Despite What You Heard, The Death Penalty Is Legitimate. Feser and Bessette’s “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment”

Despite What You Heard, The Death Penalty Is Legitimate.  Feser and Bessette’s “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment”
The Beast

Because, very oddly, there has been a changing of the catechism from the constant and ancient teaching (“the pope is distracting the world with fresh meat for the spirit of the age. He tinkers with words for applause…”), it is important to revisit this topic. See also Feser’s older very strong comments on the subject, and then read his newest even stronger words.

Sometime in the mid-1990s in Colombia, Luis Alfredo Garavito Cubillos lured a 6-year-old boy into an isolated spot and sodomized and murdered him. There were bite marks and other evidence of “prolonged torture” found on the boy’s body. The boy’s head was discovered some distance from his torso; the boy’s penis was severed and stuffed into the corpse’s mouth. This act might have occurred while the boy still lived.

Cubillos, unaffectionately known as La Bestia (The Beast), confessed to the crime.

He also confessed to a second crime where he sodomized and tortured a young boy to death. And then a third. And a fourth. And fifth, sixth, seventh, …

Altogether, La Bestia admitted to sodomizing, maiming, torturing, and murdering 147 boys, but he admitted his memory was hazy, and some say the real total approaches 300.

Cubillos was arrested, tried, and found guilty of murdering (only) 138. Colombia’s constitution says “The right to life is inviolable. There will be no death penalty.” That same merciful attitude is responsible for the country forbidding lifetime imprisonments, too.

In 2006, the Superior Court of Bogotá reduced Cubillos’s sentence from 30 years to 22 because of a technicality. He is due to be released in 2021, though, if I understand correctly, with good behavior he can be out by 2018. La Bestia will be 61 in 2018.

Many Catholics would say that the mercy shown to Cubillos represents a true “pro-life” position, and that those who say Cubillo should be executed say so only because they themselves are “eager to kill” and are “bent on maximizing killing no matter what”.

The official stance of the Catholic Church, however, as reinforced by some 2,000 years of teaching, is that the death penalty can be, has been, and continues to be, a just punishment. In the case of Cubillos, it is surely his due. Scheduling his execution, offering him the sacraments, and then speedily carrying out the sentence is the best chance La Bestia has to save his soul. As it now appears (though only God knows), Cubillos is on a blood-greased slide to Hell.

I do not want to make light of this, but it is better than a good bet that unless Cubillos after his release is restrained by illness or circumstance or he is not killed or otherwise incapacitated by vigilantes, La Bestia will kill again. That blood, if God forbid it should flow, will be on the heads of those authorities who refused their Christian duty.

Why Capital Punishment?

Enter By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment by Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, a book so thorough and so relentless that it is difficult to imagine anybody reading it and coming away unconvinced by the lawfulness and usefulness of capital punishment.

Whether to hang any man is in each case a matter of prudential judgement, because the circumstances surrounding any crime always varies. Two Catholics can disagree whether Cubillos should be executed, but that execution might be a just punishment is a question long settled. Which makes you wonder why some, including members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), say things like “human life is sacred…[which] compels us as Catholics to oppose…the use of the death penalty.”

Capital punishment is a theorem of the natural law, a philosophy which the Church “strongly affirms” (and which is well examined in the book). “Moreover, since it arises from a natural inclination, the tendency to punish is a virtue, so long as it is motivated by justice, say, rather than hatred,” a position held by inter alia St Thomas Aquinas, who (as quoted by Feser and Bessette) says, “Vengeance is not essentially evil and unlawful”.

Punishment should fit the crime—the legal phrase is lex talionis—which flows from the principle of proportionality.

The restoration of what Aquinas calls “the equality of justice” by inflicting on the offender a harm proportionate to his offense is known as retribution, and it one of the three traditional purposes of punishment, the others being correction or rehabilitation of the offender and the deterrence of those tempted to commit the same crimes the offender has. Other purposes are incapacitation…and restitution.

