Saturday, December 9, 2017

Manion on By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed

A highly recommended book that sheds the patient, clear light of reason on the issue of capital punishment.  Every U.S. bishop should read it…

In recent years, position statements and lobbying efforts of the USCCB have ranged across a wide variety of prudential issues, from global warming and tax policy to immigration and the death penalty.

There are many policy approaches to such issues that might conform to the precepts of legitimate Catholic social teaching, so Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Church, requires that action on in this area be left to the laity.

However, leaders and bureaucrats at the USCCB routinely violate that magisterial teaching, and pretend that theirs is the only permissible “Catholic” position when they choose a particular agenda item to champion.

Over the years, this bad habit has put the faithful in a position of delicacy, patiently and charitably reminding the bishops that they are trespassing in the realm that is the property of the laity…

Feser and Bessette’s monumental work is so welcome in so many ways.  It offers a model for the thorough, careful, and charitable approach that the faithful must embrace to address the myriad of issues that lie in the realm of the laity…

Regarding capital punishment, the bishops’ strenuous advocacy is well-known…

Yes, Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict have called for its abolition; they stressed that their opinions were not magisterial, but that rational voice has faded.  So today it falls to the laity to explain the principles underlying the issues of crime and punishment, laying out the arguments to explain the principles in the light of the rich tradition of Catholic thought.  After all, the laity has a fundamental right to the truth, including when it comes to capital punishment.

And the truth is exactly what Feser and Bessette offer in their impressive study.  Since popular arguments against the death penalty are often based on sentiment, they take great care in presenting a clear and rational discussion to shed the patient, clear light of reason on the issue.  The authors do a masterful job, addressing the issue of capital punishment from the point of view of the Natural Law, Church teaching, and theological and philosophical anthropology…

Yes, busy bishops must often assign to their staffs, lawyers, and advisers the detailed studies that inform the positions they take publicly.  Well, it’s time for a change: Simply put, every bishop should read this book.

Can he deal with its rational analysis shorn of sentiment and opinion?  The authors have written so clearly and cogently that the reader who supports abolishing the death penalty can at least say that he has honestly considered the best possible arguments against his own position.  In fact, the authors make the bishops’ arguments better than they make them themselves! …

This beautifully researched and clearly written work will now become the standard Catholic work on capital punishment.


  1. I don't know if you could have asked for a better book review!

  2. The latest from Dr. Fastiggi over on this blog (

    I don’t believe it’s necessary to condemn the death penalty as intrinsically evil (even though such a condemnation is theoretically possible). It suffices, I think, for the Pope to use his ordinary magisterium to condemn the death penalty as gravely wrong when applied to a person who no longer poses a threat and whose crime was in the past. This already is the teaching of the ordinary papal magisterium because Pope Francis’s 2015 Letter is in the A.A.S. Moreover, Pope Francis, in Amoris laetitia, 83, teaches that the Church “firmly rejects the death penalty.” While certain specifications might still need to be developed, I think the teaching of the Church against the death penalty is now quite clear. Catholics should give religious assent to what Pope Francis teaches, viz., the death penalty is inadmissable when carried out on a person who is no longer free, who no longer poses a threat, and whose crime was in the past.

    His comments can be found under the article. It seems to be his opinion that Pope Francis has taken us beyond Pope Bendict's 2004 memo that Catholics can legitimately disagree with the Pope on application of the death penalty.

    These is going to be a key theses of the anti-DP crowd. Namely: Even if the DP is not intrinsically immoral, Catholics are not permitted to support the practice in our modern time. They must submit with mind and will to the modern Popes.

    What should be our answer to this sentiment?

    1. I find this highly problematic. If he said that the state could abstain from applying capital punishment as a supererogatory act of mercy, I'd be okay with it. But to suggest that carrying out capital punishment would be gravely wrong in this case is just too much.

      But what is left to be said? Natural law disagrees with them, and so does Catholic tradition. Dr. Feser did a good job in his response.

    2. I agree that Dr. Feser does a fantastic job in the response to Fastiggi. However, his main task there was defending that capital punishment is legitimate in principle and cannot be taught as intrinsically immoral. He shows this well.

      However, one can detect what Dr. Fastiggi and his followers are saying (or might say) in reply. And it's this thesis:

      Even if capital punishment is legitimate in principle, Catholics must submit to the ordinary magisterium of Pope Francis when he teaches that the death penalty should not be carried out in our time. Catholics can discuss the theoretical application of the death penalty, but they cannot in good conscience support it since that would be to dissent from the legitimate Pope in his ordinary magisterium.

      I don't agree with that, I'm just posing that this is where they are going, and we need to have a good response ready.

      What exactly should be our response?

    3. JohnD: What exactly should be our response?

      Well, what about "Are you the state executioner? Are you a professional theologian whose job it is to investigate these issues? Then don't you have something better to do with your time?"

