Sunday, April 3, 2011

Deadly unserious

Catholic bishops are obliged to convey the authentic teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals.  The modern, secular, liberal world utterly despises that teaching, and its hostility has only increased in the decades since the Fathers of Vatican II hoped that some common ground might be found on the basis of which the Church and the world could cooperate.  A bishop can deal with this situation in one of two ways.  He can damn the torpedoes and press on at full speed, Athanasius contra mundum.   Or he can temporize.  We have seen how the temporizing strategy played out during last year’s debate over health care.  It is manifest in many other areas too, such as the debate over capital punishment, as current events in Illinois and Arizona illustrate.

Here’s how the temporizing approach works.  Where the liberal or secularist finds Catholic teaching hopelessly “reactionary,” the temporizing churchman will either keep silent about it or qualify it to the point of blunting or even neutralizing its force.  Hence he will, for example, say nothing at all about contraception.  Homosexuality and abortion he cannot keep silent about, because they are matters of current political controversy.  Regarding homosexuality, then, he will issue a vague statement to the effect that the Church believes that we are all called to honor the Creator’s plan for sex and marriage.  If he can’t avoid doing so, he will acknowledge that this entails that homosexual activity is immoral; but he will also, and almost before he has finished uttering it, proceed to bury this acknowledgment under a mountain of verbiage about the respect, sensitivity, compassion, and understanding owed homosexual persons, about the evils of discrimination, etc.  Regarding abortion, the temporizing bishop will speak vaguely of “promoting a culture of life” and emphasize the compassion owed women who find themselves “in difficult circumstances” – rather than, say, calling attention to the unique depravity of willfully murdering your own flesh and blood for the sake of a hassle-free orgasm.  No matter how wicked the practice or policy and no matter how shrill and dishonest the propaganda of its defenders, the temporizing bishop will respond in the mildest fashion and will attribute only the best motives to the other side.  As George Carlin might have put it, whereas the great churchmen of the past were football players, the modern, temporizing bishop prefers baseball.  Or to switch metaphors, he brings a bean bag to a gunfight. 

Or at least he does so where, again, the Church’s teaching seems “reactionary.”  Where it seems (or can be made to seem) “progressive,” the temporizing churchman suddenly turns into Knute Rockne, or Gary Cooper in High Noon.   He will issue bold statements on immigration, health care, or capital punishment, and will emphasize these purportedly “liberal friendly” issues to the point of exaggerating their significance relative to the Church’s more “reactionary” teachings.  And he will see common ground between Catholicism and liberalism where in fact there is no common ground – sometimes in a manner that seriously distorts what the Church actually teaches.  Again, last year’s health care debate provides an illustration: The statements made at the time by the USCCB gave the false impression that, apart from federal funding of abortion, Catholic teaching would favor the passage of President’s health care bill, or something like it.  But as I noted at the time, the fact is that while Catholic social teaching unambiguously rejects the dogmatic laissez-faire position of extreme libertarianism, it is at the level of general principle nevertheless much closer to the “conservative” end of the political spectrum than to the “liberal” end – insisting, on grounds of justice, on decentralized and private solutions wherever possible, and leaving matters of concrete policy for competent laymen to decide rather than imposing any particular program.

Something similar can be said of Catholic teaching about capital punishment, though you would never guess it from the statements made by some churchmen.  To be sure, the Church firmly rejects the bloodthirsty “hang ‘em high” attitude one finds among some right-wingers.  But she has also firmly and consistently rejected the claim that the death penalty is inherently unjust.  As we saw in a previous post, the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is grounded in natural law and in the infallible moral teaching of scripture, and is the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church from her foundation down to the present day.  It was reaffirmed even by Pope John Paul II, who was probably the most prominent churchmen ever to oppose the death penalty.  Indeed, the late Pope even stopped short of claiming that capital punishment was never justifiable in practice, holding only that cases where it might be called for are “very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

The significance of this refusal of the Church to embrace doctrinaire abolitionism cannot be overstated, for it puts the Church fundamentally at odds with liberalism at the level of principle, whatever commonalities there might be between some bishops and some liberal politicians at the level of policy.  And it shows how poorly thought-out and misleading are the statements sometimes made on this subject by Catholic bishops, including the recent statements cited above.  The Arizona bishops assert that capital punishment is “state-sanctioned vengeance that is not in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” that “when other means are available to keep society safe from dangerous criminals [capital punishment] denies the intrinsic dignity and sanctity of human life,” and that it “is actually a contribution to a culture of death.”  But these statements are, from the point of view of the actual teaching of the Church, either false or in need of serious qualification.  As with the bishops’ statements on health care, crucial but ambiguous terms are left undefined, nuances in Catholic teaching are ignored, and apparent inconsistencies are unresolved. 

