Saturday, December 09, 2017

By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment

updated through 1/2019

By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, 2017, Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press) . Visit or call 1-800-651-1531. 

Edward Feser's Blog, here:

Reviews and defense 

1) Edward Peters, Professor of Canon Law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Canon Law,May 23, 2017,

"Feser and Bessette’s defense of capital punishment is a triumph of truth over platitude, of fact over fiction, of argument over emotion.  In response to recent condemnations of the death penalty issued by various ecclesiastics, Feser and Bessette calmly and methodically set forth the philosophical, Scriptural, doctrinal, and sociological arguments grounding the Catholic Church’s hitherto unquestioned – and ultimately unquestionable – support for the death penalty when it is justly administered."

" . . . all contributions to the capital punishment debate, especially as conducted by and among Catholics, must incorporate the work of Feser and Bessette or risk irrelevance."

"Defenders of capital punishment will find in these pages persuasive arguments upholding the proper exercise of this momentous state power and opponents of the death penalty will see their challenges accurately depicted and soberly answered." "This exactly is what Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette provide in their recent book, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed, the most comprehensive case ever assembled. Yes, one can avoid becoming persuaded by not looking into that telescope. But if you do, you may see so clearly the unchanging nature of the question that you will quip, Eppur non si muove,“Nevertheless it does not move.” 

2) Reviews: By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, Janet Smith, moral theologian, Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2017 

" . . . the arguments are so strong, I timidly suggest, that perhaps the authors should have allowed readers to “draw their own conclusions” more often.  But let me say, the book simply flattens its opponents." "(Bessette)  uses this data to refute claims made by the (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) that capital punishment has no deterrent power, that innocent persons are regularly executed, that the application of the death penalty has been unfairly applied to minorities and the poor." 

"Feser systematically refutes the arguments of those who think the Church now teaches that capital punishment is intrinsically unjust.  He helps readers to see how weak our attachment to justice has become and how little we allow tight reasoning about justice to govern our thinking…" 

3) Yes, traditional Church teaching on capital punishment is definitive, Dr. Edward Feser, The Catholic World Report, 11/21/2017, 

"Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the popes for 2000 years have taught that capital punishment can be legitimate in principle . . .  this teaching is irreformable." 

"Given the “hermeneutic of continuity” emphasized by Pope Benedict XVI – and given especially the teaching of the First Vatican Council that popes have no authority to introduce new doctrines  . . . " 

4) Capital Punishment: Eppur non si muove, Michael Pakaluk, The Catholic Thing, NOVEMBER 4, 2017, 

“If bloodless means suffice, they must be used instead.” But what if bloodless means do not suffice? Then bloody means must be used. The man already in solitary confinement who finds his chance to murder the visiting physician or pastor. The revolutionary who remains a rallying point. Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Julius Streicher, Alfred Rosenberg, Hermann Goering, Arthur Seyss-Inquart – you think bloodless means suffice to uphold justice? You are entitled to that minority opinion, but you cannot say that it is against reason, against conscience, to hold otherwise." 

"But in our day, when even the heavens apparently do move, we need a different sort of telescope for seeing the changelessness of the other – one that has the clear lens of reason, and the long extension of history, and which is situated in a calm and still observatory." 

5) Reply to Brugger and Tollefsen 

Part 1

Traditional Catholic Doctrine on Capital Punishment is Irreversible: A Reply to E. Christian Brugger, by  Edward Feser, The Public Discourse, November 19th, 2017, 

"The Catholic Church has always taught that capital punishment can be legitimate under certain circumstances. Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and every pope who has commented on the topic up to Benedict XVI have all clearly and repeatedly affirmed this teaching." 

Part 2 

St. John Paul II Did Not Change Catholic Teaching on Capital Punishment: A Reply to E.Christian Brugger by  Edward Feser, The Public Discourse,  November 20th, 2017, 

"To change (the Church's 2000 year old teachings) would be to contradict the clear and consistent teaching of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the popes, and no pope has the authority to do that." 

