Friday, March 23, 2018

Bellarmine on capital punishment

In a recent Catholic World Report article supplementing the argument of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed, I called attention to the consistent support for capital punishment to be found in the Doctors of the Church.  (See the article for an explanation of the doctrinal significance of this consensus.)  As I there noted, St. Robert Bellarmine is an especially important witness on this topic.  For one thing, among all the Doctors, Bellarmine wrote the most systematically and at greatest length about how Christian principles apply within a modern political order, specifically.  For another, he addressed the subject of capital punishment at some length, in chapters 13 and 21 of De Laicis, or the Treatise on Civil Government.  What Bellarmine has to say strongly reinforces the judgment that the Church cannot reverse her traditional teaching that capital punishment is legitimate in principle (a judgment for which there is already conclusive independent evidence, as the writings referred to above show).
A lot could be said about Bellarmine’s various lines of argument, but for the moment I will focus on just two points.  (In what follows I quote from the Stefania Tutino translation of De Laicis in the new Liberty Fund volume of Bellarmine’s political writings.) 

Absolute opposition to capital punishment is heretical

Early in De Laicis, Bellarmine makes the following striking remark:

Among the chief heretical beliefs of the Anabaptists and Antitrinitarians of our time there is one that says that it is not lawful for Christians to hold magistracy and that among Christians there must not be power of capital punishment, etc., in any government, tribunal, or court. (p. 5, emphasis added)

To understand the significance of this remark, several points have to be kept in mind.  First, Bellarmine’s aim in this book is to address the topic of how Christian moral principles, specifically, apply to politics.  He is not addressing questions about what might be merely theoretically possible under natural law considered apart from the Gospel.  Second, Bellarmine is also concerned in the book to respond to the heretical movements of his day, and not merely to take a side in disputes between orthodox Catholics.  Third, he classifies the thesis that capital punishment is contrary to Christian morality as a heresy, and not merely an error of some lesser sort.  Nor is this an incidental remark.  Again, he devotes two chapters to the subject, and what he has to say about it is theologically closely integrated with what he says about other topics (e.g. just war) and about Catholic political philosophy in general.

Furthermore, he has ample grounds for this judgment.  He appeals first to scriptural evidence, including Genesis 9:6, Romans 13, and many other passages.  Bellarmine explicitly considers and explicitly rejects a “proverbial” reinterpretation of Genesis 9:6, and among the points he makes is that such a reinterpretation is contrary to the traditional Jewish understanding of the passage.  He points out that in the Targums the passage is paraphrased as: “Whoever sheds men’s blood before witnesses, by sentence of a judge his blood should be shed” (p. 49, emphasis added).  The attempt to read opposition to capital punishment out of the Sermon on the Mount is one that Bellarmine characterizes as a heretical Anabaptist reading, and he cites Augustine, Chrysostom, Hilary, Aquinas, and Bonaventure against this reading.

Second, Bellarmine cites the teaching of the Fathers of the Church as evidence of the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment.  He also cites papal teaching, specifically the teaching of Pope Innocent I and Pope Leo X.  Finally, he cites the natural law.  In short, Bellarmine’s defense of capital punishment is essentially of the same kind that Joe Bessette and I develop at greater length in the first two chapters of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed

Now, it won’t do for Catholics who claim that capital punishment is always and intrinsically immoral to dismiss Bellarmine’s remarks on the grounds that they are not infallible.  First of all, Bellarmine is a Doctor of the Church, and a Doctor who specializes precisely in the bearing of Christian moral principles on matters of politics in the modern world.  He is, in effect, recognized by the Church as someone uniquely qualified to advise Catholics on matters like the one in question.  And again, his doctrine on capital punishment is not some incidental teaching, but instead is argued for systematically and integrated into the rest of his thought. 

Second, Bellarmine makes the remark about the heretical nature of absolute opposition to capital punishment in a casual or matter-of-fact way.  Evidently, he takes himself merely to be expressing the received wisdom on the matter among orthodox Catholics, not some controversial opinion of his own.  And as the evidence cited in By Man and the CWR article linked to above demonstrate, he was absolutely correct to do so.

So, to dismiss Bellarmine on this issue is to claim that a Doctor of the Church who specialized in such matters – not to mention all the other authorities he cites, and the centuries-old teaching of the Church – got it wrong, and that the heretics he opposed were right all along

I submit that this is not possible if the claims the Catholic Church makes about her own authority are true.  There are cases in Church history where a teaching once regarded as optional was later regarded as a requirement of orthodoxy.  But there is no case where a teaching once regarded as heretical was later regarded as orthodox.  And it would be a major problem if there were such a case, given what the Church claims about the reliability of the ordinary magisterium.  (And no, slavery and religious liberty are not counterexamples.)

The apostles didn’t play games

In another striking passage, Bellarmine writes:

[I]n Acts 5 Peter killed Ananias and Sapphira because they dared to lie to the Holy Spirit, while in Acts 13 Paul punished with blindness a false prophet who tried to turn a proconsul away from the faith. (p. 104)

I say this is “striking,” but actually I don’t think that this passage (or for that matter, the earlier passage describing absolute opposition to capital punishment as heretical) would have been at all striking to the Catholic readers of Bellarmine’s time.  It is striking to modern readers, who are so used to thinking of violence of any kind as extremely morally problematic at best that the idea of an apostle inflicting it seems to them unfathomable.

