Saturday, April 28, 2018

My Review of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: Part Two

By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defence of Capital Punishment
Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette
Ignatius Press

In the first part of this review, I summarized Feser and Bessette's claims that the legitimacy of capital punishment is an infallible teaching of the Church, and reproduced some of the many quotations (from Popes, Catechisms, Church Fathers and Scripture) which they furnish in support of this. It is, in my view, an unanswerable case-- not, perhaps, a demonstration that this is the Church's infallible teaching (because infallability is a tricky hare to catch), but certainly that the teaching is authoritative and continuous. In fact, if the legitimacy of the death penalty isn't infallible teaching on the strength of the arguments the authors give, infallibility is a radically attenuated concept, and one might be well advised to take most pronouncements by popes, bishops or theologians with several grains of salt. If the Church was so wrong about this for so long, how many other things might it be wrong about?

The section in which Feser and Bessette tackle the question of infallible teaching is the marshiest and most bewildering part of the book. I found myself losing my place over and over, and repeatedly reading the same passages. It contains lists of attributes required for a teaching to be authoritative, according to this or that authority, and Feser and Bessette's assessment of where traditional Catholic teaching on the death penalty fits according to this schema. It's head-spinning. That hare of infallibility is a very elusive creature.

It's rather a relief to reach Feser and Bessette's defence of the death penalty in practice.

The book contains a long section in which the authors look at the actual cases of murderers executed in the USA in 2012, a few years before the book was published. This makes for some very grisly reading. I have a fairly strong stomach for such details, but even I found myself becoming rather disturbed by the details. The authors deny that they are seeking to sensationalise or play on the reader's emotions. They claim, rather, that they are trying to bring home to the reader the actual reality of cases where a murderer is given the death penalty. It's a long litany of brutal, callous and remorseless killing, usually by repeat offenders. It's very hard to see how any of the murderers in question could have been wrongfully convicted.

The book also describes the long series of appeals and delays which extended most of the murderer's time on death row, often for decades. The relatives of the victims very often find this time to be a prolongation of their grief. The authors reproduce comments from some of them, describing this ordeal: "Twenty-two years of hell", "Twenty-two years of legalized torture", "We're feeding and clothing him all these years and his family has had all these extra years with him...They had a chance to say goodbye. We never had that chance. Something is askew."

The families often report a sense of justice fulfilled when the person who murdered their relative is executed. Often this is also accompanied by forgiveness, which does not (in their view) contradict the need for justice. Feser and Bessette also describe the many cases in which criminals about to be executed express repentance and turn to God-- an argument in favour of the death penalty, in their view.

In my view, last-minute repentances (though certainly to be welcomed) are not necessarily an argument in favour of execution, or swift execution. As I argued in the first part of this review, it is surely more merciful to extend the opportunitites for repentance for as long as possible. In saying this, I don't dispute Feser and Bessette's contention that a murderer is more likely to repent facing imminent execution, than he is if his life is spared. I think that's probably true. But the possibility of repentance remains, and how can we take that away, when the stake is a soul's eternal damnation or salvation? (This, to me, is the strongest argument against capital punishment.)

Edward Feser
When the authors turn to the question of deterrence, the waters become muddy again. The much-vaunted claim that the death penalty does not deter homicide, Feser and Bessette argue, is by no means proven, and there are many studies which suggest that it does have a deterrent effect. In all honesty, I am quite sceptical of social science research on such controversial matters, being well aware of the partisanship which usually colours it, so I will not linger on this aspect of the book.

The part of the book which I found most striking, and indeed disturbing, was the authors' account of the radical shift in Catholic attitudes towards the death penalty in recent times. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops first announced their opposition to the death penalty in 1974, when the following motion was passed at a general meeting: "The United States Catholic Conference goes on record as opposed to capital punishment." It passed by a vote of 108 in favour to 63 opposed, after considerable debate.

 In 1977, Archbishop Francis Furey of San Antonio, Texas, a death penalty supporter, wrote: "It is a divisive issue in the Church in this country. However, to say that the U.S. hierarchy, as such, is opposed to capital punishment is just a plain lie." However, by 2007, the USCCB was arguing that Catholic teaching on the santcity of life required them to oppose "genocide, torture, unjust war, and the use of the death penalty." The body has consistently campaigned for abolition of the death penalty in recent decades.

