Sunday, February 11, 2018

NOR on By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed

Catholics are so accustomed to hearing that opposition to capital punishment is pro-life that few may realize there are good reasons to support it.  Those reasons are set forth in a systematic and convincing manner in By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed.  Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette find the pendulum has swung too far in one direction in the capital-punishment debate (to the extent there is one today), and Catholics are confused when told that something their Church upholds, and has always upheld, is now considered immoral…

Their approach is rigorously logical, philosophical, and biblical, and they defend capital punishment as an essential recourse for society to punish the worst criminals.  Feser and Bessette never stray from Catholic teaching and tradition in their treatment of the subject…

In the tradition of Aquinas, the authors not only lay out a solid case for capital punishment but also address the various arguments against it – that it’s an affront to human dignity, that it doesn’t deter, that it forecloses the possibility of reform, and that the innocent might sometimes be executed.  After careful examination, the authors find all such arguments wanting…

By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed asks much of the reader; its thorough and closely reasoned treatment of a complex subject allows no shortcuts.  But those who persevere to the end are amply rewarded.  Feser and Bessette accomplish what they set out to do: present a badly needed corrective to what recently has been a largely one-sided treatment of capital punishment.  Catholics who are open to hearing the case for it – perhaps for the first time – will find this book indispensable.


  1. Dr. Feser/everyone, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on Alan Keyes' (a catholic) response to the objection that one cannot be pro-life and pro-capital-punishment from this short clip:

    1. Not speaking for Feser, but one reason you can be both pro-life and pro-DP is that someone who commits a grave enough crime forfeits their right to life. That is the difference between a fetus, the most innocent life of all and a cold-blooded murdered, the least innocent.

    2. Feser mentions, in By Man Shall His Blood be Shed, a wonderful response to this line of questioning. In the same way we consider ourselves to be pro-liberty by imprisoning kidnappers (since we so highly value liberty), so do we consider ourselves pro-life by executing murderers (since we so highly value life). Granted this doesn't map completely, since presumably we would want to imprison kidnappers at a higher rate than we would want to execute murderers, owing to various circumstances(at the end of the day we might sentence 99% of kidnappers to prison time, and execute only 25% of murderers), and since we also believe that, in principle at least, other crimes besides murder warrant the penalty of death. Nevertheless, the analogy is a powerful one. I have found it quite handy when speaking with friends about the issue.

  2. It all depends on what "pro-life" means. If it means that human life is sacred from the womb to the tomb, then it follows that both abortion and the death penalty are wrong.
    If it means that there can be certain circumstances in which something else outweighs the sanctity of human life, then from that kind of pro-life stance in and out of itself it doesn't follow that the death penalty is wrong, but neither does it follow that abortion is wrong.
    That doesn't mean, of course, that abortion (or the deth penalty) cannot be wrong for other reasons that have nothing to do with a radical pro-life position.

    1. Of course, innocent human life is sacred and inviolable, but a murderer is one who violates that which is most sacred. One can say that the death penalty argument from proportionality is in fact something very attuned to the fact that innocent human life is sacred -- hence why a deliberate, malicious violation of it deserves the highest possible punishment, which is proportional to it.

      It has always amazed me how people simply ignore the importance of moral status to such questions. The fact that it is always wrong to kill innocent people does not mean that it is always wrong to kill evil and guilty criminals. It's not a "detail" either. It's glaringly obvious, or at least should be, to the common man that putting a murderer to death is not the same as killing a child. For fuck's sake. Why is this even a discussion.

    2. Miguel

      Sure, if "pro-life" merely means "pro-innocent life" it is possible to be pro-life as well as pro death penalty. The question is, however, whether that is what the sanctity of human life is about.
      The point is that if human life is sacred and inviolable under all circumstances, the highest possible punishment for malicious violation of it cannot be the death penalty, becasue in that case the DP itself would be a violation of the sanctity of life.

