Ethics, Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Politics

The Catholic Church & Capital Punishment

The Catholic Church & Capital Punishment“Between 1796 and 1865, Giovanni Battista Bugatti executed 516 condemned criminals, more than four-fifths for murder. Some of them were hanged, some guillotined, and some decapitated with an ax. In the case of especially heinous crimes, the methods of execution were harsher. Some criminals had their heads crushed with a mallet, after which their throats were cut. Some were drawn and quartered.

Who is Bugatti? He was the official executioner of the Papal States, a devout Catholic who carried out his work as a loyal servant of the Holy Father. Indeed, the popes and the Church were active participants in the process of execution, which was highly ritualized and freighted with spiritual significance. On the morning of the execution the pope would say a special prayer for the condemned. A priest would hear Bugatti’s confession and administer Holy Communion to him in advance of the event. In the hours before the execution, a special order of monks would cater to the spiritual needs of the criminal, urging confession and repentance while there was still time and offering the sacraments. They would then lead him to the site of execution in solemn procession. Notices in local churches would request that the faithful pray for his soul. As the sentence was carried out, the monks would hold the crucifix up to the condemned, so that it would be the last thing he saw. Everything was done to ensure both that the criminal received his just deserts and that the salvation of his soul might be secured. When asked in 1868 to stay an execution, Blessed Pope Pius IX, though he certainly had legal power to do so, apparently thought he morally ought not to, replying, ‘I cannot and I do not want to.’”[1]


There are many in the Catholic Church today working to abolish capital punishment. Those participating in this progressive social justice campaign would recoil at the above description of capital punishment being legislated by the Papal States. Confronted with these descriptions of historic realities the aforementioned social justice warriors would most likely react with banal modernist slogans and emotionally triggered outrage. Underneath the reactionary platitudes the typical claims being made against capital punishment is that it is intrinsically unjust, immoral, and undermines a culture of life.

This view is in error to say the least, but unfortunately many in the Church are impressed with mantras coming from liberally compromised clergy rather than looking to the official teachings of Mother Church concerning the execution of justice against evil and violent criminals.

There is, however, a corrective remedy for this problematic position gaining momentum in the ranks of the Mystical Body of Christ.

I recently received my copy of Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette’s book, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, and it is devastating to opponents of the death penalty. This book contains a systematic proclamation of the truth taught by the magisterial authority of the Church, as well as a complete refutation of the modernist position seeking to abolish capital punishment.

Feser is typical in his brilliant exposition of Thomistic natural law theory, and in my view, thoroughly dismantles the New Natural Law Theorist (NNLT) position, which considers capital punishment to be intrinsically immoral in every instance of its application. The NNLT movement is comprised of many prominent Catholic intellectuals, so it is important that Feser interacts with their arguments. Not every moral position articulated by NNLT advocates is problematic. Indeed, their stated positions on marriage, abortion, euthanasia, and many others are often exemplary. Ultimately, however, the philosophical foundations are where the problems initially arise, which lead to negative unintended consequences despite the good intentions of NNLT advocates. Feser makes this point clear and shows that without the proper philosophical foundation, that is, a perennially grounded metaphysics of the Aristotelian-Thomistic sort, NNLT collapses into itself and can no longer justify their extreme positions on the death penalty. Traditional natural law theory and NNLT differ on key foundational issues,

“The NNLT differs from traditional natural law theory in several crucial respects. As we have seen, for the traditional natural law theorist, what is good for us is grounded in human nature, where ‘nature’ is understood in terms of the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysics of formal and final causes. Given formal and final causality, ‘value’ is built into the very structure of the ‘facts,’ and there is no metaphysical space between them by which David Hume and his positivist followers might pry them apart. NNLT proponents, by contrast, tend to endorse the Humean fact-value dichotomy. Like Hume, they insist that an ‘ought’ cannot be derived from an ‘is.’ Thus, like Hume, they deny that morality can be grounded in a metaphysical analysis of human nature.”[2]

Referencing David Oderberg, Feser highlights another key difference,

“Traditional natural law theory is ‘world-centered’, whereas the NNLT is ‘agent-centered’. For the traditional natural law theorist, an agent knows the good by taking an objective, or ‘third-person’, view of himself. He asks what sorts of ends human beings have, given the kind of creatures they are, and thereby knows what is good for him qua human since he is one instance of that kind among others. According to the NNLT, the agent knows the good from the subjective, or ‘first-person’, point of view. Considering what reasons he has for acting this way or that, he asks what sorts of good are self-evidently desirable and for whose sake he might pursue other goods. That is by no means to say that his judgments are, according to NNLT, ‘subjective’ in the sense of being arbitrary or idiosyncratic. They are taken by the NNLT to reflect human practical reason as such, not merely the practical reason of this or that agent, and are thus in that sense ‘objective.’ But they are ‘subjective’ in the sense that it is from the agent’s introspection of his own practical reason in operation, rather than from mind-independent facts of a philosophically informed anthropology, that he finds a guide to action.”[3]