Take the assertion that capital punishment amounts to “state-sanctioned vengeance that is not in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  Is St. Paul speaking at odds with the Gospel when under divine inspiration he tells us in the epistle to the Romans that the state “bears not the sword in vain” and acts as a “minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath on him that does evil”?  The answer, of course, is No, and the reason is clear from the Church’s traditional teaching.  As Cardinal Roberti’s Dictionary of Moral Theology tells us, the term “vengeance” has both a broad and a narrow sense.  In the broad sense of the term, vengeance is “the infliction of physical punishment upon someone as retribution for injury caused to another.”  And in this sense, vengeance “if done for good and just motives, e.g., love of justice, or preservation of the juridico-social order, or the correction of an evildoer, by a competent authority, according to laws … of itself, is a good act.”  This is the sort of “revenge” or “vengeance” that St. Paul is endorsing in Romans and that the Church herself has always endorsed precisely because it is necessary to maintain a just social order.  For it is this sort of “vengeance” that the state is engaged in not only when executing criminals, but in inflicting any other punishment – in incarcerating evildoers, levying fines, and so forth. 

Of course, there is also a narrower and objectionable sense of “vengeance.”  In this sense, Roberti’s Dictionary tells us, vengeance is punishment that is “inflicted out of an ill-feeling toward one who has offended, ill-treated or caused suffering to another, or simply to satisfy one’s ill feeling toward his enemy, or for the pleasure of payment in kind.”  It is this sort of vengeance that is contrary to Christian charity, “an evil act” and “a sin.”  But there is no more reason to think that capital punishment is especially linked to “vengeance” in this objectionable sense than there is to think that incarceration or the levying of fines is linked to it.

The Arizona bishops’ statement rests, then, on a fallacy of equivocation.  Capital punishment is indeed “state-sanctioned vengeance” in the first sense of “vengeance,” but in that sense it is not contrary to “the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  “Vengeance” in the second sense is contrary to the Gospel, but capital punishment is not, or need not be, “vengeance” in that sense.

But isn’t “vengeance” even in the first sense ruled out by John Paul’s II teaching – cited by the Arizona bishops – to the effect that “capital punishment should be limited only to extremely rare situations where it is necessary to defend society”?  For doesn’t that teaching entail that the Church’s “current” position is that only “defense” – rather than punishment or retributive justice – can legitimately motivate a resort to capital punishment?

The answer is that John Paul II’s teaching does not entail that at all; in fact it entails just the opposite.  For neither the late Pope nor any other orthodox Catholic moralist would ever advocate executing an innocent person, or someone guilty of only a relatively minor offense, in the name of “defending society.”  They would never say, for example, that teenagers guilty of minor acts of vandalism should be summarily shot in circumstances where there are no prisons to hold them.  The reason is obvious: Teenage vandals have done nothing to deserve the death penalty, whereas murderers haveThat is why the latter might at least in principle be executed in the interests of “defending society,” while the former may not be.  Far from pointing away from the Church’s traditional teaching that capital punishment can be merited on grounds of retributive justice, then, the late Pope’s position implicitly reinforces that traditional teaching.

One must also be careful in interpreting the claim that “defense” alone can justify capital punishment.  Both in this context and when discussing just war theory, those inclined toward a more “liberal” position typically presuppose an arbitrarily narrow construal of what counts as a “defensive” action.  In particular, they appear to assume that lethal force can only ever be deployed in direct response to some immediate attack – when an enemy army is actually pouring over the border, say, or when a captured murderer could at any moment break his guard’s neck and escape.  But moral theologians have traditionally used “defense” to cover a much wider range of actions.  For instance, older manuals of ethics and moral theology (such as Fagothey’s Right and Reason) allow that a “punitive war” carried out against a “gangster nation” can in principle count as “defensive,” especially insofar as this would help to preserve “right order and the future peace of the world.”  (I have discussed this issue at length in a series of posts on just war – here, here, and here – at the old Right Reason blog.) 