Now, a critic might quibble about whether it is accurate to say that Peter – as opposed to God – killed Ananias and Sapphira.  But Bellarmine’s reading is by no means idiosyncratic.  Though the deaths of the pair are directly caused by God, Peter clearly plays an instrumental role.  As the Catholic Encyclopedia says:

When Ananias and Sapphira attempt to deceive the Apostles and the people Peter appears as judge of their action, and God executes the sentence of punishment passed by the Apostle by causing the sudden death of the two guilty parties. (Emphasis added)

Even if it were argued that in fact Peter merely witnessed, rather than in any way caused, Ananias’s death, it is difficult to make the same argument with respect to Sapphira’s death.  Acts tells us:

After an interval of about three hours [Ananias’s] wife came in, not knowing what had happened.  And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.”  But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord?  Hark, the feet of those that have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.”  Immediately she fell down at his feet and died.

Clearly, Peter is testing Sapphira here, and on finding her guilty pronounces that she will die just as Ananias did.  Even if it were suggested that Peter is merely predicting what will happen, he knows full well what fate Sapphira faces if she says the wrong thing.  He doesn’t warn her, doesn’t beg her to repent, and doesn’t fret over the affront to her dignity as a human person after she drops dead.  Nor can it be maintained that Peter showed thereby that he didn’t understand the Gospel as well as we do.  For it is God who strikes Sapphira down on the occasion of Peter’s testing of her, where Peter fully expects God to do this.  That is a kind of divine seal of approval on Peter’s action.  The Holy Spirit doesn’t make of this a “teaching moment,” by which Peter might be brought to a deeper understanding of mercy.  Rather, He simply summarily inflicts on Sapphira exactly the punishment that Peter anticipates and thinks she deserves.

Something similar can be said of the action of St. Paul cited by Bellarmine.  Acts tell us:

[T]he proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence… summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God.  But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) withstood them, seeking to turn away the proconsul from the faith.   But Saul, who is also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?  And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you shall be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.”  Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand.  Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.

Though not a capital sentence, this is pretty harsh stuff.  Paul does not warn this false prophet to repent (much less initiate ecumenical dialogue with him or the like).  He strikes him blind.  Nor can it be maintained that Paul didn’t understand the Gospel and its call to mercy as well as we do, for Acts tells us that Paul “was filled with the Holy Spirit,” and of course it is God who miraculously carries out Paul’s sentence.  Here too we have a divine seal of approval on a harsh action, rather than a divine rebuke of it.

Clearly, St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Robert Bellarmine (not to mention all the other saints I’ve cited elsewhere in connection with this subject) were not men likely to get weepy at the execution of sadistic perverts like Ted Bundy or John Wayne Gacy.  Somebody has gotten the demands of Christian morality wrong, but why should we suppose it is them? 


  1. Hi Ed,

    As usual, a well-argued article. I should point out, however, that Bellarmine also defended the Church's right to burn heretics. Here is a Protestant summary of Bellarmine's arguments, complete with citations from his works (scroll back to page 545 and continue on to page 548):

    ("The History of Romanism: from the Earliest Corruptions of Christianity to the Present" by Rev. John Dowling. New York: Edward Walker, fourth edition, 1845.)

    Sorry about the biased source, but it was the best I could get hold of, via the Internet. Anyway, do you agree with Bellarmine's arguments on this point? If not, why not?

    By the way, I've just written a review of your fourth, Thomistic proof of God's existence:

    Links to my other articles on your book are at the end of my latest review.

    1. I think Feser wouldn't deny that heretics, in the strict sense of the word, in principle, deserve some kind of punishment. Indeed, this has always been claimed by the Church, the right of jurisdiction among the baptized.
      As to whether burning is an appropiate punishment he wouldn't have to necessarily agree, since punishment is to a degree based on custom. Aquinas and Bellarmines positive arguments for the practice depend on the application of the same penalty for a lesser crime and the disturbance to the faithful they cause. With the former being false today, the latter would create even more scandal if it were to be applied today, and therefore be contrary to its purpose (not to mention the existence of lesser penalties that can achieve the same goal).
      Even then, Feser may disagree and appeal to a prudential judgement against the practice.
      All things considered, the question of heretics is besides the point, and I can't see any reason why people keep pressing Dr. Feser on this, except to try and discredit him.

    2. In Jesus' words, "It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble."

      So certainly there could be situations where a severe enough heresy could be deserving of capital punishment. Many people would not deny that someone like Jim Jones was deserving of capital punishment. There have been a few Christian heresies that have promoted suicide. It really depends on the heresy and on the nature of the society. Heretical teachers in one way are not as serious as they were in the past due to the vast change in literacy rates and access to Orthodox information via the Internet. People are much more difficult to be led astray than they were in the past. So the severity of the punishment very much depends on what you mean by the word "heresy".

    3. In a Catholic polity of Bellarmine's day, I can see nothing INHERENTLY wrong with civilly punishing heresy, even by execution (the potential cruelty of a given means is a separate question). This is moot, though, since I can think of no modern-day secular polity where even the civil punishment of heresy wouldn't be a bigger cause of injustice and public disorder than forgoing such punishment would be.

    4. Just one thing to note:

      This very sort of Protestant anti-Catholic propaganda is exactly what the so-called “Enlightenment” pseudointellectuals eventually took possession of, but this time turning it against all Christians (including Protestants) and even all religious believers alike.

      Of course, modern historians have uncovered a very different picture of the past, and thus we should now know better, but the fact remains that that ridiculous caricature still pervades popular collective imagination.

