Saturday, June 15, 2019

The bishops and capital punishment

A group of five prelates comprising Cardinal Raymond Burke, Bishop Athanasius Schneider, Cardinal Janis Pujats, Archbishop Tomash Peta, and Archbishop Jan Pawel Lenga this week issued a “Declaration of the truths relating to some of the most common errors in the life of the Church of our time.”  Among the many perennial Catholic doctrines that are now commonly challenged but are reaffirmed in the document is the following:

In accordance with Holy Scripture and the constant tradition of the ordinary and universal Magisterium, the Church did not err in teaching that the civil power may lawfully exercise capital punishment on malefactors where this is truly necessary to preserve the existence or just order of societies (see Gen 9:6; John 19:11; Rom 13:1-7; Innocent III, Professio fidei Waldensibus praescripta; Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, p. III, 5, n. 4; Pius XII, Address to Catholic jurists on December 5, 1954).

No doubt the prelates judged this passage necessary because of the controversy generated by Pope Francis’s revision last year to the Catechism’s treatment of capital punishment – the wording of which is at best ambiguous, and at worst insinuates that capital punishment is always and intrinsically evil.  (I have discussed the problems with the revision in articles at First Things and Catholic Herald.  Last year a group of concerned Catholic scholars and clergy appealed to the cardinals of the Church to ask the pope to retract the revision.)

Crux reports that, in a very different move, a committee headed by Bishop Robert Barron is considering altering the language of the U.S. bishops’ catechism for adults so as to bring it into conformity with Pope Francis’s revision.  Now, Crux also noted that:

Barron said June 11 that the draft emphasizes the dignity of all people and the misapplication of capital punishment.  Discussion of the proposed revision is not meant to be a debate on the death penalty overall, he added…

Barron reiterated that the bishops are not debating the change to the universal catechism itself or even the overall issue of capital punishment, but simply deciding if the added revision to the adult catechism adequately reflects recent catechism revisions.

End quote.  These remarks from Bishop Barron indicate that the U.S. bishops are not going to address the controversy over how to interpret Pope Francis’s revision, or even the “overall” issue of capital punishment as opposed to merely its “misapplication.”  The Crux article also adds that the alteration being considered by the U.S. bishops “emphasizes the continuity of Catholic teaching on this topic by citing St. John Paul II’s encyclical, ‘The Gospel of Life,’ and previous statements of U.S. bishops.”

Evidently, then, the bishops are not going to be adding language that explicitly asserts that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong.  That is good to know.  However, it is not clear that the language they will be adding will explicitly deny that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong.  But such an explicit denial is necessary if the bishops want to “emphasize the continuity of Catholic teaching on this topic.”  Merely citing Pope John Paul II or previous U.S. bishops’ statements will in no way establish continuity unless the quotes in question include explicit affirmations from the late pope or the bishops to the effect that capital punishment can sometimes be legitimate at least in principle. 

Nor is citing statements from recent years a very impressive way of establishing “continuity” in the first place.  After all, the reason the bishops see a need to emphasize continuity is surely that many people worry that current teaching involves a rupture with scripture and two millennia of previous magisterial teaching.  So, what is needed is a statement clearly explaining how current teaching is in continuity not only with Pope St. John Paul II and earlier U.S. bishops, but also with the teaching of scripture, the Fathers of the Church, popes like St. Innocent I, Innocent III, St. Pius V, St. Pius X, and Pius XII, and Doctors of the Church like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, and St. Alphonsus Liguori – all of whom taught that capital punishment can be legitimate in principle, even if they did not all favor resorting to it in practice.

Now, some other bishops have in recent years reaffirmed the Church’s traditional teaching.  The most famous example is the 2004 statement from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (then the Church’s chief doctrinal officer, who would go on to become Pope Benedict XVI) to the effect that:

If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment… he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.  While the Church exhorts civil authorities… to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible… to have recourse to capital punishment.  There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… the death penalty.

End quote.  This passage was repeated almost verbatim in a 2004 USCCB document on Catholics in public life written by Archbishop William Levada.  The following year, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz affirmed that capital punishment is not intrinsically evil, and that “one can disagree with the bishops’ teaching about the death penalty and still present himself for holy Communion… and our Holy Father, as Cardinal Ratzinger, made that clear.”  Archbishop Charles Chaput, despite his personal opposition to capital punishment, also stated in 2005 that:

The death penalty is not intrinsically evil.  Both Scripture and long Christian tradition acknowledge the legitimacy of capital punishment under certain circumstances.  The Church cannot repudiate that without repudiating her own identity

Now, will the revision currently being considered by the U.S. bishops “emphasize continuity” with these statements of just fifteen or so years ago?  Do the bishops still teach that the death penalty is not intrinsically wrong?  Do they teach that the question of whether to apply capital punishment is, accordingly, a prudential matter about which Catholics can legitimately disagree (as Ratzinger, Levada, and Bruskewitz all affirmed)?  Do the U.S. bishops agree with the statement on capital punishment put forward by cardinals Burke and Pujats and bishops Schneider, Peta, and Lenga?  And if they would answer any of these questions in the negative, how can their current teaching be in “continuity” with past Catholic teaching?  What kind of “continuity” is it that would countenance a reversal of what was taught only fifteen years ago, let alone for over two millennia?

Crux says that the U.S. bishops are concerned to address “what the U.S. Church teaches its adult members about the death penalty.”  What the U.S. Church teaches will not be clear unless questions like these are answered straightforwardly.


  1. When I grow up I want to be like Bishop Athanasius Schneider.

  2. Professor Feser,

    "... civil power... lawfully exercise... malefactors... where this is truly necessary to preserve the existence or just order of societies..."

    Are these the only limitations on the use of capital punishment in traditional thinking? I ask because of the discussion, if I can call it that, elsewhere about executing for formerly capital crimes. Or does traditional thinking, or its proper development, limit the use of capital punishment to currently capital crimes like murder or some kinds of treason? I am genuinely interested.