By the same token, capital punishment would surely be justifiable in principle as a way of “defending society” if it has significant deterrence value.  Of course, whether it really does have such value is a matter of controversy.  But it is also an empirical matter concerning which bishops have no special competence, and about which Catholics might reasonably disagree.  (This is no doubt why then-Cardinal Ratzinger affirmed in 2004 that faithful Catholics could in principle “be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment” and that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty.”)

For these reasons, it simply will not do glibly to assert that capital punishment under modern conditions “denies the intrinsic dignity and sanctity of human life” and “promotes a culture of death.”  Does putting criminals in prison “deny the dignity of human free will” or “promote a culture of slavery”?  Does levying fines on them violate the right to private property or “promote a culture of theft”?  Obviously not, and the reason is that a criminal can, by virtue of his actions, forfeit his right to liberty and to his property.  But in the same way, he can “deprive himself of his own right to life” (as Pope Pius XII put it).  That does not mean that the state should always exercise its right to take his life.  But it does entail that capital punishment cannot possibly be intrinsically contrary to “the sanctity of human life” or conducive to a “culture of death.”  If it were, then the Church would not and could not teach that capital punishment can at least in principle be legitimate.

Why, then, does the Church “currently” take a more negative view of capital punishment than she has in the past?  The answer is that she does not do so, at least not at the level of principle.  And even at the practical level, the novelty of John Paul II’s teaching has been exaggerated both by his critics and by some of his admirers.  For one can find similar views expressed earlier in the Catholic theological tradition, including in the supposedly more “reactionary” moralists of the Neo-Scholastic pre-Vatican II period.  Consider Volume 1 of the 1925 edition of Fr. Thomas Slater’s A Manual of Moral Theology, which tells us, on the one hand, that:

The right of the State to punish criminals with the infliction of death is either expressly conceded or clearly supposed in Holy Scripture.  It is sufficiently evident, too, from natural reason…

while nevertheless affirming, on the other hand, that:

If the time should ever come when the infliction of less severe penalties will suffice to punish crime and safeguard life and property, then capital punishment should be abolished, but that time does not seem to be at hand yet. (p. 196)

Or consider the 1921 edition of Spirago and Clarke’s The Catechism Explained, which, after affirming that “the officers of justice are warranted in punishing evil-doers with death,” emphasizes that this punishment should be inflicted “only… when the welfare of society demands it” (p. 388) and insists that:

It is an error to suppose that the Church advocates capital punishment on the principle of retaliation; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth… The Church does not like to see blood shed, she desires that every sinner should have time to amend.  She permits, but does not approve capital punishment. (p. 389)

This particular passage indicates that the reason for a more lenient treatment of those guilty of the most serious crimes has to do not with justice, but with mercy – with giving “every sinner… time to amend.”  As the 2005 Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, the Church prefers when possible that punishment “do[es] not remove definitively from the guilty party the possibility of reforming himself.”

This is the deep reason why the Church’s position can never be assimilated to that of the liberal secularist opponent of capital punishment.  In fact the two positions are diametrically opposed.  The Church insists that it is in principle just to execute a murderer, because such a person has forfeited his right to life and done something worthy of death.  The Church’s appeal is rather to mercy, for the murderer has also merited a punishment far worse than death – eternal damnation – and the Church hopes that the murderer might still avoid this punishment if given time to repent.  The liberal secularist, by contrast, insists that capital punishment is unjust, on the grounds that no one ever forfeits his right to life and that no one is deserving of execution.  The liberal does not fundamentally appeal to mercy, then, because in the legal context, one typically shows mercy precisely by refraining from inflicting a punishment that is deserved.  The liberal secularist also denies that there is any afterlife in which we are to be punished or rewarded, and objects to capital punishment in part precisely for this reason.  In short, the Church’s recommendation against capital punishment is not absolute, and presupposes that we have a supernatural end; the liberal secularist’s abolitionism is absolute, and presupposes that we do not have a supernatural end.  The liberal secularist cares only about this life.  The Church cares primarily about the next life.  (On this point, see this 2007 Anthony McCarthy piece from Touchstone.)

