Sunday, April 3, 2011

Fr. Barron and the Death Penalty-A Refutation

You may have noticed that I have taken down the Fr. Robert Barron widget from the top of my blog recently. One of my readers has suggested that I explain why I have taken it down. As you know, one of my main points of focus for this website is to promote the work of solid classical Thomistic theologians. This is of primary importance to me. After reading some of Fr. Barron's recent work, I have decided that he is not what I would consider to be a solid classical Thomistic theologian, and he does not fit the mold of the type of theologians I want to promote on my website. Therefore I will not be promoting his work any longer. Let me be perfectly clear. This does mean that I think everything that he writes and says is not worth reading, nor am I accusing him of any particular heresy. There are many who will no doubt read this article and accuse me of something I have not said, so please do not mistake me. In fact, Fr. Barron has put up a lot of good material on his website that have been a benefit to Catholics and non Catholics alike. That is why I promoted him in the first place. He also seems to promote St. Thomas as well, so I promoted his work for a time. However, due to some of the erroneous conclusions he has drawn in a recent article in which he explains his views on punishment and the common good, I can no longer recommend his work on a whole, nor one that is completely in line with what I would consider to be classical Thomistic theology.

I have responded below at length to his article that caused me to reconsider his Thomistic understanding of moral theology. By the comments made in the article, it is clear that he does not understand or promote the Thomistic model of punishment or the common good. I have tried to comment on his personal blog but my post was never approved. So here I have quoted his entire article, and in between each paragraph I have responded in bold type. To get a clearer understanding of the principles that I apply in understanding the death penalty, I would recommend reading the two articles on my side bar, “Keeping the Death Penalty Alive” and “The Corrupt Theology of the Seamless Garment.” I use the principles explained in those two articles to formulate what I have written in summary here, in response to the Fr. Barron article. There are also a few scholarly sources I would recommend reading to gain a better understanding of the Thomistic principles regarding this issue. These three sources are indispensable. The first is the book “Right and Reason” by Fr. Austin Fagothey, the second is an article written by Fr. Lawrence Dewan, OP titled, “Thomas Aquinas, Gerard Bradley, and the Death Penalty” which is found in his book “Wisdom, Law and Virtue,” and finally Dr. Steven A. Long’s brilliant article, found in the Thomist #63 titled, “Evangelium Vitae, St. Thomas Aquinas and the Death Penalty.” These are the main sources I have used to base my argument on, and they have explained everything I have summarized in my articles in much more detail and clarity than I. So I highly recommend procuring those written works.

Outlawing the death penalty in Illinois

The Rev. Robert Barron, priest and theology professor, University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein

I want to congratulate the Illinois legislature and Gov. Pat Quinn for their successful passage of a bill outlawing the death penalty in the state. Sadly, the church and the civil government are so often on different sides of the “social” issues, from abortion to gay marriage; thus it is refreshing to see that, here at least, the two have come together.

I would be remiss if I did not draw attention to the significant contribution that former Gov. George Ryan made in this regard when, in 1999, he placed a moratorium on carrying out the death penalty in Illinois. The definitive ending of this barbaric practice in the land of Lincoln is indeed a great moral and political achievement.

I was particularly struck by the remarks that Gov. Quinn made announcing the passage of this legislation. The governor communicated a real passion and earnestness in his speech, commenting with complete believability that this was the most anguished decision of his tenure in office. He honestly acknowledged that there are many in the state who disagree with this move, and he reached out sympathetically to the families still cruelly victimized by the terrible crimes of those on death row.

My response: 
An important duty of the State is to protect the common good of society. Contrarily, it can be argued that the common good of society is best served by retaining the use of the death penalty for extreme cases of harsh criminal activity. By the Governor completely abolishing the penalty, he has taken a legitimate means away from the State to restore and keep the moral order in these extreme cases. I am not advocating that we use the death penalty more often, but only for its prudent use. 

