Saturday, April 29, 2023

The Catechism and Capital Punishment: A Reply to Annett

Some years back, in my article “Three questions for Catholic opponents of capital punishment,” I argued that Pope Francis’s statements on the death penalty cannot plausibly be read in a way that would make assent to them binding on Catholics.  This week, in an article at Where Peter Is, Tony Annett offers a reply.  Let’s take a look.

Criticizing Catholic teaching?

Let me start out by saying that I appreciate Annett’s attempt seriously to respond to the article.  In the years since it was published, I have found that its critics almost always simply dismiss its conclusion without addressing the arguments for that conclusion, or at best raise objections that obviously beg the question.  Though I don’t think his own objections succeed, I give Annett credit for trying to do better than that.  Many readers will be aware that Annett is a sparring partner of mine on Twitter, and that our exchanges are sometimes heated.  So I also appreciate that he responds here in a civil manner.

Having said that, it is unfortunate that Annett misrepresents my position from the get go (even if, I am happy to allow, inadvertently).  He characterizes my article as “criticizing Catholic teaching on the death penalty.”  That is not correct.  By “Catholic teaching” Annett presumably has in mind teaching that the Church requires the faithful to assent to.  I do not criticize, and would not criticize, any such teaching.  My article addresses the question whether Pope Francis’s thoroughgoing abolitionist position vis-à-vis the death penalty actually is in fact a teaching to which Catholics must assent, or is instead a prudential judgment which they must consider respectfully but are not bound to assent to.  I argue that it is the latter, and that there is no other plausible way to read it when all the relevant evidence is considered.

I realize that Annett disagrees with me about this.  That’s fine, he has every right to try to make the case that I am mistaken.  But charity and justice require him to represent my position accurately before criticizing it. 

On Twitter, Annett routinely characterizes all disagreement with the pope’s statements on capital punishment as “dissent.”  Now, I am no less opposed than Annett is to dissent from Catholic teaching.  But the Church has made clear that not all criticism of statements that come from the Magisterium constitutes “dissent.”  The document Donum Veritatis, issued during the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II, acknowledges that in exceptional cases “it can happen… that a theologian may… raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions.”  The document elaborates as follows:

When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies.  Bishops and their advisors have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question…

If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian's part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented.  He should do this in an evangelical spirit and with a profound desire to resolve the difficulties.  His objections could then contribute to real progress and provide a stimulus to the Magisterium to propose the teaching of the Church in greater depth and with a clearer presentation of the arguments.

Donum Veritatis then goes on explicitly to say that this sort of respectful criticism “must be distinguished” from “dissent” from the Church’s binding teaching.

In another article, I examine Donum Veritatis in greater detail, along with other relevant teaching from Catholic tradition.  I show that “dissent” is essentially about trying to subvert the traditional teaching of the Church, so that those who defend continuity with traditional irreformable teaching cannot justly be accused of dissent when they merely ask the Magisterium more clearly to reaffirm such teaching.  I also show that the Church allows criticism of deficient magisterial statements to be made publicly under certain conditions. 

I won’t rehash all of that here.  Again, see that earlier article (as well as a couple of follow-up pieces, one of which discusses in greater detail Aquinas’s teaching on this subject, and the other of which discusses Pope Francis’s own repeated acknowledgment that certain kinds of criticism of popes can be legitimate).  The point for present purposes is that nothing that I have said about Pope Francis’s teaching on capital punishment amounts to “dissent.”  All of it falls within what Donum Veritatis and other traditional teaching allow to be within the range of legitimate criticism of magisterial statements.

Indeed, I have not even accused Pope Francis of doctrinal error, even though that is in principle possible when popes are not speaking ex cathedra.  What I have said is that some of his statements on the topic of capital punishment are too imprecise, or ambiguous, or fail to address all the relevant considerations, or are otherwise potentially misleading.  I have also said that the change he has made to the Church’s presentation of her teaching on capital punishment is prudential in nature – something Annett seems to agree with (as we’ll see below).

Now, noting that a prudential intervention lacks sufficient clarity, or fails to address all the relevant aspects of an issue, or is otherwise deficient, is something that Donum Veritatis explicitly says can be legitimate and does not amount to “dissent.”  Hence it is unjust for Annett to characterize my position as “dissent” or as “criticizing Catholic teaching.”  I have said nothing except what the Church herself allows to be within the permissible range of debate.

At the very least, even if Annett thinks I am wrong about that too, the burden is on him actually to make the case that I am wrong about it.  And that entails that he needs carefully to read and consider the arguments I have given in articles like the ones just linked to, and show that I am wrong about what the Church permits in the way of criticism of magisterial statements.  Unless he does that, he is simply committing the fallacy of begging the question by asserting that my position amounts to “dissent.”

A false binary?

So much for preliminaries.  Let’s turn now to Annett’s objections.  The main point of contention concerns the pope’s 2018 revision to section 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which now reads:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.  In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.  Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

End quote.  There’s a lot that can be said about this, as we’ll see.  But the first question to ask concerns the force of the statement that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”  As I say in the article to which Annett is replying, there are two ways to read it.  First, one could read it as claiming that the death penalty is always and intrinsically wrong, and thus ruled out absolutely and in principle.  Or second, one could read it as claiming that while the death penalty is not always and intrinsically wrong, current circumstances support the judgment that it should no longer ever be used. 

As I went on to argue in the article, if the first interpretation is correct, then the revision to the Catechism would contradict the consistent and irreformable teaching of scripture and 2,000 years of tradition that capital punishment can be legitimate at least in principle.  In that case, it would amount to a straightforward doctrinal error (which is possible when popes are not speaking ex cathedra) and should not be assented to. 

On the other hand, if the second interpretation is correct, then the revision to the Catechism amounts to a prudential judgment – an application of doctrinal principle to concrete circumstances in light of certain empirical assumptions, such as assumptions about what methods of punishment are sufficient today to protect society.  In that case, a Catholic need not assent, because the Magisterium has no special expertise with respect to the empirical assumptions in question.  For example, the empirical question of whether all governments today are in fact capable of protecting their citizens without ever resorting to capital punishment is simply not something about which popes or other churchmen have any special knowledge.  (I’ll return to this point below.)

To this line of argument, Annett objects that “this distinction between intrinsic evils and prudential judgments is problematic and offers a false binary.”  Now, one would naturally expect from this remark that Annett would propose a third alternative reading of the revision to the Catechism – a reading on which it is neither teaching that capital punishment is intrinsically evil nor proposing a prudential judgment about its applicability today.

Oddly, though, Annett proposes no such third alternative reading.  What he does instead is, first, to point out that not everything that is intrinsically wrong is gravely wrong, whereas some prudential judgments do concern grave moral matters.  Now, Annett is right about that much, but I never denied it.  For example, I have never claimed that all and only intrinsically wrong acts are gravely wrong acts.  And I have never denied that prudential judgments can concern matters of grave moral importance.  So Annett is just attacking a straw man here.

Moreover, Annett says that he is “willing to concede that the death penalty might not be intrinsically evil.”  And after noting that “prudential judgements… could entail gravely evil acts,” he says that while “in some past societies, it might have been simply impossible to constrain the malefactor without recourse to the death penalty,” today “this argument no longer applies.”  That indicates that he thinks that the revision to the Catechism does after all amount to a prudential judgment.  But it’s a prudential judgment about a matter of grave moral importance.

In this case, though, Annett has not shown that I have proposed “a false binary.”  On the contrary, he implicitly concedes that there really are, after all, only two ways to read the revision to the Catechism – namely, either as claiming that the death penalty is intrinsically evil, or as making a prudential judgment to the effect that it is no longer needed today – and he opts for the second reading rather than the first.

The “false binary” charge, then, is incorrect, and a red herring.  On closer inspection, Annett’s real objection seems to be that while there are indeed only two alternative readings of the revision to the Catechism – and the second, “prudential judgment” reading is the correct one – nevertheless, Catholics are bound to assent to this prudential judgment.  Why?  Because it concerns a matter of grave moral importance.

But now we have another problem with Annett’s argument, which is that it is a non sequitur.  He is implicitly assuming that if a prudential judgment concerns a grave moral matter, then it follows that assent to it is binding on Catholics.  And that is not true.  Indeed, the Church herself has told us that that is not true.

St. John Paul II on war, capital punishment, and prudential judgments

To see this, let’s take a look at the teaching of Pope St. John Paul II on matters of war, capital punishment, and prudential judgments.  This teaching is not only important in itself, but crucial for properly understanding the teaching of Pope Francis.  For as Annett himself emphasizes, Francis’s teaching is meant as an extension of John Paul II’s teaching.  Annett thinks that this supports the conclusion that Catholics are obligated to assent to Francis’s teaching.  What he does not realize is that it actually undermines that conclusion, and reinforces the view that Pope Francis’s teaching is a prudential judgment that need only be respectfully considered but not assented to.  For John Paul II’s teaching on capital punishment was itself clearly merely prudential and non-binding.  And that is true even though it concerned matters of grave moral importance.