Any statement of Catholic teaching that does not make these differences crystal clear is simply not theologically serious.  For the inescapable fact is that the contemporary Magisterium of the Church, two millennia of tradition, and the infallible moral teaching of scripture all affirm the legitimacy in principle of the death penalty. It would be foolish and intellectually dishonest to pretend that this is a minor point, which can safely be ignored for practical purposes.  The affirmation exists for a reason, and commands our attention.  It teaches us something important about the nature of justice, about the gravity of certain crimes, and about the relative insignificance of this life compared to the next.  To cite only those scriptural passages or ecclesiastical documents which emphasize mercy while minimizing or ignoring those which emphasize the legitimacy of the death penalty is to distort the significance of the former.

My own view is that when every aspect of Catholic teaching is carefully considered, it should lead even those Catholics who are skeptical about capital punishment to oppose a thoroughgoing abolitionist position.  For to take the death penalty off the books entirely would “send the message” that the liberal secularist approach to the issue is correct, and as we have seen, no Catholic can possibly endorse that approach.  Better to maintain capital punishment as an option in principle, then, even if its actual application is “very rare, if not nonexistent.”  And if it does indeed have significant deterrent value – a position that a Catholic has a right to hold if he believes the evidence supports it – then its application arguably should not be rare.

In any event, it seems to me that a summary of the Church’s teaching that takes every aspect of it into account might look something like this:

The Catholic Church teaches that those guilty of the most serious crimes, such as murder, have forfeited their right to life and thus merit the penalty of death.  For this reason, lawful authorities can in principle justly inflict this penalty on such criminals in circumstances where following such a policy is the best way of protecting society against them.  However, the Church also fervently desires that every sinner have an opportunity to repent and thereby to avoid eternal damnation while he still has a chance to do so.  She also teaches forgiveness and mercy, and insists that no punishment ever be inflicted in a spirit of vengeance.  Accordingly, the Church maintains that it is more in harmony with the special dignity entailed by the supernatural end to which we have been called that justice be tempered with mercy, and that the death penalty not be inflicted when non-lethal means are sufficient to protect society.  Exactly when such means are in fact sufficient is a prudential matter for competent lawful authorities to determine, and about which Catholics can legitimately disagree.  They must be careful to keep all aspects of the Church’s teaching in mind as they form their thinking on this subject.

But I do not expect to hear such a statement any time soon.  Athanasius has, alas, been dead for some time.


  1. The material on this blog should be published. It's very high quality. Thanks for not writting crap and wasting the time of your readers.

  2. Thanks for not writting crap and wasting the time of your readers.

    Now that's what I call a good review! :)

  3. Ed, as usual I agree with almost every point you made here. Is there, in your opinion, a situation where we would be called on to confront our bishop and correct him on this topic?

    And if it does indeed have significant deterrent value – a position that a Catholic has a right to hold if he believes the evidence supports it – then its application arguably should not be rare.

    This might not be the most felicitous construction. This appears to raise deterrence as a secondary end of punishment that so far outweighs all other secondary ends as to push them into insignificance. I tend to think that because all of the secondary ends are inherently rooted to the primary end of punishment - justice - it would be odd if not positively crazy to think that on a regular basis we could achieve any of the secondary ends without usually attempting to fulfill the primary end. If we want to be successful in bringing about the reformation of the criminal, we better be serious about applying the just proportionate punishment, which is integral to the reformative process. If we want to be serious about crafting a society where the citizens are just in their hearts and not merely in their actions, we better be serious about normatively using proportionate punishments that manifest justice, and doing so will be a better deterrent than any other model of penal system.

    I would love it if we imposed a modification of the penal system such that we almost always applied a proportionate punishment, EXCEPT that we would apply merciful reductions in the penalty when some citizen stepped forward and offered to suffer part of the penalty on behalf of the offender. At that point, we can just say to all of the bleeding hearts clamoring for mercy: put your money where your mouth is. Put up or...