  2. I am very much in the 'in principle' camp. It would take some time to go into that.

    Aside from the philosophical considerations I am curious as to whether the exegesis of this passage about the deaths of Aninias and Sapphira requires much more nuance. God's intent may well have been primarily to authenticate Peter's authority, and because also of his faith. It also may be the case the event represents God's foreknowing rather than direct action.

    While the passage can be taken to relate to capital punishment, I certainly don't think that is the primary message. Clearly Peter's authority is the primary message.

    1. Daredevil, I agree that the Acts passage about Ananias and Sapphira can use a more developed exegesis. But I strongly doubt that doing so would end up coming close to a position that undermines the sense Feser gives above. As to God's intent: generally, we read accounts of the acts of the Patriarchs and - after Pentecost - the Apostles, as indicating divine approval for the action unless the account EXPLICITLY shows otherwise. When there is a miraculous intervention, the divine approval is (as far as I understand it) taken to be definitive about the matter. And "about the matter" is supposed to cover all aspects of Apostle's actions in the matter that are in the account, not just divine support for one aspect only. In this case, this framework would imply direct divine approval not only for Peter's authority in general, but also specifically as to a sentence of punishment, and not just any punishment, but corporal punishment, and not just any corporal punishment, but even a punishment of death. While it is fair to say that capital punishment being licit is not the primary message, that it is licit is part of the whole message.

    2. Tony I understand what you are saying. Another way to understand the passage is seeing the death as secondary to the primary message of the passage i.e. Peter's authority.

      It might be a stretch to use the passage for corporeal punishment as a primary focus. I am not denying that the death penalty can in principle be licit. I would quibble more over the specifics. As has been said by others on the blog, I take issue with HOW the death penalty comes about TODAY in some countries and whether there should be a reconsideration.

      I also think there is probably more to this passage than reading it as Peter killing people for lying (it wasn't about them not handing over all the money). In fact this may be a poor reading if it becomes a primary focus, even if a passage can have multiple meanings. Ezekiel 33:11 and all that.

    3. DD, I agree that it seems like there was more than the mere fact of lying as such that was the punishable offense. Peter points out it is not just "lying to human beings" as the problem, but lying to God. It smacks of the same spiritual deadness as blasphemy or sacrilege.

      And I agree that there was more in play than Peter's authority. The importance of being careful in how you handle affairs for God and the Church because they are holy. And the non-importance of whether they had given ALL of the proceeds, so much as NOT giving from motives of vanity and puffery. These also play into the meaning of the passage. (Makes me kind of worry about all the actions I have done from mixed motives...)

    4. I don't think there is an issue of mixed motives as much as trying to reap rewards and praise for giving everything when they had not. They should simply have been honest about only giving part of their wealth.

      I think the passage should be understood as indicative of Peter's authority. Other considerations are secondary or tertiary and cannot be fully understood without reading through the primary message of the passage. Indeed I think Protestants and Orthodox could and probably should read the passage in the same way.

      Matthew 16:13-20

    5. This again is similar to the topic of the duplicity of narcissists.

  3. Vincent Torley. Seriously? Aside from the fact that you are citing what is in essence a Jack Chick Tract written in Dickensian prose, what bearing does this have on the subject at hand? Do you really need someone to explain to you that "Is the death penalty just as a matter principle?" is an entirely orthogonal to questions about which particular crimes warrant the death penalty. Clearly, one can dispute with Bellarmine on the latter without in any way disputing with him on the former. Frankly, I fail to even see what the point of this comment even is.

    1. Untenured, I think Vincent's concern is that the Church's magisterial authority behind the thesis "capital punishment is morally licit" would seem to be of a similar standing as for the thesis "the burning of heretics is morally right". And since the Church seems to now deny the latter (in spite of pretty vigorous affirmations of it in the past), she could just as well deny the licitness of capital punishment now in spite of pretty vigorous affirmations of it in the past.

      I seriously doubt that the thesis "the burning of heretics is morally right" was ever anywhere near as firmly established a Church teaching as the licitness of capital punishment. It just hasn't the pedigree. If you compare the history of the two, it is obvious that the licitness of CP goes back much farther, has much more biblical basis, and much more support from the Fathers.

      In addition, there is a very important philosophical difference: the thesis "CP is morally licit" is a much more restrained a thesis than "the burning of heretics is morally right". The latter requires assent both to CP for heretics, AND that burning be a right method for carrying it out - something that is far more complex a point to affirm as "Church teaching".

      All in all, I don't agree that the two stand together in being either irreformable or reformable.

    2. One factor that is also relevant is that heresy is not, as such, a violation of natural law, and therefore would not be something about which natural law would say anything directly. (Obstinacy as a generic moral wrong would be, but of course mere obstinacy is not a grave wrong unless other circumstances make it so.)

    3. Hi Tony,

      You read my intentions correctly. And yes, I agree that the case for "the burning of heretics is morally right" being part of the Church's infallible ordinary magisterium is certainly weaker than the case for "capital punishment is morally justifiable" being part of the infallible ordinary magisterium. Nevertheless, it is still formidable: an unbroken consensus of bishops and theologians (including Aquinas) from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. That's not to be sneezed at.

    4. Did Aquinas specifically defend burning? I remember him defending the DP for heretics but not necessarily the burning.

      Nevertheless I agree that the issue of the DP for heretics (especially burning), which once enjoyed common approval but which we now reject, can be problematic for Feser's attempt to show the Church can't ever change its teaching on the DP. I think we can make a more modest case, however, that the Church *should not* officially change its teaching on DP as it would be imprudent given all the support it has in tradition. I think that would be good enough.