Consider first what Pope John Paul II had to say about the topic of war.  The Catechism he promulgated reasserts the Church’s traditional just war teaching, which states that a war can be justified only under certain conditions – that it is necessary to defend society against lasting, grave and certain harm by the aggressor, that there be serious prospects of success, and so forth (section 2309).  This much is a matter of doctrinal principle to which Catholics are obligated to assent.  But what about questions concerning whether some particular war meets just war criteria?  For example, whose responsibility is it to determine whether a particular war really is necessary to defend society against an aggressor, or whether it has a serious chance of success?  Here the Catechism states:

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good. 

Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense. (sections 2309-2310)

It is not churchmen, then, but public authorities – government officials, military leaders, and the like – who have the right and responsibility to apply just war teaching to concrete circumstances.  Why?  Because they, and not churchmen, are the ones with the relevant competence.  For example, popes have special competence to issue the moral teaching that a war can be just only if it has a serious prospect of success.  But they do not have any special competence to determine whether some particular war is likely to succeed.  For example, their office does not give them any special knowledge about which military tactics are the most effective ones, what the enemy’s troop strength is and how able its commanders are, and so on. 

Notice that this remains true even though churchmen might, like anyone else, have opinions about such matters.  Pope John Paul II certainly had opinions about specific wars, having famously opposed the Iraq War, for example.  But even though he stated his opposition publicly, repeatedly, and in strongly moralistic terms, Catholics were not obligated to agree with him, as the Church made clear at the time.  For example, Cardinal Ratzinger, the pope’s chief doctrinal officer (and later to become Pope Benedict XVI) said, of John Paul II’s opposition to the Iraq War, that the pope “did not impose this position as doctrine of the Church.”  Similarly, Bishop Wilton Gregory, then president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated at the time that “people of good will may and do disagree on how to interpret just war teaching and how to apply just war norms to the controverted facts of this case.”

Now, in hindsight one could certainly argue that the pope and other churchmen who criticized the Iraq War were in the right.  But that doesn’t change the fact that their prudential judgment on this matter was not binding on Catholics.  And that is true even though it concerned a matter of grave moral importance.  The Church herself teaches, in the Catechism, that despite the grave moral importance of matters concerning war, it is governing authorities, and not churchmen, who have the responsibility to apply just war criteria to concrete circumstances.  And consequently, the Church herself also acknowledged that the pope’s condemnation of the Iraq War, despite being a prudential judgment about a grave matter (and indeed, a judgement that in hindsight was arguably correct), was not something that Catholics were obligated to assent to.

Hence Annett is simply mistaken to suppose, as he implicitly does, that the gravity of the subject matter of a prudential judgment suffices to make assent to it binding on Catholics.

But is capital punishment different?  Are papal prudential judgments on that topic binding on Catholics in a way prudential judgments about the application of just war theory are not?  No, there is no difference.  And once again, the teaching of the Church under Pope John Paul II makes this clear. 

For one thing, that there is no difference clearly follows from the relevant general principles.  John Paul II famously held that in modern circumstances, capital punishment should be used only “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (as the 1997 version of section 2267 of the Catechism put it).  Otherwise, the Catechism says, non-lethal means should be used.  But how do we know whether non-lethal means are sufficient to protect people from unjust aggressors?  Is that something about which churchmen have any special competence?  Clearly, it is not, any more than they have any special competence of a military kind.  To know whether non-lethal means are adequate, we need to know, for example: whether capital punishment has any significant deterrence value; whether all modern prisons throughout the world are secure enough to prevent the escape of dangerous offenders; whether other prisoners can be kept safe from murderous ones; and so on.  These are empirical matters which require expertise in social science, law, criminal justice, and the like.  Popes are no more experts in these areas than they are experts in military strategy and tactics.

In the very nature of the case, then, the question of whether capital punishment is still needed today is not something about which popes could issue a binding judgment any more than they could issue a binding judgment about whether some specific war meets just war criteria.  By parity of reasoning with the case of applying just war theory, the final determination of whether resort to capital punishment is ever needed must lie, not with churchmen, but with “the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good,” namely “public authorities” (to borrow the language the Catechism uses when addressing the application of just war principles).

Moreover, the Church herself explicitly said during the pontificate of John Paul II that the cases are parallel. 

The Ratzinger memorandum

This brings us to an important document that Catholic opponents of capital punishment routinely ignore.  During the 2004 U.S. presidential election, the question whether Catholic politicians who support abortion or euthanasia should be denied Holy Communion became a hot button issue.  Some suggested that if these politicians were denied Communion, then Catholic politicians who supported capital punishment or the Iraq War should be denied it as well.

To clarify the matter, Cardinal Ratzinger, who was then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, sent a memorandum titled “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles” to then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was at the time the archbishop of Washington, D.C.  (McCarrick has, of course, since been disgraced and defrocked, though that is irrelevant to the present issue.)  Ratzinger noted that the cases are not at all parallel, writing:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.  For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.  While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment.  There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

Notice several things about this teaching.  As is well known, Pope St. John Paul II held that the cases where capital punishment is necessary to protect society are “very rare, if not practically nonexistent” (as the 1997 version of the Catechism puts it).  Indeed, the pope made even stronger statements at other times, calling the death penalty “cruel and unnecessary” and calling for its outright abolition.  All the same, Ratzinger acknowledged that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty,” and indeed that a Catholic in good standing could even be “at odds with the Holy Father” on the subject.  He could not have said that if assent to the pope’s position was obligatory.  And notice that this is true even though the pope’s prudential judgment concerned a matter of grave moral importance, and was put forward publicly, repeatedly, and in stern moralistic terms.

Note also the reference to “civil authorities,” and how war and recourse to capital punishment can in some cases be permissible despite the fact that the Church urges such authorities to seek peace and exercise mercy on criminals.  The clear implication is that it is ultimately civil authorities who have the responsibility to make a prudential judgment about whether capital punishment is necessary, just as they have the responsibility to determine whether war is necessary.

Now on Twitter recently, Annett dismissed the memorandum as merely “a private opinion of Joseph Ratzinger.”  But this is clearly not the case.  Ratzinger was writing, not as a private theologian, but precisely in his official capacity as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.  And he was writing to a fellow bishop precisely to clarify for him a matter of Church doctrine and discipline.

Furthermore, the passage from the memo quoted above was incorporated almost verbatim into a USCCB document written by Archbishop William Levada (who would later succeed Ratzinger as head of CDF).  The purpose of this document was precisely to clarify for Catholics the same issues Ratzinger aimed to clarify in his memo.  And the fact that a USCCB document incorporates the passage in question obviously indicates that it has doctrinal weight, and is not merely Ratzinger’s personal opinion.  It is worth adding that E. Christian Brugger, who is the preeminent opponent of capital punishment among Catholic theologians, acknowledges in the second edition of his book Capital Punishment and Roman Catholic Moral Tradition that the memo was written by Ratzinger “as prefect of the CDF” (p. xxviii).

Now, keep in mind that as head of CDF, Ratzinger’s job was to be Pope St. John Paul II’s doctrinal spokesman.  Hence he was an authoritative interpreter of the pope’s teaching on the issue of capital punishment.  Since he explicitly said that there could be “a legitimate diversity of opinion” about the matter even among faithful Catholics – and indeed, that faithful Catholics could even be “at odds with” the pope on the matter – it follows that Pope John Paul II’s position that capital punishment is no longer needed was not something Catholics are obligated to agree with.

This brings us back to Pope Francis.  For the main difference between John Paul’s teaching and Francis’s teaching is that the former allowed that there may still be rare cases where capital punishment is needed in order to protect society, whereas the latter denies that.  Even Pope Francis’s appeal to the “dignity of the person” is not novel, because Pope John Paul II made the same appeal when criticizing capital punishment.  For example, the 1997 edition of the Catechism says that non-lethal means of dealing with offenders are preferable because they are “more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.”

Now, John Paul II’s view that the cases where capital punishment are still needed to protect society are “very rare, if not practically nonexistent” was of its very nature a prudential judgment concerning matters of social science, law, criminology, etc. about which popes have no special expertise.  For that reason, as Cardinal Ratzinger made clear, Catholics were not obligated to agree with that judgment.  But Francis’s view that non-lethal means are in every case sufficient to “ensure the due protection” of society is also, of its very nature, a prudential judgment concerning matters of social science, law, criminology, etc. about which popes have no special expertise.  So, how can Catholics be obligated to assent to the latter view any more than they were obligated to assent to the former?  What the Ratzinger memorandum says about John Paul’s teaching applies mutatis mutandis to Francis’s teaching.