A Catholic, Governor Quinn readily admitted that he consulted the Bible in the course of his ruminations and that the teaching of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin played an important role in his determination to change the law. He quoted Bernardin to this effect: “in a complex, sophisticated democracy like ours, means other than the death penalty are available and can be used to protect society.”

My response: 
First of all I wonder what Scripture has the Governor taken out of context? Leaving that argument aside, if we read further we can see the crucial error that the Governor and Fr. Barron have fallen into. They both have relied on Cardinal Bernardin for their foundation regarding moral theology. How he viewed the common good, society, and punishment was seriously flawed. The first error is the view that modern societies are further advanced in regard to incarceration than previous societies. Secondly, modern democracy did not change the core function of the State, which is to keep the order and protect the common good of society. Thirdly, human nature has also not changed and we are no more sophisticated than previous societies in regard to the common good. Finally, the nature of punishment has also not changed. Unfortunately, while Cardinal Bernardin was busy crafting his incongruous “Seamless Garment”, he had to openly reject the Church’s past definition of punishment, and all the principles traditionally used by the Church to explain how it is applied in society. This has had serious implications, as we can see here in this article. In 1985 in Bernardin’s address to the criminal court of Cook County (The Death Penalty in Our Time-1985), Bernardin tips his hand as to how he was able to conjure up his novel view concerning moral theology, the death penalty in particular. It is here that he readily admits that the core moral principles the Church held in a consistent form, the form of Thomism, in regard to moral acts like capital punishment, had been outrightly rejected by him and many of the bishops en masse. He even applauds this fact. “First, they review four traditional arguments justifying capital punishment, retribution, deterrence, reform and protection of the State. Based on their review, the religious leaders have argued that these reasons no longer apply in our age.” After this he happily goes on to elaborate how the death penalty now had no place in society today. This comment should strike any faithful Catholic as startling, and it is the true telling of the tale for Bernardin, and those who think like him. Yet sadly Fr. Barron is applauding the Governor for following this crippled, makeshift theology of Bernardin.

The Cardinal’s way of approaching the question is in line with the classical Catholic tradition of moral reflection, the foundation of which is a profound respect for the dignity of the individual made in the image of God and destined for eternal life. Catholic teaching holds that life, when threatened, can be protected, and this is the foundation for the legitimacy of self-defense at the personal level and for police action and just war at the broader, more societal level.

My response: 
The article goes down hill further from here. What is appalling is that Fr. Barron erroneously tells his readers that the Cardinal’s thinking is in line with that of a classical Catholic tradition of moral reflection, which is absolute nonsense. Contrary to what Fr. Barron wrote can be seen in the Cardinal’s very own words, which I quoted above, in which he and his fellow bishops fully rejected that position. How can Fr. Barron tell his readers that Bernardin held to this traditional position when even the Cardinal himself denied it publicly? Also, the exacting of capital punishment does not disrespect human dignity, otherwise it could never be done. As the article progresses the ill-suited self defense comparison now rears its ugly head, further establishing how amiss Fr. Barron’s formation in Thomistic moral theology really is.

But in this self-defense, given the preciousness of human life, the “least possible means” should always be employed. If someone is threatening my person, I am justified in stopping him, but I must do so in such a way as to cause him the least damage possible. For example, I may shoot him, but I should endeavor as far as I can to shoot to wound and not to kill. Even in police work or in military action, a defender is obliged to follow the same principle. And what one may certainly never do is to injure an opponent or an enemy in a pre-emptive manner, that is to say, attacking him outside of the context of a direct threat. This is why, on the Catholic reading, the fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were completely unjustifiable.