    For the record, my own thinking is that capital punishment should not be used in modern, Western societies because it is so often demanded by the public out of intense hatred for the criminal, not a real concern for justice. It satisfies a thirst for vengeance. I got the idea from Cardinal Dulles and my experience in Canadian politics. Thank you, I am,


    1. There are lots of things for which capital punishment might in theory be inflicted. (Cf. the Old Testament.) But various prudential considerations, including other moral principles that must be balanced against the demands of retributive justice and deterrence, in my opinion make it morally better to restrict it to just a few cases. For example, in my opinion, the death penalty should be kept on the books as an option for punishing serial killers and others guilty of very heinous murders, drug kingpins, war criminals, and those guilty of high treason.

      Some people complain that Joe Bessette and I don't go into enough detail in our book about exactly what crimes should be eligible for capital punishment. But while that is of course an important question, addressing it was not our main concern in the book. Our main concern was to counter the extremism of some on the Catholic anti-capital punishment side who hold either that (a) capital punishment is always and intrinsically wrong and/or (b) that it should not be kept on the books at all for any offense whatsoever. Our aim in the book is to establish that (a) cannot possibly be reconciled with orthodoxy and that while (b) is not heterodox, the arguments for it are all very feeble and that there are powerful reasons for keeping capital punishment on the books for at least the most egregious offenses. I think we do establish both these things.

      As to your remarks about "a thirst for vengeance" etc., we also address that in the book. One problem with such claims is a problem that is common to anti-capital punishment rhetoric -- it boils down to sheer sweeping dogmatic assertions that attack people's motives on the basis of no evidence, and fail to make crucial distinctions. For example, "vengeance" can entail hatred of the offender, and of course that is bad. But "vengeance" can also mean merely a desire to see justice done and social order upheld, and that is not only not bad, it is good. The claim that people who favor capital punishment in general are or must be motivated by hatred is false and unsupported by any evidence. It is simply an ad hominem fallacy that evidences the inability of many opponents of capital punishment to think logically or to keep their emotions in check. And if you read what Dulles actually wrote (e.g. in his First Things essay on the subject), you'll find that he never makes such sweeping claims about the motives of supporters of capital punishment, and indeed also acknowledges that many opponents of capital punishment are themselves motivated by premises that are liberal, modernist, and heterodox rather than Catholic.

    2. Professor Feser,

      Thank you for your response.

      As for my own position, I appreciate that there are some who want the death penalty for the right reasons. I just haven't met many in real life. Most seem to fall under Cardinal Dulles second listed objection:

      "Another objection observes that the death penalty often has the effect of whetting an inordinate appetite for revenge rather than satisfying an authentic zeal for justice. By giving in to a perverse spirit of vindictiveness or a morbid attraction to the gruesome, the courts contribute to the degradation of the culture, replicating the worst features of the Roman Empire in its period of decline."

      But, I'm happy to concede this may say more about the limits of my own experience than the actual opinions of the public. But still, you'd think in all those years. And of course, the situation may be very different in other Western nations, such as the United States, where the death penalty is used. Thank you again. I am,


    3. I think a lot of modern media, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Grand Theft Auto, The Hunger Games, reflect that 'morbid attraction to the gruesome'. And it's easy to see other similarities between the Roman Empire in its decline, even at its height, and modern society. Maybe I'm wrong. I am,


    4. What is it about a crime that makes it capitally punishable? Has this been answered before?

      The death penalty is easiest to understand for murderers, as it is “a life for a life”, but it is not as clearly proportional for other crimes.

    5. Well the same can be said for any crime. What crime justifies forfeiting liberty or property, thus justifying a prison sentence of confiscation of property?

    6. Didymus:

      The US death penalty cannot be revenge, as detailed. Such may cover other jurisdictions, as well.

      Neither the judges nor jurors can have any connection to the individuals or circumstances of the murders, must presume the defendant innocent, until (or if) proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, with laws and sanctions that existed prior to the murders, within a system that provides super due process, in pre trial, trial, appeals and executive consideration within pardons or commutation, offering greater protections and safeguards than with any other sanction, none of which have a revenge component - just the opposite.

      Our preexisting laws are based within just retribution or justice, with sanctions that are proportional to the crimes committed and which are not too harsh and not too lenient, based upon all circumstances of the crimes and the individuals involved.

      All of which exclude revenge,

      About 1% of our murderers receives the death penalty, with about 0.2% being executed.

  3. I have an interesting question.

    The Church clearly teaches that the death penalty is not intrinsically wrong in all cases. But can the death penalty be intrinsically wrong in some cases but not others?

    I am not talking about the DP for small crimes (which is obviously intrinsically wrong), but whether or not Catholics can hold the opinion that, because modern circumstances change things considerably, applying the DP today is therefore intrinsically wrong, even though in different circumstances it may not be.

    That is, the DP is intrinsically wrong in some circumstances, but not others, thereby still admitting that in some cases the DP is legitimate and not intrinsically wrong absolutely speaking.

    Is that position something a Catholic can hold in good conscience, without having violated the clear teaching of the Church?

    1. JoeD,

      Nobody with a dictionary should hold that position. I am,


    2. JoeD,

      Execution for 'small crimes' is not intrinsically wrong, it is extrinsically wrong. It is the circumstances, here the magnitude of their consequences, that determines the rightness or wrongness. I hope that makes more sense. I am,


    3. No, because the very definition of "intrinsically wrong" means "wrong in all cases". If there is even a single case in which the death penalty is not wrong, it is not intrinsically wrong.

    4. I think Dydimus has the sense of it. "Intrinsically" means, at the first level, from intrinsic causes, and as a consequence, from the nature of the thing. If it belongs to the nature of the thing, it belongs to it in ALL instances of it, because it has that nature in all instances. And if it's rightness or wrongness does not spring from its nature, then it will not be intrinsically right or wrong.

      The standard treatment of (morally) evil acts is that they are evil either on account of their object (which pertains to its nature and is therefore an intrinsic cause), or from its end (i.e. purpose, intention), or from its circumstances. If a thing is wrong in some circumstances and not-wrong in other circumstances, then its wrongness comes from applying to it (with its substance and its nature) SPECIFIC set of circumstances, and this means it is not wrong from intrinsic causes but from extrinsic.

      Those things that are wrong from intrinsic causes are wrong in ALL cases and thus there is no need to apply the special sort of reasoning (called "prudential") that sorts out circumstances in order to decide what is good or bad: a species of action that is wrong by the specification of its object (i.e. applicable to the whole species as having an evil object) is wrong in ALL cases, that's what it means for it to be evil as a whole species, and thus we need not consider different cases / circumstances to determine that it is wrong (though considering cases can determine more or less guilt). It is only when an action is not evil from its very species does prudence come in to weigh the circumstances to determine whether it is good or bad.

