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.

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