  4. As one who was, at one time, opposed in principle to capital punishment, I have to say I agree with just about every word of this blog. Today, my position would be exactly that of the Catholic Church as outlined in Edward's blog; nevertheless, I should point out that while I no longer oppose capital punishment in principle, I would still vote against it if it were put to me in a referendum. There are two reasons: one is because I simply don't trust coppers; the other is because society is too fragmented. As to the first, how many times has it happened that the investigating officer has taken a quick look around the crime scene and declared, 'well, I think we all know who did this, so it's not an injustice if we were to "help" the system convict the "right" man'? And that's just the worst extremity of the problem. I wonder how many innocent men are sitting on death row today who were convicted because they were the wrong colour, the wrong class, or because their faces just didn't somehow fit, even without the activities of crooked police officers. If you accept captital punishment, unfortunately you must also accept the price of innocent life being extinguished for some greater social good.

    The second reason I oppose it is because it is theatre, and theatre only works were the conventions of the play are accepted by the audience. In this case, they are not. The audience is the public, and the public is too divided on the question for the final act of the play (the execution) to be accepted as the end of the drama. For this reason there is no 'closure' in the play and no social good is served.

    All that said, however, my reasons are practical rather than principled. If you could guarantee to get the right person every time and have his or her execution serve a greater social good, I would say, go ahead. I just don't think you can guarantee it.

  5. I think it is C. S. Lewis whose commentary on capital punishment is best here. Too long to quote, but go to:


  6. If the time should ever come when the infliction of less severe penalties will suffice to punish crime and safeguard life and property, then capital punishment should be abolished, but that time does not seem to be at hand yet.

    Considering the number of countries that have functioned successfully without capital punishment, it would seem the time is at hand.

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  8. I think that abolishing the death penalty has a corrupting effect on the societies who give it up. In effect, this denies the enormity of certain kinds of crimes and diminishes the right of a civil society to serious moral outrage.

    As an example of this liberal mindset, see the following:

    Article 110 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court stipulates that for the gravest forms of crimes (e.g., war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide), a prisoner ought to serve two thirds of a fixed sentence, or 25 years in the case of life imprisonment. After this period, the court shall then review the sentence to determine whether it should be reduced.

    Even for the most monstrous of crimes, this is the worst that a self-castrated Europe can muster.

    I'm with CS Lewis.

  9. The death penalty is reasonable. I've thought of banishment as an alternative. An island of criminals apart from the world, left to their own devices without any assistance from civilization.

  10. mpresley said...

    The death penalty is reasonable. I've thought of banishment as an alternative. An island of criminals apart from the world, left to their own devices without any assistance from civilization."

    Socrates would rather be dead than cut off or out.

    And modern liberals would say it is inhumane to treat a damaged person - for the therapeutic mindset stipulates all such persons as damaged and needy - in that way.

    So, you bring up an especially interesting [to me] point. One that no doubt many libertarian leaning folks have considered as an alternative to capital punishment: Just be rid of them; and forget punishment as a primary motivation. The genuine practicalities of keeping such persons corralled aside: A bag of seeds, a hoe, South Georgia Island, and goodbye.

    There are of course different rationale given for inflicting the death penalty. And permanently banishing or expelling the perpetrator from any possibility of future associative relationships with the offended parties, may only meet some of those goals.

    I think this particular thought-problem is also probably pretty useful for drawing out the real objections of those who, from the politically progressive side, object to the death penalty.

    One soon discovers that for some such persons, the fate of expulsion - that of being denied access forevermore to those they have offended or wish to continue offending - along with the concomitant implication of their being thereafter forced to associate with a narrow band of persons just like the offenders themselves, is a considered by some a fate worse than death.

    Kind of a hell on earth ...

  11. It is an idea that a philosophy professor once raised in class, many years ago as he grappled with the morals of execution. I personally think that banishment would be worse than death, but I'm not a murderer.

  12. Here in Illinois, the estimate of the false convictions on death row was about 4 out of 9. However, let's say that was actually 1 out of 20 instead. Any discussion of the position of natural law which doews not take into account that innocent people get wrongly executed is itself not particularly serious. I would look forward to your post on how false convictions play a part in determining the propriety of capital punishment.

