Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Capital punishment on The Patrick Coffin Show

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Patrick Coffin on the subject of capital punishment and the recent change to the Catechism.  You can now watch the interview either at The Patrick Coffin Show website or at YouTube.
If you’re not a regular viewer of Patrick’s show, you should check out his show archives, where you’ll find many interesting guests interviewed and important topics covered.

Links to my other recent radio and television interviews can be found at my main website.


  1. Dr. Feser,

    What are your thoughts on John Chapter 8 as an argument for Jesus implicitly condoning the legitimacy (in principle) of capital punishment?

    My thoughts are that Jesus is presented with a prime opportunity to denounce capital punishment as intrinsically evil, but all He can manage is effectively an evasive cop out answer in order to avoid controversy. In light of the thousands if not millions of criminals who have been executed by Christian governments who thought that they were just in doing so on the basis of their interpretation of Scripture and the Natural Law. To explain Old Testament commands to execute certain criminals, couldn’t Jesus have said something to the effect of “Because of you hardness of hearts, Moses permitted this..” as he did in Matthew Chapter 19. I think that Jesus silence and decision to speak about mercy in this situation speaks volumes. In fact, He even tells the Pharisees to stone her! Presumably, if one was free of sin, they could have. This means that it could not be wrong in principle. (Jesus never says “Let he who is without sin murder an innocent woman”.)

    1. "In fact, He even tells the Pharisees to stone her! Presumably, if one was free of sin, they could have. This means that it could not be wrong in principle. (Jesus never says “Let he who is without sin murder an innocent woman”.)"

      Scott Lynch,

      Interesting take. But you might have proved too much. By this reasoning, only God could administer the death penalty. No government is without sin.

    2. @Scott Lynch,
      Ummm...with all due respect, that was an idiotic statement. The Lord Jesus Christ never replied with an "evasive, cop-out answer" for anything, at anytime. And to go on to allege that He did it "to avoid controversy", would seem to confirm a basic ignorance of the Gospels.

    3. Tritium,

      I am not claiming that Christ DID reply with a cop-out answer. However, IF capital punishment is intrinsically evil (which I obviously think it is not), then it seems that the answer that He provided was a mere cop-out.

      As for proving too much, I am not claiming that Christ said that only sinless people can execute punishment for crimes, He was merely saying that to the Pharisees to point out their self-righteous hypocrisy. However, don’t you think His response is extremely strange if capital punishment is intrinsically evil? Imagine if the Pharisees were asking Jesus if they could rape the woman and He said, “Let He who is without sin be the first one to rape her.”

      That would be a completely insane response in my view. How could someone remain “without sin” after doing such an intrinsically evil and disgusting action? The response of Christ almost seems to be non-sensical at best and self-contradictory at worst if capital punishment is always and everywhere intrinsically evil.

    4. Scott, you are mostly right that this would be a very strange reaction by Jesus if DP were intrinsically evil.

      I tackled the passage in depth in my essay on it at "What's Wrong With the World":


      Just to summarize: it is necessary to think carefully about the trap that John says the Pharisees are setting for him, and how it is that Jesus escapes the trap and turns the tables on them. Most critically, it is necessary to understand The Law, which the Pharisees were trying to use - because THEY weren't following The Law to begin with. Jesus is calling them on hypocrisy and pointing at the law that condemns them.

      Jesus is not to be understood as saying that in principle, "only those who are sinless can justly punish". That's not his point. It is that they weren't sinless even in this very matter of the adulteress, and so they cannot stand as judges in it. Both the Church and all modern civil societies require judges and prosecutors to recuse themselves from events in which they themselves are implicated, because they cannot judge such matters justly, being blinded by their own sin. St. Thomas says that the injunction "remove the beam from your own eye" before you remove the speck from your brother's is not an injunction to "never judge" but rather to clean up your own act, repent, be converted, turn to virtue and upright living, and THEN you will see clearly to judge your brother.

    5. Tony,

      I think I remember reading that essay a while ago. It is excellent, and I encourage everyone on this blog to go read it. Also for bonus points, please read the comments section as there is a useful discussion on the historicity of that passage.

