Saturday, March 25, 2017

Mark Shea’s misrepresentation of Catholic teaching on capital punishment

Among the outrageous calumnies that Mark Shea has flung at my co-author Joe Bessette and me is the accusation that we are “dissenters” from binding Catholic doctrine, on all fours with Catholics who dissent from Church teaching on abortion and euthanasia.  He mocks Catholics who oppose the latter but not capital punishment, accusing them of inconsistency and bad faith.  In his unhinged recent Facebook rant he repeatedly asserts that Joe and I “reject the teaching of the Magisterium,” that we “argue that the Magisterium is wrong,” that we are in the business of “fighting,” “ignoring,” “battling,” and “rebutting” the Magisterium.
For Catholics like Joe and I who are in fact intent precisely on upholding and following the binding teaching of the Magisterium – which, as we are well aware, includes more than just those doctrines taught infallibly – these are fighting words.  They are also inconsistent with what the Church actually teaches about the duty of Catholics vis-à-vis capital punishment.  It is Shea, and not Joe and I, who is out of step with the Church.  Shea has every right to oppose capital punishment and to urge his fellow Catholics to do likewise.  But he has no right to accuse those who disagree with him of being “dissenters,” for the Church herself allows Catholics freely to debate and disagree about this particular issue.  Joe and I demonstrate this conclusively in our forthcoming book.  Among the evidence for this claim – by no means the only evidence, but certainly decisive pieces of evidence – are some clarifications issued just over a decade ago by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Archbishop William Levada.

I have cited these texts several times now in my exchanges with Shea.  He has repeatedly ignored them.  A reader of Shea’s who has been engaging him at his Facebook page has asked Shea to respond to the Ratzinger and Levada texts.  While Shea has responded to this reader’s other queries, he is curiously silent about this one.  The reason is obvious.  Shea does not answer because he cannot.  Let’s take a look at these texts and see what Shea is so afraid of.

In 2004, Cardinal Ratzinger, writing in his capacity as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, produced a memorandum titled “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles.”  The memo was written in an election year during which there was much discussion about whether Catholic politicians who support abortion ought to be denied Holy Communion, whether Catholics who support capital punishment or the Iraq war were also to be counted as dissenters from Church teaching, etc.  Ratzinger’s aim was to clarify precisely what the Church requires of Catholics vis-à-vis these “hot button” issues.  As the Church’s chief doctrinal officer – who had the full confidence of Pope John Paul II and was later to become pope himself – Ratzinger was in the ideal position to know and had authority to pronounce on the matter.  Here is what he said:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.  For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.  While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia

Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist.

End quote.  Now, Ratzinger makes several points in this passage, and they are all devastating to Shea’s position.  First, and contrary to Shea’s charge of inconsistency and bad faith, Ratzinger says that capital punishment is not to be lumped in with abortion and euthanasia.  How great is the difference?  This great: You can be barred from Holy Communion for supporting abortion and euthanasia, but not for supporting capital punishment.  Indeed, a Catholic could even be “at odds with” the pope on the subject of capital punishment – pretty strong language – and still be worthy to receive Holy Communion, whereas dissent from papal teaching on abortion and euthanasia is disqualifying and absolutely impermissible. 

Now, Ratzinger could not have said this if it were mortally sinful to disagree with papal opposition to capital punishment.  And he could not have said that disagreement is “legitimate” if it were even venially sinful to disagree, since even venial sin cannot be “legitimate.”  The only possible conclusion that can be drawn from this is that Catholics owe the pope’s opposition to capital punishment only respectful consideration, not assent.  It could not be clearer that there is no inconsistency whatsoever in the thinking of Catholics who oppose abortion and euthanasia but not capital punishment, and that Catholics have the right to support the latter.