So why was there such a sea-change? Feser and Bessette's partial explanation is, I think, the single best passage in the entire book: "The overwhelming tendency of Catholic churchmen today, however, is not only towards opposition to Catholic punishment, but opposition that presents Catholic teaching in a manner that is simplistic, one-sided, incomplete, unrigorous, and indeed often reckless. We speculate that part of the reason for this is the enormous pressure Catholic churchmen face from the surrounding secular and liberal culture. The firm and unalterable opposition of the Church to abortion, euthanasia, homosexual behaviour, and "same-sex marriage", divorce and remarriage, fornication, and other practices common in contemporary society puts Catholic bishops in the position of facing relentless and harsh criticism from opinion makers, politics activists, academics, and dissidents within the Church. The temptation to find some common ground, some way to seem to the wider culture to be progressive rather than reactionary, can be overwhelming. Vigorous opposition to the death penalty appears to them to fit the bill."

I think this is the source of my own disquiet towards contemporary Catholic opposition to the death penalty, even when I sympathise with it. It seems to be motivated, not by the organic development of Catholic doctrine, but by an eagerness to pander to the Church's liberal-secular critics. Can anything good come of this?

Of course, one could point out that a great counter-cultural figure such as St. John Paul II, who was obviously unafraid of going against the current, was a strong opponent of the death penalty. This is true. But in general, Catholic abolitionism seems to me to be a sign, not of conviction, but of capitulation.

Cardinal Avery Dulles
The trend towards abolitionism may have even deeper intellectual and cultural causes, but they are not healthy ones. No less a luminary than Cardinal Avery Dulles, the great American theologian, put it this way: "The mounting opposition to the death penalty in Europe since the Englightenment has gone hand in hand with a decline of faith in eternal life. In the nineteenth century the most consistent supporters of capital punishment were the Christian churches, and its most consistent opponents were groups hostile to the churches. When death came to be understood as the ultimate evil rather than as a stage on the way to eternal life, utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham found it easy to dismiss capital punishment as "useless annihiliation"... The abolition of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the gospel".

The "may" in that final sentence is, in my view, over-cautious.

Feser and Bessette also make the point that, whereas Catholic abolitionists argue that the death penalty is opposed to a "culture of life", opponents of the death penalty are generally more likely to support abortion and euthanasia. This is quite startlingly obvious, when you think about it.

I think that By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed is a book that every thinking Catholic should read, given the opportunity. Feser and Bessette may not convince you of every one of their theses, but they will almost certainly convince you that the whole question is much less straighforward than it is often taken to be today, especially in Catholic circles.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Apologies for the Delay in Service

I know it's a while since I published the first part of my review of Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette's book on capital punishment. I promised a second would come soon.

I have started writing it. I've just been writing a lot of other things. I will get it up next week.

Today I submitted another piece of the RTE radio programme Sunday Miscellany, entitled "The Companionship of a Watch"! We'll see if anything happens to that...

Friday, April 20, 2018

Unappreciated on Facebook

I posted this on Facebook. I thought it was swell, just swell. It didn't get much of a response. So I'm posting it here, too.

I am still trancribing audio recordings in which students are describing their research methods. When I admitted how much I enjoyed it everyone else on the group willingly let me do theirs, too. Ha!

The main reason I enjoy it is because I enjoy typing. (It's not so odd. Apparently Stephen Fry types pages of other peoples' text for fun.) But also, there's something contemplative about it. I mostly catch the words the first time I listen to them, stopping and starting the recording, but sometimes I have to go back a few seconds. Hearing the same recording over and over's like hearing it for the first time. In a strange way, it starts to seem more real, more compressed, more THERE.

I've had the same experience when looking at a photograph or when drawing something. You SEE the thing almost for the first time, when you linger on it...I also feel this when reading poetry criticism or (sometimes) film criticism, when the critic lingers lovingly over a line or scene.

This is also part of why Groundhog Day is my favourite film. Maybe we WOULD have to live the same day over and over and over to even experience it once, properly.

And perhaps this approaches the state of mind William Blake was describing when he wrote:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

On Catholic In-Fighting

Social media can be useful in at least one way. It tends to reflect your own faults to you, even if it's in a funhouse mirror form.

I've been increasingly taken aback by much of the rhetoric on social media regarding Pope Francis. I'm not an ultramontanist, so I'm far from thinking that criticism of the Supreme Pontiff is illegitimate. And indeed, some of the defences of the Pope (and criticism of his critics) have been just as uncharitable, just as rancourous.

On both sides, there is a great deal of sarcasm, irony, satire, name-calling, flippancy, and so forth-- not charitable or serious discussion.

