Tom McKenna Schools Mark Shea on the Death Penalty

Council of Trent-Death Penalty


No Catholic blogger writes better on the traditional teaching of the Church regarding the death penalty than Tom McKenna, my worthy adversary on this blog on many a joust over the Confederacy.  In a post on October 22, 2015 he masterfully addresses Mark Shea who has become hysterical, (what a surprise !), in his anti-death penalty rantings:

On Shea’s blog, another attack on Sacred Tradition and a confusing conflation of arguments.  The first thing bothering Shea this time is that death penalty proponents supposedly place too much weight on the words of Dismas, the Good Thief, related in this passage from Luke 23:

And one of those robbers who were hanged, blasphemed him, saying: If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.  But the other answering, rebuked him, saying: Neither dost thou fear God, seeing thou art condemned under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this man hath done no evil. And he said to Jesus: Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom.  And Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise. 

Now, I don’t know anyone who hangs their hat on this passage alone, or even as a mainstay of the obvious and overwhelming approval of the death penalty in Scripture.  It is, however, one more place in Sacred Scripture where the death penalty is either merely assumed to be moral or expressly stated to be so.

It’s significant, if not decisive, that St. Luke added this detail, and did not record any rebuke of Our Lord to the Thief’s claim that the two criminals were being justly executed.  In fact, the Lord right after the Thief’s statement assures him of Paradise.

And after all, when God Himself says in Genesis,

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image 

it’s pretty clear that He approves of the death penalty precisely because of the inherent dignity of man (almost the direct opposite conclusion drawn by our contemporary clerical class, which argues, against Scripture, that the dignity of man means that the death penalty is immoral).

 And while Shea smears those who cite this passage of Scripture in Genesis as “quot[ing] Scripture like a fundamentalist,” he may not realize that he is smearing folks like Cardinal Avery Dulles, not a noted fundamentalist as far as I know, and a man whose education, erudition, and judgment I certainly find more convincing than Shea’s.

Go here to read the rest.  People who reduce Catholicism to the brief times in which they live are to be greatly pitied.

More to explorer


  1. Well.
    A new church.
    Why not new commandments?
    Why not a new drive thru Mass chain?
    Save money and time…kind of a McSacrament. Pull in and order your choices;

    1.) Mc ommunion.
    2.) Mc onfession.
    3.) Mc Word.

    Depending on the order you could be thru the line in five minutes flat. More time for the casino, strip club or Transgender parade.

    Endless possibilities in the “new Church.”

    All kidding aside, which report is more likely?
    I pray its leaning towards “The Catholic Thing.”
    Remnant Church report paint’s a sorid picture.
    Feeling sick? It could be the “New swine flu.”

  2. There is this idea among liberal progressives like Mark Shea that no one deserves to die (except perhaps conservative Republicans) and everyone deserves to go to Heaven (again, except conservative Republicans). The fact of the matter, however, is that Ephesians 2:3 describes us as children of wrath and Ephesians 2:1 says that we were dead in our trespasses and sin. We all therefore deserve the punishment that Christ received. Fortunately for the majority of us, we have received His mercy. Some, however, by murder and rape and pedophilia reject that mercy and should thus be sent straightaway after conviction in a fair trial by a jury of one’s peers to the gallows or firing squad or electric chair or gas chamber or lethal injection stretcher. I do not like that. I do not want that. I do not advocate that. But I remember what my 12 step sponsor said to me when we visited Fishkill State Penitentiary in NYS on an outgoing 12 step meeting: “The only difference between you, Paul, and the inmates is that they got caught and you didn’t.” While I had not murdered or raped or done pedophilia, I had certainly done plenty of other things and what he had said thus brought to home in a real way what St Paul had written in his epistle to the Ephesians. Death penalty? I don’t like it. I’m not supposed to like it. But it is God-ordained as punishment for the unrepentant murderer.