My response: 
Fr. Barron sadly confuses, or dismisses the difference between the public and private realms concerning defense and punishment. This has been the problem with the New Theologians and New Natural Law theorists like Germain Grisez, who do not draw the appropriate distinctions between them. Fr. Barron compares the death penalty with self defense, which is an entirely incorrect analogy. A private person can use legitimate self defense to protect his or her life from an unjust aggressor. The defender should, as Fr. Barron stated, do so with the least amount of force necessary to stop the aggressor. This is because a private person does not have the legitimate authority to intend to kill a person, but only to defend themselves from an unjust aggressor. The defender can use proportionate lethal means to do so, but if the taking of a human life is carried out, it is done so unintentionally. This however is not the case concerning capital punishment. Punishment is carried out by a legitimate public authority to uphold the common good, exact retribution or redress wrongdoing, preserve innocent human life in society, and to restore the moral order that was displaced by the criminal. It is first and foremost an act of justice. It has nothing to do with an act of self defense per se, since there is no physical unjust attack being carried out. The Catechism of Trent Part III tells us in reference to legitimate authority and punishment the following, “Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence.” A private person cannot legitimately carry this function of punishment out, but a public authority can. In other words, a legitimate State can intend the death of another, while a private individual cannot. Fr. Barron misses this point completely, and demonstrates that he is not very familiar with Thomistic moral theology, despite his frequent claims to being an avid reader of St. Thomas. To substantiate my claim further I quote again the Thomistic scholar Dr. Steven Long, “But formally to commingle private, individual acts of self-defense with the political community's exaction of justice is seriously problematic.” Why Fr. Barron brings up Hiroshima and Nagasaki I can only speculate, because it also has nothing whatsoever to do with any analogy concerning capital punishment.

The adjudication of the question of capital punishment flows from an application of these various principles. Moral theologians and philosophers have long recognized that a civil society has the right to protect itself against those who pose a threat to it. This is why we have everything from traffic laws and prohibitions against robbery to tax codes and proscriptions of bank fraud. In the most extreme instance, a civil society is threatened by someone who would kill without justification. The common good simply cannot be achieved if such persons were allowed to operate freely and with impunity within a community; and this is why most Catholic thinkers for centuries held that capital punishment was, in certain cases, justified. Things get, admittedly, a little more complicated when our principle of least possible means is invoked. Couldn’t a society adequately defend itself, even against a vicious murderer, simply by locking him away in prison for life? Well yes, unless a society had a primitive legal system, an unreliable police force, and prisons from which it was relatively easy to escape—all of which conditions obtained in many if not most pre-modern and even early modern communities. This is why it was taken for granted up until very recent times that putting a desperate murderer to death was indeed the least possible means of protecting the society from the danger that he posed.

My response: 
The question of capital punishment does not flow from the principles Fr. Barron presented in the paragraph above, as I have already demonstrated. Civil society has more than a right to protect itself, it has a obligation to keep and restore the moral order, and exact just punishment for crimes committed against her and those who reside in her. This is retrospective in nature, and it falls under the virtue of redress. It is not merely a means of defending people from future criminal acts that may be carried out by the guilty party, although this is certainly part of the reason. Societies however have always had a means of keeping heinous criminals locked up behind bars, this is nothing novel or new to our society. This is another error of the gravest kind. Fr. Barron thinks that the death penalty has always been employed as a least possible means of physically defending society from the criminal. In other words he thinks that it was a last resort for them to keep society physically safe from them. This is not a tenable argument, either from a Thomistic moral theological standpoint, or by a historical one. Punishment was not primarily looked at as being only a means of physical self defense from apprehended criminals in prior societies. It was primarily for the health and moral order of society and the common good. For example, St. Thomas tells us in reference to criminals in society, “Every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part exists naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we see that if the health of the whole human body demands the excision of a member, because it became putrid or infectious to the other members, it would be both praiseworthy and healthful to have it cut away. Now every individual person is related to the entire society as a part to the whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since "a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). (ST 2-2. 64. 2) Furthermore, the Thomsitic view sees capital punishment in terms of divine justice. I quote Dr. Steven Long to make clear the view of punishment as a virtuous act aimed towards the common good, which dovetails into the above quote nicely, “Moreover, the common good is better than the particular good of one person. So, the particular good should be removed in order to preserve the common good. But the life of certain pestiferous men is an impediment to the common good which is the concord of human society. Therefore, certain men must be removed by death from the society of men.”

