Fear Not the Peddlers of Error
I was disconcerted to read the following in John Lyon’s article “The Old Days: Were They Really That Good?” (Jan.-Feb.): The Church “is dreadfully afraid to come to terms with makers of the modern world such as Thomas Malthus (though it knows, as Malthus did, that sexual restraint will not work as a means of preventing overpopulation, and that the alternative is either war, famine, and pestilence, or ‘vice,’ now recertified by society as virtue).”
It is shocking that a Catholic writer would fall for the canard of overpopulation. Mr. Lyon ought to realize that this notion is a myth propagated by the proponents of contraception and consumerism, and that the geometric growth of the human population as postulated by Malthus is utter nonsense. (Indeed, current fertility rates are nothing to fear.) The tripling of the global population from 1950 to 2000 was a one-time phenomenon that occurred due to the introduction of antibiotics and basic health care in poorer areas of the world, which resulted in a steep drop in infant mortality and a major increase in lifespan in those countries. Since then, global population growth has been moderate, and the “advanced” countries are actually experiencing a catastrophic population decline, except where this is mitigated by immigration.
Global overpopulation has never occurred in the history of the world, and there is no reason why it should in the future, despite the alarmist prognostications that would have us believe we face imminent doom from it. Throughout human history, food and energy supplies have always exceeded population increases, and we continue to discover new food and energy resources. The U.S. alone could feed the entire world. Famine in the modern world is entirely due to political causes — wars, corruption, and imbalances in the distribution of resources. When so-called advanced countries engage in conspicuous consumption and let tons of food rot in warehouses and then point to the specter of “overpopulation” to justify their contraceptive, hedonistic lifestyle, they are diverting attention from the true causes of poverty, which have nothing to do with overpopulation. They shower condoms on poor countries in Africa and Asia, when what those countries really need is not fewer people but political stability, sane economic development with jobs, and “love offerings” from their brethren in wealthier countries to help them weather any unusual difficulties (as early Church communities in Asia Minor and Macedonia raised funds to help their brethren in Jerusalem and Judea at the behest of St. Paub~
While overpopulation is often blamed for global environmental degradation, the extinction of animal species, the cutting down of rain forests, etc., the true culprit is the sick culture of consumerism and materialism that has taken hold on a worldwide scale. Consider that 50 years ago, China, which had a quarter of the world’s population, faced none of the terrible environmental problems it suffers today because its economy was largely agrarian, bicycles were the main mode of transportation in urban areas, and people lived simply. After reforming its economy according to free-market principles and adopting the same headlong pursuit of consumerism practiced in Western countries, China is today one of the world’s greatest polluters. This obviously has nothing to do with overpopulation and everything to do with sick cultural values.
So let us embrace the pro-life teachings of our holy Catholic faith and trust that God will generously provide us with the means (through human ingenuity, technological advances, etc.) to raise up an ever greater number of souls to Heaven for the glory of His Name. The Church has nothing to fear from the “makers of the modern world” such as Malthus and need only demonstrate why the errors and heresies they have peddled are leading our world to the brink of destruction and endangering our immortal souls. Our duty is to preserve the practice of our faith in all its purity and guard against infection from a polluted and foul Zeitgeist.
JOHN LYON REPLIES:
Mr. Panico’s disconcertion concerning Malthus is understandable. This is not the place for a plenary explanation of the latter’s Essay on the Principle of Population. A few comments, however, may be in place.
Malthus lived in what were perhaps the most revolutionary times the West had seen until ours — times rife with unrealistic dreams of the perfectibility of man and human institutions, particularly dreams of bending nature to man’s purposes. Malthus was aware of scientific and technological advances in fields such as medicine, public health, agriculture, stock breeding, and city planning. His argument against Enlightenment figures such as Nicolas de Condorcet and William Godwin was not that man could not progressively improve the conditions of his existence beyond those of his time but that “human perfectibility” was not unlimited. The well-known basis of his argument was that there is an irreducible and inherent disproportion between population growth and the means of subsistence, and that some tenuous and painful proportion is maintained by various checks on the natural increase of population “from want of sufficient food, from hard labor and unwholesome habitations…[and from] vicious customs with respect to women, great cities, unwholesome manufactures, luxury, pestilence, and war.” All these checks, he summarized, “may be fairly resolved into misery and vice.” He adds “restraint” as a possible check on population growth but holds that this would almost certainly entail “vice.”
