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Allowing death penalty is Catholic doctrine and cannot be overturned: two Catholic profs

Dorothy Cummings McLean Dorothy Cummings McLean Follow Dorothy

LOS ANGELES & CLAREMONT, California, August 8, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Two U.S. Catholic professors who authored what many consider to be a rigorous defense of Catholic teaching on capital punishment say that Pope Francis’ new teaching on the subject appears to be “contradicting scripture, tradition, and all previous popes.” And, he may be “committing a doctrinal error.” 

It‘s been a busy week for Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, joint authors of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment. Published by Ignatius Press in May 2017, the work is a comprehensive guide to the teaching of the Catholic Church on the death penalty.  Thanks to Pope Francis’ surprise alteration to the Catechism of the Catholic Church last week, both men are now in the spotlight. 

Feser, an assistant professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College, told LifeSiteNews that the new teaching, “like many of Pope Francis's doctrinal statements, is obscure.”

“On the one hand, the CDF letter announcing the change asserts that the new teaching ‘is not in contradiction’ with previous teaching. On the other hand, the pope is saying that the death penalty should never be used -- which goes beyond John Paul II's teaching that it should be ‘very rare’ -- and Francis justifies this claim on doctrinal grounds, rather than the prudential grounds that John Paul appealed to,” he said. 

“Moreover, Pope Francis claims that the use of capital punishment conflicts with ‘the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ which makes it sound like it is intrinsically contrary to natural law.  So, the actual substance of the teaching seems to be that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong.  If that is what the pope is saying, then he is contradicting scripture, tradition, and all previous popes, and is therefore committing a doctrinal error, which is possible when popes do not speak ex-cathedra [from the chair],” he added.

To believe that the Church can contradict its doctrines, whether concerning artificial contraception or capital punishment or other moral teachings, is “not compatible with what the Church says about herself.”  

‘We are defending the integrity of the Church’

Feser said that when their book came out, he and Joseph Bessette received a torrent of personal attacks, criticism he calls “childish nonsense.” 

“We are defending the integrity of the Church,” he said. 

Feser pointed out that many defenders of the Church’s perennial doctrine, like the late Cardinal Avery Dulles and Cardinal Charles J. Chaput, are themselves personally opposed to the death penalty.  Nevertheless, they do not deny the teaching. 

“It’s so odd that so many people want to make it personal,” the philosopher said. “Just look at the arguments.” 

Feser sees Pope Francis’s change to the catechism as highly problematic. 

“As in other instances in the past five years, ambiguity is a factor,” he said. “But I think it is worse than that.”

He notes that Cardinal Ladaria presented an introductory letter stating that Francis’s change is “not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium” but not explaining how it isn’t a rupture. And if it is true that capital punishment is inadmissible because it is “an attack on dignity”, then it follows, Feser said, that the Law of Moses was “an attack on dignity” and that Pope John Paul II’s assertion that capital punishment was legitimate in rare circumstances was an “attack on dignity.” 

In Pope Francis’s defense, the philosopher said that it was possible that the pontiff was just not interested in doctrine. Feser was unsure this was a defense, however, as “safeguard of doctrine is the pope’s job.” However, given remarks Pope Francis made last October, when he said that capital punishment was “per se contrary to the Gospel”, the change to the catechism is “less bad than what it looked like we were getting”, Feser believes, as this earlier formulation made it sound as if capital punishment were “intrinsically evil.” 

In terms of a truly authentic development on Church doctrine on capital punishment, Feser argues Pope John Paul II took it as far as he could take it, and moreover that he didn’t take it as far as people think. Although many people believe JP2 restricted it to only to prevent the direct endangerment of the innocent, “if you actually read [Evangelium Vitae], it’s not really there,” the philosopher said. The perennial doctrine of the Church is that capital punishment is legitimate also as a deterrent and as retributive justice. 

“The only thing that can be done is recommending against [the death penalty] in practice,” Feser said. The principle, however, must remain. 

He underscored that these are not just his “assertions.”

“We analyse this in painstaking fashion in our book,” Feser said and voiced some frustration with how little his and Bessette’s critics are willing to engage with their arguments.  They are not only unable to grasp the evidence, not only that the Church has never decreed that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, but that many social scientists do believe it has a deterrent value. Feser said that it was “rash” and “irresponsible” for Churchmen with no sociological expertise to “throw out bromides” about human dignity.  If the death penalty is a deterrent, then those who wish to abolish it are “risking the lives of the innocent.”