However (and here we come back to Cardinal Bernardin), in the developed countries of the West, very much including our own, we do indeed have the wherewithal effectively to stop a criminal through our legal and penitentiary institutions. And therefore, to quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the cases in which the execution of an offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” This was the distinctively Catholic line of reasoning that influenced Governor Quinn in making his historic decision.

My response: 
This reasoning is incorrect as I noted earlier, the West has had societies that could effectively keep criminals behind bars, for centuries. Again, nothing new. This had little to do with whether or not a criminal was put to death in previous societies. It was not as if the primary focus of punishment was a quarantine. No, punishment was given in lieu of the past crime committed, and the corruption and moral disorder done to society as a result of the crime, as well as to redress the unjust action done to the individuals wronged by the criminal. (ST 2-2.108) To make it clearer, the intended killing in the case of capital punishment is done first for punishment in the order of justice. It is a punishment that is proportionate to the crime or the disorder done to society and the common good. Punishment is also done hopefully to reform the criminal if possible, but that is only secondary, and so it does not apply in the case of capital punishment. Capital punishment however can also have a role in mercy as well, since it compels those who are truly sorry for their heinous crimes to repentance and hopefully eternal life. Remember, justice is also a mercy in and of itself, and is seen in a Thomistic paradigm as divine justice. Again I quote Dr. Long, “In Thomas's account legal justice "imitates according to its powers" the divine justice.” This is nowhere to be found in Barron’s article. This quote of Aquinas further puts Fr. Barron and company at odds with the traditional view of punishment. “The fact that the evil ones, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so obstinate that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from malice, it is possible to make a quite probable judgment that they would never come away from evil.” (Summa contra gentiles, Book III, chapter 146)

Even as I applaud the Governor for his coherent judgment in regard to the death penalty, I might humbly suggest that he read a little further in the writings of Joseph Bernardin. He will find that, applying the same basic principles, the Cardinal condemned, with equal vehemence, the taking of unborn life in the womb. The irreducible human dignity of even a hardened murderer should be respected; how much more that of an innocent child. I’m glad you’re reading the Catholic social tradition, Governor. Please read more.

My response: 
There is no coherent judgement documented in Fr. Barron’s article regarding the death penalty whatsoever. Of course I would hope that the Governor rejects the idea of legal abortion, this however in no way has any connection to the execution of a guilty criminal. I find it appalling that anyone would even compare the two in terms of a moral act, since one involves the just punishment of a guilty criminal, and another is the taking of an innocent human life. Again, one would think that Fr. Barron would understand these distinctions and apply them to this argument properly, instead of following the lead of Bernardin. Fr. Barron then closes his article by again making a false statement by saying that a murderer's dignity is being disrespected in capital punishment. Again, a hardened murderer's dignity is not being disrespected in the order of just punishment. As you know, Fr. Barron picked this balderdash up from Bernardin’s corrupt theology of the “Seamless Garment.” I have addressed this troubled theology in another article I have written, so I will refrain from repeating myself further on that issue. St. Thomas clearly views capital punishment as being in keeping with the fundamental principles of human dignity. If we read the ST 1-2.85 we can see how St. Thomas understands the effects of sin. He understands that even a criminal does not lose their fundamental dignity, which is that they are made in the image and likeness of God. This however does not compel St. Thomas to advocate abolishing capital punishment. After going though this article, it is easy to see why many are so confused on this issue. Due to this article in particular, I will no longer be able to support Fr. Barron or his works.


scotju said...

To praise former Gov. Ryan for his moratorium on the death penalty or Gov Quinn for abolishing it is an outrage. Ryan was one of the most corrupt governors we ever had in Illinois and Quinn is just incompedent. What really bad about this move is that we have had a series of over the top murders in Illinois in the last few years. Some of them have been mass murders or serial murders. In Peoria, where I live, there has been one of two shootings or murders in the black community every month. Yet, I'm supposed to believe Fr Barron and Mark Shea that imprisonment alone will stop this carnage?! Hey, we have had this moratoruim for twelve years and the killings goes on! What kind of dreamworld does this priest live in?

Agellius said...

