What comes out of the mouth proceeds from Hart, and this defiles a man
Thursday, December 21, 2017
A Hart that pumps bile
Strangely, as David Bentley Hart has gotten more gratuitously nasty and unhinged in his attacks on me, I find myself less offended, or even having much of an affective reaction at all. It’s like dealing with a mental patient or a surly neighborhood dog. You simply navigate the situation, aware that there is no point in getting angry with someone or something that isn’t rational. It’s too bad. Our last contretemps, on the subject of eternal damnation, ended with a pleasing amicability in the combox here at the blog. I had real hope that our future exchanges could be more positive. Alas, fast forward a few months and Hart is suddenly spitting venom at straw men again in his review of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed in Commonweal (to which I recently replied at Catholic World Report). And now, at Church Life Journal Hart doubles down on the vitriol and the caricatures. Perhaps he can’t help it – just as, when reading Hart, I can’t help thinking of the fable of the scorpion and the frog.
What comes out of the mouth proceeds from Hart, and this defiles a man
No one has ever accused Hart of rhetorical subtlety, but passages like this one do make one wonder whether there has been an outbreak of rabies in his vicinity:
[Feser’s] book… is, to put the matter simply, an exorbitantly bad book, one that contains not a single compelling or solvent argument… [I]ts uses of scripture, theology, and the Church Fathers are almost fantastic in their awkwardness and crudity…It is also a book whose moral coarseness borders at times on the surreal… Hence the poor, or at least lukewarm, reviews the book has tended to receive.
Yikes. To start with the latter claim, it is discouraging to see that Hart can’t go three paragraphs without once again succumbing to the temptation to play fast and loose with the truth. In fact, almost all of the reviews so far – those of Janet Smith in the Claremont Review of Books, Daniel Lendman in the American Academy of Religion’s publication Reading Religion, James Jacobs at Crisis magazine, William M. Briggs at One Peter Five, and Christopher Manion at The Wanderer – have been strongly positive. Even the mixed review by David McClamrock at Today’s Catholic made some very positive remarks about the book. Furthermore, as anyone who has looked at the back cover of the book knows, it has received warm endorsements from many prominent scholars and writers: theologians Steven Long, Fr. Kevin Flannery, and Fr. Thomas Petri; canon lawyers Edward Peters and Fr. Gerald Murray; philosophers Fr. James Schall, Michael Pakaluk, and J. Budziszewski; professor of criminal justice Barry Latzer; and Robert Royal, Fr. George Rutler, and Fr. Robert Sirico (this despite Fr. Sirico’s personal opposition to capital punishment).
Then there are the further positive notices about the book at Catholic Herald, Catholic Culture, Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s blog, and elsewhere. And as regular readers of this blog are aware, the book has also gotten a fair amount of attention on radio, television, and other media, and been the subject of a recent academic panel discussion. Naturally, not everyone who has commented on the book in these contexts has agreed with it, but the general tendency by far has been to treat it as serious and worthy of respectful engagement.
Meanwhile, the only “poor” reviews have been those of Hart himself and of Paul Griffiths – who, not coincidentally, is as notoriously cantankerous as Hart. A Thomist getting a bad review from either Hart or Griffiths is about as surprising as Hart or Griffiths getting a bad review from Jerry Coyne or Richard Dawkins. And it tells you about the same vis-à-vis the actual quality of the book under review, viz. absolutely nothing. (I replied to Griffiths in the same article in which I responded to Hart).
It is also true that E. Christian Brugger and Christopher Tollefsen – prominent Catholic opponents of capital punishment, whose views are subjected to detailed criticism in the book –have replied to that criticism. But it would be tendentious to call their replies “reviews” of the book, much less “poor” reviews. For one thing, their concern was primarily to respond to what the book says about their own work, rather than to comment one way or the other on its other contents or its general merits. For another, where they do comment on the book, they by no means trash it, but simply express polite and scholarly disagreement. In any event, it would, of course, be rather silly to take the disagreement of two scholars who are themselves major targets of attack in By Man as an objective indicator of the quality of the book. (I replied to Brugger and Tollefsen at Public Discourse.)
So, Hart is simply badly misrepresenting the reception the book has been getting. But then, he knows that most readers sympathetic to his position and hostile to mine won’t bother to fact-check his assertions. Hart isn’t one to let a scrupulous concern for accuracy get in the way of a useful rhetorical trick.