Malthus’s two classic postulates are that “food is necessary to the existence of man” and “the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state.” From these premises he concluded against “the perfectibility of the mass of mankind” — for population, unless checked, tends to increase in a geometrical ratio (2-4-8-16…), while the means of subsistence increase arithmetically (1-2-3-4…). These figures were not given as a matter of divine revelation set in stone but as “a reasonable maximum supposition,” as one commentator put it (the phrase is that of Antony Flew). The net result of the tension between these two factors is a classic struggle for existence, which Darwin and his contemporary Alfred Russel Wallace a generation after Malthus would celebrate and leave as a bitter legacy, at least to traditional believers.
That the world has not yet experienced an Armageddon precipitated, for instance, by famine, as predicted by such bands of prophets as that to which Paul R. Ehrlich (now on a papal commission) belongs, can hardly be attributed to the practice of a higher range of virtue than prevailed in Malthus’s day. The checks to population growth remain: war, famine, pestilence — and vice. We are awash in euphemisms in an attempt to deny this, however. War we call peacemaking; famine becomes regional crop failure; pestilence the appearance of novel viral and prionic diseases, for which we are in the process of finding cures; and vice we simply transmute into virtue, especially “vicious customs with respect to women.”
It is far too simple to blame scarcity of resources, failure to constrain human aggressiveness, lack of funds for appropriate medical research, or the disappearance of moral restraint on “politics” and politicians. The world is not a machine to be manipulated by poll takers, poll readers, or proto-totalitarians with hearts of gold. Malthus himself noted that “we tell the common people that if they will submit to a code of tyrannical regulations, they shall never be in want. They do submit to these regulations. They perform their part of the contract, but we do not, nay cannot, perform ours.”
In 1959 Flannery O’Connor wrote that “the Church’s stand on birth control is the most absolutely spiritual of all her stands and with all of us being materialists at heart, there is little wonder that it causes unease. I wish various fathers would quit trying to defend it by saying that the world can support 40 billion. I will rejoice in the day when they say: This is right, whether we all rot on top of each other or not, dear children, as we certainly may. Either practice restraint or be prepared for crowding.”
It has been ages since we have heard the “fathers” so defend the traditional Church teaching on these matters, but it has not resulted in their homilies advising that we prepare to rot on top of each other. Instead, it is more or less subtly proposed that we slowly redefine vice, for we know, as Alexander Pope had it, that “Vice is a monster of so frightful mien, / As to be hated needs but to be seen; / Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face, / We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”
I fear that Flannery had it right.
Dreams of Robot Love
Not only is it not surprising that men are three times as likely as women to believe a worthwhile relationship — including a “romantic relationship” — with a robot is possible and might be nice (“Man + Machine,” The News You May Have Missed, Jan.-Feb.), but it says more about modern women than about modern men.
That men would admit to considering “romance” with a robot (really a fancy masturbation machine) is merely the next step in their already deep attachment to pornography. It’s been a good few decades for porn. The discovery of your porn-viewing habit would have been used against you by your political enemies not so long ago. Except when child pornography is involved (at least for now), would anyone even bother making the charge these days?
And can feminism’s imperative — that women should think of men as fish think of bicycles and yet commit themselves to obtaining every imaginable aspect of manhood, to become, as Tom Wolfe put it in A Man in Full, “a boy with breasts” — be ignored as contributing to men’s dreams of robot love? The right-thinking modern woman who will compete to get everything a man can have and counts her self-sufficiency as her highest virtue is not very interesting to a lot of men.
The deeper the feminist mindset seeps into the culture, the more men would happily choose a machine that acts (in some way) like a woman over a woman who acts like a man. Of course, male disinterest, to true-believer feminists, is a badge of honor, but they make up an eyelash-thin minority of women. For others, those merely caught up in the whirlwind of the feminist culture — those in the vast majority who still say they want marriage and a family — happy indifference toward male disinterest is a mask not so easily kept in place without liberal applications of Chardonnay and pills, sometimes, in desperation, combined in knowingly lethal quantities.
A Tough Transition
I very much enjoyed “Saving Pop” by Casey Chalk (Jan.-Feb.) about his relationship with his grandfather and both of their relationships with Christ and His Church. It showed in a profound way that conversion and our journey toward God are not always linear, but that Christ is victorious in the end.