To “deny proportionality is implicitly to deny desert, and thus implicitly to deny the legitimacy of punishment.” Cursed be he that withholdeth his sword from blood (Jer 40:10).

Aquinas says “the death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner, if he be converted, unto the expiation of his crime; and, if he be not converted, it profits so as to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprive of the power to sin no more.”

Steven Goldberg makes the latter point in his When Wish Replaces Thought and Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences, pointing out the non-negligible frequency of murderers (including of guards) that take place in prison, and of those committed by criminals released who otherwise might have been executed. This argument is usually ignored by those who offer lifetime imprisonment as an alternative for executions.

Feser and Bessette acknowledge this argument. In one harrowing section, they list the gruesome crimes committed by the forty-three murderers executed in 2012 in the USA. Many are recidivists.

Take Robert Brian Waterhouse. In 1980, he beat a woman severely with a “hard instrument”, raped her, “assaulted her rectum with a large object, and stuffed her bloody tampon down her throat” and then drowned her. This was after he was released from prison for the murder of a seventy-seven-year-old woman; he served only eight years before being paroled. While in prison for the “twenty-one years and tens months” awaiting his execution, he “committed sexual battery on a cellmate”.

Or how about William Gerald Mitchell? He was “on parole…for the stabbing murder of a woman” when he brutally raped and murdered another woman, by “[running] over his victim several times with his car”. You could go on and on. Our authors do.

And this brings up a pretty point. We have all heard the media report upcoming executions, giving full voice to anti-death-penalty activists who usually attend these events. These reports go something like this (my summary, but the quotes are genuine):

Critics of the death penalty gathered outside State Prison to protest the upcoming execution of Luis Cubillos. Longtime prof-life advocate Father Mercyme, a priest in the Catholic Church, pleaded with the governor that the death penalty is “a violation of the sanctity of human life”, and that the state “is usurping the sovereign dominion of God over human life”. Cubillos was accused of a 1995 murder.

The media never gives the details of the crimes committed, because this, they rightly suspect, would lead listeners to conclude the criminal is getting what he deserved. (This is the same argument against showing the results of abortion victims.) Righteous anger is fled from, and effeminacy embraced. John Crysostom: “He who is not angry, where he has cause to be, sins. For unreasonable patience is the hotbed of many vices, it fosters negligence, and incites not only the wicked but even the good to do wrong.”

Common pro and con arguments

The death penalty is racist and discriminatory. It is. Whites are disproportionately executed over blacks (this knowledge may cause some to support capital punishment). (Blacks commit violent crimes at rates about eight times higher than whites.) But, I hasten to add, those on death row earned their punishment.

The death penalty does not deter. Please, no statistical arguments. I have yet to see any statistical evidence, for or against, that was not wrong-headed. Of course the death penalty deters. Everybody knows increasing the severity of a punishment leads to greater abatement of a crime. Why would not moving to the ultimate penalty prove the strongest deterrence (Goldberg makes the same argument)? Our authors supply anecdotes—which are perfectly acceptable evidence—of men who would have killed except that they were worried about getting the chair. Even just one instance of this is sufficient empirical proof of deterrence; fancy models are not needed. The penalty would do a greater job of deterrence were it not common knowledge that even for the worst crimes, the legal systems lets men stretch their day of judgment out for decades or forever (as it were).

Why not life imprisonment? For one, if “mercy” demands the cessation of executions, why does not mercy also demand, as in Colombia, the cessation of life imprisonment, or the cessation of any punishment at all? For another, violent (even demonic) men in prison who would otherwise be executed commit crimes. And see the next point about rehabilitation. The subject of how often the innocent are wrongly executed is a tangle, made so on purpose by those who want to exaggerate this rate. The authors delve into this thicket and clarity does emerge.

What we do not know is whether any innocent person was executed during this period. From 1977 through 2014, thirty-four American states executed 1,386 convicted murderers and the federal government another 3. Were any o these 1,389 actually innocent of the crimes for which they were sentenced to death? Although there is no way to know this with certainty, it seems likely that at most 1 or 2 innocent persons—and very possibly none at all—have been executed since the Furman decision of 1972…

In Wish Goldberg (p. 29) says “even the opponent of the death penalty who emphasizes wrongful executions is willing to sacrifice thousands of lives each year for the social advantages of motor vehicles.” And he reminds us that if the death penalty deters it saves lives.