As to the alleged “moral coarseness” of the book, Hart tries to justify this characterization by once again fulminating at length about the excesses of Giovanni Battista Bugatti – the 19th century executioner for the Papal States, to whom Joe and I briefly allude a couple of times in By Man. Bugatti looms vastly larger in Hart’s two articles about the book than he does in the book itself, for reasons that are, once again, transparently rhetorical. Since, in my Catholic World Report piece, I already said everything that needs to be said about this red herring, I’ll leave Hart to his Bugatti fixation and move on.
Coming to the overheated stuff about the book lacking “a single compelling or solvent argument,” etc., this would cause eyes to roll even if Hart were able to develop a single compelling or solvent objection to the arguments of the book. Which, as it happens, he is not. For when one looks past the invective to the substantive criticisms Hart raises, one finds that in nearly every case Hart either misses the point or begs the question.
Because he does so at tedious length, the unwary reader is bound not to see this. As his longtime readers know, prolixity is one of Hart’s stock rhetorical techniques. Another is showy scholarship. (To quote from Hart’s widely consulted Rules for Rhetoricians: “Rule 3: Impress the rubes with some Greek. If you really want to wow ‘em, leave it untransliterated.”) Hart counts on his fans being so impressed with his erudition that they overlook the fact that his entire case rests on premises which he has not defended, and which only people who already agree with his conclusions would accept. A Hart essay is like an elegant and solidly constructed chandelier that someone has hung from a paperclip. You’re so distracted by the light and all the shiny baubles that you don’t see it crashing down at your feet until it’s too late.
What part of “Catholic” didn’t you understand?
Here’s the main problem. Late in his article, Hart makes a concession which – though, amazingly, he does not realize this – gives away virtually the entire game. He writes: “It is perhaps easier for me as an Orthodox Christian than it is for a Catholic to dismiss Feser’s arguments.”
Bingo. Hart speaks as if this were an incidental point, when in fact it is the whole point. Perhaps Hart’s copy of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed was missing the subtitle, but here it is: “A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.” Perhaps he also failed to notice that it was published by a Catholic press, Ignatius. To be sure, there is much in the book that a non-Catholic should find of interest, such as its purely philosophical arguments and its treatment of the social scientific evidence. Even some of the theological material will be of interest to non-Catholic readers who take evidence from scripture and/or Christian tradition seriously. All the same, Joe Bessette and I do not expect many of the theological arguments to be compelling, at the end of the day, to non-Catholics.
In particular, the theological arguments in the book presuppose a Catholic approach to the interpretation of scripture, a Catholic understanding of the authority of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and a Catholic conception of the authority of the popes and the magisterium. Of course, these presuppositions stand in need of justification, but since you can’t do everything in one book, we take that much for granted and go from there. The reason this procedure is legitimate is that the book is primarily aimed at a specifically Catholic audience and concerned to address current controversies in Catholic theology. Joe and I are defending one side of an intra-Catholic dispute. Non-Catholics are of course welcome to look on, but we aren’t trying to convince them in the first place.
Hart almost entirely ignores this crucial context. He’s like a guest who shows up at a funeral and loudly complains about the absence of birthday gifts and party hats. Take, for example, remarks like the following:
Feser is incorrect in saying that what the Pope demanded from the Waldensians was assent to a “doctrinal” point (at least, if the Enchiridion Symbolorum is to be trusted)…
“Orthodoxy,” “doctrine” … these are fairly unequivocal terms. Yet neither is actually appropriate. There is in fact not a single dogma of the Catholic Church that requires the liceity of the death penalty. The Pope could tomorrow declare all capital punishment sinful and incompatible with Catholic teaching ex cathedra, and he would not be contradicting a single recognized doctrine. If you doubt this, tolle, lege any copy of Denzinger. And the current catechism of the Church bears this out.
End quote. Now, as his remarks and links to Denzinger illustrate, Hart is here using the term “doctrine” very narrowly, as a synonym for “dogma.” But that is not how Joe and I or other Catholic writers use the term. As we explain at length in our book (building on Cardinal Avery Dulles’s discussion of the CDF document Donum Veritatis), there are five categories of magisterial statement in Catholic theology. “Dogmas” (such as the Trinity and the Incarnation) are the first category, but two other categories of statement would also count as “doctrinal” in a broader sense (while the last two categories are “prudential” statements of varying types).
Why does Hart ignore this explicit explanation that we gave of our usage? Here is what he has to say about the section of the book in question:
Feser complains that Griffiths and I do not deal with the fifty pages of arguments he and Bessette devote to their procrustean attempt to blunt the catechism’s piercingly unambiguous statements on the matter. But that was a mercy on our parts. To refute those arguments it is enough to recite them.