Also in 2004, Archbishop Levada – who would later succeed Ratzinger as head of the CDF – issued a document titled “Theological Reflections on Catholics in Political Life and the Reception of Holy Communion.”  It had the same aim as Cardinal Ratzinger’s memo, and (as you will see if you click on the link) it can be found at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in the section of the website devoted to setting out what the Church requires of Catholics vis-à-vis political matters.  Here is what the archbishop wrote, in language that partially parallels Ratzinger’s:

Catholic social teaching covers a broad range of important issues.  But among these the teaching on abortion holds a unique place.  Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.  For example, if a Catholic were to disagree with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not with regard to abortion and euthanasia

A Catholic, to be in full communion with the faith of the Church, must accept this teaching about the evil of abortion and euthanasia…

[T]he fear that saying nothing in the face of a long-term public refusal to adhere to the teachings of Christ proclaimed by his Church would convince a bishop that, in order to avoid scandal - positions of Catholic politicians that might lead members of his flock into similar patterns of sinful behavior - he must publicly reprove the person who persists in such behavior by imposing a penalty such as the prohibition to receive Holy Communion. Canon 915 says that those "who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion”…

In the case of persons who do not accept some teaching of the faith that has been definitively (infallibly) taught… their rejection of such a truth (e.g. the evil of abortion) would affect and diminish their full communion with the faith and life of the Church.

End quote.  Note that Levada repeats Ratzinger’s point that Catholics can “disagree” with the pope on the subject of capital punishment, that there can be a “legitimate diversity of opinion” on this matter but not on abortion and euthanasia, and that disagreement on the latter but not the former can lead to being barred from Holy Communion.  He also adds the point that agreement with papal teaching on the subjects of abortion and euthanasia (unlike agreement on the subject of capital punishment) is a condition for being in “full communion” with the Church.  It is clear, then, that disagreement on the subject of capital punishment does not constitute a refusal of submission to binding teaching.

So, we have official acknowledgement both from the Vatican and from the USCCB that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty.”  Hence Joe and I are simply exercising the liberty with respect to this subject which the Church herself has acknowledged Catholics have. 

Again, I have now cited these texts several times in my exchanges with Shea.  He cannot be ignorant of their existence.  So when Shea labels Joe and I “dissenters” from binding Catholic teaching, he is either lying or is so psychologically unbalanced that he is incapable of processing evidence that refutes his assertions.  He is, in any event, guilty of slander, of acting contrary to justice and charity, and – as a perusal of his Facebook discussion thread shows – of stirring up hatred and division among Catholics.


  1. This reminds me of the scene in Office Space about the flair, when Jennifer Aniston is asking how many badges she needs to wear and her supervisor keeps repeating that they really want her to express herself and wear more than the minimum specified amount.

    I think Shea's view of the magisterium is a bit like the supervisor's view of flair-- that there's some unwritten expectation that one is expected to follow to be REALLY following the Magisterium.

  2. Ha! I like the analogy. But where does Lumbergh fit in? "Mmmmm, yeeaaah, if you could just go ahead and nod enthusiastically at absolutely everything any pope says on any topic whatsoever, that would be grrreat."

  3. I love the image on this post. Well done!

  4. Reminds me of the scene where Dante meets Mohammed, cut open from chin to waist, in Hell. Mohammed, among the schismatics, cries out,

    "See how mangled is Mohammed!... And all others whom you see sowed scandal and schism while they lived, and that is why they are hacked asunder." (Inferno 28)

    But if Shea knew his Dante better, he'd be less inclined to assent to everything any pope has to say.

  5. Is that an actual photo of Mark Shea holding a gun or is it a photo of Mark Shea Fesershopped with a photo of a gun?

    If philosophy doesn't work out for a career path, you might have some luck with graphic design.

  6. The gun is real. It was some movie called ManAlive. Shea was in it and some catholic comedian.

  7. Make no mistake not only do I have no patience with the Shea doctrine that the Magesterium teaches we must oppose the death penalty or that support of the death penalty equals dissent but I have even less patience with pseudo right wing nuts who claim St John Paul II was a heretic for opposing the death penalty or that John Paul II changed Catholic doctrine on the death penalty.

    Here I take on right wing ex-Catholic apostate Joseph D'Hippolito.

    He is pretty much Mark Shea in reverse & ironically he and Shea are in agreement on one level. Both hold too the Shea Doctrine that opposition to the Death penalty is "Magisterial" except Joe uses this error to claim St JP2 "changed" Catholic doctrine and thus proves Papal Infallibility false and thus he is justified in leaving the Ark of Salvation that is the Catholic Church.