Part 3 

Capital Punishment, Catholicism, and Natural Law: A Reply to Christopher Tollefsen, by Edward Feser, 11/21/2017,  

" . . . the reason a person can be deprived even of the highest good, God, is that a person can do something to deserve such a loss. The same thing is true of life. A person has a right not to be killed unless—by virtue of having committed a sufficiently heinous crime—he has, as Pope Pius XII put it, “deprived himself of the right to live.” Tollefsen’s argument against capital punishment simply ignores the fact that the right to the enjoyment of a good any good—depends on whether or not one is guilty or innocent." 

6) Review: By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, Daniel Lendman, Reading Religion, a publication of the American Academy of Religion, June 29, 2017, 

"Feser and Bessette… insist that the legitimacy of capital punishment is the ancient and long standing teaching of the Catholic Church.  [They] go even farther, laying out a compelling case that denying that capital punishment can be legitimate in principle is proximate to heresy…" 

"While the context of this argument is decidedly and purposefully Catholic, readers of different religions and belief systems can still find forceful natural law arguments supporting capital punishment in this book.  The authors also offer arguments claiming the prudence of using capital punishment in the United States, . . . "

7) "Can the Church ever bless the death penalty?", by Dan Hitchens, deputy editor of the Catholic Herald, 25 May 2017, 

"As Feser remarks  . . .  some theologians “have turned the notion of development into a euphemism or lawyer’s trick whereby outright reversals of past teaching are magically made orthodox by slapping the label ‘development’ on them.  You might as well say that denying Christ’s divinity or the doctrine of original sin can be reconciled with past teaching as long as we call them ‘developments’ and get enough people to go along with this sleight of hand.” 

“Punishment,” Feser and Bessette write, “is a matter of restoring the natural connection between pain and acting contrary to nature’s ends.” "They quote Aquinas as saying that since an offender “has been too indulgent to his will”, he should suffer “either willingly or unwillingly, something contrary to what he would wish”,for the sake of the “restoration of the equality of justice”. The same idea is affirmed by the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Punishment has the primary aimof redressing the disorder introduced by the offence.' " 

8) Capital Punishment Revisited, By CHRISTOPHER MANION, The Wanderer, 12/9/2017, 

From the book: “ . . . no Catholic may condemn capital punishment as intrinsically unjust, though a Catholic may still oppose the use of the death penalty on prudential grounds. But we will also show that there are no good prudential grounds for opposing it and that there are powerful prudential grounds not only for maintaining it but for applying it with some regularity." " . .  a highly recommended book that sheds the patient, clear light of reason on the issue of capital punishment  . . .  beautifully researched and clearly written work will now become the standard Catholic work on capital punishment." 

"Every U.S. bishop should read it." " . . . will it convince even one bishop? That prospect is a false hope and a distraction. In this and all efforts, the writer must have the goal not of persuading the hierarchy but of telling the truth, and letting the truth tell its own story. And the story told by this brilliant work is indeed worth telling." 

" . . . leaders and bureaucrats at the USCCB routinely violate that magisterial teaching, and pretend that theirs is the only permissible “Catholic” position when they choose a particular agenda item to champion." " . . . this bad habit has put the faithful in a position of delicacy, patiently and charitably reminding the bishops that they are trespassing in the realm that is the property of the laity." 

" . . . today it falls to the laity to explain the principles underlying the issues of crime and punishment, laying out the arguments to explain the principles in the light of the rich tradition of Catholic thought." " . . . the laity has a fundamental right to the truth, including when it comes to capital punishment . . . And the truth is exactly what Feser and Bessette offer in their impressive study.  . . . . they take great care in presenting a clear and rational discussion to shed the patient, clear light of reason on the issue . . .  from the point of view of the Natural Law, Church teaching, and theological and philosophical anthropology."

“Unfortunately, churchmen have in recent years not been equally respectful of the authority and duty of public officials to exercise their prudential judgment in applying Catholic social teaching when it comes to the death penalty.” 