    6. Scott

      The DP is obviously not intrinsically evil the way e.g. rape is. For X to be intrinsically evil doing X must be wrong in all occasions and regardless of who does it.
      God would not be an exception here, because rape being intrinsically evil also means that God cannot rape anybody or give the order to rape somebody.
      I really don't think anyone is arguing that it would be wrong for God to kill people.
      So, John chapter 8 could be used to support the change in the catechism. The interpretation then would be that, in order for people to carry out the DP, they must be without sin and since nobody is without sin, the DP should not be carried out at all.

    7. Walter,

      I think that your statement that no one is free of sin is tenuous. As Catholics, we believe Mary to be free of all sin. Furthermore, small children are free of sin. Are you suggesting that small children would be within their rights to administer capital punishment?

      Furthermore, the point remains that, if capital punishment is evil on the ground of violating the dignity of a human person, then there is no way for a sinless person to administer capital punishment and remain sinless. Therefore, Christ’s response is very strange.

      The authority of God to kill innocent or guilty people is a separate matter. God has that authority because He is the author of life at every second of our existence. For God to kill someone is for Him to stop giving a gift. The same cannot be said of a human who kills another human.

      If you are suggesting that Christ rescinded the State’s authority to execute criminals in John Chapter 8, then it seems that His vague response would have been very insufficient.

    8. Scott

      Obviously, the DP must be administered by someone who knows what he is doing. That wouldn't qualify small children. It would indeed qualify Mary, so it would be OK for coountries, states, courts, to sentence someone to death and wait until Mary comes around to execute him.

      "Sinless persons" under the interpretation I sketched above would be a kind of metaphor for "completely flawless persons". The only completely flawless persons are divine persons, or persons who have received a very special kind of grace so that they can reamin flawless.
      God has the authority to kill, but ordinary people don't because life is not their gift, and their being flawed means they lack the ability to judge whether someone is guilty or guilty enough to be killed.

      BTX, I am not saying this interpretation is correct, but simply that it is a possible interpretation. The problem is, of course, that Christ's responses are often ambiguous so it's very hard to interpret what exactly is meant.

    9. The notion that Christ in that passage is taking away the DP from the state founders on the actual text: Christ's response is not that he doesn't condemn her to death, it's that he doesn't condemn her to ANY punishment. If Christ's injunction here retracts punishment, it retracts ALL punishment altogether. Thus the state would be forbidden from punishing any criminals.

      Which is nonsensical in the light of the rest of the New Testament. So that must not be the correct sense of the passage. In fact, Christ was not judging her because he had not (yet) been set up in judgment over men, and thus according to the Law he had no role in condemning her. But he was pointing out the hypocrisy of those who WERE given the role of judging, in that they were not sinless in this very matter before them.

  2. What gives the state the right to impose the death penalty?

    1. The same authority that gives the State the right to dole out 1,5,10,25 year sentences and the same authority that gives parents the right to spank their kids, God.

      All authority comes from God and any objection to the State having said authority to administer capital punishment inadvertently undermines all authority the State exercises.

      It really isn't a matter of "by what authority" it is a matter of what punishment is proportional and what is just and what is merciful and what works for the common good. Those are the main questions.

    2. Natural law, argues Feser and Bessette

    3. I agree with Smead and with Anon above, God and natural law gives the state the authority. However, God and the natural law give parents authority over their kids, but not the authority to impose the DP. So a little more clarification can be made to make it clear.

      Although the family is a natural society, it is not the only such natural society. All of the communities and corporate entities man forms are formed in a "natural" response to man's social nature. But where there are many in one larger society with a common good, there is the power to rule for the common good. "The State" is simply the highest temporal community, sovereign in the temporal order, and thus in it reposes the fullness of temporal authority.

      Each natural society has by nature the authority it needs to accomplish its common good: a natural entity is endowed by God with the means to pursue what pertains to its natural end. Thus the state has what authority is needed to accomplish its natural end, the general common good of the highest (temporal) social order. This general common good includes within it justice as one aspect of it. Thus the common good requires for its achievement the use of punishments appropriate to the crimes against the civil order that disturb that common good, which punishments restore the balance of justice. The DP is within the range of such punishments.

