PopeWatch: Ed Feser

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Philosopher Ed Feser recently authored a defense of traditional Church teaching on capital punishment, By Man Shall His Blood be Shed:  A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.

At Catholic World Report he takes a look at the recent comments of Pope Francis condemning capital punishment:




There simply is no way to make an absolute condemnation of capital punishment consistent with past scriptural and papal teaching. The only way out of the mess is for Pope Francis to issue a clarification that reaffirms traditional teaching.

Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all popes before Pope Francis have consistently taught that capital punishment can in some circumstances be legitimate. In some recent remarks, Pope Francis appeared to suggest that this traditional teaching ought to be overturned, and that capital punishment is always and intrinsically wrong. In a recent article in Catholic Herald, I analyzed the pope’s remarks, noting that some of them do indeed appear to propose such a reversal, though others seem to point in the opposite direction.

I also noted that if this is what the pope is proposing – and it is not certain that it is – then he would be flirting with doctrinal error, something that is possible when a pope is not speaking ex cathedra, though it is extremely rare. For the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is an irreformable or unchangeable teaching of the Church. Joseph Bessette and I assemble what we claim to be conclusive evidence to this effect in our recent book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment. (A few of the salient points are briefly summarized in an earlier Catholic World Report article of ours.)

The pope’s remarks have been controversial. For example, theologian Eduardo Echeverria has noted some of the problems with them in an article at Catholic World Report, as has P. J. Smith at First Things. But the pope also has some defenders. Interestingly, however, it turns out that they do not agree on why or how the pope’s remarks are defensible.

On Twitter, Catholic journalist Austen Ivereigh responded to my Catholic Herald piece with the remark: “This betrays a hugely deficient understanding of development of doctrine. It doesn’t even quote relevant parts of pope speech on topic [sic].” Ivereigh does not explain exactly what is deficient (“hugely” or otherwise) about my understanding of the development of doctrine (though of course, he could hardly have done so in a mere tweet). I quoted a number of key magisterial texts which illustrate how the Church teaches that a genuine “development of doctrine” can never be a reversal or overturning of doctrine. How Ivereigh would reconcile these texts with an overturning of traditional teaching on capital punishment, we are not told.

However, the “relevant parts” of the pope’s speech to which Ivereigh thinks I paid insufficient attention include, I would speculate, papal remarks like:

Here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively.

Ivereigh’s idea, perhaps, is this: The Church has always taught the dignity of human life, and the pope’s proposal is that this dignity absolutely rules out capital punishment under any circumstances. There is no contradiction between the claim that human life has dignity and the claim that capital punishment is always wrong, so that to draw the latter conclusion from the former is a genuine development of doctrine and not a contradiction of it.

But if this is Ivereigh’s reasoning, it is fallacious. For a genuine “development of doctrine” has to take account of the entire body of the Church’s traditional teaching, not just some part of it considered in isolation. For example, in hammering out the doctrine of the Trinity, the Church considered both the truth that there is only one God and the truth that the divine Persons are distinct. The Trinitarian conception of God is precisely a reconciliation of these ideas. Hence if the Church were to deny the distinctness of the Persons in the name of respecting the teaching that there is only one God, this would not be a “development” of past teaching but a rejection of it. It would be a matter of pitting one part of the deposit of faith against another, rather than preserving the whole. Indeed, the very term “heresy” derives from the Greek word hairesis, which means the “choosing” or “taking” of one part of orthodox doctrine while rejecting other parts.

Similarly, while the Church has always affirmed the dignity of human life, she has also always taught that an offender guilty of the gravest crimes can in some cases legitimately be executed. That these truths are perfectly compatible is obvious when we remember that there is a crucial moral distinction between the innocent and the guilty. Thus did Pope Pius XII teach that a murderer has, by virtue of his crime, “deprived himself of the right to live.” Thus did even Pope St. John Paul II, who was no fan of capital punishment, explicitly reaffirm even in the 1997 revision of the Catechism he promulgated that “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” under certain conditions. Thus did even he qualify his claims about the dignity of human life in Evangelium Vitae, teaching that “the commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person.” Such qualifications are necessary if we are to do justice to the whole of the deposit of faith.

(I am not, by the way – and contrary to what some critics of my Catholic Herald piece seem to think – suggesting that capital punishment is as central to Catholic doctrine as the Trinity is. That is not the point of the analogy. I am merely using Trinitarianism as an illustration of how a genuine development of doctrine works.)


Go here to read the rest.  There is no way that Pope Francis is right on capital punishment without the Church having been completely wrong on capital punishment for twenty centuries.