End quote. I would say that this is shockingly dishonest and frivolous, except that after much bitter experience, nothing about Hart shocks me anymore. If Hart has actually read the pages in question, then he knows that we there make it crystal clear how we are using the term “doctrine,” in which case he is deliberately misleading his readers about what we meant when we characterized the Waldensian-related statement as “doctrinal.” If he has not read the pages in question, then he is once again guilty of breathtakingly sloppy scholarship. The only third alternative is that, in addition to his manifest “anger management” issues, Hart is suffering from a memory disorder.
In any event, it should go without saying that to dismiss fifty pages of scholarly, non-polemical argumentation with a single bitchy remark like “to refute those arguments it is enough to recite them” is the kind of stuff one expects from a Facebook pissing match or Jerry Coyne’s combox – not from a man some people seem to fancy a veritable St. David Bentley Chrysostom.
Then there is Hart’s response to what I said in my Catholic World Report article about Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Hart appeals to what he claims to be “Christ’s repeated prohibitions against retributive justice,” and asserts that a distinction between “public and private morality for Christians” is “a ridiculous anachronism” when applied to the Sermon, “as any good scholar of the New Testament or of late antiquity could tell [Feser].” Hence, he alleges, I have failed to reconcile capital punishment with Christ’s moral teaching.
But all of this simply begs the question. Yes, in the context of first-century Judea, people didn’t draw a sharp line between the public and private spheres. So what? They also didn’t use words like homoousios, or pray with icons. Now, Hart would acknowledge that the latter are perfectly legitimate extensions and applications of the Christian teachings and practices of the first century, or are at the very least perfectly compatible with those principles.
But traditional Catholic moral theology would say the same thing about distinctions like those Hart either ignores or dismisses. “Retribution” can mean either (i) the infliction by public authority of a deserved penalty on an offender, or (ii) a private individual taking the law into his own hands or someone punishing out of hatred rather than justice. Rightly understood, what Christ’s teaching in the Sermon rules out is “retribution” in sense (ii), not in sense (i). Similarly, the way mercy is shown differs depending on whether the person showing it is a public official responsible for preserving social order, or private individuals in their everyday dealings with each other.
These are just standard, longstanding principles of Catholic moral theology, and they are explicitly spelled out in By Man. If Hart wants to argue against them, fine. But instead Hart simply asserts, without argument that they are wrong, and writes as if Joe and I hadn’t already considered and responded to claims like the ones he makes. In any event, since they are longstanding ideas in Catholic moral theology, they are available for deployment in the intra-Catholic debate that Joe and I are concerned with, whatever non-Catholics like Hart think of them.
Nor is it remotely reasonable for Hart to be so dismissive of these ideas, given another concession he makes in his latest article. In my Catholic World Report response to his review, I noted that Hart’s interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount would, if consistently applied, entail giving up all punishments (not just capital punishment), which would be incompatible with even the most rudimentary social order. In response, Hart is at first flippant, writing:
[N]onsense. Twaddle. Dare I say, Balderdash?... [T]here is no dilemma here to resolve. Forgiveness precludes the principle of retribution, but not every form of punishment or coercion… It is quite possible that there is such a thing as force that is purely non-retributive in intent...
End quote. There is a serious problem with this position, though, which Joe and I already set out in the book (in yet another passage that Hart simply ignores without answering). As C. S. Lewis pointed out, when retributive justice is entirely left out of consideration, punishment necessarily becomes unmoored from desert. The sequel is that, in principle, offenders might be given little or no punishment for heinous crimes, and extremely harsh punishments for minor infractions, if we decide that this is conducive to getting them to do what we want them to. Offenders cease to be free and responsible moral agents, and become instead cases to be managed or objects of social engineering. Hart would, presumably, be as horrified at such a prospect as Lewis, Joe, and I are, but if so he says nothing to show how to avoid it.
He is also once again missing the point, since Catholic teaching certainly insists that retributive justice must always be part of the story where punishment is concerned, even if it is not the whole story. Again, that is all that matters for the intra-Catholic debate Joe and I are engaged in, whether Hart agrees with this teaching or not.
And yet, no sooner has Hart made the “balderdash” remark than he goes on to write:
That said, and perhaps somewhat shockingly, I am willing to grant that here Feser has at least raised an interesting point…
I confess too that my understanding of Christianity (at least, that of the earliest centuries) is far more otherworldly and socially irresponsible than Feser’s is. On the whole, he assumes that Christianity must be compatible with a well functioning society, and that therefore Christianity in some larger neutral sense “works” as a way of promoting the social good. But perhaps Christianity, as presented in the New Testament, does not “work” very well at all, or at least would not do so if it were consistently applied to life in this world…
[I]t seems likely that a genuinely Christian social order [as Hart understands it]… might be impossible in practice, and therefore unimaginable in theory. I really do not know. I do not pretend to have any clear sense of whether a Christian social order could ever flourish this side of the Kingdom.