This was a great explanation, thanks. Now the question is, why does the Pope also oppose the death penalty? Surely he is not lacking in Thomistic formation. Or is he?

Alexander Greco said...

We simply do not know whether they are lacking in a solid Thomistic formation, perhaps they are, perhaps not. What we do know is that the arguments against the death penalty presented thus far are certainly not Thomistic. They might know the Thomistic arguments quite well and choose to hold a different view, such as one grounded in personalism. However, we should always strive for truth, not just a system of philosophy. Thomism is the former.

Mark P. Shea said...

Good for you, Matthew! Don't just disagree with a fine priest on a point that is wide open for discussion! Excommunicate him with your awesome blogpiscopal authority! Close yourself off from all points of view in the Catholic communion that are even *slightly* different than your cramped little view of things. How very Thomistic.

Matthew Bellisario said...

Ha, my prediction came true. I knew Mark the "Magisterium of One" Shea would show up for an ad hominem before this was over. First of all, where did I excommunicate anyone? Secondly, why don't you actually come up with an argument for a change rather than come over here to level a personal attack. My challenge stands, Mark. Anytime you want to publicly debate this issue, in person or in writing, you know how to find me. The fact is, as we all know, you don't have an argument, only hot air. Thanks for making my prophecy come true though.

scotju said...

Shea doesn't know his church history when it comes to this subject. The Church never opposed the death penalty. If the guilty party took an innocent life, the only thing the Church would do is to urge the guilty one to repent before he/she met his/her fate. The only exceptions were if the accused was suffering from a mental illness or some other defect that prevented comprehenion of what happenned or if some extraordinary circumstance(s) such as being manipulated into the act by someone else. Shea's (and Barron's) stand on the death penalty is an indication of the influence of liberalism on both men. They say 'rehabilitate' the guilty. It's a pity that rehabilitation is a big failure. It seems most criiminals want to stay criminals. I think it has somethig to do with that sinfull nature we're born with.

A Sinner said...

I want to agree, in principle, but if the State can kill the guilty for the common good...what's to stop it from killing the innocent?

Obviously, the criteria for a law to be "just" can't simply be utilitarian, can't simply be "achieving the greatest good for the greatest number"...or else we could kill or relocate or imprison or extract labor from a lot of people to achieve the ends in question.

But then, the criteria isn't the moral law either, as for the "common good" the State can illegalize things not intrinsically immoral.

So what criteria of "just" law can be posited that avoids a definition of justice that is simply relative to the common good in a utilitarian fashion??

Matthew Bellisario said...

The argument I have presented is from a Catholic perspective, which means that we must think like the Church thinks, that is with the natural law in mind. Morality has a theonomic character. It is not just an ad hoc making of laws to suit the community at a given time. The utilitarian argument fails on many levels, and I have not argued for utilitarianism.

It is also crucial to understand what the common good is in the eyes of Aquinas. It does not mean that you do anything for the sake of the whole, regardless of whether it is moral or not. I would recommend reading Farther Lawrence Dewan and Charles De Koninck for a solid understanding of the common good.

bill bannon said...

The Catechism position that modern penology sufficiently protects without execution...ignores murderer arrest rates which vary incredibly for various nations with the US arresting 62% of murderers and Guatemala arresting 5% of murderers. Lol...modern penology in the US is failing to protect you from 38% of murderers and mainly Catholic Guatemala is protecting you from 5% of murderers. The death penalty increases the deterrence of the uncaught murderers repeating....see

The catechism writer, a Cardinal at the CDF, never thought of this variable of arrest rates or others like deterrence...or he saw the arrests rates of small Catholic alcoves like Malta as typical.
Paid Catholics which includes clergy and writer-speakers are inclined to protect the catechism because that is where their next meal comes from.
How many speaking engagements would they receive from dioceses if they publically noted that catechisms are not inerrant and they then detailed the flaws of ccc 2267. Their income would drop

dudleysharp said...


From Dudley Sharp

Subject: Rebuttal to Governor Quinn and anti death penalty activist Andrea Lyon

Re: Death Penalty Repeal: "Thank you, Governor Quinn", Huffington Post

Replies posted at the article site:


How disingenuous is Gov. Quinn?

