The irreformability of Catholic teaching on the death penalty

Ed Feser and Joseph Bessette have a book forthcoming from Ignatius Press entitled By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty. In an essay at Catholic World Report, they summarize some of the book's key points. The essay is in two parts. The second part will be published later this week. I'll update this post with a link to the second part when it comes out.

Here's how Feser and Bessette formulate one of the claims they defend:

[I]t is the irreformable teaching of the Church that capital punishment can in principle be legitimate, not merely to ensure the physical safety of others when an offender poses an immediate danger (a case where even John Paul II was willing to allow for the death penalty), but even for purposes such as securing retributive justice and deterring serious crime.

To this Feser and Bessette add:

What is open to debate is merely whether recourse to the death penalty is in practice the best option given particular historical and cultural circumstances. That is a “prudential” matter about which popes have no special expertise.

If you are interested in this topic, I recommend Feser and Bessette's essay. I'm sure their forthcoming book will be quite good too.


UPDATE: Here's the link to the second part of Feser and Bessette's essay.

Bibliography on Luther and Joint Declaration

The short Dulles piece on the joint declaration is here:

I should mention that Dulles's last few paragraphs seem very weak to me.  It is written for a popular audience, but some of the problems might be with Dulles' own formation and thought.  "Scholasticism" is somehow one (and only one?) among many different "thought forms," and Lutheranism an incompatible "thought form."  He doesn't show much knowledge of Luther or later generations of Lutherans.  Luther himself could and did write like a scholastic, but in my opinion he just wasn't very good at it.  Maybe Dulles is comparing Luther's more popular works with more scholastic Catholic theological works, and doesn't have in mind Protestant Orthodoxy.  But there are also a host of Catholic popular works from the time.    

Chris Malloy has a lot of material, including a whole book on the topic of the joint declaration: Hisbook is at

See also his:

"The Nature of Justifying Grace: A Lacuna in the Joint Declaration" The Thomist 65 (2001): 93–120. 

There is a piece on Thomas More on Luther on Justification: 

Then there is: "Sola salus, Or Fides caritate formata: The Premised Promise of Luther's Dilemma" Fides Catholica 2 (2008): 375-432.

For my own understanding of Luther, I personally have profited greatly from non-Catholic authors.  For a general account of 16th century theories, see Alister E. McGrath, Iustitia Dei: AHistory of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. 2nd ed.  For Luther’s relationship to Thomism in particular, see “Luther Among the Thomists,” in David Steinmetz’s Luther in Context.  I am personally indebted to the late Steinmetz, who was a great figure in the study of the 16th-century.  His Luther and Staupitz has fascinating material on his early development.  For Luther himself, Steinmetz recommended Heiko Oberman’s Luther: Man between God and the Devil.  I also have found helpful Bernhard Lohse’s Martin Luther’s Theology: Its Historical and Systematic Development.  Again, none of these sources are Catholic, but I think that they are helpful for someone with an appropriate Catholic background.  Steinmetz was frustrated because he said that now even many Catholic theologians and theology students don't know enough Catholic theology to distinguish their own position (or different Catholic positions) from those of the Reformers. 

Remembering Fritz

Frederick “Fritz” Wilhelmsen (1923-1996) was, in my estimation at least, one of the great Thomists of the last century. So, I thought it fitting to mark in some way the 20th anniversary of his death. I’m a month late for the anniversary – Wilhelmsen died on May 21, 1996 – but I don’t think that matters much.

Wilhelmsen grew up in Detroit. During World War II, he interrupted his studies at the University of Detroit to serve for three years as an army medic. He eventually earned his BA in 1947 from another Jesuit institution, the University of San Francisco. He completed his MA in philosophy in 1948 at the University of Notre Dame, where he studied under Gerald Phelan and Yves Simon. He completed his PhD in philosophy at the Universidad de Madrid in 1958, with a dissertation on Jacques Maritain.

Wilhelmsen taught at Santa Clara University, Al-Hikma University in Baghdad, the Universidad de Navarra, and lastly at the University of Dallas, where he taught philosophy and political theory for 31 years.

His work ranged from metaphysics and epistemology to political theory and cultural criticism. During his lifetime, Wilhelmsen authored seventeen books, among which, the better known are: Hilaire Belloc: No Alienated Man. A Study in Christian Integration (1954); Man’s Knowledge of Reality. An Introduction to Thomistic Epistemology (1956); The Metaphysics of Love (1962); The Paradoxical Structure of Existence (1970); Christianity and Political Philosophy (1978); Citizen of Rome: Reflections from the Life of a Roman Catholic (1980); and Being and Knowing: Reflections of a Thomist (1991). Several of these books collect separately published papers.

Wilhelmsen co-authored two books with Jane Bret: The War in Man: Media and Machines (1970) and Telepolitics: The Politics of Neuronic Man (1972).

You can find a bibliography of Wilhelmsen’s writings here.

Since there are several good overviews of Wilhelmsen’s life and work available online, I'll forego going any further with the one in this post. Here are four of those overviews:

J. Lehrberger, O. Cist., Christendom’s Troubadour: Frederick D. Wilhelmsen

D.J. D’Elia, Citizen of Rome: Dr. Fredrick D. Wilhelmsen

J.O. Nelson, Wilhelmsen, Frederick

UD Philosophy Department, Frederick D. Wilhelmsen (1923-1996): A UD Legend (Go to p. 2.)

A last word...

It's truly sad that Fritz is gone. We could really use him right now.

Pope Francis Says Luther Correct on Justification

Is it possible to hold 1) that Luther's views on justification are heretical, 2) that Pope Francis states that Luther's views on justification are correct, and yet not conclude 3) that Pope Francis himself is a heretic?

I take it that 1) is indisputable.  All Catholics are bound to accept 1), on the basis of Trent but I think also the whole previous tradition.  It would probably be applicable to what is condemned by Trent and not Luther's own words, but it is hard to argue that the two are unconnected.  Look at Chemnitz or Luther himself.  2) is correct if we believe the recent transcript.  I take it that 3) is possible but most probably incorrect.

It seems to me that 1) and 2) would entail 3) only if it were restated as "Pope Francis assents to Luther's views on justification," and it would entail formal heresy with contumacy only if it were restated as "Pope Francis assents to Luther's views on justification in defiance of earlier Church teaching."  The Pope may have had in mind the joint declaration on justification.  As Chris Malloy, Avery Dulles, and others have shown (which is not at all difficult), this declaration was theologically incompetent, and motivated more by false ecumenical ends than by historical or theological accuracy.    If the Pope consequently doesn't understand the issues, it is arguable that he is not a heretic.  Hence 1) and 2) can be true, and yet 3) false.  There is a difference between being intellectually unable or perhaps unwilling to grasp certain basic issues and being a heretic.

For the transcript, see

"I think that the intentions of Martin Luther were not mistaken. He was a reformer. Perhaps some methods were not correct. But in that time, if we read the story of the Pastor, a German Lutheran who then converted when he saw reality — he became Catholic — in that time, the Church was not exactly a model to imitate. There was corruption in the Church, there was worldliness, attachment to money, to power...and this he protested. Then he was intelligent and took some steps forward justifying, and because he did this. And today Lutherans and Catholics, Protestants, all of us agree on the doctrine of justification.  On this point, which is very important, he did not err."

I wonder if it is harder being a Catholic now than in Luther's time?