The death penalty does not rehabilitate. Does it not? As everybody quotes, a hanging wonderfully concentrates the mind. In a wonderful section, the authors tell the story of repentance of several of the murderers on death row. Repentance, I say, the most important thing in any man’s life. All of us stand in need of it (at times), but those guilty of the worst crimes stand in greatest need. Concentration of the mind encourages salvation.

The death penalty encourages vengeance. Does all punishment encourage vengeance? If not, why not? The authors give a nice history and derivation of vengeance, incidentally, contrasting its old and new uses, and its distinction between retribution. In another terrific section, the authors write of the family members of victims, of their satisfaction of the punishment of the criminals, and of their forgiveness, too. The feeling that a debt has been paid, not only by the family members, but of the criminals and members of society, is great. When that feeling is missing, there is often despair. And vigilantism. When people lose hope of the government doing its job, they often take vengeance into their own hands.

The Church

There is no decent argument that the Church does not authorize use of the death penalty. It is true authorities lately have emphasized “mercy”, but mercy does not obviate capital punishment. And don’t forget “forgiveness and mercy presuppose that the offender really does deserve the punishment we refrain from inflicting.” What follows here is only the barest, briefest sketch of the vast wealth of material in the book. Experts on this subject may be assured that Feser and Bessette have covered every facet with the same assiduity of a lawyer preparing a Supreme Court brief.

First is scripture. God, you will remember, has warned that the potential punishments awaiting unrepentant sinners is far worse than the early shuffling off of this mortal coil. The threat of punishment (as we saw above) deters. And God said, “He who kills a man shall be put to death…” (Deut 19:11). And far from repudiating this law, Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets…I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil” (Mt 5:17). “Then there is Romans 13:1–4, traditionally understood as a straightforward affirmation on the right of the state to execute criminals”.

The Fathers and Doctors of the Church supported the death penalty. Among the others, “Saint Jerome…says that ‘to punish murderers, the sacrilegious, and poisoners is not the shedding of blood, but the duty of the laws.'” The First Vatican Council decreed that “it is not permissible for anyone to interpret Holy Scripture…against the unanimous consent of the fathers.” And

…even those among the Fathers who were largely or wholly opposed in practice to capital punishment—and who thus had every incentive to try to find in Scripture or Tradition a warrant for an absolute condemnation of the practice—affirmed that capital punishment in principle morally legitimate…It is inconceivable that they could have been mistaken about this matter of moral principle, given the authority of the Church has always attributed to them…

The Catechism agrees on the licit nature of capital punishment, “not only in order to ‘protect the innocent’ but also to ‘punish the guilty’ and ‘avenge…crime'” (ellipsis original). And so do the popes agree—including even Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis. Yes, even Pope Francis, about whom our duo says, “Given the obscurity and lack of precision in some of Pope Francis’ remarks…” which is all the quotation I believe this audience requires, except to add that Francis’s words are “plausibly read as having rhetorical rather than doctrinal import.” Whether plausible or not, that’s the way they have to be read to keep his thoughts in line with the constant teaching of the Church.

Now it’s true that the USCCB has waded into the debate implying that the “‘values of the Gospel’ are contrary to the use of the death penalty” (where have we heard that language before?), but these good men forgot to mention the possibility of Hell. Feser and Bessette show that “every element of the bishop’s case against the death penalty fails, including their scriptural interpretations, their moral and philosophical arguments, and their understanding of the practical effects of capital punishment.”