End quote. Now, how what I said can be both “nonsense, twaddle, and balderdash” and at the same time “an interesting point” is a puzzle I leave for the Hart adepts to solve. Suffice it for the moment to note that the Catholic moral tradition that ended up interpreting the Sermon on the Mount the way Joe and I do was concerned precisely to address the difficulty Hart admits not having an answer to. Since that tradition at least has an answer and Hart by his own admission does not, you would think that he’d show a little more humility when evaluating it. Or rather, you would do so if you could stop laughing once you’ve put the words “Hart” and “humility” together in the same sentence.
What part of “intrinsically” didn’t you understand?
Over and over again in our book, Joe Bessette and I emphasize that there are two fundamental questions that we are addressing. First, can a Catholic hold that capital punishment is always and intrinsically wrong, wrong even in principle? Second, even if capital punishment is legitimate at least in principle, does Catholic teaching allow it to be applied in practice, and if so, under what conditions? Some of what we have to say is meant to address the first question, and some of it is meant to address the second, and we try always to be clear about exactly which of them we are addressing at any particular moment.
The reason the first question is so important is that a large and influential school of thought in contemporary Catholic theology and philosophy – the “new natural law” theory represented by Germain Grisez, John Finnis, and Robert P. George, as well as Brugger, Tollefsen, and many others – has taken the extreme view that capital punishment is contrary to natural law and thus always and intrinsically wrong, wrong even in principle, wrong for everyone and at all times and not merely wrong for Christians or in contemporary society. The “new natural lawyers” would like the Church to adopt this novel position, and writers like Grisez and Brugger have exerted much effort to try to make such a doctrinal reversal plausible. This is a matter of great controversy in Catholic circles, because in the view of the critics of the “new natural law,” such a doctrinal change would contradict the clear and consistent teaching of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and two millennia of papal teaching. It would thereby undermine the credibility of the Church and have a ripple effect across the entire body of Catholic teaching.
I set out this crucial context very clearly in my Catholic World Report response to Hart’s review, because in that review he ignored it, especially when commenting on what Joe and I have to say about the Fathers of the Church. I explained that when we cite the Fathers, we do not deny but indeed explicitly acknowledge that many of them were strongly opposed to Christians actually making use of the death penalty. Rather, our concern was to emphasize that even the Fathers who oppose capital punishment in practice affirm that it is legitimate at least in principle, that it is not per se contrary to natural justice. Hart had alleged that Joe and I claim that the Fathers are agreed in supporting capital punishment, and that we are therefore guilty of poor patristic scholarship. As I explained, this allegation rests on an ambiguity. We do not claim that the Fathers all support the actual infliction of capital punishment. We claim only that they are agreed that capital punishment is not intrinsically evil.
Bizarrely, and exasperatingly, in his latest article Hart once again ignores all of this, and simply repeats, at tedious length and with even higher dudgeon, the same false allegation that I have already refuted. For example, he attributes to Joe and I the thesis that “Origen is willy-nilly on the side of capital punishment” and then castigates us for holding such a ridiculous view. Yet what we actually say in the book is:
To be sure, like other Church Fathers in the pre-Constantinian period, Origen and Cyprian also teach that Christians should avoid bloodshed. But the right of the state to execute criminals is not denied. In holding Christians to a more rigorous standard than the (as yet unconverted) governing authorities, these Fathers do not claim that the latter’s resort to capital punishment is inherently wrong. (p. 114)
There is no way an intellectually honest person could read that and then attribute to us the ridiculous view that “Origen is willy-nilly on the side of capital punishment.” Hart also misrepresents what we say about St. John Chrysostom and other Fathers. And all this despite the fact that Hart himself seems to allow that the Fathers did not regard capital punishment as intrinsically contrary to natural law. In other words, on the very narrow issue that Joe and I appeal to the Fathers to help settle, Hart appears actually to be in agreement with us. And yet he pretends that we are guilty of howlers of patristic scholarship!
How does one explain such weird behavior? Several hypotheses suggest themselves. First, I honestly am not certain that Hart actually reads an entire book or article before dashing off a vituperative response to it. Like Don Quixote, Walter Mitty, or Jerry Coyne, Hart seems always to have some fantasy enemy in view – a manual-wielding Neo-Scholastic Thomist, say – and simply hurls his stock insults and objections at that phantom, certain that he has thereby refuted whatever happens to be there on the pages he can’t be bothered actually to read.