F&B  “many Catholics today glibly assert that capital punishment is incompatible with promoting a ‘culture of life’….It is simpleminded sloganeering, not serious thinking.” "With this particular point the authors put their finger on a regrettable tendency that has become a bad habit of hierarchs when defending their opinionated agendas. The pro-life movement — led since its inception by the laity, not the hierarchy — has championed the powerful symbol of “pro-life” as an irrefutable tribute to the reality of the unborn child’s humanity. So it is distressing, but not surprising, that many peddlers of political palaver have tried to hijack the “pro-life” label and apply it to their personal political agenda, on particulars ranging from foreign aid and tax policy to immigration and “global warming.” "That rhetorical dodge  . . . smacks too much of an acquiescence to what Pope Benedict called the “Dictatorship of Relativism.” It serves only to dilute the Church’s adamant defense of life, as well as to delude the public regarding the honest use of words." 

9) Hot Air vs. Capital Punishment: A Reply to Paul Griffiths and David Bentley Hart, Dr.Edward Feser, The Catholic World Report, November 28,2017, 

"Griffiths’ review in First Things . . . is rich in condescension, high in dudgeon, and largely devoid of substantive engagement with the book’s arguments." "Hart’s review in Commonweal is so rhetorically over-the-top and dishonest that the effect is more comical than offensive"

10)   "In Defense of the Death Penalty", Chris Plance and Timothy Gordon, Church Militant, 11/28/17,

" . . . it is here worth simply pointing to a couple more slam-dunk passages on the death penalty in the New Testament underemphasized by Feser and Bessette — assuming that Jesus and St. Paul are sufficiently knowledgeable about moral theology to convince one, that is."

 ". . .  that of the "good thief," comes from the Gospel of Luke:

One of the criminals who was hanged railed at Jesus, saying, 'Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!'  But the other rebuked him, saying, 'Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.' And he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' And Jesus said to him, 'Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.'  (Luke 23 39:43)"

" . . . the very, very basic moral-theological problem with the reconfigured, anti-death penalty position - mischaracterized as the Catholic one - is that its advocates require the moral impossibility and logical antinomy that Jesus sent the "good thief" to Heaven as a reward for articulating and endorsing what (they claim) amounts to grave matter: the objective component of mortal sin." 

"In moral philosophy and moral theology, the concept of dessert — Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas call it corrective justice, reminding us that it must be proportional in order to avoid injustice — stands as the peerless principle of criminal jurisprudence."

"In corrective justice, if we follow the wild-eyed trend away from deserved punishment . . .  one puzzles at the alternative: "I am a magistrate of the state, and I hereby derive your crime's sentence based upon a non-proportionalist view of corrective justice: I promise, you don't and won't deserve your punishment. That model of justice is obsolete."

" . . . Drs. Feser and Bessette do not contradict the Sermon on the Mount when they affirm the death penalty as an article of criminal jurisprudence, because they do not suggest that the death penalty will or should exist in the Kingdom of Heaven! They wrote a very long book about positive law, which is to say, human justice. As Jesus, the Apostles, and 263 out of 266 popes have affirmed or abided, the death penalty is a just, robust aspect of criminal jurisprudence (notwithstanding the inscrutable logic of the eschaton, whatever it may be)."

"Perhaps most starkly of all — scholars on all sides seemed to have missed this — Jesus vindicates the employment by the state of the death penalty at his own trial with Pontius Pilate, in John 19:11. What He says should verily end all debate: "Pilate said: 'Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?' Jesus answered: 'You would have no power over me [to kill me] if it were not given to you from above.' "

"Sounds strangely identical to St. Augustine's definition of the state's prerogative to execute criminals: 'The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment 'Thou shalt not kill' to wage war at God's bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason.' "

"There is another man who famously tried to defend himself from death without denying the moral uprightness of the death penalty: St. Paul. He makes a famous remark in Romans 13 to the effect that the government "does not bear the sword in vain." Drs. Feser and Bessette are quick (and sensible) to receive this as further evidence for capital punishment. It is a rather obvious proposition, they remind us."

"Supporting Dr. Feser's interpretation, on the other hand, is the eminent Dr. Scott Hahn and his commentary on Romans 13: 'The sword represents the authority of civil government to inflict capital punishment on a society's most dangerous criminal delinquents ... secular government's right to administer the death penalty has been generally acknowledged in the Catholic Church's bimillennial tradition.' "

"The Pauline corpus in the Bible admits of this interpretation, up and down the page, especially in the slam dunk passage recording Paul's trial." "St. Paul's words vindicate both himself and the death penalty, at once: 'If I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death; but if there is nothing in their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar' (Acts 25:11).  In other words, St. Paul unequivocally supports the position that there is such a crime for which one might deserve to die, just as Jesus does on the Cross."