The End

The authors are correct when they say “we now find ourselves in the rather odd situation in which the majority of churchmen appear to be against the death penalty but Catholic teaching is not. This is a recipe for massive confusion among the faithful.” Worse, if we do not execute our worst criminals,

Society will lose sight, first of the idea of proportionality, then of the idea of desert, and finally of the idea of punishment itself. And when the idea of punishment goes, the very idea of justice will go with it, replaced by a therapeutic or technocratic model that treats human beings as cases to be managed and socially engineered than as morally responsible persons. Nothing less is at stake in the death-penalty debate.

And so let us remind ourselves, as do the authors in their last word, of Genesis 9:16, Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.


  1. Ray

    Exodus 21:14, “If a person willfully schemes to kill his neighbor – he shall be taken from my altar and put to death”

  2. Ken

    “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
    An evil soul producing holy witness
    Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
    A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
    O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”
    ? William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

    One almost sure-fire method for assessing if someone is trying to present an objective analysis versus a highly biased analyses striving to reach a particular desired conclusion is to consider the references.

    For example, when someone makes a treatise about what some formal institution’s position on a give topic might be, when they clearly & fully quote that institution’s material on the subject [in full context, not in cryptic selective quotes or paraphrasing] is a clue they’re likely striving to be objective.

    On the other hand, when someone presents a treatise about some institution’s position on a topic and somehow omits that institution’s explicit statements on the topic, one might wax a bit skeptical. “WAZZUP!???!?!!” as one colloquialism goes.

    In case anybody didn’t notice, the central tenets of the Vatican’s (Catholic Church’s) formal position on the death penalty are starkly absent from today’s post, a selective out-of-context quote & representation(s) notwithstanding.


    Catechism of the Catholic Church

    2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
    If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
    Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – THE CASES IN WHICH THE EXECUTION OF THE OFFENDER IS AN ABSOLUTE NECESSITY “ARE VERY RARE, IF NOT PRACTICALLY NONEXISTENT.”

    The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops might be considered an authority on the interpretation and application of formal Catholic doctrine — perhaps even more an authority than Feser! — consider some of their statements;

    “In Catholic teaching the state has the recourse to impose the death penalty upon criminals convicted of heinous crimes if this ultimate sanction is the ONLY available means to protect society from a grave threat to human life. However, this right should not be exercised when other ways are available to punish criminals and to protect society that are more respectful of human life.”
    —USCCB, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death

    “In his encyclical The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II told us that we have an inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life. THIS CATHOLIC CAMPAIGN BRINGS US TOGETHER FOR COMMON ACTION TO END THE USE OF THE DEATH PENALTY, to reject a culture of death, and to build a culture of life. It poses an old and fundamental choice: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live. (Dt 30:19)”
    —USCCB, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death


    Regardless of one’s personal views on the subject, anyone objectively reading the official positions on the Roman Catholic Church’s position regarding the death penalty — with its extremely narrowly defined provision for accommodation … a provision so narrowly defined as to be, in modern society, effectively nonexistent — has to be taken aback by the egregious inconsistency between the Church’s formal position versus the position attributed by some others who claim to be speaking in harmony with Catholic Church doctrine, or, who would try to confuse by asserting that official Church doctrine is or could be more accommodating.

    Tsk tsk tsk.

  3. John Watkins

    Well, once again, Ken barks at every car that rolls down the street. The premise, Ken, is that the general subject (capital punishment) is legitimate. It is NOT that every application of this sentence is correct. And when there is a real prospect of some ghoul being released after killing hundreds of children, your vehemence against the application of actual Church doctrine (both Old and New Testament) that has been in place for nearly 4,000 years shows your true colors. Blood red. You are the true variant to the true doctrine being examined by Fesser.

  4. Joy

    Death penalty is justified and not opposed by Jesus. *strangely, not just to make a point about natural law! To claim Christian duty is to miss the point of Christianity entirely.

    “natural law?” Or common law? The law before The Modern Law.
    I said it came from the bible and was scoffed at. The law which is in England and on which other legal systems are based derive their moral code from the bible. That was it’s Moral route.

    Common law is what is referred to as natural law by theologians or even biologists.
    There is no such thing as natural law outside of barbarianism or perhaps a very primitive society without “civilization.”

    No such Deuteronomy or isolated Jeremiah notes required.