Reading about Chalk’s grandfather’s disillusionment following the loss of some of the traditions of the Church reminded me of J.R.R. Tolkien in his old age. Tolkien’s grandson recalled him loudly reciting the traditional Latin responses during Mass, shortly after the widespread shift to the vernacular, while everyone else responded in English. I’m sure this transition was difficult for countless others too. “Pop” and Tolkien, were they alive today, might have been encouraged by the growth in popularity, particularly among the youth of the Church, of the traditional Latin Mass.
Ed. Note: Tolkien wasn’t the only literary figure of his time who found the liturgical changes discouraging. Evelyn Waugh was similarly frustrated by the abandonment of Latin and the slouching toward the “banal” in the revised liturgy. To read why, see Philip Blosser’s review of A Bitter Trial: Evelyn Waugh and John Carmel Cardinal Heenan on the Liturgical Changes (June 2012). As for what can be done about it, see Thomas Storck’s review of Noble Beauty, Transcendent Holiness: Why the Modern Age Needs the Mass of Ages in this issue.
Charles Coulombe has written an admirable and animated review (Jan.-Feb.) of the wide-ranging approach to historical political philosophy I take in my 2016 tome, The North American High Tory Tradition, and the essential distinctions that need to be made (and the differences they make) between historical Canadian Toryism and American conservatism-liberalism. Coulombe has taken arrow after arrow from thoughtful quiver and astutely hit the bull’s eye many times.
University of the Fraser Valley, Abbotsford, British Columbia
The Comeback Is Here
James Iovino ends his article “Can Neo-Scholasticism Make a Comeback?” (Jan.-Feb.) by stating that we need “a systematic, logical, properly ordered, interconnected apologetic that engages the whole person.” For readers who agree with that sentiment, Fr. Robert Spitzer’s recently published quartet of books might be the answer to their search.
Brooklyn, New York
Ed. Note: The first book in Fr. Spitzer’s quartet, Finding True Happiness: Satisfying Our Restless Hearts, was reviewed by Clara Sarrocco (Oct. 2016). The subsequent three books, The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to Our Transcendent Nature from Experience and Reason, God So Loved the World: Clues to Our Transcendent Destiny from the Revelation of Jesus, and The Light Shines on in the Darkness: Transforming Suffering through Faith, were reviewed by Mr. Lehpamer in our previous issue (March). Fr. Spitzer is planning at least one more book in this series, to be titled Called out of Darkness: Contending with Evil through Virtue and Prayer.
Trump & Abortion: Guarded Optimism
In your New Oxford Note “Pro-lifers, You’ve Been Played” (Jan.-Feb.), you state that President Trump has “played pro-lifers for fools.” You cite Trump’s being a consistent abortion supporter until it became politically convenient for him to support pro-life causes. You also mention his flip-flopping over several other issues, which leads you to question his trustworthiness and sincerity. In addition, you indicate that many Republican-appointed Supreme Court justices voted to legalize abortion nationwide in 1973. You also question whether the recent appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch will do anything to challenge the status quo regarding abortion.
While we can never be fully certain how a newly appointed Supreme Court justice will vote on any given issue, I believe we can be somewhat reassured about the appointment of Gorsuch based on his views on life issues as explicated in his book The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia (2006). Although he has not written extensively about abortion, this may work to his — and our — advantage. We all remember what happened to Robert Bork when he was nominated to the Supreme Court. Bork’s extensive writing on abortion precluded his approval by Democrats on the selection committee.
While we may have reservations about Trump’s reliability on pro-life issues, we can only judge the fruits of his labors. I believe President Trump has done a remarkable job in his first year in office to promote life issues. His support for the Little Sisters of the Poor, and his creation of a new division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to expand religious liberty for businessmen with religious convictions and conscience protection for healthcare workers who object to performing abortions, is certainly a start.
“God writes straight with crooked lines,” as the saying goes. We are all poor vassals who may still serve God’s purposes — this is true even of someone like Trump, whom many consider boorish, vulgar, and insincere.
Your New Oxford Note “Pro-lifers, You’ve Been Played” made a couple of very arguable assertions.
You state that Trump made promises to the pro-life movement that he has no intention of keeping, and that previous Republican presidents have done the same. When could legal protection for the unborn have been so easily achieved that its not having happened is proof of bad faith?