11) A Denver Journal Book Review, Ben Crenshaw,  Denver Seminary, 1/2019

"Feser and Bessette should be commended for writing the most exhaustive and convincing defense of the death penalty to date. There is nothing of import that is left out. There is no abolitionist argument that is not addressed and refuted. And there is no flimsy cultural cliché that survives the impeccable logic and weight of evidence that the authors marshal. For those contending for capital punishment as a just and humane aspect of our criminal justice system, Feser and Bessette’s book will be of indispensable aid. "

" . . . if one concedes desert as a necessary aspect of punishment, the principle of proportionality, and the right of public authorities to mete out just punishment, then capital punishment logically follows."

" . . .  Feser and Bessette offer rebuttals to common objections to the death penalty, as well as responses to rival ethical theories. For example, a frequent criticism is that capital punishment violates the right to life. This objection is often summed up in the pithy, but intellectually vacuous, platitude, “Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” Not only does this conflate killing simpliciter with a specific kind of killing—murder—but it commits a basic error in moral epistemology. We all know that murder is wrong, long before the criminal is confronted, arrested, tried, and sentenced. It’s not as if we must wait for the guilty verdict and execution to show us that murder is wrong before we can know that murder is wrong. While the law does contain a didactic purpose to help instruct citizens on morals, the primary purpose of criminal law is justice. Additionally, the objection equivocates between innocence and guilt, and begs the question of whether one can do something so evil as to forfeit the right to life, making it not only permissible, but just, for society to put that person to death."

" . . . Feser and Bessette spend a considerable amount of time on the locus classicus of biblical texts on capital punishment: Genesis 9:5-6.  . . .  God commands the death penalty on the basis of human dignity, in direct contradiction to abolitionists who claim that human dignity requires opposing capital punishment."

"Some biblical scholars attempt to skirt around this passage by claiming that it is proverbial in that it describes what tends to happen when you live violently (cf. Jesus’ words in Mt. 26:52). But this approach strains hermeneutical plausibility: God himself is speaking, and three times he says, “I will exact punishment.” Neither the context, the genre, nor the Genesis narrative fit a proverbial reading."

"In the NT, Feser and Bessette spend most of their time on Matthew 5 and Romans 13. Jesus’ statements in Matthew 5:38-41 have nothing to do with capital punishment, or any kind of criminal justice. In context, Jesus has just affirmed that he did not come to abolish the Law and Prophets, but to fulfill them (Mt. 5:17-20). Additionally, in Matthew 5:21-22 Jesus implicitly affirms judgment for murder, so his comments in vv. 38-41 should not be read as refuting this. Instead, Jesus is teaching the believing community how to respond to lesser wrongs without retaliation (e.g., insults, conscription, etc.). This is not applicable to the government’s responsibility to enact justice against wrongdoers. As Feser and Bessette point out, if Jesus’ statements here do overturn capital sentences, why would it not also overturn all other criminal punishments (prison, fines, probation, etc.)? The authors also take Romans 13:1-4 to clearly teach that governments have been ordained by God to praise the righteous but punish the guilty, up to and including the death penalty (“bear the sword,” v. 4)—probably a reference to the Roman right of ius gladii by which they put criminal citizens to death."

"This section on Old and New Testament passages was sufficient for the purposes of the book, but at times Feser and Bessette come close to proof-texting, and at other times important considerations are left out. What is needed is a further exposition of the texts they highlight within an overarching narrative frameworkthat employs a coherent cross-testamental hermeneutic (i.e., Jesus’ relationship to the Torah, his views of the state, purpose of his ethical injunctions and exhortations, etc.) that can be applied to a modern context that is quite different from the ancient one."

"Feser and Bessette convincingly show that all of the following church fathers endorsed capital punishment in principle, if not in practice: Athenagoras of Athens, Tertullian, Lactantius, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian of Carthage, John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose of Milan, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome (among others). The rest of this chapter focuses on church councils and the teachings of various Popes (e.g., Innocent III, Leo X, Pius XII, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis)."