  13. Can Ed or someone who has read a lot of his stuff recommend reading for myself in regards to why "dogmatic laissez-faire position of extreme libertarianism" is wrong? I guess I want to know the reasons that Ed "converted" from libertarianism.

    I would classify my political position as something close to this kind of libertarianism, but also in an intuitive way know that there must be something wrong with it, and don't really want to believe in it except I lack the reasons to leave it behind.

    Solomons Chariot

  14. One Brow, how accurate were those stats? Were they cherry picked 'activist' based stats? Secondly, yes perhaps there is rot in the system (corruption, incompetence, malice etc.) but that does not mean that a discussion of natural law cannot be serious. Everything one does is best effort, eg. an airline will try their best to make sure that an airliner is fit to fly but airliners crash nethertheless and usually it's because of something which was missed e.g. welding not done up to spec or incorrect screw size used in pilot's window. National Corporation of Japan pursued a 'quest for zero defect' in the 80s but they never achieved it.

  15. One Brow, a discussion of the natural law aspect of punishment, and its reflection in one area, capital punishment, cannot be called "unserious" merely because we have not (yet) also talked about false positives in conviction rates. I grant you that a thorough and total discussion of punishment (and not just capital punishment) would have to entail such a discussion, but it is impossible to do that total discussion all at once, you have to focus on one aspect at a time, in its proper order.

    False conviction rates are not a problem solely for the death penalty cases. It is a serious concern for other cases also. If we sentence a man to death, and execute him, and then it turns out that he was innocent, can we give him back his life? Of course not. If we sentence a man to life in prison, he spends 30 years there, and then we find out he was innocent, then what? Can we give him back his 30 years, his wife and the family he and his wife would have had? Can we give him back his profession? Can we restore to him all the friends and acquaintances who have now moved on? Of course not.

    Even more to the point, if a careful review of the case file does not reveal anything that stands out as a specific defect in the process, we just made a truly accidental error, then does society owe the man anything like monetary damages for the erroneous imprisonment? No, of course not. The failure of humans acting in their best honest effort to achieve accuracy does not imply that they are morally responsible for the errors that happen in spite of their best efforts.

    A proper attitude about the state being an instrument of authority under God means that we must accept that we are not the ultimate guarantors of pristine, picture perfect lives for our citizens. Accidents, mistakes, inadvertent errors are all under God's providence. We are responsible for doing the best we can, not for doing perfectly.

    If it were necessary to be certain of a 100% accuracy rate in convictions to impose a penalty, then of course we would have to abandon the penal system altogether, and there would be no such thing as law in practice. Denying that, then, means that a measurable false positive rate does not constitute a conclusive basis to refrain from imposing punishments. And there is no principle that puts capital punishment apart from others with this result.

    We ought to strive mightily to be correct in serious cases, and this might mean that we should craft new methods: it is not impossible that jury trials by sheer non-trained civilians is unsupportable in this matter, for example. That's a matter for political wisdom and judgment. But that's not a matter of principle: as long as we think a jury trial constitutes the best we can do, then we should continue to DO the best we can do to achieve justice. We should not give up trying to achieve justice because we sometimes fail.

  16. Anonymous said...
    One Brow, how accurate were those stats?

    They were accepted by the previous and current governor. I have not done details research into the individual cases.

    Secondly, yes perhaps there is rot in the system (corruption, incompetence, malice etc.) but that does not mean that a discussion of natural law cannot be serious.

    The discussion can be serious, when it also accounts for the results of such incompetence and malice in its analysis. I'm not opposed to the death penalty in the abstract, but in this country its use is too unreliable and unfair.

    Everything one does is best effort, eg. an airline will try their best to ...

    Airlines don't have immunity if they deliberately ignore safety. Most prosecutors have criminal and civil immunity for malfeasance.

    But that analogy is a different issue. Regardless of reason, the imposition of the death penaltyin the United States means innocent people will die. I don't thihnk you can have a serious discussion on the morality of the death penalty without weighing that inevitability.

  17. Ed, you have expressed the correct interpretation of John Paul II's statements on capital punishment. Your clarification of the issue is very helpful indeed.