    5. @Tony,

      So, if something is intrinsically wrong, it is absolutely wrong in all cases, and no variation per circumstance or intention can exist. That's understandable.

      In other words, this means that it's perfectly possible for the DP to be wrong in some cases and wrong in others depending on circumstance.

      But does this also extend to saying that the DP is contrary to human dignity (to use the Catechism revision's language) in modern times precisely because the circumstances of modern times are unlike the circumstances where the DP would be warranted in it's use - so punishing someone with death nowadays would be wrong?

      It's not that the DP is intrinsically wrong, since there are obviously cases where it is justified - it's just that in modern times the various justifications don't exist and thus to use the DP today would in fact be wrong and thus contrary to human dignity.

      Is that a prudential position a Catholic can hold in good conscience?

    6. Joe, I think that it is indeed notionally possible that DP is bad in "all cases of a certain type" or "all cases with circumstance X". And one might argue that "Circumstance X" could be "under modern conditions": a person could hold it in good conscience - as long as he did not examine the point too closely. But properly there would have to be an argument for it, deriving from how X affects the meaning and purpose of punishment in general and DP in particular. And I don't think there is one.

      The only two proposals I have heard that might allow X to be "the modern condition" as a successful, broad circumstance, are these: (a) The only morally legitimate circumstance where the DP is allowable is when no other means can render society safe from the further attacks by this specific individual offender, and since we moderns now have safe prisons DP is no longer allowable; and (b) modernity is so degenerate morally and philosophically that modern society cannot rightly perceive the just, upright value of severe punishment, and thus in modern conditions the DP appears to be unjust.

      As to (a), it is wrong conceptually if the perennial teaching of the Church is true, and it is also certainly wrong as a prudential judgment of modern prisons. On the second point: murderers and others commit violent crimes in prison all the time, and we are manifestly unable to keep other prisoners safe from such violent men. Even solitary confinement would not work if we allowed such niceties of (i) pastoral visits by priests or ministers, or (ii) humane care by doctors, since either of these could be attacked by a man bent on committing mayhem when possible. Furthermore, violent members of gangs and mafia can organize further evil both inside and outside of prison through communications (sometimes through guards on the payroll): we would have to come up with some kind of solitary confinement that did not allow for ANY interaction with others whatsoever - thus eliminating any rational hope for reform of the criminal. And, virtually every proponent of outlawing the DP would call such confinement cruel and immoral - certainly the Pope says so.

      All that aside, there is little to no room in traditional Catholic teaching that allows for the notion that the ONLY room for DP is when we cannot keep people safe from further acts of this offender. The traditional teaching is that the common good is the controlling principle, and use of the DP is morally licit when it will serve the common good; further, that the common good is generally served by the component purposes of DP: (1) the restoration of the balance of justice with regard to this man's specific crime; (2) the manifestation of justice as an essential element of the human order; (3) teaching people to shun evil and embrace good; (4) deterring would-be offenders from grave crimes; (5) interior reform of the criminal so that he will repent and be saved; and (6) inculcation of virtue in the citizens so that they have more cohesive respect, honor, and love for law, order and the good. And, (7) of course, keeping society safe from this offender's future acts. To which we should add. There is no extant argument out there that the 7th on this list does and should trump ALL of the others as to benefiting the common good, so there being no necessity of resorting to DP for serving (7) means that the sum total of all the purposes served by DP are not sufficient to outweigh the loss of the personal good of his life by the offender. Any such argument would have mountain ranges of problems to solve, and no proponent of getting rid of DP has taken on the challenge, much less achieved it. The closest they have come is to throw in term "human dignity" with the hope that this solves it, without actually making an argument. It fails.

    7. As to (b), first, no proponent of outlawing DP actually thinks that our modern notions of punishment are degenerate morally and philosophically, they all say we are "advanced" compared to earlier times. So the people who actually want to get rid of DP do not consistently argue (b), they only use it as a debate prop. Secondly, it is eminently arguable that if we are degenerate in our grasp of punishment, one of the tools of restoring and recovering our moral balance is to insist on not eliminating one of the few remaining, historically and philosophically important ways of manifesting justice and order in a rational way, the DP, that is still on the books. The argument that the DP cannot possibly be a useful means of helping recover moral sense is impossible to make, the only plausible argument would be that we use it very infrequently or even (in an accidental sense) not all for a modest time while we slowly move back toward a just order in other ways.

      In general, the opponents of DP have largely shunned the attempt to wrestle with the traditional arguments about how punishment in general and DP in particular serve the common good as a whole. They have ignored or even rejected the long list of ends that DP serves, even going so far as to reject (1) above (the retributive end), even though retribution is the core principle of just punishment, the primary purpose and the of very essence of punishment as a genus. They have usually discarded (5) - salvation of the offender's soul - as having any practical bearing on the state's decisions, even while they insist that "human dignity" is all-important to the state.

      In short, in my estimation a Catholic can argue that DP is ALWAYS bad "in modern circumstances" only by refusing to reflect fully on the traditional teaching of the Church, which he does not do in good conscience.

    8. @JoeD

      That is precisely the position that, while not heretical, Prof. Feser and Joe Bessette argue is extremely feeble in their book.

  4. Pope Francis' revisions to the Catechism do entail that capital punishment is intrinsically evil and are in conflict with Catholic teaching up to that point.

    Dr. Feser himself admits as much in his First Things article:

    "Moreover, to say, as the pope does, that the death penalty conflicts with “the inviolability and dignity of the person” insinuates that the practice is intrinsically contrary to natural law. And to say, as the pope does, that “the light of the Gospel” rules out capital punishment insinuates that it is intrinsically contrary to Christian morality.

    To say either of these things is precisely to contradict past teaching. "

    Then of course we get the following desperate red herring:

    "The Church has always acknowledged that popes can make doctrinal errors when not speaking ex cathedra—Pope Honorius I and Pope John XXII being the best-known examples of popes who actually did so."

    Yes, but the Church has never acknowledged that Popes can make serious doctrinal errors in the exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium. To do so would be to admit that such Magisterium has neither credibility nor authority in the strict sense.