"They address in detail the 43 murderers who were put to death in 2012, showing beyond a reasonable doubt that they were guilty and worthy of death. They cover the issue of repentance and the death penalty, and argue that it is highly unlikely that an innocent person will find themselves facing execution. They delve deeply into the debate over deterrence (spoiler: the death penalty does deter murderers and saves lives), and they show conclusively that, as currently practiced in the United State, the death penalty is not administered in a racist manner, nor does it discriminate against the poor."

(12)  "The Church Cannot Teach That Capital Punishment is Inherently Wrong: A Reply to John Finnis", by Edward Fesser, The Public Discourse, 9/13/19,

"The Catholic Church insists that even popes have no authority to introduce novel doctrines. To teach that capital punishment is inherently immoral would manifestly be a novel doctrine—not simply going beyond but explicitly contradicting what the Church, scripture, and tradition have taught for two millennia."

"So, (CCC) no. 2263 can’t mean what Finnis says it means, because if it did, the authors of the Catechism would not have gone on to say what they do in (CCC) no. 2266."

" . . . the only way to salvage Finnis’s interpretation would, accordingly, be to attribute a contradiction to the 1992 Catechism. It is a general principle of exegesis that, all things being equal, if you can interpret a text either in a way that entails a contradiction or in a way that does not, the latter is to be preferred. The burden of proof is on the reader who insists on attributing a contradiction."

" . . . even if we do attribute a contradiction to the 1992 Catechism, the effect would be precisely to undermine its credibility, which would weaken rather than strengthen Finnis’s case. An authority that is self-contradictory is ipso facto an unreliable one, in which case Finnis’s appeal to (what he says he sees in) the Catechism cuts little ice. If the novel doctrine Finnis attributes to the 1992 Catechism really does introduce a contradiction into it, that is a reason to reject the novelty, not to follow out its consequences further."

with follow up responses by Feser, to Finnis' critique of Feser, here:

(13) "Unnatural Lawyering: John Finnis’s brief against traditional Catholic teaching on capital punishment", Edward Feser, The Catholic World Report, 1/4/19, 

"the basic idea is very simple. The Church holds that scripture cannot teach moral or doctrinal error, and that it must not be reinterpreted in a way that is contrary to how the Fathers of the Church understood it and how the Church herself has traditionally understood it. But scripture teaches that capital punishment can be morally legitimate at least in principle, and the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and the popes have always understood scripture as teaching this. I trust the reader can do the math."

"This leaves the Catholic who claims that the death penalty is always and intrinsically evil with two options. He can give up this extreme claim. (He might still hold that capital punishment is a bad idea in practice – I’m not addressing that question here.) Or he can give up the Church’s claims about the authority of scripture and tradition – which is really to give up Catholicism itself, since this would undermine the Church’s foundation in the deposit of faith. There is no third option, and it is sophistry to pretend otherwise."

 "At one place, echoing Grisez, (Finnis) casually asserts that even “God… cannot kill, because killing is destructive while his intention in acting always is loving and creative.


This would come as a great surprise to Onan (Genesis 38:10), the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 12:29), Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 14:28), Aaron’s sons (Leviticus 10:2), Korah (Numbers 16:32), David and Bathsheba’s baby (2 Samuel 12:14-15), Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:16-17), Jeroboam (2 Chronicles 13:20), Jehoram (2 Chronicles 21:14-15), Ezekiel’s wife (Ezekiel 24:16), Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-10), Herod (Acts 12:23), and the many, many others scripture tells us were killed by God."

"Finnis and other NNLT writers have, to their credit, expressed alarm over the various ways that churchmen are today saying things that seem to undermine traditional Catholic teaching on basic moral theologymarriage and divorcecontraceptionhell, and other matters. What they do not see, or do not want to see, is that their decades-long effort to subvert traditional Catholic teaching on capital punishment has paved the way for these unhappy developments. Farfetched reinterpretations of scripture and of previous magisterial statements, the pitting of a current pope against the tradition, appeal to a purportedly deeper understanding of the Gospel – tactics that were first deployed by Grisez, Finnis, and company against one part of Catholic tradition are now being deployed by others against the rest of it."