    5. Hi everyone,

      While we're on the subject of Cardinal Bellarmine, here's an interesting nugget of information about him from Wikipedia: "Immediately after his appointment as Cardinal, Pope Clement made him a Cardinal Inquisitor, in which capacity he served as one of the judges at the trial of Giordano Bruno, and concurred in the decision which condemned Bruno to be burned at the stake as a heretic." Source: Blackwell, Richard J. (1991) Galileo, Bellarmine, and the Bible. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press (pp. 47–48).

      And now, I'd invite you to have a look at this article by history professor Alberto A. Martinez:

      "By analyzing all accusations, I found that the Inquisition’s strongest case against Bruno was, in fact, and contrary to the conventional wisdom, his belief in many worlds. It was the most frequently recurring charge. For example, one accuser testified that in prison one night Bruno brought a fellow prisoner 'to the window and showed him a star, saying that it was a world and that all the stars were worlds.'

      "Thirteen times, in 10 depositions, six witnesses accused Bruno of believing in many worlds. No other accusation was invoked even half as much."

      There's more:

      "In fact, in the 1590s Bruno’s claim was considered heretical. Many authorities denounced it, including theologians, jurists, bishops, one emperor, three popes, five Church Fathers and nine saints. In 384 A.D. the belief in many worlds was categorized as heretical by Philaster, Bishop of Brescia, in his Book on Heresies. This condemnation was echoed by subsequent authorities, including Saints Jerome, Augustine and Isidore."

      Pope Francis appears not to share this view:

      "Pope Francis has said that he would be willing to baptise aliens if they came to the Vatican, asking 'who are we to close doors' to anyone - even Martians....

      "'If, for example, tomorrow an expedition of Martians came to us here and one said "I want to be baptised!", what would happen?'

      "Clarifying that he really was talking about aliens, the Pope said: 'Martians, right? Green, with long noses and big ears, like in children's drawings.'"

      Imagine you're a fairly tolerant Dutch Protestant living in the early 17th century. Some of your friends and relatives are Catholics, and you're thinking of converting, but you'd like to know exactly what you'll be required to believe if you do. What are the chances that you'll decide that the legitimacy of capital punishment is one of the things you must believe as a Catholic, but not the legitimacy of burning heretics (despite the fact that the medieval Inquisition was established by a Pope, Gregory IX in 1231, and the Roman Inquisition by Pope Paul III in 1542) or the belief in many worlds (which numerous theologians, three popes, five Church Fathers and nine saints condemned as heretical)?

    6. Vincent, while I agree that a defense of the burning of heretics was a position that was held in the Church for centuries, even by the highest authorities, that is different from the claim that it ALSO enjoyed the status of being taught as part of the Church's infallible ordinary magisterium.

      We see from people like Dr. Fastiggi and E. Christian Brugger claims that - even in the face of Feser and Bessette's rather thorough layout in their book - that the thesis "capital punishment is morally licit" is only a "consensus" opinion, or words to similar effect, and that this is not sufficient for getting into "infallible ordinary magisterium" status. Yet it is CLEARLY the case that the capital punishment thesis has a far stronger claim to the status than the burning of heretics thesis. (I guess we should be able to cry foul on any commentator who tries to use BOTH arguments against CP, right? :-) ) At a minimum, the arguments of Fastiggi and Brugger would seem to apply all the more to the burning of heretics position. Now, maybe their arguments are wholly without merit. Indeed, Dr. Feser has punched enormous holes in Brugger's positions, and (in my opinion) successfully let the air out of Fastiggi's arguments as well. With respect to the CP issue, that is. There is no principled reason why Dr. Feser's counterarguments on CP would automatically work on the burning of heretics issue, they would have to be applied one by one to see. And, frankly, because the two theses PRESENT in different philosophical terms (whether one is "morally licit" in principle, versus whether the other is "right"), it seems an uphill battle, in my opinion. That is, I just think the cases are too different for the similarity you are trying to draw.

    7. There are plenty of actions that deserve to be punished with death. Just a couple of examples from the Bible include onanism, taking the Lord's name in vain, disrespecting one's parents, lying about the amount of one's charitable contributions, and making fun of a prophet's baldness.

      Now heresy is very serious as it puts souls at risk of eternal damnation. If killing one's mortal body is punishable by death, surely killing one's immortal soul merits at least the same punishment.

      The reason the Church does not advocate executing heretics today is not because it is wrong, but rather because of prudential considerations. As a previous commentator has already said, the Church has other means of combating heresy without risking people being scared away from the Church.

    8. I completely agree with Tony here.

      The difference between the idea that capital punishment is licit in principle for some crimes is categorically different from the claim that heretics deserve to be not just punished with death, but with a particular type of death, namely burning.

      The former is a universal, talking about whether or not capital punishment is a licit punishment in principle. The latter is a particular, talking about whether or not a certain specific crime is deserving of capital punishment, and whether or not the capital punishment will be done in a specific way, namely by burning.

      It is obvious that one could hold that capital punishment is licit in principle while denying that heresy is deserving of it.

      Of course, there will be all sorts of objections to the contrary such as the fact many Church doctors supported burning for heresy, but looking at it from a purely natural law lense, the defense of capital punishment as such is wholly independent and unrelated to the defense of heresy as deserving capital punishment.

    9. Just my two cents:

      Giordano Bruno was the absolute ultimate crackpot of the early modern period. NOT a martyr for science and reason, but a martyr for magic and the occult.