  18. mpresley said...

    " It is an idea that a philosophy professor once raised in class, many years ago as he grappled with the morals of execution. I personally think that banishment would be worse than death, but I'm not a murderer."

    Many ordinary people, and probably even some sociopaths who view others as mere resources or the means of self-gratification, likely would too.

    But then the angle we [me I guess] are mooting in response to your banishment idea, was not based on a notion of justice, retributive or otherwise, as considered by Mr. Feser.

    But rather, the idea of simply putting the capital offender permanently out of the way, without resorting to man-killing, or the presumable expense and trouble attendant with perpetual incarceration.

    As a practical matter I don't know where you actually could put them that would be beyond the potential reach of either criminal associates, or determined Quakers in row boats.

  19. "The Catholic Church teaches that those guilty of the most serious crimes, such as murder, have forfeited their right to life."

    Why do you put it in terms of a "right"? Aquinas (as far as I remember) never mentions rights in his discussion of capital punishment; he argues from the common good.

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  21. "I guess I want to know the reasons that Ed "converted" from libertarianism."

    Ditto. I find conservatism appealing, but it seems a tough case to make.

  22. I have struggled to square the teaching of JP2 in Evangelium Vitae with Catholic tradition. I don't think it is as simple as you put it. I have concluded that the key to reconciling EV is development in the Church's teaching about Christians and the modern secular state. I think JP2's argument can be summarized as follows: 1)Christians have a duty to promote the culture of life outside the bounds of the institutional church 2) the death penalty undermines the culture of life 3) viable alternatives to the death penalty to protect society exist and therefore 4)the application of the death penalty is rarely if ever justifiable. Number 1 seems to be the innovation as it addresses the relationship of Christians to the state in a world where a Christian state does not exist, is not attainable and perhaps is undesirable. Number 2 is a prudential judgment and as such is not binding on the faithful unless the Magisterium clearly makes it binding. Number 3 seems to be an empirical statement that to me seems questionable. Number 4 is a logical conclusion from premises that are arguable. None of this argument addresses the right of the state to execute or limits it in any way.

  23. Dr. Feser, I hate to be off topic but I was just wondering if you've seen the following recently-published book by Ric Machuga: Life, the Universe, and Everything: An Aristotelian Philosophy for a Scientific Age, and, if so, what your thoughts are concerning it.

  24. This is a great blog post. I am considering Catholicism, and the topic of capital punishment has been on my mind.

    Here is a suggestion that I hope Ed and/or his commenters take to heart: you guys seem to like to contrast yourselves with atheists, secularists, and liberals, but why not criticize your fellow theists that make you look bad? I know this blog has a history of going after ID'ers, but that is not what I mean. What I mean are people like the Westboro Baptist Church. It may seem so obvious to you that you are so different from them, but for the irreligious, it is not so obvious. In fact, when they think of Christians, especially American Christians, they think of the WBC.

    Now, imagine writers like Feser drawing from the richness of Catholicism to bear upon the message and tactics of the WBC - that is a contrast worth making, don't you think?

    Anyway, the WBC is an easy example. But I am also thinking of Islam. If you guys really are serious about belief in God, then it should be imperative that you go after these rascals that commit shenanigans because of a misunderstanding of God. I would think it far more important than go after atheists, secularists, and liberals.


  25. Anonymous, Ed DOES go after those sorts, both here, and at another website that he participates in, W4. Big time on Islam, not quite so much on Westboro Baptist, but then they are small potatoes. Also, to some extent, at hypocritical conservatives and hypocritical Catholics.

  26. Charles, I think that number 2 is not merely a prudential judgment call that can be mistaken, it has a character as to be inherently mis-aligned: it seems directly opposed to Genesis 9:6. God said: "Whosoever shall shed man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for man was made to the image of God"

    God seems to be testifying that the death penalty UPHOLDS the sanctity of life. I have yet to hear a single argument from a Church authority that attempts in any way to disparage that conclusion. Plenty that ignore it, none that take it head on and try to dismantle it.

  27. Hey, Tony, what's "W4?"

  28. Hey Roy IV,

    I haven't read this yet, and I don't know if it will help, but the title is promising!