    Argument from absence is not one offered here because it would also imply that Sodomy was not, “The crime that cries out to heaven for vengeance” (about which Jesus said nothing except NOT to cry out to heaven for vengeance because you know not what spirit you are made of.)
    Vengeance belongs to God:
    Romans 12 all .

    This is why the, arcane, lengthy argument to justify the obvious plain speaking Christian message of Jesus Christ, the son of God for all Christians. Other than keeping up the appearance that the word of God was not for all to read. Also an medieval church belief and supported by the inquisition.

    Regarding the punishment of sadistic murder and torture: (which would mean that Sir Thomas Moore, who is a patron saint of politicians, for example, would be in a pickle.): Stuck between up and down.

    Most people would advocate it regardless of creed. There are tender consciences , which is a good thing, but the majority do hold that the death penalty should be an option.

    Yet neo-sectarian types left to their own devices would be a bad state of affairs.
    Very bad.
    It is not anyone’s Christian DUTY to kill anyone unless the law permits. Those situations being capital punishment or war, which amount to the same. That is what can be drawn from the bible and it’s interpretation by Jesus. See he left the condemnation of the famous woman in adultery to the men gathered there. Demonstrating that God’s purpose is offering of forgiveness and that man’s law was left to make worldly judgement. Jesus did not judge of the flesh but his kingdom is not of this world.

    Civil war is the only situation where ‘war’ is qualified and the law would not apply, since civil war is anything but legal. So now there’s a fight over what Jesus meant by the law. I don’t think he meant barbarianism.

    The break out of natural law is in essence, civil war.

    Rehabilitation? That’s still as silly and out of touch as were the inquisitors.
    ‘You’ve got X minutes to repent or go to hell before we kill you.”
    What criminal or unfortunate innocent could refuse?

    The perpetrator of sadistic, cold blooded murder isn’t going to alter because of a verbal order. He can say what he likes. Only God can ultimately judge his truth, his heart, his conscience. Fear isn’t repentance. The death part isn’t relevant although expedient or convenient for the gaolers. It does not effect the outcome of his conscience except by illusion.

  5. Joy

    “…purpose is offering of forgiveness and that man was left to make worldly judgement by use of the law.”

  6. Ken

    @ John Watkins “…the general subject (capital punishment) is legitimate.”

    Maybe so, but Briggs makes a number of assertions and presents selective quotes that distort the official Church position regarding capital punishment —
    Briggs’ selective quoting conveys a radically more accommodating representation of the Church’s formal position, per the official Catechism, than exists. Consider a couple of such misrepresentations:

    “The official stance of the Catholic Church, however, as reinforced by some 2,000 years of teaching, is that the death penalty can be, has been, and continues to be, a just punishment.”

    “There is no decent argument that the Church does not authorize use of the death penalty. It is true authorities lately have emphasized “mercy”, but mercy does not obviate capital punishment. And don’t forget “forgiveness and mercy presuppose that the offender really does deserve the punishment we refrain from inflicting.””

    The unmistakable reality of Church’s position is that capital punishment can be accommodated to such a narrow degree that, in all first world societies the limited allowance is effectively a prohibition — this is why it can concurrently advocate the abolition of the death penalty: Not because death is not authorized but because modern society has better alternatives that by their availability render the death penalty unacceptable. One cannot reach such a conclusion via Briggs’ representation, which suggests punitive vengeance is a Catholic precept – all-things-considered.

    Briggs’ presentation, while factually correct, by omitting relevant context, misleads. Where he could have asserted the Church could take a more aggressive position on accommodating implementation of the death penalty while remaining compliant with Biblical and Church precedents, he does not, nor does he present the more aggressive viewpoint as his desired position — a desired viewpoint is presented as the Church’s position in a manner contrary to the Church’s position to support of personal [apparently] viewpoint. There’s truth, but clearly not the whole truth — all-things-considered-by-the-Church-are-not-considered-and-sidestepped-by Briggs. The U.S. criterion for fair and balanced legal testimony (if this were testimony, as a point of comparison) fails, rendering the presentation deceitful per familiar fundamental legal criteria. Perjury/libel of a sort, in other words.