    I will not tolerate either of their BS. They are both wrong. They both kinda of agree which is ironic since neither is fond of the other and I have pissed off both of them in my time.

    1. This is what John Paul II said about capital punishment in 1999:

      “The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”

      This is the USCCB's stance against capital punishment:

      Compare those remarks to the following citations. First, Aquinas from Summa Theologica:

      “If a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended. Only the public authority, not private persons, may licitly execute malefactors by public judgment. Men shall be sentenced to death for crimes of irreparable harm or which are particularly perverted.”

      Next, Aquinas from Summa Contra Gentiles:

      “The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgment that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers.”

      Next, Pius XII in 1952:

      “When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.”

      Finally, from Genesis:

      “Murder is forbidden….Any person who murders must be killed. Yes, you must execute anyone who murders another person, for to kill a person is to kill a living being made in God’s image (New Living Translation).”

      Now, "Son of Ya'Kov," who are the theological revisionists and who are the theologically orthodox on this issue?

    2. Neither you nor Shea are the orthodox here.

      All that you have done is proof text like Shea does without rational argument, explanation or response to Feser's arguments which is quite unanswerable by both of you at this point.

      Both Benedict and Dulles (both of whom are against the death penalty) have shown St John Paul II is merely giving prudent council in your quote above not changing the Church's teaching on the death penalty.

      Let's face it buddy you left the Catholic Church and you need to repent your pride and return.

      Also as I never get tired of pointing out that your reliance on the Fathers is hypocritical. They unanimously teach EENS which you as an ex-Catholic reject. They also teach Papal Authority.

      Epic Fail!

  8. Looking forward to your book. BTW, and unrelated to the content of your post, I'm pretty sure you want "Joe and me" in several places where you say "Joe and I" where the accusative is called for, e.g., "at Joe and I" should be "at Joe and me", etc.

  9. Hello Dr.Feser,

    I know that this is a bit off-topic, but what are your thoughts on a couple of thought experiments relating to truth and goodness?

    Namely, according to A-T metaphysics, goodness and truth are interchangeable. They collapse into one thing that is actually only being looked at from different sides.

    In other words, there isn't supposed to be any formal difference between knowledge/truth and goodness.

    But this framework poses certain problems.

    First, it makes the term "ontologically good" seem like it's meaningless. After all, ontological goodness simply collapses into "existence" thus making it superfluous.

    Because being is interchangeable with goodness, then there is simply no formal difference between something being "ontologically good" and it existing, thus destroying a term even though it is a reasonably correct description of reality.

    Second, it leads to some quite counterintuitive conclusions. Imagine for a moment you were to find out a relative of yours, say, a family member who you really care about and have a lot of affection for dies.

    Their death then leads you into severe emotional distress and pain. But knowledge is supposed to be goodness.

    Yet clearly, the knowledge of the death of a loved one clearly leads to emotional pain and sorrow, which isn't a good thing.

    This seemingly contradicts the idea that truth and the knowledge of it is, in a sense, goodness.

    It contradicts the idea that truth and goodness are the same, and also contradicts the idea that having more knowledge is a good thing, as having the knowledge and experience of murdering another person clearly is not a good thing to have.

    Now the question that is being posed here is: how do we solve these problems?

    If we work from an A-T point of view when it comes to the interconnentedness and interchangeability of being,goodness and truth as transcendent principles, what solutions would you propose for these problems?

    It would also be useful to see what other commentators here would have to say about these issues and responses that could be made to them.



  10. The gun is real. It was some movie called ManAlive. Shea was in it and some catholic comedian

    Kevin O'Brien. Here is the video:

    It's​ not bad and it was done at a time before Mark started to spiral.

  11. @ JoeD

    I have thoughts on the matter, but it might be better if you posted your question elsewhere, for example at the Classical Theism forum.

  12. Also, Mark says that he owes an apology to Ed (for being surly, he says, not for--say--calumny, or for rending the Church unnecessarily).

  13. Son of,

    It's sad what has happened to Shea. While he was never the most careful of writers, he often had interesting things to say.