However, my contacts on social media would tend to be very conservative, and so I've been more exposed to the "anti-Francis" side of the debate.

It really bothers me that there is a contingent who increasingly seem to see themselves as "the resistance" to the Pope. When you've set yourself consciously and continuously in opposition to the Pope, surely you've lost your way.

"Name names", you might demand. Well, I'm not going to. I have no intention of getting into spats or finger-pointing.

Ross Douthat is an example of a Catholic writer whose critique of Francis is respectful and measured. Sadly, there are others who are not respectful or measured.

I'll be very frank. I've found this pontificate extremely challenging, even distressing at times. I'm often baffled by the Pope's words and actions, even while I find some of his pronouncements deeply inspiring (for instance, many passages in his latest apostolic exhortation, Rejoice and Be Glad).

But docility and obedience are virtues to Catholics. I'm struck by this very often in reading the lives of the saints. St. Catherine of Siena's criticism of the Pope is often cited, but it's a rare exception. St. Athanasius of Alexandria, in his war with the Arian bishops, is another. (But let us remember that he was a bishop.) I'm not aware of many other examples.

The saintly figures of Catholic history are much more often distinguished by docility-- to their bishops and religious superiors, never mind the Pope.

Here's an example. Venerable Fulton Sheen is often hailed as an outstanding figure of old-fashioned Catholicism-- assertive, unapologetic, hard-hitting. I was watching one of his videos on YouTube and, reflecting on the fact that he died in 1979, found myself wondering what he'd said about Vatican II.

Venerable Fulton Sheen
This is what he said: "The tensions that developed after the Council are not surprising to those who know the whole history of the Church. It is a historical fact that whenever there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit as in a general council of the Church, there is always an extra show of force by the anti-Spirit or the demonic. Even at the beginning, immediately after Pentecost and the descent of the Spirit upon the apostles, there began a persecution and the murder of Stephen. If a general council did not provoke the spirit of turbulence, one might almost doubt the operation of the third Person of the Trinity over the assembly."

One could hardly get more enthusiastic-- rather too enthusiastic, in my view.

Even with a figure like Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary, we see this. Duff was often frustrated in his efforts by unsympathetic bishops, such as John Charles McQuaid (I admire McQuaid greatly, by the way). But he didn't air his frustrations publicly. (If I'm wrong on this, I'm happy to be corrected.)

Speaking of Vatican II, I'm continually haunted by its assertion of Papal supremacy in Lumen Gentium: "In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking."

There is not much ambiguity there. Certainly it seems to leave little room for many of the critics of our current Pope, whose atttidue seems to be: "Call me when he proclaims a dogma".

I'm also haunted by the fact that Pope Benedict has explicitly said that Pope Francis's pontificate is not in contradiction with his own, and that there is a "continuity" between them. (He also seems to have given moral support to Cardinal Muller and one of the dubia cardinals, so I think Pope Francis's champions should show a similiar respect towards his critics.)

I would cheer wildly if Cardinal Burke or Cardinal Sarah stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter's after the next papal conclave. In fact, I look towards this conclave with considerable apprehension, especially given the number of cardinals Pope Francis has ordained.

Cardinal Raymond Burke, a great man

On the other hand...the Holy Spirit knows better than me. I'm not saying that every papal election is an act of the Holy Spirit, but it might be.

And the promise of our Lord to St. Peter remains operative. No matter how bad things get, we know the Church is not going to apostasize.

I have my opinions on what "bad" is, but who's to say I'm right? Many Catholics would look askance on developments which seem reasonable to me, such as ecumenical outreach. (Which is not to say I approve of everything done in the name of ecumenism.)

What really bothers me is the amount of time Catholics spend fighting each other. In all the time I've spent reading G.K. Chesterton, I've never come across a passage where he criticizes a Catholic bishop or any development within the Catholic Church. (This is especially notable considered he was an ardent supporter of World War One, and the Pope of the time called for peace and negotiation.) I'm not saying there are no such passages, but they must be thin on the ground indeed, since I don't remember ever reading any. Belloc, too, I remember reading, made it a point not to criticise other Catholics.

From now on, I am going to avoid thinking of myself as a conservative Catholic, a JPII Catholic, a Pope Benedict Catholic, an Ordinary Form Catholic, or any other sort of Catholic. I'm just a Catholic. I'm so tired of the Catholic in-fighting. I'm sorry for any part I've played it, or any expressions of rancour or sarcasm towards the Holy Father on this blog in the past.