    1. Eh? But acknowledging they can make errors when not soeaking ex cathedra is precisely the same as saying they can make errors in other contexts.

    2. Yes, not to mention the possibility of error explicitly mentioned in Donum Veritatis.

      Vince S seems to be trading on this "infallible even when not infallible" nonsense that has been making the rounds over the last couple of years among certain defenders of the pope.

    3. Bellomy:

      Yes, but that doesn't imply they can make any sort of error whatsoever in any other context whatsoever.


      How can I possibly be claiming that when I claim a contradiction? It must either be wrong then or else now, and thus can hardly be "infallible".

      Anyway, are we admitting that a Pope can make a very serious error in the exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium, or not?

    4. Yes, of course he can. Nobofy has EVER denied that.

      If you think that robs the magisterium of authority, well, I must confess I appreciate the irony of the Magisterium attacked on two fronts for having too much and too little authority.

    5. Of course it robs the Magisterium of authority; it means the Magisterium is only a human, but not a Divine, authority. It has no more authority than a schoolteacher would have over a pupil: worthy of respect and the benefit of the doubt, perhaps, but not worthy of acceptation simply and only because the authority says so.

    6. Anyway, are we admitting that a Pope can make a very serious error in the exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium, or not?

      Of course. Why else do you think the Church speaks of the requirement of religious submission of will and intellect that usually attaches even to magisterial teachings that are not irreformable? If they couldn't be mistaken, they would be irreformable.

      Again, this category of statement is acknowledged in Donum Veritatis and was commonly recognized in approved theological works long before that. And DV also acknowledges that there can even be cases where a statement is problematic enough that the religious submission of intellect and will that is ordinarily required would not apply, and the theologian permitted to raise respectful criticisms.

      Go back and read my post "Papal fallibility," which sets out the five categories of magisterial statement and the degree of authority and assent attaching to each. Also my post "The Church permits criticism of popes under certain circumstances." You are working with a simplistic model of how magisterial teaching works.

    7. Anyway, are we admitting that a Pope can make a very serious error in the exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium, or not?

      Yes, of course we are saying the pope can err in a teaching that is not an Extraordinary act of the Magisterial charism of infallibility.

      The charism of being kept free from error in teaching is a charism that is given to the Church as a whole, and in that given to the Pope in a special way. That charism is limited: e.g. it DOES NOT extend to the announcement of completely new theory that is not contained (at least implicitly) in the deposit of faith. It is also limited by what has already been taught with that charism.

      When the Church has taught something infallibly with its charism of being free from error, that comes to be taught infallibly by way of the Ordinary Magisterium, that teaching becomes a guiding (i.e. controlling) teaching on all subsequent teachers in the Church. Once the teaching has become infallible by reason of the Ordinary Magisterial teaching of the Church, a teaching (by anyone) directly contrary cannot be "Magisterial" at all, for that would set the Magisterium at odds with its OWN SELF, which is ridiculous. Even the pope's so-called "magisterium" cannot be employed in contradicting what the Magisterium has already taught infallibly. If a pope tries to - such as when John XXII tried to - such acts should not be called "a teaching of the papal magisterium", for this improperly creates a false notion of a double magisterium in the Church, i.e. two things rather than one, that they might be against each other. But the Church is one, and the Holy Spirit is one, and the Truth never contradicts itself, so there cannot be two distinct gifts of magisterial protection from error able to contradict each other. Calling it an act of the "papal magisterium" is a confused and obfuscating way of speaking.

      The honor, respect, and submission that we ordinarily owe to all express teachings by the pope do not apply when the pope tries to teach something in contradiction to what is already taught infallibly by the Ordinary Magisterium.

    8. Ed:

      "Of course. Why else do you think the Church speaks of the requirement of religious submission of will and intellect that usually attaches even to magisterial teachings that are not irreformable? If they couldn't be mistaken, they would be irreformable. "

      You continue with this red herring. The question is not whether they could possibly be mistaken on some arcane point, but whether they could possibly be evil, such that real harm results from accepting them.

      I'm not talking about mere "mistakes" that can be "reformed" over time. I'm talking about Magisterial "teachings" which are evil, and therefore evil to assent to. How can there possibly be a "requirement of religious submission of will and intellect" to something which could be evil?

      Would you characterize Pope Francis' statements on the death penalty as such (evil) and not merely wrong? For accepting his statements entails that Scripture, Tradition, Magisterium were wrong on this point for 2,000 years. And if they can be wrong on this, why trust them on anything else?


      That reads to me like "the Ordinary Magisterium is infallible, except for when it is wrong, then it is not Magisterium."

    9. The pope (or any bishop, for that matter) doesn't, in an act that has the outward form of a teaching, actually participate in the Magisterial protection from error, if he attempts to teach things that are not grounded in the deposit of faith and handed on from the Apostles forward. The mere fact that "the bishop (or pope) said it" doesn't make it an act of the Ordinary Magisterium. Since the gift of protection from error is a LIMITED gift, it only obtains within the limits set out.

      Because the deposit of faith is handed down by BOTH the Scriptures and Tradition, that same Tradition constitutes an inherent constraint / limit on the exercise of the magisterial office: a statement by an Apostle that sets out clearly what he and the other Apostles had been saying implicitly for 2 decades already but indistinctly, and is then confirmed repeatedly by the other Apostles and taught universally by them, it becomes binding on the successors of the Apostles as to their own exercise of the Magisterial office: they cannot contradict Peter's exercise of the Ordinary Magisterium in setting forth doctrine and still be exercising the Magisterial office. It is in virtue of this fact that in later times, Athanasius and some of the western bishops were right to say that the Arian bishops were NOT teaching bindingly (i.e. not teaching magisterially) when they taught that Christ was not God eternally with the Father.

      When you say

      That reads to me like "the Ordinary Magisterium is infallible, except for when it is wrong, then it is not Magisterium."

      you confuse matters. The bishops exercise the office of authoritative teachers when they teach what they have received on faith and morals, and this is the ORDINARY exercise of the teaching office. That ordinary exercise is protected from error only imperfectly, not absolutely: bishops CAN INDEED teach in error things that they attempt to teach using the teaching authority of the Church. Like the papal infallibility, the "Ordinary Magisterium" is only infallible under certain conditions, and outside of them the ordinary teachings of a bishop can have error. In addition, a bishop's teaching can be identified as being one of the teachings that is joined to the Ordinary Magisterium's body of infallible teachings (which is necessarily a SUBSET of what is taught ordinarily by the authoritative teachers, the bishops) only by recognizing its alignment with the historically manifested doctrinal and definitive teaching that meets the conditions for infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium.