    4. Such a condemnation is NOT theoretically possible, as God Himself has ordered the death penalty in some cases: this would mean God ordered something intrinsically evil, which is impossible. Death is or at least must be a just punishment or at least consequence for at least some things, presumably grave sins in particular but in another way all sins, certainly at least when ignorance is not a factor. I would think the death penalty as ordered by God in some cases rides (as it were) on original sin in the sense that humanity had forfeited in Adam any right (assuming there ever was an absolute one) to live by sinning; but in another way we could say no creature has an absolute right to be: if this were so then presumably it would have been morally incumbent upon God to at least have created the universe from all eternity.

      Moreover we also can take into consideration the fact that God is the Lord of all creation and presumably has a sovereign right over the life he gives (for whatever is given can be taken away) as well as the act of existence as such.

      So I think there are many issues with claiming that the DP could simply be condemned as intrinsically evil, as this implies it always has been. Now, if we were to moderate that statement with something like it is always intrinsically evil to kill a human being outside the express will of God, then perhaps that might be salvageable. But there are many Doctors of the Church who have claimed - if memory serves me right, St. Thomas is one of them - that a murderer, for instance, has indeed forfeited his right to life, at least as it were in human terms.

    5. Tacitly denies retributive justice: into the trash it goes. What about the crime being in the past and the person being detained is special for the death penalty? All punishments require that and this would seem to restrict all of them without special pleading re death.

      Also, everyone who's committed a murder prima facie poses a threat.

  3. "They must submit with mind and will to the modern Popes."
    I think the answer to that sort of sentiment should be something along the lines of what Nietzsche would say: "As soon as a religion comes to dominate it has as its opponents all those who would have been its first disciples."
    And I repeat that as a Catholic myself

    1. Obedience to prelates is for our sake in God's dispensation:
      [17] Obey your prelates, and be subject to them. For they watch as being to render an account of your souls; that they may do this with joy, and not with grief. For this is not expedient for you.
      I think St. Ignatius stressed this doctrine in particular: that the bishops especially in the Church are truly ordained by God to be sentinels for our salvation. They are "papas" - fathers - called by natural affection as those who love us diligently and carefully. Eusebius provides an amazing story concerning the Apostle St. John and example he gave the lengths to which a bishop or a pastor should go for the love of God to turn man away from sin and restore him to God - see next post.

    2. Eusebius, Church History, Book III, Chap. 23:

      7. When he had come to one of the cities not far away (the name of which is given by some ), and had consoled the brethren in other matters, he finally turned to the bishop that had been appointed, and seeing a youth... he said, 'This one I commit to you in all earnestness in the presence of the Church and with Christ as witness.'...

      8. But the presbyter taking home the youth committed to him, reared, kept, cherished, and finally baptized him. After this he relaxed his stricter care and watchfulness, with the idea that in putting upon him the seal of the Lord he had given him a perfect protection.

      9. But some youths of his own age, idle and dissolute, and accustomed to evil practices, corrupted him ... finally they demanded that he should unite with them in some greater crime.


      11. And finally despairing of salvation in God, he no longer meditated what was insignificant, but having committed some great crime, since he was now lost once for all, he expected to suffer a like fate with the rest. Taking them, therefore, and forming a band of robbers, he became a bold bandit-chief, the most violent, most bloody, most cruel of them all.

      12. Time passed, and some necessity having arisen, they sent for John. But he, when he had set in order the other matters on account of which he had come, said, 'Come, O bishop, restore us the deposit which both I and Christ committed to you, the church, over which you preside, being witness.'

      13. But the bishop was at first confounded, thinking that he was falsely charged in regard to money which he had not received, and he could neither believe the accusation respecting what he had not, nor could he disbelieve John. But when he said, 'I demand the young man and the soul of the brother,' the old man, groaning deeply and at the same time bursting into tears, said, 'He is dead.' 'How and what kind of death?' 'He is dead to God,' he said; 'for he turned wicked and abandoned, and at last a robber. And now, instead of the church, he haunts the mountain with a band like himself.'

      14. But the Apostle rent his clothes, and beating his head with great lamentation, he said, 'A fine guard I left for a brother's soul! But let a horse be brought me, and let some one show me the way.' He rode away from the church just as he was, and coming to the place, he was taken prisoner by the robbers' outpost.

      15. He, however, neither fled nor made entreaty, but cried out, 'For this did I come; lead me to your captain.'

      16. The latter, meanwhile, was waiting, armed as he was. But when he recognized John approaching, he turned in shame to flee.

      17. But John, forgetting his age, pursued him with all his might, crying out, 'Why, my son, do you flee from me, your own father, unarmed, aged? Pity me, my son; fear not; you have still hope of life. I will give account to Christ for you. If need be, I will willingly endure your death as the Lord suffered death for us. For you will I give up my life. Stand, believe; Christ has sent me.'

