January-February 2018

By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment.  By Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette. Ignatius. 420 pages. $24.95.

Catholics are so accustomed to hearing that opposition to capital punishment is pro-life that few may realize there are good reasons to support it. Those reasons are set forth in a systematic and convincing manner in By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed. Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette find the pendulum has swung too far in one direction in the capital-punishment debate (to the extent there is one today), and Catholics are confused when told that something their Church upholds, and has always upheld, is now considered immoral. The authors believe that “it is time to recover the traditional Catholic case for the death penalty, both to restore clarity and balance to the Church’s presentation of her doctrine and to help uphold a punishment that promotes the common good of society. Catholic teaching and traditional Church practice allow no room for rejecting the death penalty as intrinsically wrong.”

Feser is an associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College; Bessette teaches government and ethics at Claremont McKenna College and worked for nine years in the criminal-justice field. Both are authors of several books. Their approach is rigorously logical, philosophical, and biblical, and they defend capital punishment as an essential recourse for society to punish the worst criminals. Feser and Bessette never stray from Catholic teaching and tradition in their treatment of the subject.

The book’s title is taken from God’s injunction to Noah, verses that traditionally have constituted the biblical starting point in any discussion of capital punishment: “For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning; of every beast I will require it and of man; of every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:5-6). Feser and Bessette identify principles in these verses that justify capital punishment and govern its administration. The most important one is retribution, that those who commit murder must, as a matter of justice, forfeit their own lives. Another is proportionality, that the punishment should fit the crime. In these verses, God states why the death sentence is necessary: The person killed was made in His image. (The fact that the killer also was made in God’s image does not protect him from the just penalty for his act, the authors assert.) Another all-important fact to be noted here: Capital punishment is God’s idea (“I will require the life of man”). Human authorities are merely His instrument.

Support for the death penalty can be found in other Old Testament books as well. Should one be inclined to dismiss these passages because they fall under the Old Covenant, note well that the Church makes no such distinction between the two; she considers the sacred books of both testaments to be the same Word of God. The Catechism cautions us not to forget that “the Old Testament retains its intrinsic value as Revelation affirmed by our Lord himself” (no. 129).

In their discussion of the natural law as it pertains to capital punishment, Feser and Bessette draw extensively on St. Thomas Aquinas’s concept of “the equality of justice,” which holds that crimes upset a moral equilibrium that can only be restored by imposing an offsetting punishment on the offender, including the death penalty when necessary. Aquinas’s insights have been incorporated into Catholic teaching on punishment for crimes in the Catechism’s updated 1997 edition: “Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense” (no. 2266).

Feser and Bessette find nothing in the teachings of Jesus against capital punishment per se, or in the letters of the Apostles. On the contrary, the New Testament warrant for the state as executioner is set forth by St. Paul: “Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to exercise his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:3-4). Paul wrote these words when the reigning authority was the Roman Empire, which never hesitated to unsheathe the sword. Paul himself would be executed in Rome within a decade or so of writing this letter.

Catholics who reject capital punishment out of hand must also reject, ignore, or explain away several passages in the Bible that mandate it. This requires some doing, especially in view of the Church’s high regard for sacred Scripture. Feser and Bessette marshal evidence from popes and Church Fathers and Doctors to illustrate capital punishment’s long pedigree. But support for capital punishment has waned in our day, with our current Pope and his two predecessors opposing it.

Beginning with Pope St. John Paul II and continuing with Benedict and Francis, papal statements on the death penalty have become increasingly less supportive. A key statement is found in the Catechism: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person” (no. 2267). While Feser and Bessette give these popes their say, they point out that Catholics are not forbidden to hold different views about capital punishment (a point made by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger when he was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). They write, “The reservations expressed by very recent popes about the death penalty and their stated wish to see it abolished constitute prudential judgments with which faithful Catholics may legitimately disagree.”

Feser and Bessette are especially critical of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its longstanding campaign against the death penalty: “The overwhelming tendency of Catholic churchmen…is not only toward opposition to capital punishment, but opposition that presents Catholic teaching in a manner that is simplistic, one-sided, incomplete, unrigorous, and indeed often reckless.”

Despite its importance as the key element to be considered, retribution has fallen on hard times in the capital-punishment debate; it is seen as smacking too much of vengeance and not enough of mercy. But Feser and Bessette stand their ground in its defense, writing that “retribution is not only a legitimate end of punishment; it is the fundamental end.”