      The OTHER teachings by a bishop warrant lesser kinds of assent from us, such as religious assent or still less submission than that. We are required to respond affirmatively even to teachings that are not taught infallibly, but with qualified affirmation. However, I would suggest that if what the bishop says has no discernible connection with the teachings handed down from the Apostles, it cannot participate in the Magisterial protection from error, because the SUBJECT MATTER for the protection from error is limited to what was handed down from the Apostles, explicitly or implicitly. So (a) not everything taught by the bishops participates in the Magisterial protection, (b) not everything they teach that does participate in Magisterial protection is absolutely protected from error, and (c) the subset of doctrines taught inf the Ordinary Magisterium that have been taught infallibly thereby constitute a constraint on what may later be taught Magisterially.

    10. Tony,

      That doesn't help. Every Pope always claims that what he teaches is somehow "grounded in the deposit of faith", including Francis and the death penalty, which he claims is "contrary to the spirit of the Gospel" or words to that extent. If we reject his teaching on the basis that it is not, in fact, grounded in the deposit of faith, then we, and not the Pope, are the ones making the final decision on the matter.

    11. It is not MY doing that the teachings of the bishops are owed varying levels of assent, and that we must therefore ascertain through diligence what level applies, or does not apply. This is the necessary consequence of the doctrine that the Church can teach infallibly but does not always teach infallibly. It is further explicitly allowed for in canon law that the faithful, including theologians, can raise problems with the teaching authorities and object that what they are saying seems incompatible with prior doctrine, and even give such teachings a reserved kind of assent based on such problems. I didn't write these things into the rules of the Church.

  5. Like I said and I will repeat myself. I am for the DP and as a matter of prudent public policy I don't think banning it is a good idea. But that having been said in terms of choosing the lesser evil over the greater I would be content to see the DP banned world wide as long as the Church is not given the appearance of having changed her doctrine.

    Opponents of the DP should learn they can get what they want without wounding the Church so why don't they?

    1. How can the Church be part of a movement to ban the death penalty worldwide without appearing to have changed her doctrine? That's what I don't understand about this idea of yours. The only way I see out of this is to dismiss all this as one Pope's personal opinion. I am,


    2. But that having been said in terms of choosing the lesser evil over the greater I would be content to see the DP banned world wide as long as the Church is not given the appearance of having changed her doctrine.

      It's not like the only options out there are to have the DP on the books and have it used badly, or not have the DP on the books at all. There are other options the Church could push for, such as having the DP on the books and properly understood and thus properly used. In fact, teaching the truth would help do just that. Being confused and silly about its use can hardly HELP the situation, even if banning the DP temporarily were the most prudent thing (which it isn't). Inserting personal preferences into the CCC, when those personal preferences are based on a poor understanding of the perennial teaching of the Church, is worse than just leaving things alone. Opponents of the DP should learn what the Church has already taught about DP first before forming set positions about it.

    3. @Tony and Didymus.


      Simple response. I am address the opponents of the DP. I am telling them they can get what they want without having to make so it seems the Church now teaches the DP is intrinsically evil. All things being equal it would be better to keep the DP but I put the integrity of the Church teaching above any mere policy. We can say "We could do it in principle but we shouldn't do it in practice (for whatever prudent arguments one can think of which I would reject but are valid)."


      Seriously dude?

      >How can the Church be part of a movement to ban the death penalty worldwide without appearing to have changed her doctrine?

      Same question! The Catholic Church DOES NOT (& Dr. Feser has said this in the past) endorse Kant's erroneous view that we are morally obligated to have a death penalty.

      Do ye not know that? There has never been a Catholic Teaching that says we must have a death penalty to punish certain crimes. Only that in principle the State may licitly use the DP to punish criminals objectively guilty of capital crimes.

      Oy vey.

      >That's what I don't understand about this idea of yours. The only way I see out of this is to dismiss all this as one Pope's personal opinion. I am,

      There are half a dozen ways out of this one should just off their butts and go learn some theology.

      PS BTW FYI the "opinion" option is valid because Pope Benedict XVI (who is against the DP and called for it's world wide abolition) said Catholics may be at odds with the Pope over the DP (unlike abortion, euthanasia and or birth control) and Pope Francis has not clarified wither that teaching is still binding and since he hasn't that is allowed. Which is the problem with Pope Francis waxing all ambiguous here. By not being clear he undermines his goal to get the DP banned.

      Ah well......

    4. Son of Ya'Kov,

      You mean ACTUAL appearances! Well, I understand what you're saying, but I won't do it.

      Look, if somebody can't tell the difference between the Church's teaching on the death penalty and a few modern Popes' opinions, and therefore question Her authority, maybe even to the point of damning themselves, I don't know. That's sad. But I can't imagine anybody genuinely doing that. Sounds like an excuse to not have to follow the Church's teachings on fun stuff like sex and drugs. Like all the Irishmen leaving over the abuse. Yeah, that's awful, but you know what? It doesn't change a thing. It's an excuse to leave the party and party, so to speak. So what's the point in us keeping up appearances? The real integrity of the Church's authority isn't being called into question here. Like you said, they should get off their butts and go learn some theology. I am,


    5. Son of Ya'Kov,

      In general, I find all these reasons for rejecting the Church a kind of rationalizing. Everybody I've ever met that left Her wanted to party and party hard, so they left, and then they found some silly book by a New Atheist or whatever. And here it's, "Oh look, the Church changed her teaching on the death penalty! Now I can do what I want! Weee!!!" I'm not saying nobody ever leaves for the 'right' reasons, but I've never met them. That's why I could care less about appearances. If they want to give in to their carnal desires and become slaves of the Dark Lord, I'm not going to stop them by agreeing with his unwitting servants inside the Church trying to change it's teaching on the death penalty, and by extension, pervert the whole idea of mercy and God's love and God's nature. And that's what's ultimately behind this talk about the death penalty, our Adversary. It's just another front in that same war.