  3. @Philip: “Which report is more likely?” I was wondering the same thing. The two reports are rather different, aren’t they? Personally, I believe Mr. Matt’s report. Mr. Royal seems to me to be a big fan of Pope Francis, based on some of his writings. Last I read from him, he’s still in the mindset of the poor Pope is constantly misunderstood.

  4. Elizabeth Fitzmaurice.

    Thanks for your observations.
    Regardless of the validity of each report, one thing is certain. The forces of culture are pressing the Church. Nothing new here.
    As we pray our rosaries we must take strength in knowing that the victory is coming. Christ’s Church will suffer, as Christ himself suffered, and the glorious resurrection, as He resurrected, will come for his own as well. Regardless of the enemies of Holy Church.

  5. I always wonder if Hitler would have been captured after W W 2, and had been convicted at Nurenberg, would the Pope then have argued against his execution? The answer is NO !! And the same should have been applicable if Osama bin laden had been captured. Anything but the death penalty would been disrespect for the thousands of victims.

  6. Mark who?
    Question for Gospel revisionists like Mark who? and the gang subverting the Gospels in the synod against the family: Who gave you authority to rewrite the Gospels?
    God is eternal and His Truth is eternal. God preordained that in order to redeem man, the Christ must suffer death (penalty). N.B. unlike ancient fertility cults, the Christ could not redeem man by engaging in sexual intercourse with a temple prostitute or by cremating His first-born (Melech). If death (penalty) were an intrinsic evil, why would God preordain that the Christ would save man through His suffering and death (penalty)?

    If any of that makes me a bad person, make the most of it.

  7. Meanwhile, back at the ranch; http://www.lifesite

    Francisco’s back yard…but wait! Issues that are of greater concern, death penalty v. abortion, should give us reason to speak out less regarding the terrible war on women.

    Take a close look at this war. Notice the prayers being tragically thrown at the innocent bare chested feminist.

  8. Mark Shea has become so far left, that he ought to have Pope Francis’s hammer and sickle cross decorating his blog page. And he ought to change the name of his blog to “Social Justice Warrior And Loving It!” As for Tom McKenna “schooling ” Marky, Tom would have to send Death Row Shea to the corner with a dunce cap on his head 90% of the time!

  9. He’s more focused on who he’s arguing with– describing their features, real or imagined– than dealing with the arguments.
    That’s a good sign that someone doesn’t HAVE an argument.

  10. Jonathan,

    That is a great link. Cardinal Dulles ultimately found himself siding against the use of capital punishment. But it seems the take home message he has for us is when he writes:

    “Summarizing the verdict of Scripture and tradition, we can glean some settled points of doctrine. It is agreed that crime deserves punishment in this life and not only in the next. In addition, it is agreed that the State has authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death.”

    When Scripture and tradition state something is acceptable, it should be with great trepidation that modern man abolishes it.

  11. His Sheaness (The Pyromaniac Prince of Literary Straw-men) needs to wean his sullied political heart away from that steady diet of NeoCatholic hyperbole. If only he had a fraction of the faith in God’s immutable Divine Justice that he seems to have in man’s modern political fashions – maybe he would actually find the peace that his troubled angry head so badly needs.

  12. Father George Rutler was a friend of Cardinal Dulles and both were of the same opinion on capital punishment. (By the way, Pope Pius XII urged hanging those convicted at the Nuremburg Trial.)

    Read Father Rutler: “Hanging Concentrates the Mind” in Crisis Magazine, February 2013.

  13. Capitol punishment – less than 100 American executions; abortion – millions. Trials for the executed criminals; none for the innocent babies killed. Shea needs to get a clue.

  14. Thanks, Don.

    I sometimes wonder whether it’s worth the effort to address Shea’s histrionics, since I sincerely question his intellectual honesty. He seems dedicated merely to throwing rhetorical bombs and demonizing those he has deemed outside the pale. Perhaps he likes to stir the pot just to get the clicks on his site; since he does not post anything about his background or education, I’m inclined to assume he’s probably not very well educated, at least in the sense that he seems not to know how to reason with someone with an opposing view, resorting instead to ad hominem as his first recourse. Discourse with such a person is, as you know, usually pointless. But it’s important that the record be set straight especially about this issue, concerning which there is plenty of confusion among the laity.