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Forgotten Irishness of C.S. Lewis

The 1993 movie Shadowlands dramatizes the late-in-life romance between two writers, C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. Lewis is by far the most famous of the two. His series of children’s fantasy novels The Chronicles of Narnia has sold over a hundred million copies. Although the movie is excellent from an artistic point of view, it leaves much to be desired in terms of accuracy. Perhaps the biggest inaccuracy is the depiction of C.S. Lewis, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, as a quintessential Englishman, a very formal and introverted Oxford don. In reality, Lewis was a hearty character with a booming laugh, frequently described as resembling a farmer more than a professor. And, so far from being the quintessential Englishman, he was Irish—born and bred!

C.S. Lewis
The fact that Lewis was Irish is frequently overlooked. On the many posters and calendars which celebrate Ireland’s literary tradition, we will look in vain for Lewis’s rather beefy face. His name does not roll off the tongue when Irish literary luminaries such as Yeats, Shaw, Wilde and Joyce are listed. In the book C.S. Lewis: At Home in Ireland, David Bleakly complains: “The massive Dictionary of Irish Literature (Aldwych Press, London) manages to engage in a detailed study of Irish writers without marking Lewis out for special mention…all he receives is a tiny footnote on two occasions, and then only in reference to the work of others”.

It seems a shame that Ireland should overlook such a literary and intellectual giant. Clive Staples Lewis (known to his friends as Jack) was the son of a Belfast solicitor who won a scholarship to Oxford and eventually became a Fellow in English literature there. After twenty-nine years in Oxford, he finished his academic career in Cambridge University. He fought in the First World War, where he was wounded and sent home. Having lost his Christian faith in his youth, he regained it at the age of thirty-three, and went on to become a noted Christian writer. His fame for this began during World War Two, when he made a series of radio broadcasts arguing the truth of the Christian faith. They were enormously popular.

As mentioned already, his series of seven children’s novels, The Chronicles of Narnia, have sold over a hundred million copies. In these books, a group of children find themselves transported to the magical world of Narnia. As well as being entertaining yarns, they serve as Christian allegory, in which Jesus is represented as a talking lion called Aslan. Three of the books have been adopted to blockbuster movies.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Although the Narnia stories have made Lewis famous as a fantasy writer, relatively few people realize that he played a crucial role in the creation of an even more famous fantasy series, The Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien, the writer of that most popular of fantasies, was a friend and colleague of Lewis long before either of them became famous. Tolkien was frank about his debt: “He was for long my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby. But for his interest and unceasing eagerness for more I should never have brought The L. of the R. to a conclusion.” Along with all this, Lewis has a high reputation as a literary critic and a writer of science fiction.

Lewis, then, is a colossal figure of twentieth century literature. One would expect him to be included in any roll-call of Irish literary greats. So why isn’t he?

Partly it’s because his books have such an English flavour. The children who find themselves in Narnia are all very English children, and use English slang such as “you’re a brick” and “Great Scott!”. His stories are generally set in England or some fantasy world.

Another reason Lewis is often considered British is because he was born into the Unionist tradition in Belfast. Not that Lewis ever showed much partisanship on ‘the Irish question’. As his biographer Alister McGrath tells us: “According to Lewis's diary entry for the critical date of 6 December 1922 [the foundation of the Irish Free State], the big question on his mind was not Irish independence, nor the political future of Belfast, but whether the word breakfast was to be understood as "a cup of tea at eight or a roast of beef at eleven". He hated politics all his life, and this seemed to stem from the sectarian politics he encountered in his childhood.

For all his Unionist background, Lewis undoubtedly thought of himself as an Irishman. This is most evident in his description of his arrival in England to attend boarding school, as a boy: “No Englishman will be able to understand my first impressions of England… I found myself in a world to which I reacted with immediate hatred. The flats of Lancashire in the early morning are in reality a dismal sight; to me they were like the banks of Styx. The strange English accents with which I was surrounded seemed like the voices of demons… I have made up the quarrel since; but at that moment I conceived a hatred for England which took many years to heal.”

Mourne mountains

Nor did Lewis’s sense of Irishness fade over time. As McGrath writes: “Lewis returned to Ireland for his annual vacation almost every year of his life, except when prevented by war or illness. He invariably visited the counties of Antrim, Derry, Down (his favourite), and Donegal-- all within the province of Ulster, in its classic sense. At one point, Lewis even considered permanently renting a cottage in Cloghy, County Down, as the base for his annual walking holidays, which often included strenuous hikes in the Mountains of Mourne. Although Lewis worked in England, his heart was firmly fixed in the northern countries of Ireland, especially County Down. As he once remarked to his Irish student David Bleakley, "Heaven is Oxford lifted and placed in the middle of County Down."