    4. What gives you the right to have a diseased body part removed from your body?

  3. Hi Dr Feser, what is your opinion on human gene editing? could you not avoid or reduce the chance of committing certain sins by de-activating genes which cause aggression, for example genes controlling testosterone? I know this example is bad as it would be a very bad result for men but would something similar be good?

  4. Dr. Feser,

    I really liked your answer to Patrick's question, "Why aren't you giving religious submission to this teaching as the Church requires?"

    Your answer is the all-important question, "What is the content of this teaching?"

    That being said, I'm curious to hear more about what you think of Stephen Long's analysis. Long argues that the new paragraph should be taken as prudential judgment that Catholics may agree or disagree with but owe respectful consideration. I'm inclined to agree with Long, though some are definitely arguing this is a category 3 magisterial statement, which carries much heavier weight (though it's not impossible to disagree with it licitly, as DV shows).


  5. And in case of being a reversal of doctrine, he the Pope would be in error and so, we can call him an heretic?

  6. Loved your plug for pushing on the cardinals to ask the Pope to rescind the revision. Good to do.

    But not enough. The pope has shown that he has no trouble giving a stiff-arm to the neck of cardinals who imply his teaching might be less than ideal.

    We need a much more pro-active response: how about pushing the bishops and cardinals who have the care of the local version of the CCC to simply decline to make any change. Have them tell the publishers "no change at this time, we are waiting for further developments". In effect, use the Pope's own tactics: if the Pope won't answer up to doctrinal difficulties like the Dubia, the bishops won't respond to the Pope's attempt to change the CCC - he ain't the only oe who can decline.

    In point of fact, the change the Pope is "making" damages the CCC, because it makes even more obscure and problematic a passage that was ALREADY full of problems. Even if the passage were true teaching in some sense or other, it STILL could not fulfill the role of the CCC as a "sure" guide to Catholic teaching, since it's meaning is so uncertain.

    Of course, it is debatable whether the "most charitable" reading of the passage is (a) the pope was giving his own personal interpretation of the matter, but he is just plain wrong; or (b) the pope was attempting to issue a prudential judgment about the matter, but he was so incoherent about it that it is impossible to actually understand the "new teaching". Error or incoherence, which is more charitable?

    I do think the Pope would like to change doctrine on this matter, but of course he cannot. He could TRY to issue an ex-cathedra blanket reversal of doctrine ... but he might just drop dead of the effort before he succeeded.

  7. Dr. Feser, would it be too offensive if I asked for you to pray for me that God may give me wisdom and not cleverness?

  8. I dont understand why the death penalty is so horrific but killing a would-be murderer in self-defense is not. As far as I know, nobody in the antiCP camp disapproves killing in self-defense, so that kind of constitutes an implicit admission that murderers deserve to die.

    1. I would have thought it obvious - the principle of double effect. One is permitted to use violence to defend one's self as long as one does not consciously intend death as the outcome. I find it far stranger the other way e.g. that the State (which isn't even a real categorical entity) is allowed to intend death in response to certain evils whilst the individual is not.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. @Scott
    Your argument seems pretty sound but Jesus was also operating there under the covenant of the Mosaic Law and its interpretation and application to a specific case. You had a divine warrant in some cases to administer the death penalty. We are in the age of grace now and I think any number of circumstances can factor in to punishment and disciplinary practices.

  10. @Tony
    That sounds dangerously close to effectively schismatic behavior. The Pope is well within his rights here. Of course there is still plenty of room to argue that the teaching could be revisted on this specific point of application.

    1. Timo, I agree that it is extraordinary behavior. I don't it runs in any serious risk of being schismatic, though, for two reasons. First, because it doesn't have any direct bearing whatsoever on any sort of liturgical or sacramental union with the Pope - which is the FIRST meaning of "in communion with" the Pope. Secondly, I seriously doubt that either canon law or specific law demands that each and every bishop directly publish, or even directly participate in publishing, "the most recent revisions of the Catechims of the Catholic Church that the Pope has approved". I would be shocked if there is a direct mandate on any specific bishop that he MUST act to publish a revision on pain of direct disobedience to the Pope. And, even if there were such a mandate, the rather petty issue involved would make such an act one of disobedience rather than schism. The unity of the Church does not hang on whether the purely prudential judgment on how often currently the DP should be used is better expressed as "rare or not at all" versus "never". Such an issue could not be something that amounts to dividing the unity of the Church. How could it, when Cardinal Ratzinger explicitly taught that such a disagreement with the Pope is not a matter of sin against the teaching authority of the Church?