  15. Confusion arises from equivocating terms used in careless or abbreviated speech with the full, exact terms. For example, many forget–or are wholly unaware–that the term ‘pro-life’ is an abbreviated way of saying ‘pro-innocent life’. Once these distinctions are bleached away by equivocation, the errors in thought begin. Sloppy thinkers conclude that pro-life means they must oppose the just imposition of the death penalty for deadly, dangerous justly convicted criminals. Or that they conclude that because defending oneself might call for the use of deadly force against aggressors, being pro-life must require them to be pacifists. Other examples of this error abound.

  16. I must also call attention to the distressing tendency of those who oppose capital punishment to treat prison guards as if their lives are disposable. This is wrong. Prison guards are innocent people and being genuinely pro-innocent life requires us to show active and efficacious concern for their lives too.

    Besides the corporal risks to prison guards of death, maiming, and injury that dangerous convicted criminals pose, prison guards and their families are at higher risk of the moral and spiritual maiming and injuries of family breakup, juvenile delinquency, and other social pathologies. The calling to be a prison guard who protects the innocent from dangerous criminals who would otherwise be loose among us is a difficult one, a vocation that is grossly underappreciated by those who do not have relatives or friends who are prison guards or members of their families.

  17. It’s not only prison guards, Micha. What about other prisoners who are in for lesser crime, perhaps including manslaughter who still have some regard for human life? They may not be completely innocent, but surely they aren’t to be subject to the whims of the most vicious murderers who are without any regard for human life. A murderer who is in for life without any possibility of parole—what has he to fear and (his thinking) why shouldn’t he create as much mayhem as possible?

  18. Micha and BPS, you’re exactly right. It can never be emphasized enough that even under the “new” “modified” teaching that we only may execute when there is no other way to render an offender harmless, we have to include a consideration of whether the offender represents a reasonably discernible threat to prison personnel and/or fellow inmates. Killing and wounding of guards, staff, and other inmates by “lifers” is relatively common. After all, these are people who have *already* a proven lack of self control and a disregard for life such that they have already murdered. Couple that with the lack of any incentive for *not* assaulting/killing (what will happen to them? They’re already locked up for life!), it is easy to conclude that in many cases there is a substantial threat to prison staff and other inmates, and therefore we cannot really render these offenders harmless.

    People like Shea do not want to focus on either the victims of these murderers, the terror of the crimes they commit, or on the relatively forgotten prison staff and inmates whose safety and lives are put at risk by daily, close proximity to murderers. It’s much easier to focus on a murderer who claims he’s been transformed, and who has that claim magnified and spotlighted by a complicit pro-criminal media and academe.

  19. Micha Elyi writes”

    “I must also call attention to the distressing tendency of those who oppose capital punishment to treat prison guards as if their lives are disposable.”

    If women or children made up more than an insignificant number among the population of prison guards, society (which, unfortunately, includes the Church) would see the problem of the threat to innocent life that Micha raises.

    This is but one example exposing a false dichotomy present in society (which, unfortunately, includes the Church) holding that, since women and children by their relative physical weakness are deserving of special protection by society, the protection of men is deserving of no consideration at all.

    In the Church of late (the last fifty years or so) this has translated into the neglect of men also as having any particular human dignity. So, for example, the downplaying of a mother’s role in society is (rightly) recognized as an affront to the dignity of woman (cf. Mulieris Dignitatem, Letter to Women, your typical American diocesan newspaper any given week, etc.), the downplaying of a father’s role, if it is mentioned at all, is…harmful to women and children.

