Reply to Dr. Feser regarding the death penalty

Reply to Dr. Feser regarding the death penalty September 21, 2016

Recently, I wrote a post replying to an article co-authored by Dr. Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette which argued that the Church cannot reverse past teaching on capital punishment. Given that the Church has, effectively, reversed its teaching–calling for its abolition where it once permitted it–the article was misleading at best. Yes, it is true that the Church cannot say that the death penalty is intrinsically immoral as, say, abortion is. But it is not the case the Church cannot say that the death penalty is such a bad idea, given the dangers it poses and the Church’s developed understanding of the dignity of the human person, that prudence declares it wisest to simply do away with it.

And that is, make no mistake, what the Church teaches both in the Catechism…

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.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

…and in the teaching of the past three popes, the USCCB, and in all the bishops of the world.

“Yes,” goes the argument. “But that is not dogmatic teaching.”

To which the right and proper reply is, “So what?” It is not the case that the Church functions by the rule, “If it’s not dogma, feel free to blow it off” particularly when we are talking about a matter of life and death. On the contrary, the burden is on the one arguing in favor of taking human life to show that the teaching of the Church urgently needs to be ignored. And it is this I questioned.

Dr. Feser has now written a reply in which he gives his perception that I think him some kind of monster for arguing for the death penalty. I think nothing of the kind. He is a brother in Christ. He has done very good work arguing for theism against atheism. He has written in the past against the excuses for the nuclear slaughter of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and I have written him to thank him for doing so). And of course, he has taught Thomas to a world in desperate need of Thomas. Bravo and may his tribe increase.

It’s just that, well, I’m convinced the Church is perfectly right and American conservatism is perfectly wrong to want to keep the US on a list that includes the most barbarous despotisms on the planet, urging the power to kill its citizens into the hand of an increasingly de-christianizing Caesar, and diverting precious time and energy from the prolife struggle to rationalize fighting the Church on this foolish quest to kill people.

My reasons are severalfold. The first is summed up by the now nearly weekly spectacle of police killing people who obviously did not need to be killed.  As Steve Greydanus writes:

I’m sorry, *which* black man who was first tasered and then shot to death near his car by police in the last few days were we talking about?

The first was Terence Crutcher, shot to death in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Friday. Crutcher’s car was apparently broken down. Police initially said that Crutcher refused to show his hands (source:, but that clearly wasn’t true: Multiple police videos show Crutcher with his hands raised for some time before he is shot.

Subsequently, the officer who shot him, Betty Shelby, reportedly said she “thought was a little bit strange under the circumstances” that Crutcher raised his hands. Really. A police officer asks a black man to show his hands, and he raises them, and you think that’s strange?

Crutcher was shot while lying on the ground after being tasered. That means a taser took him down, and while he was lying on the ground, any officer trained her gun on his prone, helpless body and fired.

I swear I am not making this up: Asked why police let Crutcher bleed on the street for minutes without making any attempt to render first aid, a police spokesperson said, “I don’t know that we have protocol on how to render aid to people” (

Yes, she said that: The police, sworn to serve and protect, may not “have protocol on how to render aid to people.” And that’s apparently why Crutcher lay dying on the road surrounded by multiple officers who made no move to help him. No protocol, you see.

Officer Shelby has been placed on administrative leave. (Remember the Weirton, WV cop who was immediately fired for *not* shooting a suicidal black man? No administrative leave for you!) The Justice Department is investigating.

I do want to credit the Tulsa police for quickly releasing multiple videos of the shooting. Unfortunately we don’t have Officer Shelby’s dashcam, because she never activated her patrol car lightbar, which would have activated the dashcam.

But that was Friday. On Tuesday, a *different* black man was first tasered and then shot to death near his car by police.

That would be Keith Lamont Scott, killed after emerging from his car outside a Charlotte, NC apartment complex.

Scott was married with seven children. He was waiting for a school bus to drop off his kids, as he did every day.

Police arrived on the scene searching for someone else when they saw Scott emerge from his car, reportedly with a gun. He then got back into his car, and police approached. He emerged from the car again, allegedly with the gun.

Eyewitnesses say that the officer who shot him was undercover in plain clothes, not in a uniform. Reportedly, police tased him and then shot him four times.

Bear in mind, North Carolina is an open carry state. If Scott had a gun, that doesn’t make him a criminal, and wouldn’t necessarily give police a reason to approach him. I’m sure in North Carolina police don’t approach everyone openly carrying.

If Scott saw he was being approached by a man or men who may or may not have been in plain clothes, it is possible he might have felt apprehensive. He might well be glad to have his gun. Isn’t that why people carry guns? To feel safer?