      But, that's just how I see it. That's my prudential judgement about fighting people who might question the authority of the Church over this. Maybe it's the wrong hill to die on. I am,


  6. Whether or not the Pope can teach doctrinal error when not speaking ex cathedra is still a matter of theological opinion. The tendency at Vatican I is well known however.

  7. Dr. Feser,

    Am I wrong in holding that capital punishment, far from denying or ignoring the fundamental dignity of the offender as a moral agent made in the image of God, actually reaffirms it?

    For it seems to me that if a factory machine, malfunctioning at an inopportune time, kills a human being, I don't execute the machine. The machine isn't a thing to be "punished." There is no necessity in justice to deny it some good (life, liberty, property) proportionate to the harm it caused, because it isn't a moral agent. It's just a machine. If I can't be sure the malfunction won't happen again, the worst I'm likely to do is remove it from the factory floor and stick it in storage.

    But it seems to me that if a human being were to do something truly horrendous, like (let's say) living a double life as a prelate of the Church while molesting boys and subordinates and consciously orchestrating the career-advancement of other clerics with similar predilections, it would be a sin against justice not to have that guy decently hanged from a gallows.

    And the reason it'd be a sin against justice is because that (hypothetical) guy is a moral agent, who chose again and again to destroy others and commit grave sacrilege for his own amusement. I am unable to escape the conviction that it is, somehow, very bad for him that he should die in his bed, denied the opportunity for a proportionate punishment befitting his crimes...something which he could free his own soul by accepting as fit punishment, after the pattern of St. Dismas.

    Some are concerned that a failure to execute a multiple-murderer cheapens the lives of his victims. I grant that. But I am more convinced -- though I'm not sure how to properly argue it -- that failing to execute the multiple-murderer cheapens the moral dignity of the multiple-murderer. It treats him more like a malfunctioning machine than a man. Merely putting him in storage to separate him from others keeps them safe, but it does nothing to help him. But condemning him to die would, it seems to me, constitute a last-ditch evangelism, a last hope for the rescuing of the man's soul. For only real and sincere repentance could seriously improve the state of his soul, and that requires full acceptance of the gravity of his crimes. A scheduled execution is tough medicine, but I can't think of anything else as likely to succeed in compelling him to face the full weight of what he's done.

    Merely sticking him in prison is the kind of move I'd expect from persons who don't believe he has an immortal soul, or that debts of justice for sins committed are in any sense real.

  8. The bits and pieces of the new U.S. language that I have seen seem a modest improvement and seem to make it more clear that the revision is driven by prudential and pastoral concerns; however, it is still a mish mash and a lot of beating around the bush - and that aspect of it has probably grown with the number of even newer words and explanations.

    1. Unknown, can you cite the source you have for new language (even incomplete)?

      From the Crux article, the bishops' Committee is a hopeless travesty: they want to cover themselves and preclude any controversy by claiming a limited goal:

      The goal of the proposed revision is to “keep our treatment of the death penalty in the U.S. Catechism for Adults in alignment with the revised universal catechism,” Barron said.


      Discussion of the proposed revision is not meant to be a debate on the death penalty overall, he added.

      But even HAVING the goal of aligning with the new Catechism language automatically and inherently bears the moral burden of asking whether the pope's new language in the Catechism is justifiable and OUGHT to be followed closely. By choosing to not ask that question, they ignore a moral duty.

      Francis' change to the text takes an already confusingly-stated teaching and makes it more confused. This cannot be a good thing, regardless of what else is the case. Confusion, when clarity is available, is not a good thing.

  9. Lately I am amazed at the number of people I come across who see themselves as apologists for the faith, who display a type of fideism when it comes to the problems with Pope Francis. How many times over the years have I heard Catholic apologists explain to Protestant detractors that papal infallibility does not mean papal impeccability. Yet since the Pope Francis phenomena, these same people defend papal impeccability with a ferocity that borders on neurotic. Voice any concern that Francis is ambiguous or confusing, and they will pelt you with invective about how you’re “acting like a Protestant”, or “creating dissention”, or a schismatic, or blah, blah, blah.

    The refusal to allow reason, the ferocity with which they demand unquestioning obedience to gibberish, and the indefatigable whitewashing is just creepy.

  10. The same problem with bizarre papal declarations has existed since Paul VI. It seems to have hit many only in this pontificate but others have been dealing with the phenomenon since the 1960s. The idea that "Francis started it" doesn't help understand the issue or solve it.

    1. Bizarre papal declarations have been around since "I do not know the man", but I get your meaning. Unfortunately, there is plenty of looniness to go around on both sides.

    2. Even though bizarre declarations in Rome have become the new normal over the last few decades, you have to go back at least 600 years to find things in this league. Catholics had become so used to the strength and solidity of the post-Tridentine, counter-Reformation papacy that we live with, that some panicked when a kind of worldliness became evident again.

    3. Yes, but I think some people make the mistake of thinking the Church could just ignore the world which has changed so radically over the past 600 years; that's just not possible. The necessity of answering the modern world does not justify all the nutty things that have gone on the past century, but it is something that can't be ignored.

      There is a sense in which Pope Francis' comments about "clinging to dead ashes" (or whatever he said) can be correct, but what he actually meant, I would not be willing to conjecture. Nonetheless, all I'm saying is a radically different world presents new challenges.

    4. Yes, the world is always a challenge to the Church. Don't forget that in the first two centuries of modernity, the Church was hegemonic globally, in a way it had never been before (in the Middle Ages Europe was a besieged sub-continent surrounded by anti-Christian enemies). In these centuries it enjoyed the support of equally hegemonic non-ideological political societies.

      Since the triumph of Ancien Regime and market-based oligarchic regime states at the treaty of Utrecht, the Church has had little choice but to adapt to a hostile environment (early on the suppression of the Jesuits was a disaster limiting its ability to influence the modern world).

      The crisis of the last few decades is the forced entry of ideologies into the Church; many Catholics interpret the world through ideology (of left AND right), religion being something that concerns the individual and his afterlife. It's essential to see that these ideologies of left and right or whatever are not science but impostors that attempt to relativise the Church's place in society by providing a "scientific" or historicist explanation of society to itself. In order for the Church to stop following the world Catholics ought to stop trying to combine piety with ideology. Instead of wondering why that never works, perhaps they should fervently pray for liberation from ideology and false philosophy. St. Thomas is the great example here.