      Also, the Magisterium has never condemned as heretical the hypothesis that other worlds might exist. Yes, many Fathers did disagree with it, but others accepted it as a possibility at least in principle. In fact, Bruno gets that specific idea from Nicholas of Cusa, one of the most respected theologians and most powerful churchmen of the fifteenth century.

      So, belief in the plurality of worlds is not really a heresy. Maybe suspicious, yes, in the sense that it may open the door to other erroneous thoughts, but not a heresy proper. And actually, it's not as if the Inquisition didn't already have enough of a case against him, with the denial of central dogmas of the Christian Faith such as the Trinity, the Divinity of Jesus and the Virginity of Mary (in addition to his completely obnoxious and unrepentant character that hardly earned him any friends amongst people of power and influence).

    10. For example, one accuser testified that in prison one night Bruno brought a fellow prisoner 'to the window and showed him a star, saying that it was a world and that all the stars were worlds.'

      Did he mean that each of the "stars" was a planet like Earth? That is now known (or, "known") to be false. Did he mean that each of the "worlds" was, like Earth, people with rational animals?

      "Pope Francis has said that he would be willing to baptise aliens if they came to the Vatican, asking 'who are we to close doors' to anyone - even Martians....

      The more I hear of Pope Francis, the more I wonder whether he ever was properly educated. What makes him assume that Martians would NEED to be baptized? What if they never fell? Hmmm? The more I hear of Pope Francis, the more I wonder whether he ever was decently educated - his ability to make distinctions seems to be virtually nil. Then I recall that he was educated by Jesuits, and...

      Something interesting I did not know before: he got the equivalent of an associate's degree in chemical technology at age 19. Worked a few years. Entered the diocesan seminary, for 3 years. Then joined the Jesuits and was educated in their college for 2 years. At that point he received a licentiate in philosophy from the Jesuit college, 1960. In 1964 he started teaching high school literature and psychology (while still continuing training for the priesthood). He was ordained in 1969, became novice master and then provincial of Argentina in just a few years, and became rector and theology professor of a Jesuit seminary, 6 years before he got his Ph.D. in theology.

      I can't figure out whether the Jesuits simply don't have standards anymore, or whether "things are different" in Argentina, or what.

    11. Look it up: Bruno was a fraudulent snake-oil salesman who was caught by the inquisition while skipping town after his patent-medicines killed people. And the Inquisition spent seven years trying to argue him out of his "Renaissance Deepak Chopra" woowoo charlatanism.

      "This murderous fraud was executed by the Inquisition under Bellarmine" doesn't really help your alleged case, Vincent. Quit this sad, transparently passive-aggressive demonstration that you mistake Early Modern folklore for facts.

    12. Neophyte,

      I don't think the Church's current position on not executing heretics is motivated solely by "prudential reasons". Certainly there are prudential reasons against the execution of heretics and it is part of why it shouldn't be done. But the Church also came to understand that the human person's intrinsic human dignity should stop us from coercing them in matters of religious belief and conscience, under just limits. The just limits themselves may include prudential reasons, but the view doesn't seem to be that "it is okay to execute heretics, it's just not prudent to do so today, so let's not do it". Rather, it is that their human dignity gives them a natural right against being coerced in matters of religion. So I think Vincent's point is that since the Church has adapted her view on whether heretics can be executed, even against the "traditional" view which favored the idea that heretics may be executed, she may also adapt her views on capital punishment.

      Of course, the support for capital punishment is much stronger than that for executing heretics. So it's not a perfect comparison. But it is still something to think about.

      I personally feel that saying the legitimacy of capital punishment is an irreversible, definite teaching of the Church is a bit too ambitious. I am sympathetic to the claim and I find some plausibility in it, but just not enough to actually affirm it. It is too strong a claim. I think it would be sufficient, and more modest and perhaps even more efficient to just defend that the Church should not change its view on capital punishment as it would be imprudent and implausible given how much support the legitimacy of DP has in Church teaching. No need to get into the way more complicated debate that the legitimacy of DP is absolutely an irreversible, definitive teaching of the Church that no pope can change.

    13. Miguel, have you actually read the book? Feser gives plenty of reason to move the issue beyond "I personally feel". Either his argument is sound or not. Did you feel that his argument is defective?

      Rather, it is that their human dignity gives them a natural right against being coerced in matters of religion.

      Actually, the issue with punishing heresy was never SOLELY in terms of coercing someone away from error. For example, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus were not subject to coercion (under the threat of burning). It always include, as an element, that a baptized and confirmed Catholic has a definite obligation in justice to submit to the authority of the Church, and this obligation can be enforced with punishments. This is not "coercion" of the mind simply speaking.

      The Church's more recent official teachings (such as in Vatican II) on religious liberty are extremely limited and restrained, and there is CERTAINLY a way of reading them that leaves intact the Church's right to enforce that obligation. In addition, they also leave intact the state's natural law rights to enforce reasonable rules for public order even if that should be at the expense of "coercing" a person's religious beliefs. The actual texts in favor of religious liberty are quite ambiguous in this regard.

    14. Re: Bruno:

      It is important to remember that what G. Bruno meant by "many worlds" is rather different from what we mean by "many planets." Recall that he also said that each "world," including the Earth, was animate in the same way that a dog or cow is; that the souls of dogs and cows are all immortal/spiritual souls; and that each world had an animating spirit which, in that world, was the greatest of the souls and was called "the Holy Spirit," the presence of which caused that world to be a living being in the same way that the "breath of life" made a dog or a cow a living being. (What Bruno meant by "the Holy Spirit" would have been "pantheist" if applied to the whole universe. But inasmuch as he applied it separately to each planet, I suppose it's more like a form of polytheism.)