Second, Hart appears to be so enamored of his patented “Trust me, I’m a patristic scholar” shtick that he is hell-bent on somehow convicting me of getting the Fathers wrong. Since I am not in fact guilty of that, all he can do is flail at the same straw men in a louder voice and with extra invective thrown in. He’s like Richard Dawkins: He really knows only one thing (evolution in Dawkins’ case, the Fathers in Hart’s) and he’ll be damned if he isn’t going to make every dispute he gets into a dispute about that one thing.
Third, Hart once again shows a tin ear for the contemporary intra-Catholic debate that Joe and I are primarily addressing. He writes:
It may be that the greatest problem with Feser and Bessette’s book is that their central argument is not so much false as irrelevant. They expend a great deal of energy on trying to prove that the death penalty is a just requital for certain crimes, and that both scripture and Catholic tradition acknowledge as much. But this is not the issue. Part of the confusion, I imagine, is that they have taken their disagreements with certain proponents of the “new natural law theory” (who do indeed argue that capital punishment is inherently unjust) as applying to the more specific question of whether Christians are allowed to impose or support capital punishment. But the question of justice has never been a matter of much contention.
End quote. The trouble with this, of course, is that the question of justice very much is a matter of contention in contemporary Catholic circles, as anyone knows who has actually kept up with the debate. Again, even some of the most influential “conservative” voices in recent Catholic moral theology – Grisez and his followers – claim precisely that capital punishment is intrinsically contrary to natural justice. The whole point of the most significant abolitionist work in recent Catholic moral theology – Brugger’s book Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition – is precisely to facilitate the making of this novel view of Grisez’s into the official teaching of the Catholic Church.
If Hart is uninterested in this debate, fine. But since that is in large part what our book is about, it is quite absurd for Hart to dismiss that debate’s significance when reviewing the book. In effect, what Hart attacks in his review and follow-up article is some book he thinks we should have written, not the one we actually did write.
When in Rome
Finally, Hart revisits the issue of how to interpret Romans 13:4 (“He does not bear the sword in vain,” etc.), and repeats his linguistic arguments to the effect that the sword-bearing referred to here has to do with the general use of violence by state authorities, rather than a specific reference to capital punishment. He then comments:
Feser grants that I may be right in my interpretation of the passage, but then cites a host of New Testament scholars (some of whom are indeed very fine scholars) who say otherwise, and so dismisses my observations as debatable.
End quote. Actually, I never granted what Hart says I did. He is not right in his interpretation of that passage, and he would not be right even if one were to agree with his remarks about the literal meaning of the Greek words translated “carry” and “sword.” For one thing, as some of the New Testament scholars I cited point out, even if St. Paul intended a general reference to the state’s power to use violence, that would by no means exclude a reference to capital punishment. On the contrary, such a reference would – especially in the Roman context that Paul had in view – be included, implicitly as one of the several ways the state uses violence. An indirect reference is not a non-reference.
For another thing, here too it is crucial to keep in mind the specifically Catholic approach to interpreting scripture, according to which an interpretation endorsed by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church carries great weight, especially when they are unanimous. (See By Man for discussion of the authority the Church attributes to these sources.) Now, as I noted in my Catholic World Report response to Hart, the Fathers who comment on the subject agree that Romans 13 refers to capital punishment and that it teaches that it is legitimate at least in principle, as a matter of natural justice. (Remember, contrary to what Hart keeps falsely alleging, I am not using the patristic evidence to make a larger claim than that.)
The Doctors of the Church who address the subject also agree. (On top of that, several of them cite Romans 13 in support of the legitimacy of capital punishment even among Christians. One finds this position in St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, and St. Alphonsus Liguori.)
Now, from the point of view of Catholic theology, if the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are unanimous on some point of scriptural interpretation, then that interpretation cannot be mistaken. But they are unanimous that Romans 13 refers to capital punishment, and that it teaches that the practice is legitimate at least in principle, as a matter of natural law. The matter is settled, then, whatever creative reinterpretation this or that 21st century New Testament scholar tries to cobble together.
As I keep saying, what Joe and I are doing in the book is showing what follows from the premises to which Catholics, specifically, are committed. And as Hart himself admits, “it is perhaps easier for me as an Orthodox Christian than it is for a Catholic to dismiss Feser’s arguments.” If Hart had only meditated a little on the implications of that concession, he could have saved us all a lot of time.