    In the exchange Ed mentioned on Facebook, Shea attacks Ed for "wanting to kill as many people as possible." He denied it was a personal attack. And when it was pointed out that Ed is not a death penalty maximalist, he claims the statement is accurate because Ed wants to "kill" everyone on death row.

    Neil P.

  14. Hi Ed,

    I wrote a short comment on Shea's blog, regarding the Church's position on capital punishment, critiquing Shea's assertion that the Church teaches (and has always taught) that it is only justified in cases of self-defense as "1984-style revisionism":

    Shea has offered an apology of sorts for his surly behavior towards you:

    I have to say that I find it distressing when prominent Catholics are unable to agree on what it is that the Church teaches. Capital punishment, torture, the rights of refugees to seek assistance abroad, universal healthcare, the morality of lying, nuclear deterrence, the extent of our obligation to give to the poor, the extent of our obligation to fight global warming, the morality of hunting, the morality of tax evasion, the possibility of atheists being saved, the possibility of Hell being empty of human souls, the possibility of an after-life for animals, the existence of limbo, the existence of an historical Adam and Eve, .... The list of controverted topics goes on and on. For the immediate future, I see no prospect of these rifts being resolved. I view this as a scandal of major proportions, because it deters would-be converts. Can anyone see light at the end of the tunnel?

  15. So sad to see Shea trying to deploy the Magisterium in support of his own sectarian opinion. And dismaying to see him lapse into such irrational and uncharitable attacks on Feser and Bessette.

    Like many, I was edified by his "By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition" when it first appeared. I passed it out to several non-Catholic friends and even wrote a positive review on Amazon.

    Though I haven't personally read Shea's anti-Feser Facebook fulminations (cancelled FB years ago), I know our host to be a fair man and a faithful Christian.

    Not that this is in any way an argument.

    For an ordinary Catholic it is de fide that Christ's Church cannot err - and has never erred - in definitively teaching on matters of faith and morals. Since in the past, through many exercises of the ordinary magisterium, the Church has taught that Caesar, by divine design and commission, legitimately wields and exercises the power of sword, even to the death penalty, to suggest that what was once morally licit is now morally illicit is to undo both Christ's promise and the Magisterium in one fell swoop.

    Simply put, in theological, ecclesiological and historical terms Shea's position is indefensible, and indeed heretical.

    It seems Shea needs to revisit both clauses in that book title. He fails to get either the Magisterium or Catholic Tradition.

    This is a great sadness.

  16. Hi JoeD,

    Ed Feser explains his position on the inter-convertibility of truth and goodness in Aquinas (Oneworld, 2009), pp. 33-35. He suggests that it's useful to think of "true" as meaning "real" or "genuine": "A thing is true to the extent that it conforms to the ideal represented by the essence of the kind it belongs to." He adds that "good" or "bad" are to be understood in the sense in which we describe something as a good or bad specimen of a type or thing.

    Most importantly of all: for Aquinas, truth and goodness are predicated of things, rather than propositions.

    Thus the knowledge of the death of a loved one isn't an example of either truth or goodness, in Aquinas's sense of those terms, since the knowledge in question is propositional. Hope that helps.

  17. From Mark's Facebook thread:

    You can argue with the Church about the circumstances under which the DP might remotely and improbably be necessary. Maybe you *are* lost in the Amazon and one of your party has killed another and you are miles from civilization and you have to make a judgment call about whether to execute the traitor in your midst in order to keep him from slitting your throat in the night. A bishop might quibble with your judgment call but can't condemn you for making your judgment to execute the traitor. But in the real world of the US, that's not reall the case and so the need for the death penalty is "practically non-existent" and it should be abolished and docility says to just listen to the Church, not waste time fighting her.

    And some commenter other than Mark:

    [Ratzinger] talks about differing over "application," not principle. The principal is clear: the DP, particularly when prison is an option, is rarely if ever defensible.

    The interesting aspect of these interpretations of Ratzinger's remarks is the placement of adverbs like "remotely," "improbably," and "rarely" in judgments about principle.