In his letters, Lewis used expression such as “it beats Banagher”, “a holy terror”, and “good crack”. And once, when he was rehearsing a radio broadcast and the producer complained about his heavy breathing, he quipped: “I'm Irish, not English. Did you ever know an Irishman who didn't puff and blow?’

So surely it is time to give C.S. Lewis his place amongst Ireland’s literary greats!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Review of By Man Shall his Blood Be Shed by Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette (Part I)

By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defence of Capital Punishment
Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette
Ignatius Press

For most of my life, I was a confirmed opponent of the death penalty. At first, this was for humanitarian motives-- put simply, the idea of taking somebody's life was so horrible that it seemed unconsionable to me, outside of a "kill or be killed" situation. When I became a convinced Catholic, the immense admiration I felt (and still feel) for St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both outspoken opponents of the death penalty, also influenced me. And, of course, the current Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that, in modern conditions, the cases in which the death penalty can be legitimately used are "very rare, if not practically non-existent." It seemed like an open or shut case.

Then I read Catholic philosopher Edward Feser's defence of capital punishment, both on his blog and in this book co-authored with criminologist Joseph Bessette, and now I'm less sure. I can't say that I have been entirely convinced, but it seems to me that Feser and Bessette have made a case which cannot be lightly dismissed.

If Edward Feser says something, I take it seriously. His book The Last Superstition was instrumental in convincing me of the existence of God. Since then, I've been an avid reader of his blog. There's something inexorable about Feser's logic-- patiently and calmly, he develops his own argument and dismantles that of his opponents, pre-empting objections and giving those objections a very fair hearing. This book is written in the same style. All the usual arguments against the death penalty, as well as some unusual ones, are addressed.

Edward Feser
 Of course, this is a Catholic defence of the death penalty, so it it is mostly arguing from a Catholic point of view. The authors, in fact, make two distinct arguments. The first is that the legitimacy of the death penalty is irreformable Church teaching. So, while a Catholic might oppose the death penalty in practice, he or she can't claim that it is wrong in principle. In the second half of the book, Feser and Bessette go further and argue that the death penalty should, in fact, be applied in some cases.

It seems to me that the first part of Feser and Bessette's case is close to being a slam-dunk. In fact, the only reason I hesitate to acclaim it as such is that Pope Francis has suggested the death penalty "is itself contrary to the Gospel", and that the Catechism should be changed to reflect this.

I hope this doesn't happen. In my view, such a change would be a very disturbing reversal of Church teaching. Even if the centuries-old teaching on the death penalty is not irreformable, the Church undermines its own credibility when it makes such dramatic changes. As Feser put it, in an article in The Catholic Herald: "If the Church has been that wrong for that long about something that serious, why should we trust anything else she teaches? And if all previous popes have been so badly mistaken about something so important, why should we think Pope Francis is right?"

When it comes to the second stage of the book's argument-- the defence of the death penalty in practice-- Feser and Bessette's case is still powerful, but not quite as compelling. They question the common claim that the death penalty is not a deterrent, but the data on this topic seems ambigious at best. They address the argument from possible miscarriages of justice, but I do not feel they have entirely disposed of it. Finally there is the question of repentance and the time available for the criminal to repent. Feser and Bessette argue, with St. Thomas Aquinas, that a criminal facing imminent execution is more likely to repent than is a criminal left to live out the rest of his days. That may be true, but shouldn't every opportunity of repentance be given to an imperilled soul? As long as the likelihood is not zero, is it not a terrible thing to remove it, perhaps sending somebody to eternal damnation?

The book begins with a vivid description of capital punishment in the Papal States during the tenure of Giovanni Battista, the Pope's official executioner from 1796 to 1865, who executed 516 criminals:

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 a 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 it would be the last thing he ever saw. Everything was done to ensure both that the criminal received his just deserts and that the salvation of his soul might be secured.

It might be said that this final sentence contains Feser and Bessette's thesis in a nutshell. They argue that punishment is indeed a matter of just deserts, and not simply a matter of public safety, deterrence, or reform of the criminal. Similarly, they see the question of capital punishment in the light of eternal life, not simply life on earth.