Development of doctrine?

Annett claims that Pope Francis’s revision to the Catechism involved a “development of doctrine,” one that reflects an “unfolding understanding of the nature of human dignity.”  It is this development, Annett suggests, that underlies the pope’s moving beyond John Paul II’s allowance for capital punishment in rare cases to an absolute prohibition of the penalty.

But exactly how does the purported doctrinal development support this revision?  The claim cannot be that this unfolding understanding of human dignity shows capital punishment to be intrinsically wrong (and thus “inadmissible” for that reason).  Again, that would contradict the consistent and irreformable teaching of scripture and 2,000 years of tradition.  And again, Annett himself explicitly says that he is not claiming that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong.

Like Francis, John Paul II also appealed to respect for human dignity, yet still stopped short of an absolute prohibition.  The reason is that John Paul II allowed that there may be rare cases where capital punishment is still practically necessary.  Francis denies this.  But again, that is a prudential judgment grounded in empirical claims about modern prison facilities and the like.  There is nothing in the notion of human dignity as such that entails that such-and-such a prison system is effective.

So, it is unclear exactly how a purportedly better understanding of human dignity justifies the change from John Paul II’s teaching to Francis’s.  Nor does Annett explain how it does.  He just asserts that it does, and repeats phrases like “human dignity” and “dignity of the person” as if the repetition by itself sufficed to show that capital punishment was somehow a special affront to human dignity.

Sometimes it is claimed that, whatever one thinks of Pope Francis’s revision, Pope John Paul II’s teaching on capital punishment already marked a development of doctrine.  But as Joseph Bessette and I show in our book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, that is not the case.  At pp. 144-82 of the book, we offer a detailed and systematic analysis of all the relevant magisterial texts issued during John Paul II’s pontificate.  We show that John Paul II’s change to previous teaching was entirely prudential in nature and in no way doctrinal. 

To be sure, it is sometimes claimed that John Paul II made it a matter of doctrinal principle that capital punishment could never even in theory be used except when strictly necessary for the defense of society.  But we show that the pope’s confining of the use of capital punishment to the defense of society was itself a prudential judgement, not a doctrinal principle.  And the Church has confirmed this.  After Evangelium Vitae was issued and it was announced that John Paul II would be updating the Catechism in light of it, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus inquired with Cardinal Ratzinger about whether this amounted to a doctrinal revision.  As the cardinal said in reply in a letter published in First Things in October 1995, “the Holy Father has not altered the doctrinal principles which pertain to this issue as they are presented in the Catechism, but has simply deepened the application of such principles in the context of present-day historical circumstances.”

As we also show in the book, such an alteration would itself contradict the teaching of scripture, the Fathers, and previous popes, which clearly holds that it can be legitimate at least in principle to use capital punishment even for purposes other than the defense of society.  For example, several scriptural passages (such as Genesis 9:6, Numbers 35:33, and Deuteronomy 19:11-13) teach that it can be legitimate simply for the purpose of securing retributive justice.  That does not entail that that is by itself a good enough reason to resort to capital punishment in modern circumstances.  But since the Church holds that scripture cannot teach moral error, it follows that it cannot possibly be intrinsically wrong to inflict the death penalty simply for the sake of retribution.

So, the claim that Pope Francis’s revision to the Catechism amounts to a development of doctrine cannot be defended by appeal to its connection with John Paul II’s teaching.  For again, John Paul II’s teaching was itself not a development of doctrine.  If Annett denies this, I direct him to pages 144-82 of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed, where he’ll find the evidence laid out.  I’d be happy to listen to any objections he’d raise against the arguments we set out there.

Annett makes another problematic claim about the development of doctrine when he says that “the correct hermeneutic is to read past teaching in light of current teaching rather than vice versa.”  This is misleading at best.  It is true that the Magisterium is the authoritative interpreter of scripture and tradition.  But that does not entail license to teach just anything, as the Church herself has repeatedly insisted.  For example, the First Vatican Council teaches:

For the Holy Spirit was promised to the successors of Peter not so that they might, by his revelation, make known some new doctrine, but that, by his assistance, they might religiously guard and faithfully expound the revelation or deposit of faith transmitted by the apostles.


That meaning of Holy Scripture must be held to be the true one, which Holy mother Church held and holds, since it is her right to judge of the true meaning and interpretation of Holy Scripture.  In consequence, it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture in a sense contrary to this, or indeed against the unanimous consent of the fathers.

Similarly, the Second Vatican Council teaches:

[T]he living teaching office of the Church… is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully.

And Pope Benedict XVI taught:

The Pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law.  On the contrary: the Pope's ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word.  He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God's Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.

This entails that while the Church can settle disputes over scriptural interpretation, she can never teach something contrary to scripture, or contrary to the way scripture was understood by the Fathers of the Church or to what the Church has traditionally held scripture to mean.

This is one reason why the Church cannot ever teach that capital punishment is intrinsically evil.  For as Joe Bessette and I demonstrate in By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed, scripture clearly and consistently teaches that capital punishment can be legitimate in principle, the Fathers unanimously understood scripture to teach this, and the Church has always understood scripture to teach this.  This teaching is thus irreformable.

As such, the traditional teaching puts constraints not only on what the Church may currently teach, but on how to interpret what the Church currently teaches.  For example, if some recent magisterial statement seems, when considered in isolation, to teach that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong, but could instead be interpreted in a way that is consistent with capital punishment not being intrinsically wrong, then the latter interpretation must prevail.  In that way, current teaching must, contrary to what Annett says, be read in light of past teaching. 

That is by no means to deny that we must also read past teaching in light of current teaching.  It means that Annett is posing a false choice when he says that we must read the past in light of current teaching “rather than” the other way around.  It’s not a matter of “rather than,” but of “as well as.”  But where there is any outright conflict or appearance of such a conflict, it is indeed past teaching that must prevail.  That is not only the implication of the statements from Vatican I, Vatican II, and Benedict XVI quoted above, but also the teaching of the Church’s great theologians of the development of doctrine, St. Vincent of Lerins and St. John Henry Newman.

Problems with the revision to the Catechism

Now, one of the problems with the 2018 revision to the Catechism is that some of what it says does seem, at least considered in isolation, to contradict past teaching.  In particular, it does so when it quotes a remark from Pope Francis to the effect that the death penalty “is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”  This statement seems, given its unqualified formulation, to be saying that the death penalty is intrinsically, or of its very nature, an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.  And thus it seems, at least when considered in isolation, to be saying that the death penalty is intrinsically wrong.

To be sure, the statement does not have to be read that way.  Given the larger context, it can be read instead as teaching that the death penalty is contrary to human dignity if certain conditions on its use are not met.  And that is indeed the way I think it should be read.  As I have said, I do not claim that the pope has taught doctrinal error on this point, but rather that he has spoken without sufficient precision.  And he has a record of doing so.  In the article Annett is responding to, I call attention to other examples, such as Pope Francis’s once quoting approvingly a line from Dostoevsky to the effect that “to kill a murderer is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself.”  Taken at face value, this statement is manifestly absurd, and certainly contrary to scripture and the traditional teaching of the Church.

No doubt the pope was here speaking with rhetorical flourish rather than literally.  And perhaps that is also the case with the line quoted in the revised passage of the Catechism.  But when teaching on doctrinal matters, popes have a grave duty to speak with precision, especially in documents like Catechisms.  Hence it is perfectly legitimate, in light of the norms outlined in Donum Veritatis, respectfully to criticize the 2018 revision of the Catechism for failing to do so.

Another problem with the revision to the Catechism concerns its prudential judgement to the effect that “effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens” without ever having to execute offenders.  This is far from obviously true.  Indeed, I would argue that it is false.

There are several relevant considerations here.  First, the Catechism simply assumes, without argument, that capital punishment has no deterrence value.  But that is a question of social science, not theology.  And social scientists disagree on the matter, with many holding that the death penalty does in fact deter when offenders know there is a good chance they really will be executed if they commit a murder.  Joe Bessette and I set out the evidence in our book, and defend the claim that capital punishment has significant deterrence value.

Now if that is correct, then innocent lives are endangered by abolishing capital punishment, in which case the Catechism’s prudential judgement that “due protection of citizens” can be achieved without capital punishment is mistaken.  Of course, whether the death penalty really does deter is controversial.  But the point is that, of its nature, this is not a matter of theological principle but rather an empirical question about which churchmen have no special expertise.  

Another important consideration is that some offenders remain threats to the lives of others even when effectively imprisoned.  Organized crime leaders can order murders from behind prison walls.  Some imprisoned murderers kill prison guards or fellow prisoners.  And if capital punishment is entirely off the table, then they have no incentive not to do so if they are already in prison for previous murders.  Then there are those sentenced to life in prison who escape from prison.  What is to prevent them from killing while on the run, if the threat of capital punishment does not hang over them?  For they already face a resumption of their life sentences if recaptured. 