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  1. It’s really something to see how an Argentinian Marxist Peronist without a shred of critical thinking capability can be so humiliated by a skillful logician. This Occupier of the See of St. Peter isn’t going to take any of this well, and the more he deviates into confusion, the more he makes apparent how heretical he really is till the only ones who will pay him any heed are the worthless useless liberals who will abandon him and the Church once they achieve the secular ascendancy that they desire over all things.

    Lord, please in your mercy shake some sense into Jorge Bergoglio or end this Pontificate.

  2. The Church’s indefectibility would be called into question if the Church could have been so wrong on this issue for its entire history: if what was always recognized as a practice consistent with natural justice, Scripture, and Tradition is now always “contrary to the gospel” and to “human dignity” then the Church has erred on a moral teaching and we could not rely on any other moral teaching of the Church. The Pope himself appealed to the “law of progress” and claimed that “one cannot conserve the doctrine without making it progress.” Ergo, take your pick: any moral teaching you name is subject to the law of “progress,” i.e., to reinterpretation according to the Zeitgeist. This is nothing other than good old fashioned Modernism.

  3. Mr. McKenna is 100% on this.

    Likely, I am the least qualified to expound on philosophy and theology.
    Bear with me.

    The liberals cite instances where the Church erred to support their secular humanist/progressive revisions.

    It is true the Church has erred. However, those errors were themselves short-term aberrations and absolutely contrary to tradition. And, they were corrected.

    Let’s review the Inquisition. It was not in accord with Tradition. It was not present in the early Church or the first 1,300 years of Church History. And, it was abandoned (except in Spain?) after 100 or 200 years. So, they are incorrect when they employ the Inquisition to make anathema Catholic persons’ support for civil authorities’ employment of capital punishment.

  4. A while back, Steve Skojec compared Francis to a kamikaze. He’s certainly done severe damage to anyone’s inclination to give respectful attention to the papacy.

  5. This too is a response to Ed Feser’s book posted on Public Discourse: In rebuttal of E. Christian Brugger: Catholic Tradition, St. John Paul II, and the Death Penalty.
    “The murder of innocent children scandalizes the innocent child to death. The ban on capital punishment has resulted in solitary confinement for Jesse Timmendaquas for three decades allowing the child rapist, murderer, liar, to escape Justice. This is not Justice. This is a violation of Jesus Christ’s words in Holy Scriture. “Thou shalt be thrust down to hell” Matt. 12:23 “Therefore all that you wish man to do to you, even so you do also to them; for this is the law and the prophets.” Matt. 7:12 +- reward and punishment.” Do not think that I have come to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I have not come to destroy but to fulfill.” Matt. 5: 17-18 “For I say to you that unless your Justice exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matt. 5: 20 Avoiding scandal “And whoever receives one such little child for my sake, receives me. But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it were better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matt. 18: 5-9 Confraternity Version.
    The Death Penalty is not an allegory but a reality spoken by Christ.
    No teaching by the Fathers of the Church, the bishops or the Popes can overturn Jesus Christ’s teaching on protecting our innocent children from sin and providing the self-defense and deterrence of the death penalty.
    Mary De Voe

    As a citizen of the state, the capital one murderer, murder in the first degree, brings himself to Justice. The victim is denied his time to make his peace with God, is scandalized unto death and has his life taken from him. Where is the victim’s Justice?
    If the murderer in the first degree were truly contrite, he would have expired with grief over the commission of his murder of an innocent person. A living, breathing murderer in the first degree is an anomaly, an injustice and a threat of double jeopardy of life for every living human being. The condemned murderer’s contempt for human life cannot be borne in a civilized culture.
    SEE: Robert Pruett. Daniel Nagle, Jesse Timmedaquas, Megan Kanka, Conrad Jeffrey, Divina Genao, Sam Manzie, Eddie Werner.
    What will you say to these innocent victims in the hereafter, that their lives were not worthy of life?
    Since the murderer has not expired with grief over his taking of innocent human life, homicide in the first degree and thereby restored his victim’s life, the murderer of homicide in the first degree must be forced to surrender his victim’s life through the death penalty. The death penalty is the temporal punishment for homicide in the first degree.
    Some people believe that the victim deserved to be executed by a citizen representing the state. The victim was not tried in a court of law and found guilty of a capital crime of homicide in the first degree, the only crime deserving death. The murderer has disenfranchised his victim of his right to life as his victim is not worthy of being executed. The murderer has disenfranchised himself of his citizenship to represent the state. The murderer acted alone to execute another person, another sovereign citizen.

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