhaps the main source for arguments for early Christian pacifism.

      Arguments for pacifism in the early church strike me as equally plausible as arguments for its opposition to the death penalty.

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  23. I had to stop reading after a few paragraphs because I was laughing so hard and feared I'd get a cramp if I continued.

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  24. This is really all rather sad. Both Feser and Hart are fine, albeit rather different, writers, and both do a great service to Christianity, but Ed seems to be spot on in his rebuttal to Hart's criticisms here.

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  25. Hart's views on capital punishment and retributive punishment appear to be just fairly standard left-wing or centre-left thinking.

    A Christian does, however, have a problem in truly rejecting the death penalty as a "human rights violation", (the direction the Western world has gone in, excluding the USA as a holdout), in that the Old Testament commands it; so a Christian might need to harmonize their position by allowing that it's legitimate in principle in a certain way, but rejecting it's actual application today.


    If Hart didn't get his values out of the Bible, well, they are just the fashionable politics of our time...


    Greg

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  26. Dammit Sean, now look what you did!

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  27. I think, having originally missed this posting and the ensuing discussion, all I can say is that when it comes to DBH, one apparently has to "get" his particularly rhetorical method of approach he employs to convey his thoughts in writing and, consequently, the various means of construing his thoughts that this permits Hart to adopt. And that Hart's writings are not composed to be the most accessible from a strictly dialectical approach, that he's expressed less-than-enthusiastic feelings toward, makes it's a tad disingenuous when someone nevertheless proceeds to lay in to him as if the matter were otherwise (a la, a statement by Hart about 'no arguments' essentially becomes a stand-alone proposition, rather than merely part of a rhetorical piece expressing a significant grievance about how (un)convincing he finds the argumentation to be; yet nothing so full of bile as to be taken so literally, or as linear, as a straightforward "there are no arguments to be found anywhere" proposition. Now, this is an observation, which by itself is not to say a proponent of a more dialectical approach cannot retain their commitments; but subjecting Hart's writing itself to a critical dialectical analysis as if that's what his writing purports to be is not subjecting Hart's writing to anything, but a misconstrual of his writing. And this will only (continue to) lead to both parties talking past each other.

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  28. Scurrilous and ad hominem attacks are driven by envy and fear. In Hart's case perhaps envy of Feser's many positive reviews and in the case of the latter, that he himself is afraid that his own thinking (on some subjects) is facile and erroneous. Of the two, fear is the more difficult to overcome and so to forestall recognition of same virulent language can give one a sense of self-confidence and justify delaying the necessary introspection.

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  29. Hart and Feser should come together and watch this video as a way of breaking bread:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbyZDq76T74

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