Having the option of threatening offenders with capital punishment also gives the prosecutor an invaluable tool for convincing them to plea bargain.  And this can save innocent lives if the cooperation of such offenders helps police catch other murderers.  Then there is the fact that it is simply not true that systems of imprisonment sufficient to protect citizens exist everywhere in the world.  Yet the revision to the Catechism does not acknowledge this.  It simply speaks of abolishing capital punishment worldwide, full stop, rather than abolishing it when and where it is safe to do so.

Naturally, a critic of capital punishment might try to develop responses to these points.  But again, they are not matters that can be settled by appeal to abstract theological principle.  Like the question of how to apply just war theory to particular cases, determining whether capital punishment is still necessary to protect citizens requires a prudential judgement about matters that popes and bishops have no expertise about.  And as with the application of just war theory, the decision must ultimately be made by the public authorities who have the responsibility for protecting citizens, not churchmen.  This is why the Ratzinger memorandum acknowledges that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics” about capital punishment.  It is simply not the sort of thing the Church can reasonably foreclose public debate about. 

Finally, I would argue that it is in any event a bad idea to insert prudential judgments into the Catechism, and especially to keep changing them (as the Catechism’s statement on the death penalty has now been changed two times).  It confuses the average person, who typically does not understand the difference between matters of doctrine and prudential applications of doctrine, and therefore wrongly comes to think that the Church has changed or could change the longstanding teaching of scripture and tradition.  This makes it seem in turn as if everything the Church teaches might be “up for grabs.” 

Again, these criticisms of the revision to the Catechism in no way constitute “dissent” from binding Catholic teaching.  They are entirely within the range of the respectful criticism that Donum Veritatis acknowledges to be permissible.  And to those faithful Catholics who respectfully raise criticisms of deficient magisterial statements, Donum Veritatis offers the following reassuring words:

For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the Church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial.  It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail.


  1. Even if war is "morally justified", that still doesn't change the objective truth that any kind of taking of human life has moral consequences. Even if a good person does it for a just reason.

    "But God said unto me, 'Thou shalt not build a house for My name, because thou hast been a man of war and hast shed blood.'" (1 Chronicles 28:3) <- and this is talking about King David, a saint!

    "He as well saw a skull floating on the surface of the water and he said to it: Because you drowned others they drowned you; and those that drowned you will in the end be drowned." <- Hillel the Elder, near-contemporary of Jesus, on the death of a murderer.

    1. Certainly what you say here is true. But I don't think it's pertinent. Nothing Ed says argues that there are no consequences to the killing of men, even when doing so is morally obligatory. (For example, the dead man will no longer be able to father children. That's a consequence; but, is it a reason to outlaw capital punishment?)

      The citation from Hillel is about murderers, as you noted. The Scriptures and the Tradition distinguish murder from capital punishment. Nobody disputes that murder is wrong. But since capital punishment is typically deemed the proportionate, just response for premeditated murders, it would seem that the existence of murder is an argument favoring the existence of capital punishment, not opposing it.

      The passage Chronicles is closer to topical: By being a "man of blood" David messed up the typology of being the builder of the Temple: For that reason and others, David's son Solomon became a better candidate. (One of the others: Solomon attempted to achieve peace and security, and expansion of his kingdom, by "marrying the whole world, transforming enemies into family.")

      The passage also suggests that, while David might have been fighting a just war, perhaps the way he fought it was not uniformly justified. This doesn't prevent him being a saint when he died, but possibly an earlier death would have found him less-than-saintly. (His words to Abigail about the near-slaying of Nabal suggest he was predisposed to unrighteous violence earlier in his career: He was on the verge of wiping out a household, or even a small community, because someone insulted him. Shades of Lamech?)

      So: We all agree that sometimes an otherwise just action involving killing humans might be done with a wrong attitude or in the wrong way. And we all agree that one shouldn't murder.

      But how does that advance the discussion of Capital Punishment?

  2. Ed, as usual, you have made an extremely good argument for the position. Thank you.

    In support of it even further, I would like to make a suggestion that you have erroneously applied a part of Donum Veritatis to the wrong category: You apply this:

    When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies.

    To this comment about the right of a theologian to raise questions:

    If, despite a loyal effort on the theologian's part, the difficulties persist, the theologian has the duty to make known to the Magisterial authorities the problems raised by the teaching in itself, in the arguments proposed to justify it, or even in the manner in which it is presented.

    I don't believe that's the correct juxtaposition. Teachings of the prudential (which do NOT require religious assent) AND ALSO teachings that require religious assent but are not taught infallibly, both of them, fall into the category of being "not irreformable". Thus, when at #24, the instruction says

    24. Finally, in order to serve the People of God as well as possible, in particular, by warning them of dangerous opinions which could lead to error, the Magisterium can intervene in questions under discussion which involve, in addition to solid principles, certain contingent and conjectural elements...

    it is covering BOTH categories in discussing what the theologian may do. When it mentions "principles", this may be an issue that could require religious assent. But when it mentions use of "contingent and conjectural elements" surely reflects the category of prudential judgments.

    And so when it goes on to say "When it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some Magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies. ...

    the comments that follow immediately after apply more properly to the sub-category of "not irreformable" teachings that are prudential.

    About these, the theologian is NOT OBLIGED to assent absolutely, but (as described) he is obliged also not to depart from assent on flimsy, baseless, ill-formed, or partial reasoning, nor is he free to publicize his lack of assent in just any manner, either. This is all part of the "respect" that the teaching deserves, even though it does not deserve our assent as such.

    But when it goes on, later, to say:

    The willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the Magisterium on matters per se not irreformable must be the rule. It can happen, however, that a theologian may, according to the case, raise questions regarding the timeliness, the form, or even the contents of magisterial interventions...

    it is dealing even with those teachings, not of the prudential order, that also are "not irreformable", which the theologian has TRIED to come to a fulsome assent, but to which he has, still, some reservations. Even with respect to these teachings, while there is an obligation to give "religious assent" to them, the document is describing that kind of assent where the theologian has properly fulfilled his duty to submit his mind and heart to searching out all the reasons to assent, and still finds difficulties.

  3. Let me explain: There is "unreserved assent" and "reserved assent". Unreserved assent to Church teaching applies for those teachings that are taught "irreformably", that is, they are taught infallibly. This can either be dogmas of the faith, to which we owe "divine and Catholic assent", or those taught infallibly as "to be held definitively". Our assent to these is unreserved.

    Then there is the category to which our assent is "religious", which are "not irreformable". In these, since our assent is not "unreserved", it is, necessarily, reserved.

    What Donum Veritatis is doing is, specifically, laying out what it looks like for the theologian to have reserved assent: his assent to the teaching is constrained by the difficulties he sees; he does not simply affirm these difficulties as being definitive in overturning the teaching, but he also sees no way to refute the difficulties, and also no way to allow for the difficulties AND to assent to "the teaching" simply speaking. That's why they remain "difficulties" rather than objections that were answered. He accepts that the Magisterium may come forward with a future elaboration that solves the difficulties. He also accepts that the Magisterium may in the future simply recant the teaching and teach something different, which is, after all, why it is rightly called "reformable".

    This is what the Church means by reserved assent: it allows the theologian to have reservations to the teaching, which (a) he cannot resolve in concert with the teaching; (b) when he raises them to authorities, neither do they resolve them; and (c) it is potentially the case that the difficulties cannot be resolved in harmony with the teaching at issue, and that later the teaching will be changed in light of the difficulties: and he is ALLOWED to consider that latter possibility as being plausible.

    Thus, it isn't ONLY the prudential teachings that allow for the theologian to take those actions describe in which he raises questions etc. Yes, he can do that, but he can also do that to teachings not of the prudential order that require religious assent. The he can take those steps toward the former WITHOUT assenting to the teachings, but he is cautious about them because they deserve respect. The latter teachings he gives a reserved assent, and all the more is cautious and respectful in raising the difficulties he sees, not as if he is sure the difficulties have no answer, but because he himself cannot locate them in spite of diligent effort, and in the hope that the Church will strengthen its clarification of the whole matter.

    I would add that although Donum Veritatis addresses itself specifically to the theologian, its principles apply to others who are also sufficiently steeped in the relevant topics to form reasoned judgments of the arguments. It nowhere claims that ONLY the theologian is allowed to raise difficulties when he sees them.