I will pass over Feser and Bessette's arguments from Scripture, for the simple reason that Catholics interpret Scripture through the lens of Tradition. Opponents of the death penalty often cite the Sermon on the Mount, and Christ's injunction to his followers to turn the other cheek rather than demanding the "lex talionis" principle of "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth". However, as the authors insist: "Christ is not directly addressing questions of government and criminal justice in this passage in the first place, but is speaking of the attitude that the individual Christian ought to take towards the injustice he suffers. And that is how the passage has traditionally been understood by Catholic theologians."

It is more fruitful to examine that Tradition itself. Feser and Bessette quote a great many passages from Fathers of the Church, Popes, and Catechisms, right up to Pope Pius XII, in favour of the death penalty.

St. Robert Bellarmine
For instance, they quote the great Counter-Reformation scholar St. Robert Bellarmine:

It is lawful for a Christian magistrate to death disturbers of the public peace. It is proved, first, from the Scriptures, for in law of nature, of Moses, of the Gospels, we have precepts and examples of this. For God says, "Whosoever shall shed man's blood, his blood shall be shed."

They also quote St. Augustine, Origen, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Optatus, Pope St. Innocent I (fifth century), Pope St. Innocent III (thirteenth century), Pope Leo X (sixteenth century), and-- most formidably perhaps-- the Roman Catechism, the Catechism produced the codify the Catholic Faith after the Council of Trent:

Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment, which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment­ is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence.

In a 1952 address, Pope Piux XII defended the death penalty in these terms:

Even when it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the state does not dispose of the individual's right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of [ the enjoyment of] life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live.

Obviously, this is a formidable list of authorities. Whether or not Church teaching on the legitimacy of the death penalty is irreformable, it would certainly seem to have been emphatic, right up to the twentieth century.

In the second part of this review, I will examine Feser and Bessette's arguments that punishment (according to traditional Catholic teaching), is primarily retributive, rather than simply being a matter of deterrence or public safety, and their further argument that the principle of proportionality requires the death penalty for the most heinous homicides. I will also address the author's presentation of empirical data regarding the death penalty in America, which (they claim) supports the case for retaining capital punishment in practice.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

My Five Favourite Chesterton Quotations

G.K. Chesterton is an eminently quotable writer. He's so quotable that some of his most famous quotations are things he never said. The most notorious example is "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in anything". This is very similar to several things Chesterton did write, and it's certainly something he might have said. But it's somewhat bizarre that, out of the millions of words that Chesterton did write, his most quoted line should be something he didn't.

On the other hand, Chesterton often loosely quoted from other authors, so I can't imagine this fact would bother him too much.

But what about the quotations which are bona fide Chesterton? There are tons of them, and one often finds them cropping up in the most unlikely places.

Although Chesterton was a voluminous writer in terms of his overall output, he was concise in another sense-- his books are usually quite short, and his writing tends towards compression. In a nuthshell....he was very good at putting things in a nutshell. It's no wonder people remember his aphorisms, and draw on them at need.

Here are the five quotations I find myself turning to again.

The first comes from Chesterton's very first book of published prose, The Defendant. Chesterton's style is mature and recognisable from the start. In the introduction the book, he describes a phenomenon which he would spend his entire life fighting against. It's a phenomenon which I see everywhere, both in the world around me and within my own soul, and which is perpetually draining life of everything good:

There runs a strange law through the length of human history—that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility.

This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall. It is a strange thing that many truly spiritual men, such as General Gordon, have actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location of the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed.

This tendency is everywhere. I see it most of all, myself, in the widespread disdain for the ordinary, the mundane, and the familiar. I've never understood why ordinary life is considered so dull that we have to spend our lives watching movies about mob bosses and 

My second quotation is from one of Chesterton's many published work on Charles Dickens. It's a much shorter passage, and its appeal is harder to explain:

But Dickens in his cheapest cockney utilitarianism was not only English, but unconsciously historic. Upon him descended the real tradition of "Merry England," and not upon the pallid mediævalists who thought they were reviving it. The Pre-Raphaelites, the Gothicists, the admirers of the Middle Ages, had in their subtlety and sadness the spirit of the present day. Dickens had in his buffoonery and bravery the spirit of the Middle Ages. He was much more mediæval in his attacks on mediævalism than they were in their defences of it. It was he who had the things of Chaucer, the love of large jokes and long stories and brown ale and all the white roads of England.

That last sentence is the purest poetry, shot through with Chesterton's distinctive sense of gusto and romance. "All the white roads of England" is an impossibly romantic phrase.