Finally, there are five main divergences between traditional natural law theory and NNLT (these are the words of the author and not my summary of the positioned differences),

  1. First, it is essentially an attempt to reformulate natural law without either nature or law and is therefore not really a ‘natural law’ theory at all. For since it denies that the good can be grounded in the natures of things in general or human nature in particular, there is nothing ‘natural’ about it; and since it denies that our obligation to pursue the good has anything essentially to do with conforming ourselves to the will of the divine lawgiver, its imperatives lack the character of true ‘law’. [4]
  2. Second, the endorsement of Hume’s fact-value dichotomy is a dangerously radical concession to the philosophical naturalism, positivism, and scientism that are fundamentally at odds not only with the systems of philosophy historically favored by the Church, but with Catholicism itself. This concession is also completely unnecessary, since the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical foundations of traditional natural law theory’s account of the good are entirely defensible, and since the fact-value dichotomy has in contemporary philosophy been severely criticized, not only by writers sympathetic to the natural law tradition but by others as well.[5]
  3. Third, the approach to political philosophy taken by some NNLT writers also involves dangerous concessions to modern philosophy, owing more to the liberalism and individualism of Hobbes, Locke, and Kant than to the natural law political tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas.[6]
  4. Fourth, the NNLT account of intention is excessively subjectivist and has implications that are simply bizarre from the point of view of traditional Catholic moral theology. As the craniotomy example shows, what would historically have been regarded as an absolutely forbidden direct abortion becomes, on the NNLT, a kind of indirect abortion that is permissible in principle. Meanwhile, because any war appears obviously to involve intentional killing, the very idea of a just war becomes highly problematic. The problem can be dealt with only via implausible and convoluted reasoning to the effect that the deaths of enemy soldiers are not intended but rather a foreseen but unintended side effect of combat.[7]
  5. Fifth, the NNLT list of basic goods (which varies somewhat from writer to writer) is arbitrary and ad hoc, formulated precisely so as to guarantee that certain desired conclusions will be reached and certain undesirable conclusions will be ruled out. The NNLT’s eschewal of philosophical anthropology deprives it of a way of providing an objective criterion by which to determine which goods are really basic, and its appeal instead to the ‘self-evidence’ of some goods and not others seems merely dogmatic.[8]

Following this comparative analysis, Feser demonstrates that by NNLT’s own principles capital punishment does not necessarily need to be considered intrinsically immoral, that the NNLT approach to capital punishment is incoherent, and finally, that the NNLT position on capital punishment cannot be squared with official Catholic teaching on the issue.

As important as the philosophical treatment of capital punishment is, I contend that the essential issue needing to be settled is Scriptural authority. What does the Sacred Page have to say about capital punishment? Feser clearly demonstrates that the abolitionist position cannot be associated with Biblical authority. The most explicit endorsement of capital punishment is found in Genesis 9:6, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” This is an explicit command in favor of the death penalty, and it is based on the moral implication that man is made in the image of God. In addition to this, God reveals in the Mosaic Law specific scenarios calling for the death penalty, and God Himself utilizes the death penalty in some of the most significant events in the Old Testament. The Flood is an obvious instance, and the Egyptians dying while attempting to cross the Red Sea is another. And since I brought up Exodus, I cannot overlook the slaying of 3,000 at the command of Moses for worshiping the golden calf.

Instances like these take place in the New Testament as well. Consider for a moment the situation in the Book of Acts concerning Ananias and Sapphira. St. Peter, presumably by the power of God, basically strikes these two dead for lying to the Holy Spirit; as soon as St. Peter speaks their condemnation they drop dead. This is not exactly the same as capital punishment, but it is evident that taking their lives was used to enact justice of a specific sort.

Philosophically combatting against errors of reason is vitally important, but even more important is to remind those who are in the Church where the ultimate authority can be found – Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium. If newly invented philosophical systems amount to revoking the authority of Scripture, then the philosophy is in error and must be corrected. As every major Saint and Doctor has taught, including St. Thomas, revelation and theology guides and corrects human reason in the philosophical arena. Philosophy is the handmaiden to theology not its judge.

In my view, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, settles the issue in systematic fashion. There is no way around the arguments being presented and the only reaction against its necessarily corrective teaching is to remain in the state of modernistic incredulity.

 

– Lucas G. Westman


[1] By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, Feser & Bessette, Pg. 9, 10

[2] Ibid, Pg. 81

[3] Ibid, Pg. 81, 82

[4] Ibid, Pg. 86

[5] Ibid, Pg. 86

[6] Ibid, Pg. 86

[7] Ibid, Pg. 86, 87

[8] Ibid, Pg. 87

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One thought on “The Catholic Church & Capital Punishment

  1. Pingback: Socratic Catholic Archive | Defense for the Hope

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