In the tradition of Aquinas, the authors not only lay out a solid case for capital punishment but also address the various arguments against it — that it’s an affront to human dignity, that it doesn’t deter, that it forecloses the possibility of reform, and that the innocent might sometimes be executed. After careful examination, the authors find all such arguments wanting: “These objections reflect a failure to make careful distinctions, involve circular reasoning or non sequiturs, rest on dubious empirical claims, or are otherwise without force.” No objection rests on weaker ground than that capital punishment violates the right to life and erodes respect for human life, since it does exactly the opposite — as God intended it would. Feser and Bessette repeatedly stress that “capital punishment in fact promotes a culture of life.”

Prayers at Mass that call for an end to abortion and capital punishment in the same breath leave many Catholics with the nagging feeling that something is amiss. Feser and Bessette will have none of such moral equivalence: “The advocate of capital punishment maintains that there is a crucial moral difference between killing an innocent person and killing a guilty person, and…does not hold…that it is wrong to kill, period; he holds that it is wrong to kill an innocent person.”

Opposition to the death penalty is primarily a liberal issue; conservatives generally favor its retention. That demands a lot of gnat-straining and camel-swallowing from the Left, for whom support for abortion is an article of political faith.

By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed asks much of the reader; its thorough and closely reasoned treatment of a complex subject allows no shortcuts. But those who persevere to the end are amply rewarded. Feser and Bessette accomplish what they set out to do: present a badly needed corrective to what recently has been a largely one-sided treatment of capital punishment. Catholics who are open to hearing the case for it — perhaps for the first time — will find this book indispensable.

- F. Douglas Kneibert



A Catechetical Dictionary for the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  By Joseph A. Fisher. Academy of the Immaculate. 662 pages. $24.95.

Words mean things. Consider this exchange from The Hobbit: “Good Morning!” says Bilbo. Gandalf responds, “What do you mean?… Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?” Or ponder this thought from C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy: “I said I was surprised at the ‘scenery’ of Surrey; it was much ‘wilder’ than I had expected.” “Stop!” shouts his friend Kirk, who asks what he means by wildness. Lewis admits he has “no clear and distinct idea corresponding to the word ‘wildness,’” and “‘wildness’ was a singularly inept word.” Undoubtedly, Tolkien and Lewis were devoted logophiles.

Joseph Fisher, professor emeritus of education at Drake University, certainly has logged his time poring over words and their meanings, and for a good reason: to facilitate study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. After years of teaching the Catechism, directing adult religious education, and assisting in the review and evaluation of the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (for the U.S. bishops), he realized that there are words in the Catechism that have little or no meaning for his students. Knowing that all clear and distinct ideas depend on precise vocabulary, that communication depends on a common understanding of meanings, and that many of the words in question are not easily found in ordinary dictionaries, Fisher spent ten years compiling definitions of the most troublesome (and some not-so-troublesome) words found in the 800-plus pages of the Catechism.

The Catechism, which Pope St. John Paul II called a “special gift,” is a summary of what the Church believes and is necessary reading not only for Catholics but for those who seek to know what makes the Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. John Paul’s apostolic constitution Fidei Depositum (1992), announcing the publication of the Catechism, states the importance of guarding and presenting “the precious deposit of Christian doctrine in order to make it more accessible to the Christian faithful and to all people of good will.”

Desiring to ensure this accessibility, Fisher began an alphabetical listing of all the important words in the Catechism. He “consulted many works of philosophy, theology, books on spirituality, catechetical materials and theological dictionaries” to gather information. Fisher presents clear definitions, and the definitions contain italicized words that are further defined. The entries are followed by the numbers of the paragraphs in which they appear in the Catechism to better facilitate use of his Catechetical Dictionary. In keeping with its “user friendly” ideal, Fisher includes a network of references.

The first entry in Fisher’s Dictionary defines A mensa et thoro as “a Latin phrase used in Canon Law dealing with marriage. Its literal meaning is ‘from table and bed,’ or more commonly ‘from bed and board.’ It refers to a limited kind of separation of spouses that does not dissolve the marriage bond or other obligations, but relieves the partners from the duty of cohabiting or living together. See Adultery 2380.” The next entry is Abbey, and after 600 pages the entries conclude with Zucchetto. A few more examples: Moral sense (of Scripture) is defined as “the interpretation of Scripture as a guide to ethical behavior or just action,” and Logos “means ‘word’ in Greek” and “is used in reference to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. See Apollinarianism.” These entries are helpful not only in relation to the Catechism but in all Church matters.