Was the pro-life movement really “giddy” when Trump won in 2016? I would grant that the movement was giddy over Hilary Clinton’s defeat, but that doesn’t mean that the movement as a whole had illusions about Trump’s past record on abortion (although the pro-life movement includes many who were once on the other side of the issue) or his mercurial personality. Was it unreasonable to be giddy over the defeat of the most pro-abortion candidate ever nominated by a major party and at least hopeful about the person who, no matter what anyone might have thought, was going to be the president?
San Francisco, California
THE EDITOR REPLIES:
A Republican occupied the White House for 24 of the 36 years from 1972 (the year before Roe was decided) to 2008 (when Obama took office), or 67 percent of the time. In those 24 years, the GOP controlled Congress five times, for a total of ten years — four of them (2003-2007) with a Republican in the White House. If ever there were a time when Republicans could have made a serious effort to outlaw abortion, it was during the presidency of George W. Bush. Instead, the best we got in all those years was a tinkering around the edges of the issue, which is all that Trump has done in his first year in office. Astoundingly, this makes him “the most pro-life president we have had in modern history,” according to Troy Newman of Operation Rescue — a sentiment echoed by several other prominent leaders of pro-life organizations. That ought to tell us something.
The Supreme Court had a golden opportunity in 1992 to roll back legalized abortion when deciding Planned Parenthood v. Casey. That was the first time since 1973 that the court had a clear majority of justices who had written an opinion challenging Roe or who had been appointed by a Republican president who had verbally expressed his commitment to reversing it. Yet in the 5-4 decision, all five votes to uphold Roe were cast by Republican appointees. That too ought to tell us something.
Are these repeated failures to do anything substantial to combat the gravest holocaust in modern history merely a coincidence? Or is it a lack of political will? We’d argue it’s the latter. And it resembles something very close to “bad faith” when we factor in the empty rhetoric of Republican politicians and the unfulfilled promises they’ve made to pro-lifers over the decades.
I Have Not Been "Played"
Regarding “Pro-lifers, You’ve Been Played”: I cannot speak for other pro-lifers, but as Trump’s candidacy gained momentum, I recognized that his conversion to conservative principles was recent, convenient, and highly untrustworthy. His first answer to a question about abortion was so far from being pro-life that pro-life leaders around the country stood up and denounced it publicly. The scandal surrounding his taped conversation about mistreating women was irrelevant because I realized that when he said that, he was a liberal schooled in the conduct of Edward Kennedy and Bill Clinton.
Hillary Clinton posed a clear and present danger to pro-lifers. I spent much of late 2016 realizing that there were no tolerable options for me in the presidential race. The canard that I have been played for a sucker by Trump is a common theme among my brethren on the Left; to your repeating it, I can only reply, Et tu, Brute?
John F. Fay
Mary Esther, Florida
Ed. Note: To be clear, we weren’t referring to those pro-lifers who didn’t fall for Trump’s empty promises. Kudos for being one of the unfooled!
Parties of Progressives
The problem with the GOP is that it contains many progressive-type political thinkers. Of course, the Democratic Party is made up entirely of progressives. Progressives feel that they have matured in political thought in a way that lets them go beyond what they consider to be fairytales, such as that there is a natural law or that there are inalienable rights granted to each of us by our Creator. Progressives believe that any rights we enjoy are a product of the democratic process given to us by a majority vote. For them, vox populi es vox dei.
Until we get back to thinking like our founders did about our right to life and liberty, neither party can help us.
Dr. W. David Herbert, Esq.
A Way Forward
A venerable Latin adage tells us that Nemo dat quod non habet — no one, that is, gives what he doesn’t have.
As the NOR has often pointed out, the Republican Party cannot give pro-life leadership because it does not have pro-life leaders. To be sure, no major party has pro-life leaders.
There is, however, one party, a new party, that is pro-life — and for the whole of life. It’s the American Solidarity Party (ASP). Its website gives us the particulars, and they include a thoughtful and comprehensive party platform. ASP draws from the legacy of the Christian Democratic parties of Europe and South America. It embraces the distributism of G.K. Chesterton. It takes just-war criteria seriously.
In California, Desmond Silveira will be running for governor as the ASP candidate. He’s neither a left-winger nor a right-winger. So let’s not be hand-wringers. There is a way forward.
James G. Hanink
It's Not His Fault
“Pro-lifers, You’ve Been Played” appears to be a hatchet job authored by a Never-Trumper with a myopic understanding of the limited power of the U.S. president. There are several proverbs that can be cited to rebut the accusations it contains, but the one I choose is Proverbs 26:4: “Answer not the fool according to his folly, lest you too become like him.”