Quinn says that the death penalty must be ended because it can't be perfect.

All human systems are imperfect.

Of all human endeavors that put innocents at risk, is there one with a better record of sparing innocent lives than the US death penalty? Unlikely (1).

Look at the imperfect Illinois Governor's office.

We have imprisoned felon ex Gov Ryan, who was part of a scam resulting in the deaths of 6 innocent children.

There are known criminals, released via parole, probation, early release provisions, clemency and/or commutations - how many innocents have been harmed/murdered by those so released in Illinois?

Hundreds, thousands?

Who wrongly released these criminals to prey upon the innocent? Governors, parole boards and the state legislature, via laws signed by Governors and written by Illinois' legislatures?

According to those who voted for the death penalty repeal bill and the governor who signed it into law, we must, now, repeal those institutions, unless they can be made perfect. They can't.

How many actual innocents do we know have been executed in Illinois?


Do living murderers harm and murder, again? Of course. What about executed murderers?

1) "The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents"

"Opponents in capital punishment have blood on their hands", Dennis Prager, 11/29/05,


Of course ending the death penalty is a victory for murderers.

It's hard to believe that Lyon is a law professor.

She says it is not ethical to coerce a plea. Oh my. Likely, more than 90% of all criminal cases are plea bargained. It is a necessary and daily reality.

Without the death penalty, the only possible plea will, now, be life with parole eligibility­y - a grave injustice in many of these cases, but a reality that will certainly have to occur in many cases.

A victory for murderers.

Lyon will, now, argue that the use of LWOP as plea bargain tool is unethical. All plea bargains must be based on negotiating down from the maximum likely sentence. The only way not to use the severest possible sanction as a plea bargain tool is to have no sentences.

A victory for murderers and all criminals.

About 99.9% of all death penalty eligible murderers do everything they can, pre trial, trial and on appeals, to avoid the death penalty.

This was a wonderful gift for murderers on death row and those who may have faced it in the future.

Polling finds that about 80% in the US support the death penalty for some murderers. Based upon that, it is likely that 90% or more of those who have lost loved ones to a capital murders support the death penalty.

They find Gov. Quinn's decision a grave injustice, lacking compassion - the opposite of Lyon's claim

John Collinson said...

The death penalty is needed to preserve the dignity of human life. Those crimes which attack human life directly must themselves be put to death. Man was made originally in the image of God, but men defile that image. It's no accident that those who oppose the death penalty also tend to be universalists who believe that everybody, if not nearly everybody, shall escape hell - they don't believe that men can really do evil, or that men can be worthy of condemnation. They make a complete mockery of the scriptures, which constantly threaten man with punishment and death for their crimes.

We should never hope for the condemnation of a man, but I feel that a lack of desire to see the wicked punished is a lack of a sense of justice. The gospel is unintelligible without understanding the evil that is in man; the hope of redemption and salvation is sentimental vanity without understanding in the first place how every man is born worthy of hell. Humanism is the name of the sickness which causes men to think that man has an inherent right to live that can never be taken away from him, no matter what crime he commits against life itself.

I find the idea that the death penalty is barbaric to be itself barbaric - it is barbaric to be so apathetic to life as not to protect it from those who willfully attack and defile it.

The greatest mercy that can be done for such a hardened criminal is to give him a sermon calling him to repentance, offer him the sacrament of penance, and then apply the death penalty. Else, you risk leaving him in his crimes, leaving him to commit further crimes, and to pile even more wrath and condemnation upon his head which will torture him in eternity. It is not unmerciful to apply the death penalty, as long as one wishes for the criminal to repent and reconcile his soul to God before his death. I have read several accounts of saints preaching to and praying for criminals before their executions, and of the criminals being saved by it. We shouldn't forget that among the first to enter heaven was a crucified thief! How blessed is that thief compared to the criminal who continues to live without repentance.

False mercy and false dignity of man is what the opponents of the death penalty preach.