  4. Thanks for the nice summary of the key arguments, Ed. In general I think the points laid out here are strong and sound, although there's one thing that I'm not convinced about - the part of Donum Veritatis cited seems to be addressing the question of whether a theologian can legitimately analyze and criticize certain promulgated teachings. Fair. However, I don't see how that translates to laypeople having the right to publicly disagree (as some politicians now do, in both actions and words) with such teachings, even if they are prudential and disputed by serious and faithful theologians. It seems to be implicit that until the theologians' concerns are answered one way or another by the Magisterium, the non-expert layman should still follow the officially promulgated prudential judgement in a spirit of obedience. For how should the layman judge whether a theologian's criticisms are valid?

    And I know the memo said it's possible to disagree and remain in good standing, indicating that not following the prudential teaching is not sinful. However, now that "practically non-existent" - where "practically" straightforwardly gives room for varying opinions and practical judgements - was changed to "inadmissible", it no longer seems clear that Ratzinger's clarifications apply in the same way. Maybe I can disagree with the logic behind the change internally, but am still bound to not act against it? Dunno. It's a tough nut to crack for me, though thankfully not something that affects my life that much.

    1. When JPII was delivering his prudential judgment, he was in effect saying "it is my considered opinion that the right circumstances are very rare, or non-existent". Catholics were free to consider that (and any reasons he gave), and come to a different conclusion, e.g. that the right circumstances were not "very rare", but (for example) only moderately unusual but still several a year in a large state.

      If Francis's teaching is still in the realm of prudential judgment, then his teaching is in effect saying "no, the 'right circumstances' for DP is not even 'very rare', it's altogether non-existent." Catholics are still free to consider his teaching and its arguments, and (like with JPII's teaching), arrive at a different conclusion. The change in NUMBER of appropriate cases for DP doesn't change the character of the teaching still being one that Catholics can decline to agree with, upon giving the teaching the respect it is due.

      still follow the officially promulgated prudential judgement in a spirit of obedience

      The whole point of the category of "prudential judgments to which disagreement is lawful" is that in giving them, the pope (and other bishops) are conscientiously saying (implicitly) "this teaching is NOT binding on your conscience, you are allowed to not agree with it", and all the more, not follow it either. Sure, we shouldn't simply ignore it, nor should we repudiate it for silly, inconsequential reasons, baselessly or because of mere prejudice: we are bound to respect the prudential teaching of popes and bishops. But giving them respect still allows for disagreement with their conclusions. Here's an example: in 1376, St. Catherine of Sienna chided the pope and urged him to reverse the policy of his recent predecessors, and return the papacy to Rome. She most vociferously disagreed with the prudential papal decision that it was best for the papacy to reside in Avignon (as did most Catholics).

      One of the ways we properly give respect to the teachings of the bishops is to reflect on them in light of the whole body of Church's prior teachings. This way, we can often see how they more fully elaborate the truth already stated earlier in a less precise way. But this leaves room for the possibility (in the case of prudential judgments) that a bishop's (or pope's) new teaching falls short of the light and clarity of earlier teachings - and this has happened in the case of non-prudential teachings when bishops go off the deep end into heresy, like with the Arian bishops, the Nestorian bishops, the Iconoclast bishops, etc.

    2. I think Tony's comment highlights a critical statistical element to the issue. Even in the presence of the worst possible social conditions, ones that contribute most-strongly to murderous behaviors (e.g. an active Marxist revolutionary movement, rampant occult/Satanic social influences, tribal tensions with a genocidal character, ongoing well-funded "defund the police" propaganda), the number of crimes justly punishable with execution each year might be zero if one's country is the size of Luxembourg!

      But in a larger country, the situation changes. If there are a hundred such cases annually, what then? Let us presume (as we must!) that the prudential judgments of three successive pontiffs cannot be completely out-to-lunch. We must therefore conclude that, in many or most such cases, extrinsic circumstances pertain which make execution imprudent in one way or another.

      But the more such cases we have each year (which, again, is proportionate to population, but also to other social ills), the more we must expect a at least a few cases to arise wherein these extrinsic factors are not present.

      When that happens, it seems that to not punish the offender with a sentence which approaches, as closely as possible, his just deserts is, plainly and simply, to sin against the virtue of justice, and to undermine the common good.

      (Perhaps I am wrong about that; but someone will need to explain to me in what way.)

      I suspect it is on account of several factors that modern Western states are so thoroughly blasé about failing to render proportionate justice on the upper-end of the scale of offenses:
      1. The "so-whatness" of evil: Modern Westerners are jaded (especially our gated-community governing class), and at a gut level, we (especially, they) just don't perceive multiple-murders (coupled, perhaps, with sexual assault or torture), to be as "big a deal" as we (they) ought to;
      2. We care deeply about "human dignity," but have developed the habit of privileging the human dignity of criminal offenders over the human dignity of their victims and their families; and,
      3. We are accustomed to confusing state action, about which an individual citizen has no choice, with actions that individual citizens may voluntarily undertake, and in which the voluntary nature of the act is critically constitutive of the character of the act. In this example, by confusing the generosity of interpersonal mercy-and-forgiveness with institutional laxity at the level of law, we think we're making laws "merciful" when we're merely making them unjustly lax. (We forget that if the law doesn't even permit just punishment, then the lack of any other option means that less-than-just punishment is not a merciful act, but merely an unjust one.)

      These factors, I think, are comparatively recent.

      One might argue, therefore (as recent pontiffs have) that on the whole our society is more keenly aware of "human dignity" now than in, say, the 1400's.

      But it doesn't follow that we're more keenly aware of human dignity now than in 1893. It doesn't follow that we're giving the human dignity of victims its just place in our calculations, alongside that of offenders. It doesn't follow that we're considering our obligation to justice in addition to the practical need of defending society outside the prison walls from those inside. It doesn't follow that we retain a proper hatred of evil (not evildoers, but evil) sufficient to motivate us to restore justice.

      And, it doesn't follow that, given a sufficiently large population and sufficient social ills, the extrinsic circumstances which make capital punishment imprudent will apply in all, or even most, of each year's cases.

      These details, I think, are all imminently debatable inasmuch as they are not addressed by current Magisterial discussion of the topic. We wouldn't want the Magisterium drawing conclusions based on only half of the relevant considerations.

  5. You are technically right, Ed, but as a practical matter, Annet is right because the church will never again embrace the death penalty as it did a half-century ago under the reign of Pope Pius Xll. It has irrevocably moved away from that.

    1. Thanks. Can you tell me where the stock market will be this time next year, too?

  6. The question is "Was he yellow?"

    1. No, in the end he asked Jesus to forgive him, and to prove his sincerity he faked cowardice so his gang of boys would not idolize his criminal self, only give up their life of crime.

      Of course, Jesus did forgive him so now you can go meet him in heaven when you die. You see, it doesn't matter at all how you live your life, god does not care, all he cares is that you believe in him and ask to be forgiven.

      You can even blow up a lot of innocent people along with yourself as long as you do it in the name of god. The tricky part is guessing which god, because I have it on good authority that the real god hates it when you pray to the wrong one, so aren't you going to feel kind of dumb when you say, "oh snaps, it was the monkey god after all" and you get packed off to hades for eternity not only for being such a sinner but also for asking forgiveness from the wrong god.

      Now, if one is a smart condemned killer one places a Pascalian wager, asking forgiveness from god in general, the universal god (on pantheism), Yahweh, Allah, Vishnu, Monkey, Jesus, ones ancestors, Satan, the Greek pantheon in its entirety and anything else you can think of before they flip the switch, pull the lever, pull the trigger, push the plunger, or light the fire...all while praying for god to have mercy on your soul, of course!!!

    2. @StardustyPsyche

      Christianity is a salvation by grace religion: "For it is by grace you have been saved, not by works, least anyone should boast." (Ephesians 2:8-10) In order to be saved, you need to be in good social graces with your creator.

      Because of this, no, it's not as simple as just asking for forgiveness at the last moment of your life (presumption: when is the last moment of your life?) If you're not living your life in a way that keeps you in good graces with your creator, you're not going to be able to find the willpower to ask for forgiveness in the last moment of your life.

      I recommend invoking the saints, especially St. Maximilian Kolbe, patron saint of sacrifice of self for others.

    3. InfiniteLite,
      "If you're not living your life in a way that keeps you in good graces with your creator, you're not going to be able to find the willpower to ask for forgiveness"
      So, asking forgiveness doesn't do any good after all? I guess there is no point in jailhouse conversions then. I suppose we should send all those priests and pastors home, just tell them to stop wasting their time, it's too late for those crummy criminals.

      And what do you know about somebody else's willpower? Pretty presumptuous of you, I should say.

      "I recommend invoking the saints,"
      So, pray to the saints? Mmm...that means there are gods other than the big main god, these saints can do magical stuff too, not the big magic like the main god, but smaller stuff the big god doesn't want to bother with.

      How does that work, I mean, specifically? So, god never changes, and god was just going to let me live a rotten life and go to hell, but then I prayed to Kolbe, and Kolbe went and had a conversation with god, changed god's mind and got god to help me out. Or did Kolbe do all that super stuff for me without talking to god about it?

