This last is true even if one ignores the authors’ transparent attempts to coerce their readers’ emotions. Not that they admit to this: by their account, all they really want to do is “dissipate the fog of naïve sentimentality that too often prevails in contemporary discussions of capital punishment.” They certainly do not intend, they say, to appeal to irrational passions. Yet they devote an entire chapter to a revolting catalogue of particularly horrific “true crimes,” just to remind their readers how evil real evil can be. What could this possibly be other than an appeal to passion? Everyone already knows, and would surely stipulate, that the world is rife with human atrocities, and that their perpetrators certainly do not merit our mercy. Among principled opponents of the death penalty, very few could be accused of nurturing any tender illusions regarding the deeds or characters of violent criminals. Moreover, whenever one party to a debate dismisses the ethical concerns of the other side as “sentimental,” it is usually an indication of the former’s inferior moral imagination. And in the context of this discussion it is particularly revealing. To cultivate pity (or at least concern) for those who deserve no pity—even those justly condemned of monstrous evils—is not sentimentality but charity, the chief of all Christian virtues. It is a hard discipline, and usually evidence of a genuinely diligent conscience. It is also an extremely valuable intellectual hygiene. Compassion is a philosophical virtue, one that makes it possible to grasp truths invisible to the morally obtuse. The limits of moral imagination are also the limits of the capacity to reason well.
Feser and Bessette approach their topic from a variety of angles, but they are obviously on familiar ground only when they frame the issue in terms of natural law. And here at least they can presume that most believing Catholics will accept the general principle on which their arguments rely: that there exists an essential consonance between the natural and moral orders, inasmuch as both proceed from and manifest a single divine source of rational truth. But, as is often the case when natural-law reasoning is asked to bear more weight than it can, the arguments Feser and Bessette make are mostly blank assertions masquerading as deductions of logic; they are precisely as persuasive or unpersuasive as the reader wants them to be. This is inevitable. Nature and natural reason may quite plausibly indicate a certain set of rational prohibitions, and beyond that a smaller set of rational responsibilities. But at the tertiary level of moral reasoning—that of assigning penalties for misdeeds—nature provides no scale of calculation except “common sense,” which is largely worthless. Thus, Feser and Bessette try to argue for certain natural goods accomplished by the principle of punishment as such, and then argue for the specific punishment of execution on the basis of a commonsensical principle of proportionality. It is all quite unconvincing.
But even if their reasoning were sound, it would be utterly irrelevant to a Christian view of reality. Let us grant, for argument’s sake, that the death penalty is indeed a just and proportionate response to willful murder. So what? That has never been the issue for Christians, for the simple reason that the Gospel does not admit the authority of proportional justice, as either a private or a public good. The whole of the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, is a shocking subversion of the entire idea. Christ repeatedly and explicitly forbids the application of such punishment, even when (as in the case of the adulterous woman) this means contradicting the explicit commands of the Law of Moses regarding public order and divinely ordained retribution. According to Paul, all who sin stand under a just sentence of death, but that sentence has been rescinded purely out of the unmerited grace of divine mercy. This is because the full wrath of the Law has been exhausted by Christ’s loving surrender to the Cross. Again and again, the New Testament demands of Christians that they exercise limitless forgiveness, no matter how grievous the wrong, even in legal and public settings. And it insists that, for the Christian, mercy always triumphs over judgment. In a very real sense, Christian morality is nothing but the conquest of proportional justice by the disproportion of divine love. So Feser and Bessette need to explain, before all else, why they imagine that Christians have any vested interest in the naturally just retribution for sin.
When they attempt to do this, however, they are wholly defeated by their lack of biblical and theological sophistication. I do not mean that they are merely unacquainted with certain recherché hermeneutical or dogmatic theories; I mean that they seem not even to be aware of the theology of the Apostle Paul. They appear not to know how fraught with difficulties and paradoxes the whole question of law, justice, penalty, and forgiveness is in the New Testament and early Christian thought.
Perhaps if they had availed themselves of the work of biblical scholars, rather than incessantly quoting the opinions of commentators no more aware of the texts’ ambiguities (and language) than they themselves are, they might at least have tempered the reckless assurance of their readings. At least, they might have avoided overly buoyant claims for notoriously dangerous verses—such as Genesis 9:6: “Whoso sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image” (Revised Standard Version). Admittedly, this seems quite precise, but only if one neglects to quote the immediately preceding verses: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.... Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. 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” (RSV). It might, after all, seem to undercut the universal authority of a literal reading of the Noachide laws to take note of the equally firm dietary prescriptions included among them (I suspect that neither Feser or Bessette really believes that he imperils his soul by eating his roast beef au jus), or of the divine proprietary cultic claim on blood underpinning them. Feser and Bessette also call on Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 19, but naturally they make no mention of, say, Leviticus 20, with its list of incredibly trivial capital crimes. But, once again, who cares? Jewish tradition always enfolded the Noachide prescriptions into the Law, as that small portion thereof of which gentiles were capable; and it is the wrath of the Law as a whole that is, according to Paul, set aside—even conquered—by Christ. As Paul says in Galatians, the Law is inherently defective, having always been communicated only by an angel, and then through a mere human intermediary.
It is when Feser and Bessette turn their eyes to the New Testament that their argument goes disastrously awry. Their principal response to Christ’s injunctions to unconditional forgiveness and against retaliation and judgment is simply to argue that he is speaking only of private rather than public morality. But such a distinction would have been wholly unintelligible in the context of first-century Judaea; Christ’s constant challenges were to the traditional applications of the Law, in which the personal, social, and jurisprudential were inseparable. As for the very clear rejection of proportional justice in the Sermon on the Mount, Feser and Bessette’s riposte is blandly to note that “Christ said in the very same sermon...that he had come ‘not to abolish the law and the prophets...but to fulfill them.’” They appear wholly unaware of the “redemptive irony” in Christ’s legal pronouncements—how he repeatedly “fulfills” the Law precisely by negating the literal understanding of its prohibitions and punishments.