      Furthermore, according to Bruno, each "world" was a place full (he assumed) of sinners for whom either (a.) Christ would have to die, separately for each world; or (b.) there would be a separate different Christ, for each world (and thus multiple "sons" in the Godhead).

      It would have been a very different situation had Bruno asserted that worlds were merely objects, upon which men could walk, and within which there might be living creatures who, if they were rational souls, would be made in the image of the same Triune God who created and sustains the universe.

      But Bruno's idea of a "world," by logical necessity, denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit and probably the Son; or else, redefined the idea of "divinity" entirely so that "God" simply didn't mean what Christians mean by "God." His definition for "world" fell somewhere between what we mean by "planet" and what we would mean by "a universe with its own set of gods."

      He also viewed these ideas as certain on account of having experienced them in mystical visions; and thus, requiring no scientific demonstration. Observations and requirements to "save the phaenomena" were irrelevant; the rest of the world was supposed to take his word for it.

      So if we say that Bruno was prosecuted for publicly asserting that Earth is one planet among several, we're misunderstanding the situation (and we run into difficulty explaining the non-prosecution of Copernicus).

      It's much more accurate to say that Bruno was a kook and a quack mouthing off about his funky visions who'd have been entirely ignored had he not been thereby asserting an anti-Trinitarian theology.

    15. Sophia's Favorite:

      Look it up: Bruno was a fraudulent snake-oil salesman who was caught by the inquisition while skipping town after his patent-medicines killed people.

      Well, I did look it up, and I found not a smidgin of evidence to support your story. All I managed to discover was that between 1589 and 1590, Bruno wrote Giordano Bruno wrote a medical treatise titled, "De Medicina Lulliana.” I found no evidence that Bruno attempted to hawk any medicines, let alone that they killed people. And I found absolutely no evidence that Bruno was executed for selling dangerous medicines.

      Let me add that I have in the past defended the Catholic Church against charges that it tortured Bruno, and that it executed him for his scientific beliefs:

      Google: "On not learning the lessons of history: what Professor PZ Myers doesn’t “get” about the progress of science (Part One)" (see parts 4, 5 and 6)


      As I mentioned above, three popes, five Church Fathers and nine saints denounced the notion that there are other worlds. Alberto Martinez argues that this belief was regarded as formally heretical in Annals of Science, Volume 73, 2016 - Issue 4. (I'm afraid I can't get access to the full article; maybe you can.)

      It is indeed true that Nicholas of Cusa (who was later made Cardinal) defended the notion that the stars and the heavens are inhabited by intelligent beings, animals and plants, in his work, De docta ignorantia (1439-1440). He was, I might add, the first Catholic theologian to explicitly affirm a belief in inhabited worlds: previously, other theologians had merely defended the possibility of God creating such worlds, without claiming that He actually had. Moreover, Nicholas of Cusa wisely avoided speculation as to whether extraterrestrials would have needed their own Savior, had they fallen like Adam.

      The atheist historian Tim O'Neill (a very fair-minded man) admits that he has changed his mind after reading Alberto Martinez's 2016 article about Bruno, and now agrees that belief in other worlds was ONE of the reasons why he was condemned to death. See here:



      To be sure, Bruno's ideas were not in the least scientific; let there be no mistake about that. But the fact is that he was put to death largely because of his belief in other worlds, and Cardinal Bellarmine concurred in the decision which condemned Bruno to be burned at the stake as a heretic. Sad but true.

    16. No, I haven't read his book, I was merely expressing my view about how ambitious the claim seemed to me. If Feser does succeed in going to those lengths, then fair enough, good for him and the book. I just think that this kind of ambitious claim may not necessary; it invites response from theologians and I think just sticking to the point that the Church should not condemn the DP would be enough.

      I would not say they are "extremely limited" at all, even though they are limited. There has been a significant change in that the person's freedom of conscience/religion came to the forefront, and it's not because of "prudential reasons" only but because of a natural right against coercion. Now, this doesn't change the obligation one has towards the Church, but it does significantly constrain prospects of coercing people in matters of religious conscience. Of course, if the person is actively teaching heresy in the name of the Church, he may have his teaching license revoked, he may be rebuked, he may even be excommunicated etc etc., because he's Catholic, but he can't be imprisoned or set on fire to burn to death. And not just because it would "not be prudent" to burn heretics alive today. But because he has a natural right against being coercing in such manner.

      The State can enforce natural law rights and of course the right to religious liberty is granted "within just limits", but still it represented a shift in Church teaching, asking us to prima facie tolerate heretics as much as we can without threatening public order and fundamental public morality, instead of prima facie granting the right to coerce people to fight religious errors, only within due prudential limits - which used to be the standard view.

    17. @R.C.

      Furthermore, according to Bruno, each "world" was a place full (he assumed) of sinners for whom either (a.) Christ would have to die, separately for each world; or (b.) there would be a separate different Christ, for each world (and thus multiple "sons" in the Godhead).

      Isn't a) acceptable for Catholics though? At least if interpreted as saying that there are other planets out there with other sinful rational creatures for whom the Second Person of the Trinity chose to incarnate on as well, in a different body, for the sake of their salvation?

    18. Miguel,

      There has been a significant change in that the person's freedom of conscience/religion came to the forefront, and it's not because of "prudential reasons" only but because of a natural right against coercion.