To begin with, the U.S. Constitution is very specific as to what privileges and restrictions apply to the various bodies of government. The president has limited powers. Congress is where bills and laws originate; the president has the power to approve or reject them.
Trump was very consistent during his campaign and has continued to be in the early stages of his presidency in pushing Congress to move forward with the repeal of Roe v. Wade, to protect our border, to reform NAFTA, etc. The lack of implementation of these pledges is not President Trump’s fault. The blame lies with Congress and is accentuated by false media coverage and a vindictive lack of support for a legitimately elected president.
The constant lies and misrepresentations of our leaders, and ignorance of our nation’s founding principles, are making it more and more obvious that we are losing the things that made America great. Constructive criticism is a good thing, but to criticize and blame without an understanding of how and by whom laws are passed serves no constructive purpose.
John A. Orsillo
Columbus, North Carolina
Ed. Note: If Trump made promises (or “pledges”) that he is now unable to keep due to the “limited powers” of the presidency, such as ending Roe v. Wade and defunding Planned Parenthood, that merely convicts gullible pro-lifers all the more for falling for such a ruse. That Trump made promises he was either unwilling or unable to keep is not the fault of Congress or the media; Trump himself is responsible for the things he says.
A Jurist for All Seasons
“Pro-lifers, You’ve Been Played” demonstrates your total lack of any conception of what once was called realpolitik. Even worse, your aggravating hodgepodge of misconstrued history and your asinine dredging up of Trump’s past mistakes only serve to give comfort to the enemies of the pro-life movement and sow confusion in our ranks of self-sacrificing workers. Of all the putrid enemies of the cause of the unborn, you call in Jake Tapper to try to embarrass the President. Tapper is about as low, ignorant, and vicious an abortion proponent as can be found. Have you no shame?
As one who has spent a large part of his life studying the history of law and legislation, I find your demeaning of Justice Neil Gorsuch most obnoxious, even intolerable. This distinguished jurist was perfectly justified in refusing to reveal his plans in terms of Roe v. Wade. No jurist should tell his plans to the public. You predict his failure on the basis of weak sisters like Lewis Powell, Harry Blackmun, and William Brennan. History in your hands becomes comical, beneath contempt.
Justice Gorsuch will become a jurist on the level of the greatest members of the high court, and he will uphold life, champion the strict interpretation of the Constitution, and fulfill our strongest expectations. This sterling Christian will come through! In Justice Gorsuch, President Trump has chosen a jurist who will shine in the annals of the high court. I am sure of this.
San Diego, California
THE EDITOR REPLIES:
As someone who has studied law and legislation for “a large part of his life,” you should realize that were a Supreme Court nominee to withhold his “plans” from the public, he would violate the principles of transparency, accountability, and representation that are supposed to characterize a democracy such as ours. As James Madison wrote, “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.”
If, as you say, Gorsuch has refused to reveal his plans for Roe v. Wade, how can you be so sure what his intentions are? On what can you legitimately base such certainty? Guess what Gorsuch has in common with his “weak sisters” Powell, Blackmun, and Brennan? All four were appointed by Republican presidents. And each of these forebears of Gorsuch’s voted to legalize abortion. So did Republican appointees Berger, Stewart, Stevens, O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter. Do you detect a pattern? As we stated, we’d love to be proved wrong about Gorsuch (and Trump), but a clear-eyed reading of recent history doesn’t allow us to share your unbounded optimism.
Oh, and Trump’s stumbling response to Tapper’s simple and direct question is not Tapper’s fault. Only Trump is responsible for the things he says.
A Drunken Rant?
I gathered pretty quickly while reading “Pro-lifers, You’ve Been Played” that you are anti-Trump. The whole fake New Oxford Note lacked focus and a real point. It’s as though you sat in front of your computer pounding out random thoughts while buzzed.
I get it that you don’t like Trump, that you think he’s not really pro-life. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I am under the impression that in April 2017 he defunded International Planned Parenthood by restoring the Mexico City Policy. I would think you would give Trump some credit for his achievements. Even a broken clock is right twice a day.
I wonder what grand merits you see in others. Hillary Clinton? She publicly declared that it’s okay to murder pre-born children even an hour before their due date, and that no abortionist should be charged if he murders a child born alive. Bernie Sanders? That old fool is one sneeze away from senility and the grave. You don’t offer a better option.