  20. Women are a significant number among prison guards.
    The guard that was killed up here in Washington a few years back was a woman, for example. (Not in a women’s prison, either.)
    There’s also no shortage of “female guards pregnant by prisoners” in the news.
    It’s not along the lines of the sex of those involved, it’s more along the lines of the prodigal son being given his inheritance over and over without ever having to come back to his father.

  21. Judging by a quick search of prison guard statistics, it looks like you are correct: while men still significantly outnumber women, women are not an insignificant portion of the population.

    I think it still remains in the public consciousness, however, that prison guard is something that men do. I readily acknowledge the insupportability of this latter claim, as well as my suspicion that its bearing on public consciousness is a reason for the lack of concern for prison guards’ lives.

  22. Just to point out that in 2014 and 2015 thus far, two (2) have been killed in assaults per the Officer Down Memorial Page. One perpetrator was a robbery suspect (in jail awaiting trial) and one was a lifer with several convictions for robbery, assault, and aggravated assault. Neither had previously killed anyone.

    In New York, the annual probability of death for inmates (who have a median age of about 33) was 0.0028 when assessed in 2013. That’s 87% higher than the norm for a man of 33 (about normal for a man of 46). That does not strike me as shocking for a collection of impetuous characters. There were 26 deaths from undetermined causes and 1 verified homicide. Were all the deaths in the undetermined category undetected homicides, the homicide rate in jails and prisons in New York would be similar to that in the Rochester slums.

  23. I’d suggest this page as a source, over the memorial one:

    It has three dead from assault, three dead from vehicular assault, 31 dead from deliberate gunfire.

    They list K9 losses but don’t count them towards the total, and those counts don’t include accidents even if they were in the line of duty.

  24. I thought you were making a point about over-all ability to keep those who have posed a lethal risk from completing the deal, so to speak.
    Almost double of the normal rate isn’t that bad for a group of known bad folks, except that it’s in a situation where they’re known to be bad eggs, and are supposedly being kept under control, and the vast majority of accidental causes of death have been removed.

    (poisoning, suicide, car accident, murder and “other injuries” according to this: )

  25. I think you’re confounding my point. There were on that page 2 guards listed as having been killed in jails and prisons over the course of the last two calendar years (not quite complete re 2015). The vast majority of cops who die violently are killed on the street. The death rate 87% above national means (roughly speaking) was for inmates in New York in 2013, and the vast majority died of natural causes (the breakdown was ~74% natural causes, 13% suicide, 13% undetermined and <1% verified homicides). Even if inmates were killing each other at alarming rates, that would be a modest driver of the elevated homicide rate. Most of these guys dying prematurely are just very unhealthy (from drug use, I would guess).

  26. Death to the typo demon!
    I think you’re missing my point– that they’re in a by definition highly controlled situation. Homicides (nevermind the unrecorded attempted homicides) should be freak accident level events for BOTH the correctional officers AND the inmates.
    Where the majority of cops are killed would be changed by where they work– the number that deal with the public professionally is much higher than the number that deal with jailed prisoners.

  27. Inmates wouldn’t be able to harm anybody if they were chained (think dungeon) to their cell walls and fed minimally above starvation rations of bread and water. Instead, they’re well-fed and provided gym equipment so that many of them could play linebacker in the NFL.
    Re: the death penalty a famed Catholic theologian wrote that Catholics may disagree with JPII on that and receive the Eucharist – it’s a prudential judgment and the pronouncement was not ex cathedra. That famous theologian later served the Church as Pope Benedict XVI.

  28. I understand you. My point is that if you want to argue for capital sentences, you should do so on normative grounds. The number of guards and inmates whose lives you will save by executing someone is small enough that it’s difficult to detect.

  29. Problem being that your own information shows that it’s not difficult to detect, and the argument is made to counter the claim that a life sentence would prevent the criminals from killing again.
    Not only do we know that people don’t actually stay in jail for their entire sentence, but they can’t even be kept from murder when they ARE in jail.
    Ah-ha! I found a national stat!
    There’s a Death In Custody reporting program; nation wide, or less 3% of the deaths of those in custody were homicides. (roughly where suicide is for the general population over age 44)
    That is, optimistically, a quarter of what it is for the rest of the population.
    (page 17, )
    Pessimistically, it’s more like a third.
    You can get bigger variations in homicide rate by moving.