      I confess to being bewildered about the mechanism of efficacy for intercessory prayer.

    4. So, asking forgiveness doesn't do any good after all? I guess there is no point in jailhouse conversions then. I suppose we should send all those priests and pastors home, just tell them to stop wasting their time, it's too late for those crummy criminals.

      You don't have free will. The jailhouse conversion happened because of grace. The criminal could have easily became bitter, or died in a shootout, or any other number of possible things that would have prevented him from seeking or receiving forgiveness. And the way grace works is non-linear and heavily dependent on hysteresis so don't even THINK of trying to calculate it or anticipate it.

      Hysteresis - Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia

    5. Of course we have free will. The idea that god goes around with a magic wand just randomly choosing to make certain people love Him and not others, randomly, is just not right. It’s a protestant misunderstanding of predestination, a misunderstanding of the fact that God’s perspective is eternal.

      For example, see:
      “ This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live 20 and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life”

      “For this people’s heart has become calloused;
      they hardly hear with their ears,
      and they have closed their eyes.
      Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
      hear with their ears,
      understand with their hearts
      and turn, and I would heal them”

    6. InfiniteLite,
      "You don't have free will."
      Ok, I confess I did not see that one coming. Human beings have no free will, you say.

      That makes god kind of a monster sending non-free will creatures to hell, don't you agree? I mean, when the female spider kills the male after mating we don't get mad at her about it, she was just doing what spiders do, absent any free will.

      God must be very sadistic to punish his creations for simply doing what they must do, absent free will.

      "And the way grace works is non-linear and heavily dependent on hysteresis so don't even THINK of trying to calculate it or anticipate it."
      Yes, not thinking is a prerequisite for accepting a very great deal of Christianity, such as the irrational and absurd notion of intercessory prayer you advised for me.

    7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    8. @Simon Adams

      It is traditional Catholic doctrine that there is always a level of grace that will cause the sinner to change his ways, regardless of his will or intent.

    9. @StardustyPsyche

      Is the reason you don't want to pray to St. Maximilian Kolbe, patron saint of sacrifice of self for others, because you have intellectual hang-ups... or is the real reason is because sacrifice of self for others is offensive to you?

      In Catholicism, good is sacrifice of self for others, and evil is sacrifice of others for self. You should do an inspection of conscience to see if there is something inside of you that desires sacrifice of others for self.

    10. InfiniteLite: “It is traditional Catholic doctrine that there is always a level of grace that will cause the sinner to change his ways, regardless of his will or intent.”

      That sounds strange as it goes against scripture, reason, and the Catechism:

      "To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of "predestination", he includes in it each person's free response to his grace."

    11. It is traditional Catholic doctrine that there is always a level of grace that will cause the sinner to change his ways, regardless of his will or intent.

      This is poorly stated: A person has the power to refuse to cooperate with grace granted to him, should he will to do so.

      However, God could in principle grant him such an effusion of grace that influences his will such that he does not will to reject cooperation.

      What is critical (correcting what Infinite said) is that God does so by affecting his will, so that the grace does not act "regardless of his will". We all should, indeed, pray for the grace of perseverance in the spiritual life, which grace would have the effect of lifting the will toward full cooperation with God and avoid the condition in which you would choose to reject his aid. (In a sense, this grace carries into effect the foreKNOWLEDGE implied in predestination. In reality, though, his knowledge and his saving action are not independent.)

    12. That sounds broadly right to me Tony. However I like to keep things simple where possible, and Jesus’ parable of the farmer sowing the seeds seems as complicated as it needs to be. We have to work to ensure we are ‘good soil’. If we don’t pay attention to the sower, the seeds get taken by the birds. If we pay too much attention to the many things of the world, they become like weeds or thorns that strangle the plants. If we don’t make sure the seeds take root fully in our lives, the plants wither when the first challenges come along.

      Of course the ‘grace’ of the farmer sowing the seeds is essential, and the farmer will ensure we are watered. But the idea that God just sends His grace as a fait accompli seems to me like a modern idea from various protestant groups, and a misunderstanding of the point of Paul’s comments in Ephesians. The ongoing lifting of the heart and mind towards God is surely a cooperation between will and grace. At times (usually early on in the journey of faith) it’s mostly grace. However there are times when God deliberately pulls back His grace, and then we are left to do our best to still lift up our hearts and minds towards Him.

  7. Excellent post Dr. Feser,

    Do you have any posts addressing the question of whether the recent Popes have changed Church teaching by demanding that we execute on the basis of consequentialist principles rather than retribution (which is a sine qua non for capital punishment)?

    You alluded to this in the post, but I think it warrants further discussion. Are there any magisterial statements that refute the charge that recent Popes have bound faithful Catholics to adhere to consequentialism vis-a-vis capital punishment?

    1. While JPII, and even more, Francis, have taught that the use of DP should be restricted to cases where imposing death is the only way to protect society from the further depredations of the convicted criminal, I don't think this should be accounted as "consequentialist principles".

      Why? Because standard Catholic moral analysis provides for taking consequences into account without being "consequentialist" in principles. The place where this becomes manifest is in the Catholic teaching on the moral act: In order for a chosen act to be moral, it has to be either GOOD or NEUTRAL with respect to 3 aspects or principles of the act: its object, its intention, and its circumstances. If it is evil in its object, then no amount of good intention, and no superfluity of good consequences can make it a morally good act. Only an act that has a good object, or a neutral object, can be moral, and in order to be moral they also have to have a good intention, and have the right circumstances. Assuming that an object has a good object AND a good intention, THEN it's consequences can come into play to determine its morality: if you have two different options in front of you, both of which have the same good object and the same good intention, but which have different consequences, you evaluate which is the morally better act by the one which produces the better overall consequences taken as a whole. Thus, the consequences DO MATTER to the morality of the act, but they don't do so regardless of the object and the intention of the act. So, an act whose object is to murder an innocent person, even if done because the consequence will be saving 100 people, is a morally bad act because it has an evil object, even though the consequences will be very good indeed: good in the consequences cannot turn an act with an evil object into a morally good act.

      But that's exactly what "consequentialism" teaches: that an act's morality depends entirely on its consequences, and if it has (on the whole) good consequences, it was a morally good act. Thus, the Catholic teaching on the moral act repudiates consequentialism, but does not repudiate using consequences as part of the moral analysis.

      What JPII and Francis's teaching does (apparently) is to propose that in evaluating DP in our current social conditions, neither the object of just retribution, nor the consequence of deterrence, will be sufficient to overcome the negative consequences of putting the criminal to death in measuring the goodness of the act as a whole. Such a proposal represents a prudential judgment of the good and bad consequences from an act whose object is a good object (and whose intention can be presumed to be good). This does not represent consequentialism.

  8. Hi Professor Feser
    Great Post! I agree with most of the points that you made! With regards to your well argued point though that a Prudential Judgement of the Church is not binding on the faithful. I tend to think that it's a little more complicated that. I think there are certain prudential argument that definitely do not require assent but at the same time it seems to me that there are other prudential judgements which inevitably do. For example, It's hard to show that a prohibited activity like adult Brother-Sister marriage is intrinsically evil. It has been a matter of debate for years on whether it's a divine prohibition or prohibition by ecclesiastical law. Making the point that such a marriage would be wrong seems to take into account many factors that at the end of the day is a prudential matter namely that Fallen Human Beings have a very strong tendency towards insularity, tribalism and clanishness, thus allowing Sibling Marriage would very likely lead to society withdrawing into itself akeen to a kind of community masturbation one could say. Even if this or that particular couple manages to overcome those tribalistic tendencies, since marriage is a public affair, it is bound to tempt some other couple. Now nothing over here suggests that it's intrinsically evil yet it commands our submission. Even besides this case, inter faith marriages were banned by the Church for a long time. Marriage between first and second cousins require a special dispensation by the Church.

    Ultimately I guess that these prudential judgements have strong binding force perhaps because Marriage is a Sacrament and the Church has special competence over administering sacraments.

    What if the public authorities decide to legalise sibling marriage though ? And the Church makes a stand against it, would it be binding on the faithful to oppose secular sibling marriage? It's a tough question, I think. Again, because it's hard to make the case that it is intrinsically evil, many commentators point out that if it were intrinsic evil, it seems that Humanity was propagated based on intrinsically evil acts. (Adam and Eve's children)

    Pointing to old testament commands in the book of Leviticus seem to be irrelevant unless one is a divine command theorist.

    1. I think a relevant counter example would be the seal of confession. Everyone agrees that the seal of confession is absolute and that priests are gravely sinning to break it, but during all the talks recently where governments are suggesting laws making priests mandatory reporters even for information they learn during confession, I’ve never heard anyone make the argument that the seal is something the Church couldn’t in principle dispose of. I’ve also never heard anyone suggest that clergy who are arguing for the abolishment of the seal are themselves gravely sinning just for having that position.