But Scott’s family says he didn’t have a gun. They say he had a book that he was reading while waiting.

Police say they have recovered a gun at the scene. Relatedly, officers in the Crutcher case say they recovered a vial of PCP from his car.

In other news, new video was released this week from a 5-year-old shooting in which an officer charged with murder is suspected of planting a gun in the victim’s car after shooting him. DNA tests found the officer’s DNA on the gun, but not the victim’s. (

Coincidentally, only two months ago North Carolina governor Pat McCrory signed legislation blocking the release of police video from body cams or dash cams without a court order.

McCrory said that the new law is intended to “ensure transparency” and, in a reporter’s paraphrase, to “strike a balance between improving public trust in the police and respecting the rights of officers.” (source:

When I figure out how transparency and improving public trust in the police are involved, I’ll get back to you.

And that’s just the start. In addition to the fact that the state frequently gets away with cold-blooded murder of citizens in the “arrest” phase of the justice system (as Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice could attest, if they were not dead), there is also the fact that, not just police, but labs are deeply corrupt as well.  Take, for instance, Annie Dookhan, who falsified 60,000 piece of evidence, thus tampering with the outcome of thousands upon thousands of verdicts.  How many of these were capital crimes?

Nor is that all.  In addition, to problems with evidence, there is also the problem of our for-profit prison system, which has succeeded in making America the biggest prison state on the planet: larger than Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago.  Such a prison state breeds judges who make money selling innocent kids into prison for fun and profit.  And it creates a system in which innocent people are sentenced for murder.

Take, for instance, Ricky Jackson: jailed for 39 years for murder and then exonerated.  A contrite Caesar grudgingly paid the victim of their injustice a piddling $1 million dollars last year. That’s $26,000 for every year of this man’s life stolen by the state.

And studies indicate about 4% of those on death row are likewise innocent.

Just yesterday, Donald Trump, Jr. was using crappy Skittles math to argue that a one in three billion chance of being killed by a terrorist justified abandoning Syrian refugees to torment and death.  This coming from the political subculture that likewise routinely says, “All Lives Matter” in order to shout down complaints about the documentable disproportion of minorities who suffer at the hands of our justice system.

But the whole point of arguments for the death penalty is that some lives don’t matter at all.  And arguments for the death penalty are arguments that, in the end, say that we are so eager to kill those lives that, in our zeal, we don’t even mind that 4 in 100 (not 1 in 3 billion) of them are killed despite their complete innocence.

I think that is radically imprudent, not to mention a gross stain on the conservative Christian who waves the prolife banner even as he calls for death for prisoners whose lives don’t matter.


At this point, the custom is typically to argue that such lives do matter and the way of honoring them is to threaten them with death since hanging concentrates the mind of the sinner and direct him to attend to eternal things.  But, of course, that’s just as true for any sinner.  Yet nobody calls for death for car thieves.  No.  The real reason for the death penalty is that there are just classes of people we want to kill.  People whose lives don’t matter a bit.  People we don’t mind killing innocents in order to kill.

When our father Abraham was confronted with the prospect that 50 innocents could die in the judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah, he dickered God all the way down to 10 in his desire to save the innocent.  And the implication of the story is very clearly that God would be willing to spare Sodom for one innocent person.  This is clearly the attitude of our Lord as well, who when faced with a woman guilty of a capital crime under the law of Moses, spared her.  The death penalty is, in short, a permission of the law, not a demand, exactly like divorce.  It is ordered to our weakness, and is not an expression of divine perfection.  It appeals to our darkest side.

That is why the Church says, “If it is possible to avoid it, do so” and discourages it whenever it is not absolutely necessary.  It is contrary to the spirit of the Church to search for excuses for it.  An argument for the death penalty is, by the nature of our justice system, an argument for killing innocents in our pursuit of vengeance against the guilty.  And even when it comes to the guilty, it is a plea to kill when killing is not necessary.  It is a will to prefer vengeance over mercy.

“But you have to admit that abortion is far more serious than capital punishment.”

Yes.  Of course.  Which is why I cannot, for the life of me understand taking away one drop of time or energy from the fight against abortion to author books and articles bent on fighting the common sense of the Church when she calls for an end to the death penalty.  It is an immense squandering of time, money, and manpower that should be going to save life, not take it.  Be more prolife, not less.

We face a lot of problem in our culture of death.  Over the past century, we have seen a great deal of slaughter meted out to citizens by a Caesar all too eager to wield the sword.  The last thing we need to be spending our time and energy on as Christians is making sure there is more death and less mercy in the world.

Why not just agree with the Church that the death penalty should be abolished?  Why divert time and energy away from the prolife movement to fight the Church on this?

Browse Our Archives

Close Ad