Catholics debating the death penalty generally do a bad job with Scripture. One side of the debate cites isolated texts, leaving themselves open to the accusation that they cannot see the texts in relation to the whole thrust of Scripture. The other side of the debate refers vaguely to “the Gospel” as a way to avoid dealing with any particular text of Scripture at all. Neither side appears to have a living relationship with God’s word.
I can’t work through all the relevant texts on this blog, but I would like to offer an example of what’s possible by dealing with the big text everyone mentions: Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” I have already dealt with the context of this verse at greater length elsewhere, but I was not talking about the death penalty then. Here I’ll condense the discussion to highlight what is most relevant to the death penalty issue. Continue reading “Bringing Scripture back into the death penalty debate”
Dr. John Joy has written such a fine piece on the Catechism controversy that I wanted to dedicate an entire post just to linking to it. He tracks my own thought quite closely:
It is hard to avoid the conclusion, therefore, that this text suffers from serious ambiguity (inasmuch as it seems to be open to multiple interpretations) or even incoherence (inasmuch as it seems to assert contradictory propositions).
Do read the entire article: The Magisterial Weight of the New Text of the Catechism on the Death Penalty.
In a previous post, I said that what was not an attack on human dignity in one situation could be in another. I further claimed that such could be the case with the death penalty. I think I owe it to anyone reading to go back and flesh out what I had in mind.
St. Thomas has an interesting perspective on the purposes of punishment in any human community (thanks to Fr. Joseph Bolin for collecting these texts): Continue reading “How standards of justice can change”
While I have not blogged in a long time, I have been reading and thinking. I never did finish my series on the death penalty, because I reached a point where I needed to complete my own ethical philosophical formation. But in light of the recent news that Pope Francis updated the Catechism to oppose the death penalty more clearly, I thought I should toss up a few comments. Continue reading “The new Catechism text on the death penalty”
Feser and Bessette structure their argument for capital punishment carefully. Their fourth general premise is that some wrongdoers deserve death, but they spell out as a fifth and separate premise the notion that someone has the authority to inflict that death upon the wrongdoer:
Public authorities have the right, in principle, to inflict on wrongdoers the punishments they deserve.
As I noted in my original post on the death penalty, the fact that someone deserves death does not of itself imply that any human being has the authority to impose it. Accordingly, F&B devote an entire subsection of their argument to showing that the government in particular does have that authority.
However, I think there is a small gap in their case. Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The authority of government”
Feser and Bessette take on this moral question: Is it ever OK to kill a human being, supposing the person is guilty? And as we have seen, Feser and Bessette’s general approach to morality is that one must observe the teleology built into the natures of things—what a given thing is ordered toward—and then act in accordance with that teleology. So it comes as a complete surprise that their moral argument never—not once—speaks about what a human being is ordered toward. What would seem to be the key, namely the telos of the human person, is absent from their book. Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: Surprising Omission #1”
As Feser and Bessete wind up their argument about punishment as such, they note that punishment has traditionally been considered to have several purposes: in addition to retribution, it can also serve to deter future crime or rehabilitate the criminal. “But,” they go on, “as our discussion indicates, for the natural law theorist, retribution is not only a legitimate end of punishment: it is the fundamental end” (page 40). Further down they make explicit what they mean: “For, all things being equal, we may punish even if we will thereby achieve no end other than retribution; but we may not punish if retribution is not at least one of the ends aimed at.”
However, still further in, F&B allow that “some traditional natural law theorists think” that we can’t “inflict a punishment merely to secure retributive justice,” and they go on to offer some citations from Aquinas (57). It was only on my second read that I realized F&B are saying that Aquinas disagrees with them about punishment. Perhaps one reason it was not clear to me at first is that they do not cite Aquinas’s clearest statement on the point: “Vengeance is lawful and virtuous so far as it tends to the prevention of evil” (ST II-II 108.2). Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: Disagreement with Aquinas”
In Feser and Bessette’s philosophical case for the moral legitimacy of the death penalty, the first thing to notice is their general approach to moral reasoning. They claim to represent traditional natural law theory, which they put forward as the approach taken by St. Thomas Aquinas and advocated by Pope St. John Paul II (page 21), and they devote a few pages to explaining what this approach is.
The approach set out, however, does not appear to me to be what Aquinas and JPII had in mind. Let me explain with a couple of examples from F&B’s principles: Continue reading “Feser and Bessette: The general philosophical approach”
Over the past year, I have made slow progress toward deepening my grasp of moral philosophy. As a philosopher, I am still not ready to join all the discussions that swirl around the Internet.
But when people began to wrangle about Pope Francis’s comments on the death penalty, I noticed a few points that I could contribute as a theologian. Here are some key lines from the Holy Father’s remarks:
It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which—ultimately—only God is the true judge and guarantor.
This is a strong argument, to be sure. I hope to do some justice to the strength of the argument below. But as a Catholic biblical scholar, I see three points that might deserve consideration: Continue reading “Three notes on the death penalty”