My third selection is from What's Wrong with the World, a book in which Chesterton sets forth his vision of a healthy social order. While discussing the concept of marriage and monogramy

The principle is this: that in everything worth having, even in every pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure. The joy of battle comes after the first fear of death; the joy of reading Virgil comes after the bore of learning him; the glow of the sea-bather comes after the icy shock of the sea bath; and the success of the marriage comes after the failure of the honeymoon. All human vows, laws, and contracts are so many ways of surviving with success this breaking point, this instant of potential surrender. In everything on this earth that is worth doing, there is a stage when no one would do it, except for necessity or honor. It is then that the Institution upholds a man and helps him on to the firmer ground ahead

I've observed the truth of this theory over and over again. I think it's the tendency at the heart of progressivism. It's the ennui which constantly craves newness, without realizing that constant novelty only deepens ennui. Chesterton's mention of pleasure is a big part of why I love this quotation so much. In fact, this tendency seems especially active in pleasures; there's a strange discipline required even to enjoy something, even your favourite things.

My fourth favourite Chesterton quotation is from his masterpiece of apologetics, Orthodoxy, and I think it identifies a universal law of human happiness:

The thing I do not propose to prove, the thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always seems to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better than existence or blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking. If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing. But nearly all people I have ever met in this western society in which I live would agree to the general proposition that we need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.

It's extraordinary how these two yearnings seem to run through all human history. In our era, we have "something that is strange" in abundance, since technology and institutions and culture changes around us at a dizzying pace. But do we have "something that is secure"? I'm rather frightened we don't.

(Incidentally, I think this formula explains the appeal of Star Trek. The Enterprise is "boldly going where no man has gone before", but within the hull of the ship there is an extraordinarily stable and tight-knit community.)

So what's my single favourite Chesterton quotation? Well, I've quoted it only a couple of blog posts ago, but it's always worth quoting again. It's Chesterton's meditation upon the Nativity from The Everlasting Man.

This passage seems to X-ray my inner soul, especially this line: "It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within." All my life I've been fascinated by the idea of the inner chamber, the hidden room, the secret panel. The Secret Garden was one of my favourite books as a child, and the moment when Lucy walks through the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is another example. All in all, I think this passage evokes the particularity of Christianity, the thing that distinguishes it from every other religion and philosophy, as well as any other:

It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over some-thing more human than humanity.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

A Review of My Book!

Here is a review of Inspirations from the Saints from the website of my friend Roger Buck!

As Roger says, we became friends through each others' writing. Indeed, the reason I sent my manuscript to Angelico Press in the first place (or had even heard of them) was because I knew they published Roger's books, The Gentle Traditionalist and Cor Jesu Sacratassimum. I can heartily recommend both-- indeed, Cor Jesu is one those books I will sometimes pluck from the shelf and dip into while I'm eating breakfast or having a cup of tea. It's a nice thick grab-bag of a book...

Also check out his video channel. I've linked to the video on his conversion story, which I especially liked.

Roger is a Traditionalist. I'm not a Traditionalist. We've had some very interesting discussions on the liturgy, the Anglosphere, and some other topics. On everything that matters the most, however, we are in ardent agreement, and I'm very happy he liked my book!

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Whole Beauty Business

Since I will readily admit to being a contrarian (which I am), people sometimes accuse me of contrarianism when I'm entirely innocent of the charge. Or perhaps I should say: sometimes I'm accused of contrarianism when I'm entirely unconscious of any contrarianism on my part. If it's there at all, it's at a subconscious or pre-conscious level.

For instance, I dislike silence, and I become rather impatient at all the "puffing" of silence so prevalent in our society. I'm perfectly willing to admit that I'm in the wrong here, and that everybody else is in the right. I'm sure silence is a good thing. I'm sure the modern world, more than ever, needs silence.

But I just don't like it. To say "plenty of silence in a graveyard" is a glib reduction ab absurdum, and yet this represents my instinctive response.

Give me life! My favourite noise in the whole world is the hum of voices on the air. I would choose that over silence any old day (to use an expression I love).

Perhaps this comes from growing up in a cramped apartment which was always full of people. Of course, I could just as well have reacted against that environment, so I'm not sure if that really does explain it.

Another explanation I might give is that I'm intensely contemplative by nature. I might be flattering myself, of course, but I'm inclined to think this is true. I don't really understand what people mean when they talk about needing silence or "alone time" to "think". They nearly always mean "think" in a specific sense; reflect, contemplate, meditate, etc. This seems to be the "setting" I'm on permanently, though. At least, deliberate contemplation never seems to help me "think" in this way. I've often referred to my purple notebook of memories and thoughts, which are of enduring significance to me. The "inspirations" in this purple notebook always come out of the blue-- indeed, I usually only "pick up on them" in retrospect. For instance, I realize that a particular memory or image keeps coming into my mind, and that it carries a strong emotional charge with it.