      It seems to me that the relevant distinction between our examples and matters of public policy like the death penalty or just war theory is that Catholics are bound by canon law as a matter of obedience.

    2. Norm, the thing you are putting your finger on is that some things are commands that the Church tells its members to DO, (or to not do) certain acts, which is a different class from that of teachings. Teachings are to inform our minds of what is true; directives are to tell us what actions to do, not to teach. The latter are called "juridic" acts. We are not obliged to believe that the Church's juridic rules are always the best and wisest rules, we just have to obey them. (In this, they are like civil laws: civil authorities do not require us to believe each law is the right and best law possible, they only require obedience. It is perfectly allowable to believe that a law is a very poor law, but still obey it.) Teachings are different, especially for infallible teachings: for these, we are obliged to believe them to be true.

      Indeed, I have heard one commentator suggest that Francis, in changing the catechism the way he did, was making a juridic act no longer permitting that we support capital punishment. The problem is that in order to make a law, you have to deliver it in the imperative voice, prescriptive rather than descriptive, you have to give orders: "Do this" and "Don't do that". The new language is not in the imperative voice, it does not command anything specific. It is decidedly given in descriptive terms rather than prescriptive terms.

      So, it makes more sense to read it as a further analysis in the prudential order of teachings. This is interesting, because JPII (and prior popes) had already made clear that for this issue, the proper locus of the ultimate prudential judgment belongs to the civil order. If we were in a monarchy, the decisions would belong to the king and to his ministers, officials, and delegates. If we were in an aristocracy, the decisions would belong to the nobles, and to the lower level that owed them vassalage, and their delegates. In a democratic regime (including ones like our democratic republic), the decisions belong to the rulers - which are the people, and their officials and delegates, to whom the executive authority has been delegated. Thus it is quite appropriate, in this civil order, for we the people to elaborate upon the pope's teaching, to winnow and sift and consider it, give it all its proper respect, and to then make the prudential choices that belong to our proper roles (including: choosing the officials and delegates to act on our behalf).

    3. I don't think that you are quite in the right there buddy. The seal of confession is one of the the most binding aspects of sacramental theology. Some 10th century canonists argue that it's almost a part of the nature of the sacrament. Indeed priests have been instructed to die rather then divulge the contents of a confession. The punishment for violating the sacrament is on par with intentionally desecrating the Eucharist, That is Automatic Excommunication. The primary reason for this is that it's divinely instituted. When a priest celebrates Mass or hears a confession, it is not the priest but the Person of Christ who is acting through them, that's why the priest must say * "I" absolve you*. Hence the penitents sins are not and can never be a matter of public disclosure. For even though the sacrament is expressed through visible actions, it is a matter of a deeply personal and spiritual transformation of the Penitent when the sacrament is celebrated rightly, not some sort of psychotherapy. I mentioned therapy because the argument one tends to see floating around is that if therapists can be made to disclose, why not Priests ? And the answer is as mentioned, the priest and therapist are functioning on completely different levels. The difference is infinite, as Augustine once wrote the conversion of a sinner is greater then the creation of heaven and Earth, And as Christ himself said, there will be more joy in heaven over a converted sinner then 10 righteous man who were not in need of conversion. The church has always treated the confession seal as very important as priests were subjected to a lifetime of penance in a monastery for breaking it. You don't require lifetime penance if you didn't gravely sin.

    4. Hi Tony!
      I think I agree with what you say!

  9. Dr. Feser, You live in L.A. and I live in Ala. But even here, in deep red conservative Ala, you just know that something is terribly wrong with the world. I have lived a long life (and done and seen a lot) and I have never seen it like this. I wish you would write about divine providence. Columnist George Weigel wrote about that recently in a recent issue of the Catholic Week newspaper. But I am sure you could do it better. Thank you. Anon.

  10. OP,
    "Pope Francis’s statements on the death penalty cannot plausibly be read in a way that would make assent to them binding on Catholics."
    Finding a way to disagree with the pope is irrelevant to you if you are innocent on death row.

    In fact the Innocence Project, as well as independent efforts, have gotten multiple innocent human beings off death row. Many more innocents have been executed due to a lack of available exonerating evidence.

    I mean factually innocent, not just a technicality, or a hung jury, I mean flat out wrongly convicted for a murder that person had nothing to do with.

    Mistaken identity, false conviction, improper handling of evidence, malicious prosecution that was and is in fact persecution, not merely prosecution.

    Imagine your life in a living hell, wrongly convicted of a crime you did not commit, waiting to be murdered by the state in all our names.

    How would you feel at the moment of your execution, an innocent human being, murdered democratically?

    The immorality of the death penalty is not in the fairness of taking a life for a life taken,

    The immorality of the death penalty is that we, as a society, as a nation, as a legal system, are incompetent. We lack the collective accuracy, decency, and judgement necessary to administer the death penalty fairly.

    We need a new, much stricter, standard of evidence for the penalty phase in a capital case, such as "beyond natural doubt", or "to a natural certainty".

    Until we prove the ability to adhere to a foolproof standard of evidence in the penalty phase of capital cases a moratorium should be placed on all executions.

    1. sd says, "Until we prove the ability to adhere to a foolproof standard of evidence in the penalty phase of capital cases a moratorium should be placed on all executions"

      A moratorium should be placed on all murders. That's impossible, so protection of the population requires the death penalty. Convicted killers escape or are released when they shouldn't be and murder again. Some may be executed who wrongly convicted, but then some are killed in their cars or when they are walking by people wrongly crashing their cars into them. sd's style of argument is, "you must be perfect but i don't have to be perfect". The great i does not make much sense, as per usual, with unfair and double standard.

      Tom Cohoe

    2. @ All,

      I see that sd is up to his usual trouble making, with an extra dose of especially revealing mockery and jeering about Christianity. For example, sd says, "How does that work, I mean, specifically? So, god never changes, and god was just going to let me live a rotten life and go to hell, but then I prayed to Kolbe, and Kolbe went and had a conversation with god, changed god's mind and got god to help me out. Or did Kolbe do all that super stuff for me without talking to god about it?

      I confess to being bewildered about the mechanism of efficacy for intercessory prayer."

      sd is not being very nice here, although he has pretended to be friendly, but double barreled mockery is actually a little more on the nasty side. His "confession" of "bewilderment" is not a real confession but is just loud jeering.

      I have previously pointed out how an immature person jeering about and mocking algebra as a self promoting publicity stunt is not going to be able to learn algebra because you can't learn how something works while vandalizing it as performance art.

      sd uses his God given free will to choose this learning avoidance activity, so he is in a tough, self-imposed bind.

      Good grief🤣!

      Talking to Christians about God as "god" is pretty unfriendly too, but the pride he derives from his self-imposed restriction to the tiny loop he keeps himself in means that sd is unlikely to "get nice" anytime soon and call God "God".

      But in general Christians will readily forgive such provocative needling. Pride bedevils humans all the time.

      No, if sd, like the boy with public contempt for algebra, wants to actually learn and really understand Christianity, God, eternity and teleology, etc. he will have become humble, quiet, and patient. His posting activity will show his progress.

      A little clue for sd:

      The eternal instant of intimacy with the infinite divine ideas from God's self knowing will reveal more to sd than all the seeking that a living human can do in a lifetime. As I have shown him, though he can get a lot closer to understanding _something_ meaning a lot further from the nothing he clings to now.

      1, 2, and 3 are satisfying progress from 0 in the direction of infinity even though they are no closer to infinity than sd's 0.

      The absurdity of sd's idea that the relation has to be symmetrical just because an "equality" relation is symmetrical (there are many other kinds of relations), or whatever sd said (I may be mixing him up with another really minor mind) is staggeringly funny.

      No, we must pray for sd. The seed of understanding is already inescapably planted in sd's mind.

      God the father, give sd a hope of understanding intercessory prayer since he is so "bewildered" by it.

      sd already does understand this, and sd knows that he understands this.


      Tom Cohoe

    3. Tom, you might consider stop wasting your time with SD.

    4. Tom

      You might consider stopping feeding someone you consider to be a troll ( to the point of obesity ).

  11. If His Holiness Pope Francis intended to issue a blanket condemnation of the Death Penalty which means no Catholic may ever support it or participate in an act of Capital Punishment then why has the Holy Father not revised Canon Law to include punishments or excommunications for either publicly advocating for this policy or for serving as a State Executioner?

    There are none.

    There are penalties for publicly supporting Abortion in Canon Law, performing one and or helping a person obtain one.

    This alone proves Prof Feser's thesis. This is mere prudent or even strong prudent council. It is not binding so I can be for the Death Penalty and I am till further notice.