By the way, I read the entire interview transcript with Jake Tapper from June 28, 2015. There’s a lot more you should have considered before inserting selective quotes. Tapper asked Trump, “What’s traditional about being married three times?” The question would have been fair, but that was not the topic of the interview, which was same-sex marriage. Trump, when addressing the fact that “traditional” marriage is between a man and a woman, was obviously referring to same-sex marriage and not multiple marriages between a man and a woman.
In modern history, we have had presidents who had previous marriages. We have had presidents who were men of their times and should be judged only through that lens. Think of JFK. In today’s political circus, his politics might well be considered centrist conservative. His antics with numerous women, and the many medicines he took for his severe back pain, would have been cause to excoriate him had he been a Republican. The forces of hatred would have demanded his impeachment. Obviously, we need not go into how former presidents FDR, LBJ, and Bill Clinton were prolific marital cheaters.
God bless your work. I pray that you will return to more responsible authorship. I won’t cancel my subscription — not when I can be a watchdog and call you out when your writing is subpar.
THE EDITOR REPLIES:
First of all, thank you for not canceling your subscription. We’re all for debate, we expect disagreement, and we’re relieved when our readers feel the same way. We should be able to disagree in good faith and say why, without shutting down debate.
In reply: The Mexico City Policy does not “defund” International Planned Parenthood. Rather, it requires non-governmental organizations to “agree” that they will “neither perform nor actively promote abortion as a method of family planning in other nations” as “a condition of their receipt of federal funds.” The policy makes exceptions for abortions in cases of rape, incest, or so-called life-threatening conditions. We hardly think that reinstating this policy qualifies as an “achievement” for Trump. Reagan instituted the policy, Clinton revoked it, Bush Jr. reinstated it, and Obama revoked it. Trump is merely following suit. All he’s done is put federal funding of international abortion advocacy on hold until the next Democrat takes office.
Something new Trump did do in April 2017 — and this is perhaps what you were thinking of — was to discontinue U.S. taxpayer funding of the U.N. Population Fund because, according to the State Department, it “supports, or participates in the management of, a program of coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization” in China. This defunding of abortion advocacy abroad is all to the good, but it leaves unaddressed the matter of the nearly one million abortions performed every year right here in the U.S. We need to address our problems at home too.
Why should Trump not have to answer for his multiple marriages — especially if he’s going to argue in favor of “traditional” marriage? Shouldn’t we expect him to practice what he preaches? Even Trump admitted in his response to Tapper that this was “a very good point.”
For the record, there has only been one other divorced president in U.S. history: Reagan, a hero of the alleged party of “family values.” Two were widowers (Jefferson and Van Buren), and one was widowed after his election (Jackson). We’re in uncharted waters with a thrice-married president. Yes, Trump is a man of his time, but as Catholics, we believe that tradition should hold sway over the whims of temporal epochs, and traditional marriage means one marriage between one man and one woman.
As for JFK being impeached had he been a Republican: The last president to be impeached was Bill Clinton, a Democrat. Was he a victim of the “forces of hatred”? Or do those exist only on one side of the aisle?
As for the “merits” of politicians: Due to our nonprofit status as a religious organization, we are barred from endorsing candidates for office or pending legislation.
Desiring the Death of Those They Should Love
As a Catholic deacon who visits a death-row inmate weekly, I was offended not only by Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette’s book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed, but equally so by F. Douglas Kneibert’s review (Jan.-Feb.). Like so many dissidents in the Church, beginning with the Protestant reformers, they have sadly rejected the authority of the Magisterium, the present Pope included, and replaced it with their own interpretation of Scripture and sacred Tradition. There are over 80,000 Protestant churches in the U.S. alone, each founded on the pride of sincere Christians who thought they knew better than the Church from which they ultimately broke away. Even these writers must surely be aware of the sin of pride, though not necessarily in themselves.
The day I read Kneibert’s review, the Gospel reading at Mass was from St. Matthew, in which Jesus says, “I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father” (5:44-45). If Feser, Bessette, and Kneibert love their enemies, as their Christian faith calls them to do, then why are they calling for the death of their brother whom they love?
They seem to have arrived at their own conclusion about what is “just.” Once again, in their pride, they have rejected what the Church has stated to be just and have decided for themselves what is just by manipulating the Bible to achieve what they desire: the death of those they hate. What else are we to think, since a true follower of Christ would not want to kill a brother he loves?