So much for silence. Another thing I don't really "get" is all the beauty that is associated with the Catholic tradition. It doesn't really mean anything to me.

This does nothing for me.
Whenever I tell people I don't like cathedrals, they seem to think I am being a contrarian. But I'm really not. Cathedrals leave me cold, for the most part. In fact, they seem so overwrought and fussy and heavy that even looking at them makes me feel tired. (When it comes to architecture, my ideal of beauty is a simple garden shed.)

There are some exceptions to this. I have fond memories of Westminster Cathedral in London, the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Richmond, Virginia, and the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin. But in every case, this is due to happy memories associated with them.

The same is true of the liturgy. Beautiful liturgies don't really move me very much. I like the liturgy to be simple and dignified. I would always rather have no choir than the best choir in the world.

The most moving Mass I ever attended was during my pre-marriage course, and took place in a hotel conference room at seven a.m. I loved the simplicity and austerity of the thing. My wife-to-be sang at it, so there was music, but the most simple music there could have been.

My favourite churches are the sort of simple, box-like, brick structures one is likely to come across in Dublin suburbs.

This does it for me!
Saying that beauty leaves me cold in matters of worship is actually understating the case. For me-- and I'm only talking about my own response here-- beauty can actually get in the way of worship. I realize that, for many other people, beauty leads them to God. Perhaps their disposition is healthier than mine.

All I can say is that part of the pleasure I take in a humble little suburban church is that it is humble, that nobody would ever linger in it for purely aesthetic reasons.

I have considerable sympathy with the following passage from C.S. Lewis, which appears in an essay entitled "Christianity and Culture". Lewis has just been discussing some Christian literary critics who seemed to consider bad literary taste as a spiritual fault:

…I felt that some readers might easily get the notion that ‘sensitivity’ or good taste were among the notes of the true Church, or that coarse, unimaginative people were less likely to be saved than refined and poetic people. In the heat of the moment I rushed to the opposite extreme. I felt, with some spiritual pride, that I had been saved in the nick of time from being ‘sensitive’. The ‘sentimentality and cheapness’ of much Christian hymnody had been a strong point in my own resistance to conversion. Now I felt almost thankful for the bad hymns. It was good that we should have to lay down our precious refinement at the very doorstep of the church; good that we should be cured at the outset of our inveterate confusion between psyche and pneuma, nature and supernature.

"He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him." (Isaiah 53:2).

I suppose it could be the case that I simply have very poor architectural, artistic, musical, and liturgical taste. After all, when it comes to poetry, I find that a poem such as Robert Southwell's "Burning Babe", which I consider to be an excellent poem in its own right, kindles my feelings of devotion and my awe towards the sacred.

And yet, I'm just as capable of enjoying "humble" hymns. The Taizé hymn "Jesus Remember Me", which is simply the words: "Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom" repeated over and over again,  is utterly haunting in my opinion. Or there is the folksy hymn "Walk in the Light of God", which was sung in my parish this Easter: 

Let's all join together in Communion sweet,
Walk, walk, in the light.
And love one another 'til the Saviour we meet,
Walk, walk, in the light.

Walk in the light, walk in the light,
Walk in the light, walk in the light of the Lord.

Not great poetry by any means. But I find its simplicity and even clumsiness very endearing.

In this blog post, I've been talking about Beauty with a capital "b", the sort of beauty appreciated by connoisseurs (or self-proclaimed connoisseurs). But in a more fundamental sense, I suppose we all inevitably seek out beauty in one form or other. When I talk about my love of garden sheds or Taizé hymns or simple liturgy, that too is an aesthetic response. However, it's a very subjective response, whereas the beauty of a cathedral or Mozart's Requiem is obviously more objective.

There is a sense in which beauty is extremely important to my faith-- that is, on the plane of ideas, of doctrine, of Christianity's "atmosphere". For instance, the first sentence of the gospel of John: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God". Those words fill me with a sort of ecstasy.

Another example is this famous passage from Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, which I'll use to finish the post. (This might be my favourite passage of prose, bar none.) However, I would argue that the beauty of this passage is not so much in Chesterton's lyricism itself, as it is in the fact that he is making explicit the inchoate poetry of every Christmas crib ("the pathos of small objects and the blind pieties of the poor"):

The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man.... It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over some-thing more human than humanity.