    That is just one facet of the presentation at issue. Joy picked on some others. It’s a kind of hack job — maybe the solution is spend the available time on polishing the articles published, and publish a quality product when available … rather than a self-imposed daily deadline, whatever the quality or lack thereof?

  7. Ken

    @ John Watkins: “…your vehemence against the application of actual Church doctrine (both Old and New Testament) that has been in place for nearly 4,000 years…”


    Church (Roman Catholic Church) doctrine is about 2000 yrs old, arguably significantly less given the refinements that evolved in the first few centuries (e.g. Council of Nicea, etc.). That doctrine is based on learnings from Jesus Christ … who made clear that some Old Testament precepts were no longer valid.

    The OT may go back 4000 yrs, but that doesn’t mean mean its content is necessarily Church doctrine: E.G., Moses’ allowance for divorce was rescinded to the original prohibition; Matt 19:7-9.

    JW & Briggs would like to pretend that one can simply cherry-pick whatever factual authoritative quote serves their values and they’re on solid theological ground. It’s risky — like concluding divorce is ok.

    The curious reality is Church doctrine has and continues to evolve on various points. Capital punishment is one such (e.g. see

    The doctrine on a given topic is what it is…at least for the time-being. If you don’t like it, disagree, or notice an inconsistency with a prior position … then maybe the Church is wrong and that might merit some attention. But arguing the Church’s position is something that it isn’t is false. Like it or not, it is what it is … until it changes to something else.

    That changing nature of the Church’s doctrine and interpretation of what scripture means ought to be the focus of every believer’s attention.

  8. Mactoul

    There is good discussion on First Things site today on what exactly is valid “evolution of doctrine” and how this on capital punishment isn’t a valid development.
    The Catholic Churchmen are simply not free to pronounce anything they feel like. The whole thing stands together.

  9. Mike in KC, MO

    I honestly don’t have a problem with the removal of the death penalty, provided that life imprisonment without the possibility of parole is available. But many who advocate for the removal of the death penalty also seem to be in favor of throwing out LWOP too.

    One can argue that prisons need reform. I’d agree. One can’t argue against the fact that there are genuine psychopaths who need to be removed from society entirely. We fool ourselves by thinking that people like Anders Breivik who will cooly plan and commit mass murder of men, women and children will suddenly, magically be normal and cured after a few years in prison, emerging cleansed white and a new man like Lazerus from the grave.

    Parole boards can be just as bad in this thinking.

  10. Joy

    Lt. J. Kender, famous Colorado detective says there are only three motives for murder,
    money, sex and revenge. Statistically speaking, if it’s Tuesday evening 1:ooam, hide in the wardrobe.

    Those who kill for pleasure are non reformable for release from gaol. Even if they were to be rendered incapacitated they have a price to pay for the life they took and the attitude they took in their crime.
    They may alter from inside the walls, claim to be repentant, but society should never trust them. That trust is spent with the life. That repentance is between God and the murderer.
    Some manage all three motives.

  11. berserker

    Reminded of “Mr Loveday’s Little Outing”, a short story by Evelyn Waugh.

  12. Ken

    Mactoul – what’s the link to the First Things site for the ‘evolution of doctrine’?

    Best I could find rooting around is: for a 2001 article. That too reaches this conclusion:

    “…the evil effects outweigh the good effects. Thus the principle still leaves open the question whether and when the death penalty ought to be applied. The Pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good. I personally support this position…”

  13. Oldavid

    I have never heard of, nor discovered, any Church doctrine regarding capital punishment.

    It seems that most of the early church fathers, doctors, popes and councils tended to regard most crimes as errors best countered with conviction, compunction and conversion. However, there has always been a tacit admission that civil society has a right and duty to protect itself from malicious elements… even to the extent of permanent removal of toxic felons by death.