      18. And he, when he heard, first stopped and looked down; then he threw away his arms, and then trembled and wept bitterly. And when the old man approached, he embraced him, making confession with lamentations as he was able, baptizing himself a second time with tears, and concealing only his right hand.

      19. But John, pledging himself, and assuring him on oath that he would find forgiveness with the Saviour, besought him, fell upon his knees, kissed his right hand itself as if now purified by repentance, and led him back to the church. And making intercession for him with copious prayers, and struggling together with him in continual fastings, and subduing his mind by various utterances, he did not depart, as they say, until he had restored him to the church, furnishing a great example of true repentance and a great proof of regeneration, a trophy of a visible resurrection.

  4. "Catholics should give religious assent to what Pope Francis teaches, viz., the death penalty is inadmissable when carried out on a person who is no longer free, who no longer poses a threat, and whose crime was in the past."

    As a Catholic, I cannot give religious assent to a teaching of the ordinary magisterium that directly contradicts previous magisterial teaching.

    Also, I would point out that Fastiggi has not responded to Dr. Feser's reply to him, which was devastating. Yet Fastiggi still maintains that a papal condemnation of the death penalty as intrinsically evil is "theoretically possible."

    What is he smoking? In multiple instances in the Old Testament, God positively commands that the death penalty be enforced. How can God command something that is intrinsically evil?

    1. I agree that the anti's aren't giving adequate answers to Feser et al, but I would be careful about the last paragraph:

      "What is he smoking? In multiple instances in the Old Testament, God positively commands that the death penalty be enforced. How can God command something that is intrinsically evil?"

      God also (supposedly) commands the deaths of innocents (see harem warfare), which to us would be considered intrinsically evil, alongside passages where he commands that the death penalty be enforced. Now I think there are some legitimate ways around such texts that don't twist the meanings, but a naive appeal to the OT wouldn't be sufficient either.

    2. It's definitely not a naive appeal if you have some additional facts behind it. Dr. Feser responded in a previous combox with these great points. I reproduce them here:

      "First of all, the notion of an act which is both commanded by God and is also intrinsically immoral makes no sense. It’s like talking about a round square. “X is commanded by God [who is of necessity perfectly good]” entails “X is morally permissible.” “X is intrinsically immoral” entails “X is never morally permissible.” Hence “X is commanded by God and X is intrinsically immoral” entails “X is morally permissible and X is never morally permissible,” which is self-contradictory.

      Second, to assert that to obey God sometimes entails doing what is intrinsically immoral is blasphemous.

      Third, the position in question entails that scripture might for all we know be absolutely full of injunctions to do what is intrinsically immoral. The skeptic can always say “Sure, God commanded it, but it might for all that be intrinsically immoral and thus something we can ignore now.” How the people you are talking to would reconcile this with the Catholic doctrine that scripture cannot teach error with respect to faith and morals, I have no idea. 

      Fourth, even if one could make it plausible that God might command something intrinsically immoral on some specific, narrowly defined and temporary occasion (such as killing the Canaanites, or commanding Abraham to kill Isaac – which, if your interlocutors are correct, would be intrinsically immoral even though God stopped him, since it is immoral for Abraham even to intend to do what is intrinsically immoral), the position on capital punishment that you are describing is more extreme than this. It entails that God commanded that something intrinsically immoral should be a daily part of Israelite life for centuries. How your interlocutors would reconcile this with God’s goodness, I have no idea.

      Fifth, it is in any event simply false to say that the passages in question involve something intrinsically immoral. The reason is that it is not intrinsically immoral for God to take innocent human life. And the people in question were not taking life on their own authority (which would have been intrinsically immoral), but rather as divine agents or instruments acting under explicit command. It was, strictly speaking, God taking the lives of the people in question, via these agents. (Would this justify people taking innocent life now, claiming to be divine agents? Not at all, because those commands came as part of public divine revelation, and Catholic teaching is that such revelation ended with the death of the last of the Apostles.)

      The view your interlocutors are taking thus has implications that would completely undermine the entire structure of Catholic moral theology. It astounds me how people are prepared to tie themselves in such logical knots, and essentially to burn down the entire building, rather than entertain the possibility that the pope may simply have spoken too loosely, which the Church has always allowed is possible when a pope is not speaking ex cathedra, and which has in fact happened before, even if very rarely. It’s truly insane."

    3. Good... My point is not so much in disagreement with you as it is a refinement of you argument. You had to incorporate "additional facts", and yes you would have to distinguish between the commands of harem warfare as a form of divine dispensation (which would have as said above, been temporary since it was limited to a few specific nations, and also dispensational since humans don't naturally have the authority to take innocent lives like God does) vs capital punishment which was to be in the books for the entire duration.