      I agree.

      Of course, if the person is actively teaching heresy in the name of the Church, he may have his teaching license revoked, he may be rebuked, he may even be excommunicated etc etc., because he's Catholic, but he can't be imprisoned or set on fire to burn to death.

      I disagree - as to the "can't be imprisoned". See below.

      The State can enforce natural law rights and of course the right to religious liberty is granted "within just limits", but still it represented a shift in Church teaching, asking us to prima facie tolerate heretics as much as we can without threatening public order and fundamental public morality,

      The actual extent of "public order" and "public morality" is quite ambiguous in the religious liberty documents. Here's an easy case: the state can enforce laws against a child-sacrifice religion with prison, even when that enforcement is coercive. The much harder case: the Catholic Church teaches quite explicitly that public worship of God belongs to the natural law, IF God has revealed a specific cultus of worship to a nation, that specific cultus is obligatory to them as a (revealed) specification of the natural law. In a Catholic country (i.e. where very nearly all are Catholic, and the country's own constitution erects Catholicism as the state's official religion, public worship according to the Mass is proper. A heretic who publicly reviles the Mass and teaches that the Mass is mere superstition and should be overturned is doing something that threatens public order. Arguably, such a heretic can (and should) be punished by civil punishments (not just loss of privileges), such as prison or fines or both. And, if it persisted, by banishment.

      It's not that there isn't a new willingness to accept a right to religious freedom, it's that the content of that right still has not been fleshed out in a way that is clear. It especially has not been fleshed out in connection with the obligation as a confirmed Catholic in justice to conform yourself to Church teaching, and how far the "right" supercedes the obligation, or vice versa.

    19. "A heretic who publicly reviles the Mass and teaches that the Mass is mere superstition and should be overturned is doing something that threatens public order. Arguably, such a heretic can (and should) be punished by civil punishments (not just loss of privileges), such as prison or fines or both. And, if it persisted, by banishment."

      You are right that all the contents have not been fleshed out yet, but I disagree that we can immediately infer that the heretic in such a Catholic country is threatening public order as such. It seems clear and sensible - and in agreement with the teaching and the spirit of it - to me that we should be partial in favor of human dignity and its autonomy and natural right against being coerced in matters of religion. So the scenario you described would not be enough to fine much less imprison such a heretic. Remember that the declaration on religious freedom was written amidst worries that the faithful were being persecuted in different countries (especially communist ones) under that same type of argumentation - that the religious were "dissidents" which threatened "public order". Take China, for instance, which is officially atheist and took (and still takes to a large extent) Christianity as an outsider religion which threatened national cohesion, the State and public order. Or consider Islamic monarchies which take Islam to be part of public order. These states persecute religious minorities and don't grand full freedom of religion, and in doing such they are not excused by their worries about "public order". It seems to me that your reading of DH doesn't do justice to the full extent and importance of religious liberty as defended there (and also in numerous pronouncements by different popes).

      Yes, there are just limits. But there is a clear partiality we should have in favor of human autonomy and dignity against being coerced in matters of religion and conscience. There may be instances in which public order requires coercion of this kind, indeed, but not simply because a State is officially and overwhelmingly Catholic. That doesn't automatically give the State the permission to coerce heretics or minority religions.

    20. JoeD,

      I think there could also be another possibility, namely that Christ's sacrifice could have been sufficient for martians, the Protoss, etc. And they need only be evangelized.

    21. I can't find my source for Bruno dodging a murder-rap, so maybe I misread something. But the fact remains he was a criminal, who made his living by fraud. And they executed for theft in the Early Modern world (which seems harsh till you remember their prisons were also basically a death-sentence, just a slower, more drawn-out one).

    22. So the scenario you described would not be enough to fine much less imprison such a heretic.

      Miguel, I agree to this extent only: under the teaching of Dignitatis Humanae, there should be a presumption in favor of the freedom of the reviling anti-Catholic mentioned. That presumption is satisfied if there is no penalty merely on account of the first acts described (reviling the Mass). The presumption ceases to control when there arises public disorder, though. Therefore, if this reviler's preaching to others has the EFFECT that he is seeking (i.e. to make others also turn against the Mass), then that in itself constitutes public disorder and thus falls under the exception explicitly stated.

      The legislature would, on account of the natural requirement of prudently looking at the probable and predictable results of acts that are intended to have effects which constitute public disorder, they must WEIGH AND BALANCE the good of religious liberty against the good of public order, and make a judgment call about where to draw the line between letting minor disorder go in order to protect religious freedom, and saying "no further" in order to protect public order. I would suggest, as my own view, that this weighing would entail looking at the unavoidable but presumably necessary evils that would come from enforcing laws that constrain religious liberty against the evils that would predictably obtain from NOT restricting the liberty of such anti-Catholics as described. It is not per se wrong, as an example of such an analysis, to decide to draw the line between personally reviling the Mass, and inducing others to do so, in that the judgment that the latter behavior will, in the conditions present, predictably going to damage public order could well be reasonable as a judgment. (It could also matter whether the anti-Catholic was preaching a different religion (such as Islam) or merely doing a hate-dance on Catholicism. Or whether other nearby countries had just had their faith institutions shaken by Protestantism. Or many other particulars.)

      So, while I don't insist that the authorities in the example MUST outlaw such behavior, I urge that if they were to outlaw such behavior, it WOULD be admissible under Dignitatis Humanae as a licit interpretation of that teaching.