The man I have visited on death row for 12 years found repentance and forgiveness of his sins when he accepted baptism into the Catholic faith 13 years ago. If he had lived in Texas, he would have been executed before he came to Christ. For those who desire more and speedier executions, the blood of those executed will fall on their hands, as they are heard shouting, “Crucify him, crucify him!” I pray that they repent of their sin and be the voice not crying out for death but softly saying to our Lord, “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
Deacon Allen Vandecoevering
A number of readers will be left with the wrong idea after reading F. Douglas Kneibert’s review of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed by Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette. He says that the death penalty is part of Church “doctrine,” but this is not true. It was practiced, yes, but never enshrined into doctrine.
Kneibert didn’t notice, or doesn’t mention, that Feser and Bessette contradict themselves by admitting (on p. 79) that traditional Catholic teaching merely allowed the death penalty but never required it. In fact, Feser and Bessette admit that some of our greatest Church fathers and doctors — including SS Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen, and Alphonsus Liguori — wrote in favor of “mercifully refraining from inflicting death on those who deserved it.” In addition to these holy men, the 16th-century Spanish Dominican Francisco de Vitoria, the father of international law and a great defender of the rights of American Indians, wrote that the death penalty should be used only if necessary for the defense of society. Well, this is exactly what Pope St. John Paul II believed, and it is why he called modern capital punishment “cruel and unnecessary.” In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 2267), we read that the cases in which capital punishment might be necessary are now “very rare if not practically nonexistent.” The U.S. bishops agree with this view, but Feser and Bessette, as well as Kneibert, mistakenly and obstinately regard it as contrary to Catholic Tradition and doctrine.
The title of Feser and Bessette’s book is drawn from the Torah. In his review, Kneibert insists that we should make no “distinction” between the Old and New Covenants because both are “the same Word of God.” Well, the Old Covenant prescribed capital punishment not only for murder but for adultery and sodomy. If there is no distinction between the Covenants, why doesn’t Kneibert call for the death penalty in those cases too?
Kneibert points out that Feser and Bessette “find nothing in the teachings of Jesus against capital punishment per se.” Really? What about Jesus stopping the execution of a woman caught in adultery? What about His giving us a new teaching, something not in the Old Covenant, that we must love our enemies and not require “an eye for an eye” as punishment?
Kneibert finds the reasoning of Feser and Bessette “rigorously logical,” but I strongly disagree. They exhibit a blind faith in the honesty of American prosecutors. Despite hundreds of death-row inmates having been freed by DNA testing, and despite 2,000 prosecutors having been found guilty of misconduct from 1970 to 2004, they are gung ho for more “frequent” executions rather than for a much-needed reform of our legal system.
Anne Barbeau Gardiner
Brewster, New York
F. DOUGLAS KNEIBERT REPLIES:
Deacon Vandecoevering evidently believes that the Catholic Church permits only one opinion on the death penalty — opposition — and that those who differ, as I and the authors of the book I reviewed do, are to be denounced as “dissidents,” de facto Protestants, manipulators of the Bible, and sinners who need to repent of their misguided ways.
Such ad hominem attacks have no place in Catholic discourse. They are very close to the politically correct intolerance we’re seeing today on many college campuses and elsewhere in society, where only certain opinions and beliefs are deemed worthy of consideration.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger had a very different opinion than Vandecoevering on this subject. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he wrote in a 2004 memorandum that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about…applying the death penalty.”
God commanded capital punishment for those who kill an innocent person made in His image (Gen: 9:1, 5-6), and St. Paul reaffirmed the need for it (Rom. 13:1-4). The Catholic Church holds the Bible to be divinely inspired, and that includes these passages. I am not prepared (as the above letter-writers appear to be) to jettison biblical authority on this subject as no longer applicable in our enlightened age. If “cafeteria Catholicism” is to be extended to sacred Scripture, where’s the stopping point?
Anne Barbeau Gardiner correctly points out that Pope St. John Paul II called the death penalty into question and urged limiting its application, but even he left the door ajar. The 1997 revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this subject reflects the Pope’s views: “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” (no. 2267).
In their book, Feser and Bessette have exercised their “legitimate” right to present a different perspective on capital punishment than Catholics are accustomed to hearing. They should not be read out of the Church for doing so.
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