  29. Thanks, Solomon's! I'll check it out.

  30. @Anon: "W4," or "What's Wrong with the World," is a conservative blog to wich Dr. Feser contributes. It's on his blogroll, if you want to check it out.

  31. For six years, I taught Philosophy and Religious studies classes full-time in a maximum security prison, the prison where executions for that state were in fact carried out. My students had a lot to say and a number of questions about capital punishment, and we discussed it thematically at times -- e.g. as part of ethics classes -- or when the issue came up. I thought I might contribute to this excellent post and interesting commentary conversation what some of their thoughts were.

    I understand from the start that my experience -- and the voices I remember -- might well be unrepresentative. But better to have at least that than to pretend to argue on their parts and behalf. One of the open secrets about prison life and public awareness is this: like so many others, prisoners are aware of the effects of their words on their audience, and often tell people what they so evidently want to hear. So anti-capital punishment liberal volunteers get "yes, it is terrible, we're all victims, so many of us are innocent. . ." I tend to distrust reporters' accounts of prisoner's sentiments as well, since I know from my own conversations with the guys I taught not only that many prisoners play a type for them, and give them the "information" they think they want, but that even when prisoners are candid, editing often skews the picture (one of my best students, on MSNBC Lockup, was intensely dissatisfied with how his piece turned out).

    What I found in conversations was that what progressively would call a "reactionary" -- but I would say realistic, commonsensical, and traditional -- mindset was most common on capital punishment. Most of the prisoners were not happy with particular conditions of the prison and the DOC, but saw the system as just overall -- and looking at the guy next to them, or often looking inside or at their past, needed. And, capital punishment was part of the state's spectrum of legitimate responses. They were much less interested in esoteric statistical arguments about deterrence and much more by a justice-centered approach to the matter.

    So I don't run out of space, I'll just mention two more specific discussions. When I first arrived at that prison, three inmates on Death Row coordinated a complex plan and killed a fourth, and the moral status of that provoked excellent -- because insightful and well-argued -- discussion afterwards. I also had students every semester who raised the canard: how can you be for capital punishment when you're against abortion -- and nearly every time, I could allow other students in the class to articulate excellent answers to that question.

  32. oops, should be "progressives," not "progressively"

  33. By the same token, capital punishment would surely be justifiable in principle as a way of “defending society” if it has significant deterrence value. Of course, whether it really does have such value is a matter of controversy.

    But it does have a deterrence value -- the criminal who is executed will never commit a crime again, which is more than one can say about criminals who are imprisoned (even if for "life" - they can still engage in acts of violence against guards and fellow prisoners).

  34. If the time should ever come when the infliction of less severe penalties will suffice to punish crime and safeguard life and property, then capital punishment should be abolished, but that time does not seem to be at hand yet.

    How does one square this paragraph with the teaching of the Roman Catechism that "[t]he just use of this power [of execution], far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder"? It's not clear how one might say that the capital punishment might be abolished on the one hand, but then say that it is an act of obedience to a commandment of the Decalogue on the other.

  35. Since it is still, when this thread is all of four years old, physically possible to reply, I'm assuming it is morally allowable to do so - so here goes:

    "It's not clear how one might say that the capital punishment might be abolished on the one hand, but then say that it is an act of obedience to a commandment of the Decalogue on the other."

    ## A possible solution might be, to say that, although the availability & use of the DP are both goods, the abolition of the DP would be - or, in principle, is - an even greater good.

    Such a solution would need to be properly "worked up": the goods served by the abolition of the DP, by the use of it, and by the having it available, would need to be articulated, & so would the grounds of them - but such an argument could be made.

    The question is one of doctrinal development, Biblical exegesis, & traditional teaching; and involves taking a position on (for example) whether Catholic teaching on (in this case) the DP is a criterion for judging that which was previous to it; or whether the older teaching is a criterion for that which came after it.

    There is also the strictly Christian issue of whether, no matter how doctrinally irreproachable the Catholic teaching on the DP may be, it reflects the Will of Christ as clearly as it ought to. A purely intellectual solution to the question of those two quotations is not enough; a fully Christian solution has to satisfy the whole of man, not the intellect alone.