    23. I think there could also be another possibility, namely that Christ's sacrifice could have been sufficient for martians, the Protoss, etc. And they need only be evangelized.

      This is of course only speculative, because naturally the Church has never had to weigh in on this, but it might well matter whether the Martians are either (a) a different species; or (b) (if technically human in species and substantial form), definitively not of the race of Adam. There is some theory that Christ's sacrifice applied specifically to those of the race of Adam, and would not apply to races not descended from Adam (if God were to make other humans not descended from Adam). All the stronger is the argument that Christ's Incarnation and sacrifice only applies to humans, for he ONLY TOOK ON HUMAN NATURE in that Incarnation. If there are non-human alien species (which the Pope clearly envisioned), Jesus Christ the God-man was not OF their nature.

      This would leave God the option of either (1) having a separate incarnational event taking on that alien nature, or (2) bringing about their salvation in some other manner than through an incarnation. (Assuming that they had fallen into sin and needed saving. If they had not fallen, no salvation would be needed anyway.) As to (1), I think it is St. Thomas who teaches that God's taking human nature does not exhaust His ability to join the Godhead to a created nature: he could do it any number of times. As to (2), C.S. Lewis proposes (in Perelandra) that God would not merely copy-cat His salvation methods, if Martians needed saving He would have some unique approach for them, as the Incarnation is unique for us. There is no necessity of such a thesis, it can only be based on a "more fitting" type of argument, but it is at least a plausible position. Either way, trying to baptize a Martian into the salvific way of humans would seem topsy-turvy.

      Personally, I suspect that all of this is moot for the very reason that we don't have the tools to sort this stuff out, and this is, I suggest, an indicator we won't ever NEED the tools to sort this stuff out.

    24. Re baptizing Martians: there appears to be no Scriptural or patristic warrant for the proposal.

      In Matthew 28:19, Jesus says: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." And Pope Leo the Great explicitly links the need for baptism to the fall of Adam:

      "And because of the transgression of the first man, the whole stock of the human race was tainted; no one can be set free from the state of the old Adam save through Christ’s sacrament of baptism, in which there are no distinctions between the reborn, as the apostle [Paul] says, ‘For as many of you as were baptized in Christ did put on Christ; there is neither Jew nor Greek . . . ‘ [Gal. 3:27–28]" (Letters 15:10[11] [A.D. 445]).

  4. As long as we are talking about NT support for capital punishment, I just posted a fairly developed treatment of John 8:1-11 (the woman caught in adultery, here.

  5. Is there a De Lacis book available in Latin and/or as a bilingual text?

    1. It's interesting that you mention Ted Bundy. He was raised Christian and repented of his crimes before his execution. In his final interview, even despite his repentance, his explanation of some of the factors that helped lead him to his sadistic lifestyle (pornography being a key component), and despite his confession of a return to Christianity, he confessed that his crimes were worthy of the punishment of execution that he was about to receive. He noted that despite the negative influences he had, he was sufficiently culpable and deserving of execution. Now whether or not he truly had remorse is open for debate, although it seems odd to put on a show immediately before being executed. To what end? Anyway, regardless of whether or not he was truly remorseful, he did admit that he, a professed Christian, warranted execution. I think that should speak not only against the argument that execution is merciless (since it can edify sinners), but also against the argument that capital punishment is unjust or essentially the same as a capital crime.

  6. The Peter incident is often cited as a joke. Gallows humour. I'd tend to read it that way.

    If Feser reads it literally he is, of course, saying that the Bible sanctions sentences of death for people who refuse to hand their private property into a communal pool and lie to those who try to compel them.

    Stalin might like such a reading. I would imagine that most Catholics, who tend to adhere to the principle of subsidiarity, would balk.

    1. If read literally, the Ananias and Sapphira episode is certainly NOT about "people who refuse to hand their private property into a communal pool and lie to those who try to compel them." Try reading the text literally.

    2. Hey, Feser, let me take some words, put them into your mouth, and then liken you to one of the most prolific mass murderers in history precisely on account of those words. Oh, and I'll do all of this by completely ignoring almost 2,000 years of exegesis in favour of my own interpretation which has absolutely no grounding in reality....

      Ah shoot, TheIllusionist beat me to it.

    3. :D Scott must have sent the comments section a successor. I crown you new king of the comments.

  7. What the hell is going on with Francis and the Vatican? (You can use that one Feser!)

    1. Just wait until he makes *that* remark about dogs and Heaven...

  8. The last six Popes have lived under Fascist Italy, Communist Poland, Nazi Germany, and the Argentine Junta.

    Even if the state has the theoretical right to use capital punishment, it seems that the current thinking is that no state can be trusted not to abuse it. Thus the turning away from it.

  9. Just as no state can be trusted not to abuse it, no state can be trusted not to abuse the power to tax. So we should turn away from state's having the authority to tax.

    Just as no state can be trusted not to abuse the authority to use capital punishment, no state can be trusted not to abuse the authority to forego capital punishment. Therefore, we should turn away from the states' authority to forego capital punishment.

    Every power or authority in human hands can be abused. Therefore we should turn away from every power and authority in human hands.

    Or, in the alternative: we can't turn away from all use of authority, because the failure to use such authority causes even more evil than the abuses are currently causing. Therefore, the proper attitude is to be vigilant against the abuses and stop them, and be vigilant against the failure to use authority to end evils and put a stop to THAT too.

  10. Said the man who never lived under a totalitarian state.

    1. That is how he KNOWS the difference!