Fisher includes an “Index of Dictionary Entries by Paragraph,” a bibliography for further reading, and an “Appendix of Commonly Used Prayers.” Once you’ve seen it, it’s difficult to imagine studying the Catechism without the use of this extensive and meticulously researched guide to help in comprehending the mysteries of our faith.

- Clara Sarrocco



The Ecumenism of Beauty.  Edited by Timothy Verdon. Paraclete Press. 128 pages. $28.99.

This collection of essays, edited by Florence-based American art historian Msgr. Timothy Verdon, offers deep reflections on art, beauty, and theology by various authors. Religious art is not merely ornamental; it has ecumenical potential. Western Christian art has a dual purpose as a doorway to the Christian spiritual life and as education through image.

Images as a part of worship have an almost sacramental function. Christians, Verdon writes in his introduction, “are ‘edified’ — inwardly built up — by images seen as they hear Mass, because in that situation the images are not merely ‘seen’ (just as the Mass is not merely ‘heard’), but rather taken part in and lived in ever new intersubjective configurations.” Art offers a larger vision and opens the senses to a greater perspective: “The image thus offers itself as both ‘epiphany’ and ‘apocalypse’ — as manifestation and as revelation,” Verdon says. The relationship between art and spirituality is deep and multidimensional. This is why, Verdon notes, liturgy and Christian art offer multiple readings, such as in a 15th-century fresco in Greccio, Italy, in which the Christ Child’s manger resembles a sarcophagus, alluding to Jesus’ death.

Vasileios Marinis’s essay on Greek iconist and philosopher Fotis Kontoglou (1895-1965) provides a clear theology of aesthetics, though from quite a different perspective. After studying Western and classical Greek art, Kontoglou came to believe in the unique spiritual significance of Byzantine icons, denying that they could be studied in the same way as Western paintings. He sought to eliminate any Western influence on Byzantine iconography and raised the question of whether fully benefiting from an icon demands a certain initiation into Orthodox spirituality.

Behind this lay deeper theological reflection. “Even religious Renaissance art is, in reality, secular art,” Marinis explains, “because it expresses the secular spirit of the Catholic Church (which had acquired secular power), especially when it was mixed with the rationalism of ancient philosophy. Thus, Italian Renaissance art is the rebirth of ancient, pagan, worldly art.” For Kontoglou, Western naturalism, especially from the Renaissance onward, lacks the spiritual depth that the Byzantine icon — with its artistic simplicity and timeless quality — possesses, and the art historian cannot appreciate the spirituality the icon expresses. The corollary to this is that Kontoglou judges even religious naturalism as non-religious.

Verdon, as editor, is to be praised for including an essay on Kontoglou, given that his own work on art and theology differs so much. Readers are challenged by this Orthodox view and might be left with the impression that the Orthodox are intolerant and closed to Western art and influence. Another essay on Orthodox aesthetics could have rounded out the book and aimed to bridge the two traditions.

Filippo Rossi’s essay, “The Artist as Contemplative,” is notable for its lack of doctrinal clarity and theological discipline. Rossi muses, “For me it is a question of a felt inner vibration which can be translated in musical terms: everything becomes sacramental cosmic harmony.” What does that mean? Whereas Rossi’s attempt to emphasize the freedom of the spirit without doctrinal foundation falls flat, Martin Shannon does better due to solid theology.

Shannon refers to German Benedictine Ildefons Herwegen, who “argued that the liturgy itself is a work of artistic beauty and, as such, it has the power to transform.” Shannon describes his beloved home church as an extension of the liturgy, with power to impact worshipers. “The art of the Church of the Transfiguration,” he writes, “does more than impart information. It forms and shapes the affections and the faith of those who pray within its walls. Over time and after repeated use, a kind of living relationship develops between the building and its inhabitants.” He calls churches “active participants in the life of worship that goes on within them. They do more than teach, they beckon.” Echoing Verdon and Marinis, Shannon emphasizes that the Incarnation offers art a certain status by giving matter sacramental importance.

Followers of Roger Scruton will find The Ecumenism of Beauty satisfying as long as they skip the theologically eclectic chapters. Given the lack of theological discipline in most churches nowadays, including in the Catholic Church, this inconsistency is to be expected. Underlying the more forceful essays is the idea of the holistic nature of religion, which connects architecture, liturgy, art, and theology. Art has as central a role to play in the Church’s life as does music.

- Brian Welter





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