    Cannon Law (for as long as there has been Cannon Law) had a blanket condemnation (incurring, at least, irregularity i,e. suspension of authority to act in the name of the Church) for any clerics who killed or permanently maimed, or who effectively caused such. Of course, that does not mean that there were no lamentable and scandalous breaches of that Law by clerics in all ranks.

    Perhaps inevitably, there was/is a considerable blurring of a civil society’s rights and duties to protect itself from the depredations of the malicious with simply punitive actions against the unfortunate and wretched. Despots of every shape and size have resorted to this to give an illusion of “justice” to their despotism.

    Anyhow, crimes like sedition and treason are almost universally regarded as punishable by death by most civil authorities for the very good reason that their intent is to disrupt or destroy the social order necessary for the citizens to go about their ordinary business for their own good and the good of all.

    Now, I can’t resist the opportunity to put a boot into Feser whom I suspect is trying to endear himself by proposing some out-of-context quotes and specious interpretations to make his “Evolutionism” appear legitimate.

  14. The Hebrew preposition translated as “by” can also be translated as “within.” That means Genesis 9:16 can be translated as:

    “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood within man, his blood shall be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”

    So… We have changed an authorization of human-run capital punishment into a promise that God will strike down abortionists.

  15. Red Forman

    I think the difficulty we have with this subject stems directly from the modern conception of law. We are so Roman (pagan) in our thinking that we can’t even appreciate how Roman we are. In the Hebrew law, which was a perfect system, all cases are civil cases. “woman, where is thy accuser?” can’t be understood from a Roman perspective. Once the prosecutor (and other disinterested pagan state actors) are removed from the stage, the mechanics of capital punishment instantly change from murky to crystal clear-the light of scripture pierces right through the fog of pagan culture. At least for me.

    The correct question to ask in a death penalty case should be, “does the accused deserve the community’s protection?”

  16. Oldavid

    No, Red.

    The main tenet of a natural, civil order is the preservation of civil order so that all people can go about their ordinary business and achieve their proper end. The Roman model was far from perfect but it was a template for some judicial order however prone to corruption it was/is. The Hebrew/Pharisaical/”enlightenment” did not represent a prior or subsequent superiority. Modern examples of “Hebrew Law” as in Israel or the activities of B’nai B’rith would suggest that it is the most corrupt and corruptible system of “law” readily observable.

  17. Sander van der Wal


    As far as I understand Feser, the official standpoint of the Church is called Doctrine. The resulting statement of a bishop’s conference is not doctrine. So using that statement in your argument why Briggs is wrong is not going to work. You can only argue that Briggs goes against doctrine.

  18. Hoyos

    Here’s a fun thought…

    EVERY country on Earth has the death penalty.

    In practice you can engage in activity that will lead to a state sanctioned killing of you. Just because there isn’t a trial in between the activity and your demise doesn’t mean that you aren’t experiencing a legal penalty for your behavior. The state has set rules up beforehand (don’t point guns at police officers during a traffic stop, etc.), which are commonly known, the violation of which will likely result in your death.

    Every country has these rules because without ultimate recourse, there can be no order.

    Ultimately this all leads to pacifism and very explicitly pacifism for the “right” people, the left’s enemies.

  19. Oldavid

    @ Sanderwally

    Feser is a pompous galah safely ensconced in his academic ivory tower, the whole purpose of which is a fortification designed to prevent the ingress of commonsense.

    Yes, doctrine is the immutable foundation of Christianity… it cannot be changed even by an ego maniacal politician who seems to be pope.

    As you imply, a bishop’s conference is only another gaggle of politicians which has no credibility if it proposes anything not in concert with what is known and taught from the beginning by the Apostles and their disciples.

  20. Caedite eos. Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius.
    Kill them all. God shall surely know his own.

    Terry Pratchett’s “Going Postal” has excellent words upon this subject. Standing before the gallows, Moist von Lipwig questions his executioner.

    “Do you really think all this deters crime, Mr. Trooper?” he said.