    “gross misapplication”, “inequitable”, “flawed”, “no longer reasonable”

  12. And I agree it is not a good thing, only that it is an improvement over the Francis/Vatican version in that it seems to make it a little more clear that it is not immoral per se. It is still an embarrassing passage for anyone who cherishes order and logic.

    1. Try to get the bishops (or anyone else that tries to defend the whole mess) to tell you what the revision even means. What does it mean for the person to possess "inviolability"? What does all the gushing about human dignity have to do with it? All ya get is think positive and be nice.

  13. I have asked several priests and have received nothing close to closure on this. It is a really odd situation where nobody understands it, but everyone pretends it is sensical.

  14. Thomas Aquinas discovered character alignment before Gygax.

    Following Aristotle, Aquinas argues that all regimes can be divided into six basic types, which are determined according to two criteria: how the regime is ruled and whether or not it is ruled justly (that is, for the common good). As he explains, political rule may be exercised by the multitude, by a select few, or by one person. If the regime is ruled justly, it is called a monarchy or kingship when ruled by one single individual, an aristocracy when ruled by a few, and a polity or republic when ruled by the multitude. If, on the other hand, a regime is ruled unjustly (that is, for the sake of the ruler(s) and not for the common weal), it is called a tyranny when ruled by one, an oligarchy when ruled by a few, and a democracy when ruled by the multitude (On Kingship, Book 1, Chapter 1;Commentary on the Politics, Book 3, Lecture 6 [393-394]).

    Aristocratic, oligarchic democratic = lawful, true, chaotic.

    Just, unjust = good, evil.

    The only thing Aquinas missed was neutral, which is libertarianism.

  15. What does it actually mean to say that something is taught "authoritatively" (at whatever level)? Does it mean morally binding (e.g. one sins by not intellectually assenting to it)? And how does this mesh with the possibility that what is taught is erroneous, or even evil?

    The passages from Donum Veritatis that Ed cited provide some help, but not perfect clarity on the matter.

    How can one bind (in conscience) an intellect to assent to something it is not convinced is true? In the case of an infallible authority, of course, the intellect now has a new data point that now informs it that what was formerly doubtful is now certain. But this is not the case with a fallible authority, which Ed (and DV) concede is the case for a great many cases.

    This goes a fortiori for something which might in fact be evil in addition to being mistaken: the intellect CAN'T just blindly submit to something that could be evil; that would be at least a grossly negligent act.

    And surely Ed and everyone else would agree that an "authoritative" decree of error has in reality no objective binding authority whatsoever, for intellects can only be bound to the truth, and "error has no rights". But then the decree has only binding power if and only if it is true, which is the very point at issue.

    1. The Church claims to guided by God Himself when certain conditions are met (meaning the Church's teaching on faith and morals, not on prudential matters). If that is true, then what the Church teaches cannot be erroneous. If you think it is, then you don't think the Church is what it claims to be.

  16. I suspect the position of Cardinal Dulles makes too fine a distinction where none truly exists. Legitimate moral outrage over horrific crimes by unrepentant evildoers can look a lot like veangeance, but if it is truly based on legitimate concerns, it is not.

    If, hypothetically, a man cries out for the death penalty after his lover's husband killed her on discovering the affair, that would seem to be motivated by personal veangeance.

    On the other hand, demanding the death penalty for someone who murdered several young children brutally in cold blood, when one has no personal knowledge of any of the children or their families, this is about as far from personal revenge as one can get.

    I submit that the latter case more closely resembles most of the support for DP whether in general or in particular cases.

    I personally suspect that most of the people who claim to oppose DP on prudential grounds actually want to oppose it in principal, but try to wrap it up in prudential considerations. This is why so many of these arguments are so weak, e.g., ignoring that people can still escape from prison, or commit serious crimes while in prison. They also tend to avoid discussing the aspect of just punishment.

    To me the only serious prudential argument against DP is the possibility of the innocent being executed. This argument is significantly weakened when we consider that no system of justice is perfect; that the standard of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt and that appeals and habeas corpus exist as a backstop for false convictions; and that the alternative of imprisonment merely mitigates, but does not eliminate, the tragedy of innocent people being punished. (Certainly it's better if a person gets cleared after spending 20 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit, rather than after being executed. But he doesn't get his 20 years back.) Finally, and speaking as a professional in this field, the number of exonerations is grossly exaggerated by advocacy groups such as the Innocence Project. The great number of their "exonerations" have to do with convictions being later reversed for procedural technicalities that have little, and in many cases nothing, to do with guilt. Some are based on witness recantations, which are quite common even when a witness was telling the truth in the beginning. In many of these cases the accused is not released, but is merely entitled to a new trial, and often ends up merely making a plea bargain to a less serious offence. Oftentimes a trial cannot be conducted years later because witnesses have become unavailable for various reasons. Cases involving unambiguous exoneration exist, yes, but are vanishingly rare.

    Ed, would you favor DP for more aggravated cases of child molestation and for rape? (I mean real rape, not fornication where one party was unsure if she wanted to go through with it.) Considering the personal devastation that these crimes have on their victims, usually lasting for life, I personally would favor this.

    1. Alessio, Good post. I would add that one often hears the counter argument "DNA has shown some people were falsely convicted . . . .". OK, so DNA has raised our certainty that we got the right suspect and won't execute the wrong one.

      As you mention, it is . . . shocking really, that people don't want to talk about what a just punishment for a given heinous crime is. Maybe this is rooted in the reigning sentiments that every bad choice is a "disease" and there really is no personal culpability.

    2. As far as I am concerned, once it is granted that the DP is a just and licit punishment for murder, there is no serious doubt that the DP is a just punishment for a serial torture-and-rapist, and likewise for one who rapes children.

    3. Statements like this are why I support an absolute and immediate moratorium on the death penalty, regardless of what theoretical arguments may be made in its favor. Many who support it are psychopaths.

      "I personally suspect that most of the people who claim to oppose DP on prudential grounds actually want to oppose it in principal, but try to wrap it up in prudential considerations. "

      And I personally suspect that many people who claim to support the DP on the basis of justice actually want it on the basis of vengeance, but try to wrap it up on considerations of justice. See? Two can play this game. And if a few innocent get caught in the crossfire, oh well.