  30. NY prisons may be an outlier, Art Deco. Also, there are other crimes perpetrated by inmates

    The money quote:
    “For comparison, there were 1.2 million violent crimes reported to the FBI by police departments across the country in 2012, and a little more than 5.8 million self-reported by inmates that same year, according to the BJS survey.”
    ” In a 2012 survey, a full 4 percent of the nation’s prisoners and 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported being sexually victimized in the previous 12 months…rapes and sexual assaults in[U.S. generally] 2012 was 346,830, representing a rate of 1.3 per 1,000 people 12 years of age or older, or 0.13 percent.

  31. NY prisons may be an outlier, Art Deco.

    Really? It has the largest inmate census bar 4 (the federal system, California, Texas, Florida).

    a full 4 percent of the nation’s prisoners and 3.2 percent of jail inmates reported being sexually victimized

    What’s the plan here? Prison buggery is not limited to convicts remanded for murder. Are you going to start executing people convicted of robbery a la early modern England because some share thereof might bugger someone or are you planning to execute more people for homicide because people convicted of robbery and assault bugger people in prison?

  32. Problem being that your own information shows that it’s not difficult to detect,

    My own information shows two guards murdered in a 21 month period, neither of whom were killed by a convict remanded for murder. That’s two perpetrators out of a prison and jail census in excess of 2 million.

  33. Art, you’re not responding to the points I made, and your not making your own very well at all. You’ve also totally missed the rather major point that the criminals are VERY OBVIOUSLY NOT UNDER CONTROL, which is a required foundation for your argument that capital punishment is not licit in this situation.
    Your own evidence shows that people in prison are SUCCEEDING in murder while they are behind bars, both of control officers and of other inmates.
    You haven’t even looked at the rate of murders outside of jail, by those who had been previously in jail for murder, much less ‘attempted homicide’ or ‘assault with a deadly.’

    When it’s pointed out that no, as a matter of fact murder of guards by inmates is detectable as shown by YOU DETECTING IT, you decide to ignore the successful murders of inmates, not even look at attempted murders, and start attacking strawmen.
    You limited your argument against capital punishment down to a ridiculously narrow point of murder of guards by convicts who were in custody, and that point still fails unless you additionally limit it to people with prior homicide convictions in the last 20-some months.
    A rephrasing of this argument.
    Original position: “Capital punishment is needed to keep criminals from hurting innocents.”
    Art’s counter: “It’s not needed because criminals in jail almost never kill anyone.”
    Foxfier’s counter-counter: “Two dead cops is not ‘almost never,’ and the murder rate for inmates is still over 25% of that for the national population.”
    Art’s response: “Those cops weren’t killed by convicted murderers.”
    They successfully murder other prisoners in numbers that approach the lawful executions, they murder wardens, they commit horrific physical abuse on other prisoners, they are very obviously not under control even when actually in jail.

  34. If I did not understand, I would not have been able to make the counter-points that I made when you finally did elaborate on your point.
    If I had attempted and failed, then you could point to where the mistake was– as I did with your focus on number of successful murders of prison guards by inmates.
    If the counter points do not correlate with what your position is, you might try explaining it, simply, in one location, possibly in the form of “Because A(, B and C), I conclude D.”

  35. No one, not even Shea, has provided evidence that our prisons are able to protect the outside public from any further harm from capital offenders. Pope John Paul 11 only made an assumption that prisons today are so safe that the incarcerated can do no further harm to innocent people. No proof of that assumption has been provided by the Vatican or any other Catholic body. The truth is – hundreds of murders outside the prison walls have occurred because of criminals held in solitary confinement.

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