    Plausibly, for people to disagree over the application of a principle is for them to disagree over whether the principle applies, that is, over whether the empirical requirements for the application of the principle obtain. So any judgment about whether the principle "rarely" applies in a certain society is a judgment about how frequently the empirical requirements obtain, so someone who disagrees with the Holy Father about those empirical preconditions seems, per Ratzinger, not to be dissenting. He rather disagrees with the Holy Father on matters which the Holy Father is not specially competent to judge (social science).

    But the direction which Mark and some of his fans seem to be trying to push Ratzinger is that the rarity of the application is itself the principle. That seems to be unintelligible.

    The more generous interpretation that can be put on some of Mark's remarks is that there has lately been a change in principle. Now, in the writings of Pope John Paul II, the principle is that the death penalty may only ever be applied when it is absolutely necessary. This is not a statement about one culture or the other; there simply is no other justification for the death penalty. Then there is the empirical judgment that the death penalty is not often necessary in the developed world. That reading doesn't have the absurd feature of placing the frequency of a principle's application within the principle itself.

    This, though, would be to take the view that the Church has not just changed its teaching on when the principle should be applied but has actually rejected its previous authoritative teaching on the death penalty: the death penalty is in fact not legitimately applicable in some of the circumstances in which popes have previously taught that it is.

    It would also raise philosophical questions about how it may be legitimate to kill someone in order to defend society if it is not justifiable to kill him simply because he deserves it.

    My sense is that it is possible to read EV 56 more consistently with the Church's tradition, if we take even the pope's judgment about absolute necessity to hang on his empirical estimation of "steady improvements in the organization of the penal system." Indeed, unless one sees the absolute necessity as hanging on the ends of punishment generally, it is hard to say what sort of situation is being envisioned. Does the criminal have to pose an existential threat to humanity? Or does there have to be a reasonable change that not punishing him as he deserves will lead to the loss of other innocent lives?

  18. As a general observation, I'd also say that it is remarkable that lots of Catholic commentators, including many whom one would think of as being "conservative," are quite content to say that the Church has altered its teaching on faith and morals, on matters of principle and not merely application, in the past. And as a consequence, they are willing to regard, I think, just about anything as legitimate development of doctrine (this is obviously tied in with contemporary ultramontanism, which is fueled by the fact that everything the pope says these days is reported, and Catholics are rightly embarrassed to disagree with the pope).

    This is evident in one of Mark's remarks that "You do not get to play the game of pitting the developing Magisterium against the developed Magisterium." Whether a novel teaching counts as development, though, obviously depends on whether it's consistent with the developed Magisterium, or else the point that development of doctrine cannot contradict existed doctrine has no content.

  19. Ed:

    The really telling thing is that Mark DOESN'T take this same tack against Catholic supporters of abortion.

    Contrast his calumny on this topic to his gushing apologetics on behalf of Stephen Colbert, and his defenses of the man in the face of his repeated promotion of Planned Parenthood and abortion in general, in this post and the comments (Mark is "chezami"):

    And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Repeatly at Facebook and elsewhere, Mark has attacked those who suggest that Colbert's praise of abortion and gay marriage render him a less-than-ideal Catholic apologist just as viciously as he attacks defenders of capital punishment, accusing them of being monsters who just want to drive everyone who doesn't think just like them out of the Church.

    By Mark's own standards, he is dissenting from the Magisterium on abortion, while trying to drive faithful Catholics out of the Church for holding Magisterium-approved views on capital punishment.

    If he actually believes in the standard he's applying to defenders of capitol punishment, he ought to be terrified for the fate of his eternal soul right now.

  20. Anon,

    Thanks, I made a correction.


    Like Greg said, please take this to the Classical Theism forum. I really hate threadjacks.

  21. As far as I can tell, your defense of the death penalty is really a defense of the death penalty for murder. Can natural law tell us other crimes that merit the death penalty? Is there a procedure in general for determining which actions merit death and which ones do not?

  22. I just happened to be reading your old "On Nozick" book, and came across this passage on p88:
    "No reasonable person, after all, would say that we ought to be allowed to kill people at will unless it is proved that some particular killing is unjustified. The right to life puts the burden of proof on the killer, to produce a good reason for killing (e.g. self defense)."