      So I don't think there is any real risk that a bishop saying "the pope can insert confusing and imprudent stuff into his document if he wishes, but I don't have to assist him in spreading that confusion" thereby runs on the edge of schism.

      But taking such a step would indeed be extraordinary; that's what these times call for.

  11. Dead criminals commit no more crimes. That's all most people who are for capital punishment care about these days. And the old deterrence thing was just a moralistic fad of the naive: irrelevant and street-stupid as well as false. People have shorter and shorter memories these days, especially criminals.

    Minimizing ethical risk in all the fallout from *not* killing people for certain crimes might help pro capital punishment arguments, although It's quite a challenge, sort of the obverse task from that required in arguing against abortion on this basis.

    But once all the human conceptions are connected to the internet and can use some kind of chat and have lawsuits file for them due to children's rights laws (how far back do children's rights go anyway? lol), I think it's fair to say that the only remaining issue will be these very late-stage post-natal abortions.

    Legally, it's difficult to counter the slippery-slope of government over a person who contains a person within themselves, and the fact that if you told a group of anti-abortionists that next door dozens of adults were being killed regularly, their reaction would be very different from what it is now, even though they say they believe that the same is being done with equal regularity at abortion clinics. So someone is not being on the level in glibly talking about murder.

    By the same token, people against capital punishment act differently against the same example.

    In both cases, the moral of the story is, if you find out people are being murdered, hang out near the place where it's taking place, and hold up a sign.

    It's that serious. And Dollar Tree clearly has the best deals on sign-making stuff (even the corrugated plastic sheets, black, white, and da-glo colors). And marker deals galore. Check out the new flashing LED "Magic Wand" too. I use them on my bike, front and rear, so why not to enhance my signs, bro? Word.

  12. There is a world of difference between not agreeing with a Papal decision, and, refusing submission of intellect and will to Papal teaching, to the point of refusing to teach it to the Faithful committed to one’s pastoral care. All the Faithful have a grave duty to conform themselves to the authentic teaching of the CC, of which the Pope, as Successor of St Peter, is the supreme earthly guardian and expositor.

    But the Faithful cannot conform themselves to Papal teaching, if the bishops, as the rightful pastors of the Faithful in their dioceses, do not themselves teach that teaching. It is part of the episcopal office to teach the Faith, as well as to rule and to sanctify, all in union with the Pope. Bishops who refuse to do this, commit a very great sin.

    That it may be difficult, and cause great suffering, to accept Papal or other teaching, is not a sufficient reason not to do it. Mortification of the intellect is part of self-denial, and self-denial, to the point of dying to self, is part of the Teaching of Christ in the Gospels.

    Obedience in intellectual matters can be very difficult & painful, but painful or not, none of us is excused from it. Obedience to His Father in Heaven took Christ to the Cross - & He draws His People to Him by the same path.

    An obedience to Papal authority (or any other Church authority) that makes no demands of Christians, is a pretty weak obedience: if it is at all radical, it is going to require conversion of hearts and minds, which is likely (to say the least) to involve change of ideas. Obedience requires submission to the will of others, and refusal to cling to one’s own will. It makes people vulnerable. Which exposes them to being hurt. But that is no reason not to be obedient. That it can be so difficult and painful, is a clear hint at its very great value.

    That it can be difficult to conform oneself to Papal teaching, is a very powerful reason to conform oneself to it.

    Do we, or do we not, believe that God gives sufficient grace to Christians to enable them to do what He requires of them ? If He requires us to conform ourselves to Papal teaching, then we can have good hope, that if we desire and seek the grace we need to enable us to do so, we shall indeed receive it. God is always in full charge of all His Church and of all of her life, no matter what appearances may say.