      "To me the only serious prudential argument against DP is the possibility of the innocent being executed. " Yeah...

      "This argument is significantly weakened when we consider that no system of justice is perfect; that the standard of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt and that appeals and habeas corpus exist as a backstop for false convictions; and that the alternative of imprisonment merely mitigates, but does not eliminate, the tragedy of innocent people being punished."

      None of those things weaken the argument whatsoever that despite all these wonderful things in theory, in practice many accused weren't given a fair trial in reality.

      "Finally, and speaking as a professional in this field, the number of exonerations is grossly exaggerated by advocacy groups such as the Innocence Project. The great number of their "exonerations" have to do with convictions being later reversed for procedural technicalities that have little, and in many cases nothing, to do with guilt. Some are based on witness recantations, which are quite common even when a witness was telling the truth in the beginning. In many of these cases the accused is not released, but is merely entitled to a new trial, and often ends up merely making a plea bargain to a less serious offence. Oftentimes a trial cannot be conducted years later because witnesses have become unavailable for various reasons. Cases involving unambiguous exoneration exist, yes, but are vanishingly rare."

      Aha! "Speaking as a professional in the field" you give all the indications of the psychopathy that such "professionals" often have. I'll take you seriously if, and only if, you will support that for a prosecutor to withhold exculpatory evidence in a capital case is itself a felony for which the punishment can be death if such withholding results in a capital conviction, and not brush off withholding exculpatory evidence as a mere "procedural technicality". Oh and these "witness recantations" were often jailhouse snitches, weren't they?

      And anyway the fact that you think "procedural technicalities" shouldn't really be taken into account shows your psychopathy. It doesn't REALLY matter if the accused was given a fair trial or not, does it, as long as he was in fact actually guilty? Prosecutors don't really have to follow the law, do they?

  17. What does the future hold for the changes to 2267? Is the next Pope likely to reverse these changes? I doubt it.

    Nobody knows how much longer Francis' papacy will continue – although he is 82, he could easily still be alive in five or ten or more years time. While he has talked positively about following in his predecessor's footsteps by resigning, nobody can predict when that will be – it might be this or next year, it might be several years hence. The longer he remains in office, the more Cardinal-Electors he will appoint, the greater influence he will have on the shape of the next conclave.

    I think it is likely they will choose someone more "conservative" as the next Pope, but by that I mean someone more conservative in style, not necessarily someone more conservative in substance. The sort of conservatism which is about preserving the status quo nunc, slowing down the rate of change but without reversing the past changes.

    I doubt any Pope in the near future will reverse this change. On the contrary, it will probably be cemented further, by being quoted in future magisterial documents, such as future papal encyclicals. And the longer it endures, the more entrenched it will become.

  18. The Church is a divine institution and its history does not bear out any of this.

  19. If it stays as is, it will remain the most obvious obstacle when defending the Church and Her claims. This will be the one topic all Her critics will be trained to visit first.

  20. Weird comment. How could the Church possibly remain as it is? You really must stop pretending to be me.

  21. The "Consistent Ethic of Life" promoted by opponents of the death penalty has done great harm in the fight against abortion. Including capital punishment with the evils of contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia has opened a loophole for duplicitous Catholics, especially politicians, allowing them to be inconsistent and unprincipled about valid pro-life issues. This leads many of the faithful to conclude that those issues also can be made situationally acceptable.
    The modern opposition to the death penalty has gone hand in hand with the advance of pacifism, secular humanism and the degeneration of faith and morals. It originated in the 60s and 70s with the anti-war movement and the sexual revolution. The sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice has evaporated. In past times the most consistent supporters of capital punishment were the Christian churches while its most consistent opponents were groups hostile to Christianity. Grave harm has always come to the Church when contemporary opinions displace traditional teaching.
    A crippled masculinity has deformed many in the priesthood and a feminist mentality has greatly affected the church. As feminist nuns were shedding their habits and protesting that they were not allowed to be priests, feminized men flooded the priesthood. Feminized judgments are based on emotion and sentiment rather than on fidelity to truth and reason. Hence the newfound opposition to the death penalty. It took manliness to build the Church and it takes manliness to sustain and defend it. Manliness is in very short supply in today's clergy
    Avery Cardinal Dulles, 2004
    “The reversal of a doctrine as well established as the legitimacy of capital punishment would raise serious problems regarding the credibility of the magisterium. Consistency with scripture and long-standing Catholic tradition is important for the grounding of many current teachings of the Catholic Church; for example, those regarding abortion, contraception, the permanence of marriage, and the ineligibility of women for priestly ordination. If the tradition on capital punishment had been reversed, serious questions would be raised regarding other doctrines.” — Avery Cardinal Dulles, “Catholic Teaching on the Death Penalty”, in Owens, Carlson & Elshtain, op. cit., p. 26. Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning
    Maybe Pope Francis will next eliminate this section of the catechism.

    Catechism #2260
    The covenant between God and mankind is interwoven with reminders of God’s gift of human life and man’s murderous violence: For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning:
    Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image. Gen 9:5-6. The Old Testament always considered blood a sacred sign of life. Cf. Lev. 17:14. This teaching remains necessary for all time.
    There is a 2,000 year record of Catholic saints, popes, biblical scholars, doctors and fathers of the church and theologians supporting the death penalty, a record of scholarship which far overwhelms any modern day position to the contrary. Catholics who support capital punishment need not fear that they are not in accord with the teaching of the Catholic Faith. To support capital punishment is to be nothing less than authentically Catholic.

  22. Pity the discussion here only concerns one of the errors listed in the declaration. Why is that?


  24. It seems to me that the development of doctrine that the death penalty is now intrinsically evil is based upon the assumption that we human beings have developed our reasoning beyond previous generations. If so, would that imply we have overcome concupiscence? If we have, then there is no need of a savior for future generations. This, of course, is what the Enlightenment period was all about and has be shown to be in error.

  25. The development of doctrine to the effect that man has a right to profess false religion based on his human nature is far worse. However, we'll all be waiting a month of Sundays (or centuries) to see it attacked by the blog, as it is apparently OK. (Oh dear)