    3. The sanctity of human life has never meant that a murderer (someone who violates the sanctity of human life) cannot ever be put to death. Or that soldiers cannot fight a just war to defend their country from aggression or stop a genocide. On the contrary, such actions are MOTIVATED by the sanctity of human life; to protect it against those who relativize it and want to treat people as animals, which we kill irrespective of moral standing (which animals don't have) thinking only about the consequences. That includes abortion.

      My point is that there is a universe of difference between executing a murderer, and murdering an innocent child. If one is to become a paramount example of a violation of the sanctity of life, and you could only pick one, it is clear which one it would be. Comparing these two cases is just silly. Part of the revolt involved against abortion is precisely that it is the killing of innocent unborn children, and comparing that to executing a convicted serial killer is already tasteless, and in itself a scorn and disrespect towards the sanctity of human life.

    4. Miguel

      Of course, for someone who defends the death penalty, the sanctity of human life has never meant that a murderer cannot ever be put to death.
      But there are other people who do not hold such a limited view on the sanctity of human life. Pope Francis, along with lots of other catholics, takes the sanctity of human life as absolute. Being guilty of something (even of murder) does not, in their opinion, mean the sanctity of your life is gone

  3. It is hypocritical, period. Someone clearly can't be okay with public authorities executing a convicted cold-blooded murderer, and NOT be okay with killing an innocent unborn child.

    Sarcasm off.

    Why even discuss this? The only issue is if one takes ANY human life, including that of guilty evil people who seriously harmed others, to be completely inviolable in ANY circumstances. This is not in any way a necessary premiss to oppose abortion.

    This site put forward the standard objections that orthodox Catholics have to many of the opinions on the Feser blog. The response from Dr. Feser was disappointing:

    Who is this guy? He goes wrong immediately -- naturally I have never denied that God is personal (and I've responded to this moronic charge about 1,234 times now) -- and it just gets worse from there.

    So, just an invitation to personal attack and a straw man argument (the site does not accuse Feser of denying that God is personal). He owes his readership more that this because the one thing he can never say is - where is this guy coming from? - The reason:
    Whatever the merit of his views on these and other subjects, Dr. Feser knows they are marginal within the Catholic Church and represent a tiny faction which is presumably why Bertrand Russell is summoned to take part in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition as described by Dr. Feser.

    Perhaps the Church is in need of a Reformation. Catholics need to be told if it will come from California or perhaps why they should deviate from the Thomistic tradition as it has always been known. The world is big enough for many points of view, yes. Indeed, representing marginal opinions as those of the Church, or Thomism, and professing to be shocked when they are rejected as unorthodox is probably more prudent that confronting the objections properly and leaving orthodox Catholics in no doubt whatsoever about the marginal character of the Feser blog on such matters.

    1. Bertrand Russell is summoned to take part in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition as described by Dr. Feser.

      Another assertion that is so jaw-droppingly moronic that I am happy to call attention to it as an indicator of the level of competence and/or intellectual honesty readers can expect to find at your blog, "Doc."

    2. Perhaps the Church is in need of a Reformation.

      Been there; done that. Didn't work out that well.

  5. Russell should have been excluded from the Analytical Philosophy that is lumped together with Thomism in the strange history of Thomism presented on the blog. About as logical as a history of the English Civil War with Charles I, Hannibal Barca and the Suffragettes on one side versus Green Peace and Cromwell.

  6. If (1) the legitimacy of capital punishment is taught infallibly by the universal ordinary magisterium of the Church, i.e. it is a dogma of the faith denial of which is heresy;
    and (2) Pope Francis has publicly denied or called into doubt the legitimacy of capital punishment, which he has;
    and (3) continued to do so after being confronted with the heretical significance of his statements, which he has;
    then (4) doesn't it follow that Francis is a public and obstinate heretic?


