More from the review:
Thursday, November 2, 2017
Smith on By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed
In the Fall 2017 issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Catholic moral theologian Janet Smith reviews By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment. Writes Smith:
[T]he central argument of [the book is] that some crimes deserve death, and that this is now and has always been the teaching of the Catholic Church. Anyone who would claim otherwise must contend with Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette’s unparalleled – and I’m tempted to say, irrefutable – marshalling of evidence and logic in this important new book.
More from the review:
Because we are no longer accustomed to rigorous arguments or a relentless appeal to logic, the prose is jarring. Rather than tentative terms like “it seems to me” or “I would like to suggest,” the authors prefer testosterone-fueled diction; regularly using terms such as “absurd,” “preposterous,” “simplistic,” and “reckless” when evaluating their opponents’ arguments. As much as such language has value for its wallop, novelty (in a scholarly work) and, yes, accuracy, the arguments are so strong, I timidly suggest, that perhaps the authors should have allowed readers to “draw their own conclusions” more often. But let me say, the book simply flattens its opponents. (Testosterone-charged prose is contagious!)
In the book’s first half Feser systematically refutes the arguments of those who think the Church now teaches that capital punishment is intrinsically unjust. He helps readers to see how weak our attachment to justice has become and how little we allow tight reasoning about justice to govern our thinking…
Feser painstakingly refutes the arguments of “new natural law” theorist E. Christian Brugger, an ardent opponent of capital punishment, effectively identifying some of the weaknesses of new natural law theory itself…
Feser thoroughly and carefully examines Scriptural approval of the death penalty… He notes that no one has successfully refuted the claim that the Bible unequivocally supports the right of states to execute some wrongdoers…
Feser successfully argues that [the Catechism’s] “development” must be viewed as a prudential judgment by Pope John Paul rather than an authoritative teaching, and thus Catholics are free to contest it…
Bessette then turns his attention to the statements about capital punishment put out by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which are seriously flawed… He reviews extensive studies on the death penalty’s deterrent power, the number of persons unjustly condemned to death row, on the charge that racism causes the death penalty to be applied unfairly, as well as on the claim that it is applied unfairly to the poor. He uses this data to refute claims made by the bishops that capital punishment has no deterrent power, that innocent persons are regularly executed, that the application of the death penalty has been unfairly applied to minorities and the poor.
End quote. Smith does raise a criticism of the book as well. While she does not deny that the death penalty is appropriate in some cases, Smith argues that we pay insufficient attention to certain cases where circumstances plausibly reduce the culpability of the offender to the point that it would be better to refrain from inflicting capital punishment. She suggests that the case of Karla Faye Tucker, whose childhood and teenage years were very troubled and who seems to have been genuinely repentant, is a plausible example.
This is a discussion worth having. I would say that the aim Joe and I had in writing the book was not so much to set out detailed, specific criteria for exactly when capital punishment is appropriate, but rather to show that it is appropriate in far more cases than many contemporary Catholics would like to admit. The pendulum has swung way too far in the abolitionist direction, and our aim is to restore balance and sobriety to the discussion. When Catholics once again pay serious attention to the entire Catholic philosophical and theological tradition of thinking about this subject, and to the actual social scientific evidence, the serious issues Smith raises can be fruitfully addressed.