    “Well, in the generality of things I’d say it’s hard to tell, given that it’s hard to find evidence of crimes not committed,” said the hangman, giving the trapdoor a final rattle. “But in the specificality, sir, I’d say it’s very efficacious.”

    “Meaning what?” said Moist.

    “Meaning I’ve never seen someone up here more’n once, sir. Shall we go?”

  21. Joy

    The radical Catholics protesting against the Pope!
    Does this make them protesting Christians?
    I think so. They have more argument than the original protestants ever had. They are also free to say so without fear of being tortured, that’s brave.

  22. Joy

    At least some are catching on that it’s all politics, in the end. The holy church is not physical.
    The buildings are physical and the organisation is a committee with bling, some of whom are part of the holy church and it’s down to nobody to tell who’s who.
    That Briggs is saying that the Pope has made even one mistake is an admission that anyone can be wrong about anything. Kieth Ward’s definition of a inescapably Liberal.
    So the scurrying about starts with people pretending he’s not a real Pope! It’s really unseemly.

  23. Sander van der Wal


    Feser is not right or wrong because he sits in some academic ivory tower.

    Regarding crimes not committed, if punishment for murder consisted of a fine of 1000 dollar, there would be a lot more killing. 1000 dollars compared to a lifetime of alimony, or a promotion earning you 100 dollars a month.

  24. Shecky R

    moreover, the death penalty should be expanded to white collar crime, where there are far more deserving of it (…and for whom it is more humane than life imprisonment).

  25. Kneel

    My view is this:
    Are there people in this world who live and yet don’t deserve to? Obviously, yes.
    Are there people in this world who die and yet don’t deserve to? Again, obviously yes.

    Can you do anything about the second?
    No, you cannot.
    Until you can, I would suggest that doing something about the first is immoral – you can’t “un-do” any mistakes you might make.

    Also, who is to say what is “deserving” of death? Perhaps in a pristine environment, littering might count – and don’t think “it won’t come to that!” because once the door is ajar, the politicians will ensure that a crack becomes fully open.

    It also puts you on the path to euthanasia and abortion being legal, even required.


  26. acricketchirps

    Once again, I’m surprised to find myself agreeing, this time with Shecky. Yes, besides murderers and, of course sodomites, white collar criminals, insofar as they are oppressing the poor or defrauding the working man of his wages deserve death. Assuming also that mens rea is proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

  27. acricketchirps

    Odd though, Kneel, that recent trends making abortion and euthanasia more acceptable–even required, track with the trend making capital punishment less so–even forbidden. I say nothing about causation, but it seems to me you’re going to have to rethink that point.

  28. Oldavid

    First up, we have everyone’s most Joyous relativist espousing views that smack of absolutism… the absolute “conviction” that Christianity is whatever a private interpreter relativistically makes of it.

    Catholics have a long history of chiding popes. St Paul was the first recorded that I know of: “I withstood him to his face because he was to be blamed”. Notice, however, that Paul didn’t begin a “Reformation” that repudiated much of Christian doctrine according to his own fantastic “interpretation”.

    Next, there is nothing in the theological/philosophical justification for capital punishment that endorses the capital elimination of those simply “inconvenient” to the ruling elite. Capital punishment is restricted to those convicted of serious crimes against the natural order.

    There is nothing in the notion of capital punishment for serious crimes that can convict an unborn baby or suicidal narcissist of a serious crime deserving death by order of a Civil Authority
    charged with maintaining a natural civil order.

  29. Sander –
    Perhaps you misunderstand me. I’m not mocking the old phrase. I’m supporting it.

    In America, the average shooting victim has at least 10 prior arrests. The average shooter has over 20 prior arrests. We don’t have a gun control problem. We have a criminal control problem. These perpetual felons wouldn’t be bothering decent folks if they were behind bars or under the ground.

  30. Joy

    When Oldavid realises which way up he is he might like to revisit the definition of relativism.
    That is not a controversial matter. You are way out on a limb, facing the wrong way with your saw.

  31. info

    This is a 2 year old article. But I think we need to apply this penalty equally to both male and female murderers. No exceptions.

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