  7. If (1) the legitimacy of capital punishment is taught infallibly by the universal ordinary magisterium of the Church, i.e. it is a dogma of the faith denial of which is heresy;

    "Dogmas" are a subset of what has been "defined", and are a subset of what has been stated "infallibly". Not everything that is taught infallibly is "defined" nor dogmatic. The Catholic Encyclopedia:

    If (1) the legitimacy of capital punishment is taught infallibly by the universal ordinary magisterium of the Church, i.e. it is a dogma of the faith denial of which is heresy; ...
    Theologians distinguish three classes of revealed truths: truths formally and explicitly revealed; truths revealed formally, but only implicitly; and truths only virtually revealed. ...
    Now, truths formally and explicitly revealed by God are certainly dogmas in the strict sense when they are proposed or defined by the Church. Such are the articles of the Apostles' Creed. Similarly, truths revealed by God formally, but only implicitly, are dogmas in the strict sense when proposed or defined by the Church. Such, for example, are the doctrines of Transubstantiation, papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception, some of the Church's teaching about the Saviour, the sacraments, etc. All doctrines defined by the Church as being contained in revelation are understood to be formally revealed, explicitly or implicitly. It is a dogma of faith that the Church is infallible in defining these two classes of revealed truths; and the deliberate denial of one of these dogmas certainly involves the sin of heresy. There is a diversity of opinion about virtually revealed truths, which has its roots in a diversity of opinion about the material object of faith (see FAITH). It is enough to say here that, according to some theologians, virtually revealed truths belong to the material object of faith and become dogmas in the strict sense when defined or proposed by the Church; and according to others, they do not belong to the material object of faith prior to their definition, but become strict dogmas when defined; and, according to others, they do not belong to the material object of Divine faith at all, nor become dogmas in the strict sense when defined, but may be called mediately-Divine or ecclesiastical dogmas.

    Whatever else is the case, the teaching about the intrinsic moral licitness of CP has not been solemnly defined. Prof Feser makes a great case that it has been taught infallibly, but nowhere indicates that it has been "defined". If he is right, then obstinate refusal to accept the teaching would indeed constitute heresy. But nothing Francis has done so far arises to that, in part because everything he has said so far can be interpreted ambiguously and not definitively contrary to the thesis "capital punishment is in principle morally licit".

  8. For instance, his comment that it is "contrary to the Gospel" could be interpreted as "it is acceptable to the natural moral law, but Jesus Christ called us to a higher standard than just what is acceptable to the natural moral law, and in that calling he put capital punishment off limits. In being Christians we bind ourselves to not taking advantage of everything that is licit under the natural law, and this is one of them." I happen to think that it is very unlikely that this is ultimately what Francis meant, but what he DID mean remains ambiguous.

    The page you cite has a different quote but one that is similar in direction:

    The Church … firmly rejects the death penalty.

    This too is ambiguous. The adverb "firmly" does a great deal of work in the emphasis, but (surprisingly) little of the logic. If you read it as "the Church rejects the death penalty", it would have no greater or lesser problems. Pope JPII, Benedict, and Francis have rejected the use of DP when not "necessary" for safety. They have inserted that teaching in teaching documents - i.e. the "teaching Church". They also held that those "necessary" conditions don't exist, and while THAT estimation is not a Church teaching, it is a legitimate opinion IN the Church. It cannot be said in any simple sense that it is logically invalid to summarize these fact by "the Church rejects DP". It does reject a certain sense. Just not in every sense. The Church also accepts the DP, in some sense. But not in every sense.

    Even if I think JPII, Benedict, and Francis have been WRONG to say all of these things, even if I think that they made big mistakes every time they opened their mouths on the topic, I cannot prove that "the Church rejects the DP" is heretical as a statement. "Firmly" does nothing to change that.

    Francis is great at saying things ambiguously. While it makes terrible teaching, it also makes it very hard to prove just what sense is meant. Which is, for practical purposes, necessary for a declaration of heresy.