Christopher Tollefson argues that the death penalty is indefensible

Christopher Tollefson argues that the death penalty is indefensible March 20, 2015

and indeed intrinsically wrong. Before jerking the knee, hear him out.

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  • Matthew

    So back in the 13th Century when the Church made it a sine qua non for the re-admission to the Church of the Waldensian sect that they MUST admit that the State has a right to execute, the Church was endorsing an intrinsic evil? Issuing a creedal statement that heretics must affirm in order to be Catholic seems to come pretty close to an infallible dogmatic assertion. Was the Church endorsing a moral evil and forcing others (the Waldensians) also to endorse this evil in order to have access to the Sacraments?

    • Hezekiah Garrett

      That does come pretty close. Maybe you were looking for the horseshoe pit?

    • Jared Clark

      It would also mean that God inspired intrinsically evil laws to both the gentiles (Noah) and Jews (Mosaic Law).

      So we either must question the inspiration of some parts of Scripture, believe that God would instruct someone to sin, or stick with the Catechism.

  • TheRealAaron

    I want to start off by saying I favor abolition of the death penalty. I’m not arguing against that. But I think it’s imprudent to go farther than the Catechism itself is willing to: “2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

    There are three important clauses here:
    1) assuming guilt is fully determined AND
    2) traditional teaching does not exclude the possibility of the death penalty AND
    3) If that is the only option
    THEN use of the death penalty can be legitimate.

    Clauses 1 and 3 are so weak, at least in the modern day, I see no need to try to invent a new argument (contrary to Aquinas, Augustine and, as far as I’ve seen, essentially all of church teaching on the issue) to kick out leg number two.

    Not to say Tollefson is a heretic or a bad Catholic; this seems like legitimate theological speculation. I just don’t buy it and don’t think it’s very relevant to the question of abolishing the death penalty.

  • Baron

    The prudential application of the death penalty is a matter of legitimate debate. Whether or not it is intrinsically evil is not. The clear, consistent, unanimous, and unambiguous teaching of the Catholic Church across two millennia is that the state has the right and duty in some circumstances to execute criminals. If you deny that, you are a heretic, just like anyone else that denies something the Church has clearly and consistently taught through its whole history.

    “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” CCC 2267

    I could quote saints, popes, Fathers, Doctors of the Church, and catechisms though the Church’s whole history on this point, but this is a combox. Just read Avery Cardinal Dulles.

    • Athelstane

      Well said, Baron.

  • Athelstane

    Tollefson writes: “At most, the Church has taught, and perhaps only accepted, its permissibility. But so, seemingly, did the Church teach, or at least accept, the permissibility of holding slaves or coercing heretics. With regard to these practices, the Church’s teaching has, in developing, grown stricter, not more lenient.”

    The difficulty here is that the Church has not contradicted herself on the questions of slavery (as Cardinal Avery Dulles pointed out repeatedly) or coercing heretics. And if Tollefson is arguing that what occurred in either case was merely an acceptable development of doctrine analogous to what he is advocating for the death penalty – which he freely concedes has a long pedigree as a licit act by civil authority in the Magisterium and the Church Fathers – he has not made any attempt to show how this is so.

  • Pete the Greek

    Interesting read.

    Edward Feser has a good response to his overall thesis. They went back and forth multiple times. Here are some of the links:

    PART 1

    PART 2

    PART 3

    PART 4

  • My sole objection is simply that I do not wish to go beyond what the Church herself teaches. And Tollefson’s article, I think, maintains that balance. Here is the subhead from the article itself:

    It is philosophically and theologically defensible for Catholics to believe that the death penalty is intrinsically wrong.

    This seems to me on a par with saying, for example, “It is defensible for Catholics to be absolutely pacifist,” or “It is defensible for Catholics to be absolutely vegetarian.” Just because it is defensible does not mean it is compulsory; it simply means there is a good argument for it. I can hold to one side of the argument, but I recognize that the Church has permitted the other side of the argument to persist as well.

    So, as far as I understand it, the Church has not proclaimed that the death penalty IS intrinsically wrong. But neither has she proclaimed that one may not consider the death penalty to be intrinsically wrong, or that arguments for the intrinsic evil of the death penalty are false. Nor are there any cases where the Church teaches the death penalty to be compulsory. There seem to be strong philosophical and theological arguments all around this issue.

    Meanwhile, in the practical world, it is clear that the death penalty is applied (at best) imprudently or even (in at least some cases) unjustly. I find it hard to argue against a practical moratorium on the death penalty, whatever the doctrinal conclusion turns out to be.

  • Charles

    One thing I would have to swallow to follow Tollefsen’s take is the New Natural Law Theory’s thesis of the incommensurability of basic goods, from which their flawed analysis of human acts follows. To see what happens when the New Natural Law Theory is consistently applied to cases involving abortion when the life of the mother is in danger, see: Christopher O. Tollefsen, “Response to Robert Koons and Matthew O’Brien’s ‘Objects of Intention: a Hylomorphic Critique of the New Natural Law Theory,’ ” American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 87.4 (Fall 2013): 751–778.

  • CradleRevert

    The Church has always, for 2000 years, upheld the legitimacy of the death penalty. So the death penalty cannot, in principle, be declared “intrinsically wrong”.