    If the Pope means something different it is His job to clarify it.

    Tony is out of line calling me or anybody who agrees with Feser on this issue a dissenter. If anything he is a dissenter from Benedict XVI and St John Paul II's teaching which allows me to disagree with Popes on the Death Penalty.

    Darthjimscottth aka Son of Yacob.

    1. Son of Y. The DP is "inadmissible." Case closed.

    2. Och aye the noo Jimmy.

  12. Though I write these comments as reflecting on what SP wrote above, I do not make them to him. Not being a Christian, he does not accept Christian premises. These comments are made to anyone who starts with Christian premises, and wonders about some issues like what he asserted.

    Imagine your life in a living hell, wrongly convicted of a crime you did not commit, waiting to be murdered by the state in all our names.

    It is, indeed, a terrible thing, if the state executes an innocent man on the (erroneous) belief that he is guilty.

    But it is not one of the most terrible of all terrible outcomes. Christ, after all, elected to submit to a most unjust execution - indeed, an execution that the judge expressly said was not just. Many saints have followed in Christ's footsteps, accepting peacefully (and often enough, with a song on their lips) an unjust death, knowing they have a reward waiting in heaven. Being forced to suffer an unfair result - even one gravely unfair, like unwarranted death - is an evil of this life only, and does not damage your soul or its interior life of grace, which is a good of the eternal order. Anything which God allows to be imposed upon you, God can use to your eternal benefit, and he WILL do so if we cooperate with his grace.

    More generally: while we aim and urgently strive to achieve a just society, we cannot MAKE it be accurate and perfect in all its actions, merely because we want it so. We are humans, and humans make mistakes. It is impossible to formulate procedures which ALWAYS succeed in locating the just outcome, nor can we always avoid having wrong-headed men in government. Yet, we ALSO cannot wait until mankind is perfected, before we have a civil society with men and women who make rules and who issue judgments which might go astray. We are, even in our imperfect condition, obliged to have rules (which sometimes result in imperfect results), and obliged to have judges and juries (who sometimes render imperfect decisions). NOT having rules and judges would result in worse evils than the evils of wrong judgments which are "predictable" statistically as an unavoidable error rate in procedures written otherwise as the best we know how to do.

    We need a new, much stricter, standard of evidence for the penalty phase in a capital case, such as "beyond natural doubt", or "to a natural certainty".

    It may be so, but the proper standard should weigh the effects on both sides of the coin, not ONLY the bad effects on those unjustly punished.

    Until we prove the ability to adhere to a foolproof standard of evidence in the penalty phase of capital cases a moratorium should be placed on all executions.

    We being fallible humans, there is not (and cannot be) a foolproof standard of evidence.

    1. Not Bob,
      "But it is not one of the most terrible of all terrible outcomes."

      "knowing they have a reward waiting in heaven."
      Here we see the poisonous effects of religion, wherein unjust killing is seen as not all that bad because the victim will live on in paradise, so no great loss.

      That is the logic of the suicide bomber.

      Religion corrodes the mind and the heart, attacks and eats away at the very core of one's humanity and empathy and reason.

      I know of only 1 religion that is dedicated to the alleviation of human suffering, Buddhism. Christianity is often indifferent to injustice on the notion that god will set it all right in the next life, which is a reason Christianity remains such a dangerous and destructive force in our society.

    2. @ All,

      sd says, "Christianity is often indifferent to injustice"


      Justice is one of the four cardinal virtues of Christianity (prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude), which go along with the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity to make the seven heavenly virtues.

      These virtues do not "corrode the mind", or the heart, and they do not "eat away at the very core of one's humanity and empathy and reason".

      However, spreading hatred by saying false things about what Christianity is uses the hateful (of self and of others) logic of the suicide bomber.

      sd is certainly very mixed up. He must already know this, a glimmer of hope for him.


      Tom Cohoe

  13. Wow! Thank you, Professor Feser. I have read many of your articles on this topic and this one is the best. It nicely covers all the objections that I am aware of for those that argue for the abolishment of the death penalty. Nicely done. Thank you again.

  14. WCB

    "As I went on to argue in the article, if the first interpretation is correct, then the revision to the Catechism would contradict the consistent and irreformable teaching of scripture and 2,000 years of tradition that capital punishment can be legitimate at least in principle."

    For much of RCC history, slavery was acceptable, and even commanded. See Nicholas V and bulls Dum Diversas and Romanus Pontifex.

    Torture was acceptable, part and parcel of the various Inquisitions.

    Mass murder. Cathars. The bloddy crusades of the Teutonic Knights, and Brotherhood of the sword.

    Forced conversion and religious wars.

    Today, the RCC would agree those days of RCC sanctioned activities like these are over.

    So this idea that what was allowable for ever so many centuries by the RCC and its popes is not as good as an argument as proposed. Maybe it is time the time honored practice of capital punishment likewise fade away.


  15. I am curious whether it is possible to extrapolate the principle that JPII proposed and that Francis is extending - that retribution (as a purpose) cannot justify using the DP if DP is not needed to keep society safe from further harm from this criminal - and apply it to other (or ALL) punishments. That is, argue that the principle involved cannot be isolated as applying only to the DP, and that therefore it must be accounted for in all punishments decided upon by society.

    What would this mean? It would mean, at a minimum, that the penal system would have to parole any criminal the moment it was decided that through the parole methods themselves, society can "keep tabs" on the criminal sufficiently to reduce the risk of further crimes from him below some (specified) risk level. But it would also mean that the length of any prison sentence determined could not be stated primarily in terms of the "just" (i.e. proportionate) length for the crime committed, but in terms of the shortest period likely to reach the above parole-point. (At least, assuming such period is not longer than the just (proportionate) length of time.)

    And it would further undermine any use of punishments of a different nature than that of restraint by which society keeps itself safe from the criminal's probable future crimes (i.e. jail or prison): For example, if (in the past) the standard punishment for some petty vandalism is community service hours, that punishment has been backed up by the threat of prison: if the criminal refuses to show up to serve the hours, the fall-back is the possibility of putting him in jail. But if you can ONLY use jail to restrain him from FUTURE crimes, and if (perchance) you don't expect him to commit such crimes, you cannot use the threat of jail to "force" compliance with the service hour requirement. (Yes, you could make it a NEW crime to refuse to show up to serve your hours, and make that new crime subject to jail time, but then that would make the failure to "pay the price" of the earlier crime to be a worse crime than the earlier crime. And require keeping him in jail until he decides to comply with the service hours, even if that is for decades.)

    In effect, then, it seems to me that expanding the scope of the principle would probably have some effect of undermining punishments as deterrence. (And I have already explained how (I think) that punishment for reform of the criminal properly works through the retributive aspect as the primary end of punishment.) The appearance then would be that the expansion of the principle to all punishment effectively limits all viable purposes for punishment to just restraint (of this criminal) from future crimes. Such a result would seem to necessitate re-writing the entirety of Catholic punishment theory, as well as rewriting half of Catholic justice theory.

  16. Actually I would rather explore the view I've seen some anti-DP fundamentalists put forth that the Pope can ban Catholics from supporting the Death Penalty as a matter of discipline.

    Cause I am skeptical the Pope can legitimately ban that for Catholics anymore than he can ban Gingers from marrying....

    If it is not intrinsically evil and if it doesn't pertain to the practice of the Faith or morals then I don't see how the Pope can ban it? Sure the Pope can ban the St Pius V rite but can he ban people for calling for it's restoration? I think not. Nor can he as a matter of discipline ban support for the DP.

    Thus the CCC is giving strong prudent council here on the DP not binding teaching.


  17. Feser engages in radical subjectivism as he says that what the Catechism teaches is not really the teaching of the Church because it comes from the current Pope, and because, according to him, it does not jibe with what the Church has always taught. This involves a take on "what the Church has always taught" confusing one´s subjective take with true and complex history. Saint Thomas does not defend the Death Penalty in the modern sense. That issue was not present to him. He wrote about the primacy of the common good. But it is this very principle--as developed in the womb of the Church--which has led to what Francis did, which was the crucial affirmation that the secular state is not Lord over life and death. From this affirmation the Church has no turning back.
    The Church can change the formulations of its teaching, but that teaching itself belongs to a Deposit of Faith given to the Church in her Magisterium.

  18. Feser argues that the change to the Catechism, representing a prudential judgement about the current state of things, and thus does not bind us. But it does not claim to be based essentially on the current state of things, but rather on the inherent and intrinsic dignity of the human person, something that is not a matter of prudential judgement. The argument that there are now, normally, good alternatives to the Death Penalty is ancillary not essential. The essential argument regards the dignity of the person AND the competency of the State. The state is not competent over life for life is sacred. Both of those terms form a single convincing argument and a development of doctrine from which there is no going back and which demands the adhesion of the faithful.