      All fine, but now, you're not simply quoting the scriptures, you are interpreting them, putting them in context, etc. You have to show the distinction in the commands by showing that capital punishment was not a command of divine dispensation like harem warfare was. For this, you would have to go to the NT, the fathers, etc. Hence OT isn't sufficient.

  5. I would just like to point out, also, that the anti-intellectualism fostered by this Pope and his defenders is unprecedented. He and they consistently refuse to engage their critics in any meaningful way. They reply to argument with rhetoric, and when that rhetoric is exposed as rhetoric, they respond with either silence or force.

    It is indeed a travesty.

  6. JohnD,

    The position you describe depends on a certain interpretation of JP2 and of Francis's earlier statements on CP -- all of which Joe and I analyze at length in the book (pp. 144-96), and show to be merely prudential rather doctrinal in import. Other than perhaps a passing superficial remark here or there, I don't think Fastiggi has addressed our discussion of this material, and I have complained elsewhere of how Brugger also addresses it only superficially at best and Hart and Griffiths not at all.

    Until someone actually addresses our arguments in those pages, any critic who says "Sure, CP may be legitimate in theory but nevertheless every Catholic is at present duty-bound to oppose it in practice" is just blowing smoke.

    1. Thanks Dr. Feser. I will brush up on that material so I can present it to those who are going to quickly start labeling us as dissenters from the ordinary Papal magisterium. I'll also refer folks to your arguments there.

    2. Also, if you're curious, I found the comment from Dr. Fastiggi in the combox of this article.

      I posted a comment there as well, but it is stuck in moderation.

    3. I wish to mention something here that has been bugging the heck out of me. I have seen, over the past 6 months or so, an almost constant refrain of people saying things like "Francis' magisterium" and "he Pope to use his ordinary magisterium".

      I believe these usages must be rejected forcefully, loudly, repeatedly, and in every other way definitively.

      First, since when do we speak of a specific pope's "magisterium". As far as I can recall from 50 years of being a Catholic, such a usage was never offered before Francis. The "magisterium" is defined as "the teaching authority of the Church." It is vested in the body of the bishops, together with their head, the pope. Every time the bishops teach the Catholic faith handed on to them faithfully, they participate in the magisterial authority. Even if they merely repeat verbatim something a prior bishop or pope said. Especially if they merely hand on what they received.

      The Pope's authority is higher than that of any other bishop, but when he exercises it he is still participating in the teaching authority OF THE CHURCH. It is not his personal possession, it is a gift of the Church whole, vested in the teaching office of the bishopric. There is no such thing as "Francis's magisterium" and "Benedict's magisterium", there is only THE ONE magisterium - the Church's - and it persists through the reigns of all the popes.

      Secondly, it is impossible for Francis to exercise "his ordinary magisterium". Not only does he not have "his own" magisterium, he cannot even EXERCISE the "ordinary magisterium" in his own person or via his own acts. The very nature of the ordinary magisterium is that it consists in the long-term (millenial) teaching of the Church as instantiated in the many, many teachings of these and those bishops, Councils, and popes. The "ordinary magisterium" is visible only by looking back over centuries (at this point, many centuries), not by seeing what was inserted into the Acta Apostolicae Sedis last month. If Francis' teaching is restated and explained by bishops and popes for centuries, in 2750 someone can come along and say "X teaching, by Francis and hundreds of others over the centuries, is part of the ordinary magisterial teaching." Nobody can say it now.

      What Francis is using is his ordinary teaching authority. Good enough. He has such. So does every bishop. We owe religious assent to statements of the bishops exercising their ordinary teaching authority, to the extent of the manner and intention of the teaching proposed.

      So far, Francis has basically alluded to a teaching that he says he would like to make, he has summarized its main point, but he has neither made it in a complete form, has not explained it in detail, nor said how definitive he intends us to understand his proposed teaching. As usual, he is sloppy, ambiguous, and incomplete. I am, therefore, obliged to give religious assent to something or other that limits the DP, while I am bound by a higher obligation to give definite and firm assent to an infallible teaching that the DP is morally licit in principle. Is that where we stand?

    4. Tony: First, since when do we speak of a specific pope's "magisterium".

      Ever since we lost sight of what a "Church" is and started confusing it with a political party. (Isn't "magisterium" Latin for "the administration"?)

  7. "a person who no longer poses a threat and whose crime was in the past."

    By definition, are not all crimes that have been committed "in the past"?

  8. It is most interesting that those who oppose capital punishment twist themselves like a pretzel to find moral justification for their position where there is none. They then proceed to do the same process to avoid condemning those in sinful lifestyles while proclaiming themselves as acting in the fullness of the spirit of the Church. Believe we used to call these theological aberrants heretics.