‘Pro-life’ is not a ‘magic theological bullet’

Impatient of sentimentality and anti-intellectualism, Feser is similarly dismissive of those who say that people who are against abortion but support the death penalty aren’t really pro-life. 

“‘Pro-life’ is a modern American political slogan,” Feser declared. “It has no philosophical or theological content at all.”

The word is not a “magic theological bullet,” he stressed. He pointed out that one could just as easily tell someone that they aren’t “pro-freedom” because they support the incarceration of people guilty of crimes. Scripture is very clear that one can lose the right to life through murder; there is a difference between protecting the right to life of the innocent and that of the guilty, just as there is a difference between unjustly depriving the innocent of their freedom and justly locking up the guilty in prison.   

Feser was raised a Catholic, but his philosophical studies gradually led to atheism. However, the history of philosophy, ancient and medieval, brought him back to the faith. 

The philosopher’s interest in the death penalty was prompted by Pope John Paul II. Feser had supported the use of capital punishment, both as an atheist and as a Catholic, but he noticed that John Paul II’s personal opposition was changing people’s perceptions of what the Church actually taught.  

“I saw people being pushed to an extreme [abolitionist] position,” Feser said. 

He was troubled by what he saw as “an attack on the rationality and consistency” of the Catholic Church, when it was that very rationality and consistency that he admired. He had previously been looking for “wiggle-room” on the teaching against artificial contraception, but had been impressed that Paul VI had affirmed the teaching “when the whole world was against him.”

“I was impressed by the sheer intransigence,” he chuckled. 

Feser’s co-author Joseph Bessette, a professor of government and ethics at Claremont McKenna College in California, told LifeSiteNews via email that he first became interested in capital punishment while growing up in Massachusetts, where it was a “hotly debated topic” in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Later, in the early 1980s I worked in the prosecutor’s office in Chicago.  That’s where I first learned from prosecutors of the gruesome details of the relatively few murders that resulted in a death sentence,” Bessette recalled.   

When he began to teach a course on “Crime and Public Policy” in the early 1990s, Bessette devoted three weeks to the death penalty, but didn’t pay close attention to Church doctrines on the topic, as he knew the Church had “always taught that the death penalty could be a legitimate punishment for heinous crimes if necessary to secure public safety.”  

But a student’s remark inspired him to take another look. 

“One day a student in my course said, ‘Well, I am a Catholic.  So I am against the death penalty.’ I affirmed the Church’s traditional teaching and then sought to learn more about the Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (1995) and the revision in the language in the Catechism between 1992 and 1997.” 

‘The simple fact is that the death penalty saves lives’

Bessette believes that in revising the Catechism to state the death penalty is “inadmissible”, Pope Francis has attempted to “overturn” two millennia of Church teaching. 

“Moreover, by strongly implying that Catholics must support the abolition of the death penalty, he has allied the Church with a public policy that would undermine just punishment and cost the lives of innocent human beings,” he asserted. “The simple fact is that the death penalty saves lives.”

Bessette says that he and Feser present a “large body of evidence” in their book to support this conclusion. 

Unfortunately, Pope Francis and many Catholic clerics simply presume that public safety would not be jeopardized if capital punishment were abolished,” he continued. 

He said he did not expect Catholic priests “no matter what their rank” to be experts in criminal justice, and that unless a public policy is intrinsically evil, it is up to citizens and government “to decide how best to promote the common good.”

“This is what the Church has always taught,” Bessette stressed.  “By falsely claiming

that the principles of Catholicism call for rejecting the death penalty in all circumstances,

the pope undermines the authority of the Magisterium, preempts the proper authority of public officials, and jeopardizes public safety and the common good.”

In defense of those who seek to protect the unborn while supporting capital punishment, Bessette said there was no contradiction.

“There is absolutely no inconsistency between being pro-life and pro-death penalty,” he said.  “The Church has always taught that it is never licit to take an innocent human life.”  

Bessette cited John Paul II, saying the pope affirmed this principle unambiguously in Evangelium Vitae.

The late pontiff wrote:  “[T]he commandment 'You shall not kill' has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person. . . . [T]he absolute inviolability of innocent human life is a moral truth clearly taught by Sacred Scripture, constantly upheld in the Church's Tradition and consistently proposed by her Magisterium… Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral (EV 57)”

“Similarly,” Bessette added,  “the current Catechism says, ‘The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation’ ([CCCC] 2273).”

“Killing in self-defense or killing a vicious murderer has absolutely no relationship to this prohibition of intentionally killing the innocent, and the Church has always understood and taught this.”  

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