By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed

A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Edward Feser, Joseph Bessette
  • San Francisco, CA: 
    Ignatius Press
    , May
     500 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed provides a trenchant and cogent presentation of the defense of capital punishment from a Catholic perspective. Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette set out to provide reasonable arguments to show that not only is the legitimate power to implement capital punishment permitted to the state in principle, it is likewise prudent and good for it to be exercised and frequently implemented in the United States. Admittedly, those who have followed this debate closely over recent decades will not find much that is new in Feser and Besette’s arguments. Nevertheless, the arguments are addressed in a very clear and readable manner and worth reading. Furthermore, Feser and Bessette do not claim that they are presenting new arguments; rather they insist that the legitimacy of capital punishment is the ancient and long standing teaching of the Catholic Church. Feser and Bessette go even farther, laying out a compelling case that denying that capital punishment can be legitimate in principle is proximate to heresy (122-23).

While the context of this argument is decidedly and purposefully Catholic, readers of different religions and belief systems can still find forceful natural law arguments supporting capital punishment in this book. The authors also offer arguments claiming the prudence of using capital punishment in the United States, relying on case studies and statistical analysis. Anyone who is interested in investigating the question of the legitimacy of the use of capital punishment, especially in the United States, would do well to entertain the many and powerful arguments put forth by Feser and Bessette.

The writing of this book is very accessible. That being said, the text might be off-putting to those who do not find themselves inclined to agree with Feser and Bessette. They certainly take arguments that challenge their theses seriously, but they are forceful and emphatic once they have provided their proposed refutation to anticipated objections. This manner of writing provides clarity for their position, but the skeptical reader might find the conclusions somewhat overstated.

The first part of the book is dedicated to making arguments that capital punishment is, at least in principle, a practice legitimately exercised by a state. Running through the heart of these arguments is a brief account of the debates between the classic understanding of natural law and New Natural Law Theory (NNLT). Feser and Bessette come out strongly against NNLT, endorsing instead the classical understanding of natural law. However, as they rightly acknowledge, even adopting a NNLT position, it seems that there is at the very least an ambiguity regarding whether NNLT compels one to reject or accept the legitimacy of capital punishment in principle. As Feser and Bessette point out John Finnis once defended the use of capital punishment against Germaine Grisez on NNLT grounds (87). Additionally, they point out that a Kantian morality likewise demands the use of capital punishment, though they do not endorse this position since, they say, a strict adherence to a Kantian view would command the use of capital punishment. Feser and Bessette insist that capital punishment is legitimate and ought to be used frequently, but they resist the claim that capital punishment must be used in any given circumstance (79).

Appeal to scripture and the authority of the teaching of the Catholic church are discussed in two separate chapters. The first of these chapters deals with scripture and the more universal teaching of the Catholic church; the second chapter is at the end of the book and addresses the teaching of the US Bishop’s conference. Necessarily summary, scholars of biblical texts might find the treatment of scripture passages in these chapters somewhat superficial. However, their take on the scriptures is not new and falls well within a classical/traditional reading of the texts, as they show through their reference to various early Christian texts, and by a thorough engagement with early church historian and death penalty opponent E. Christian Brugger. In the end, Feser and Bessette (supported by arguments from Brugger), argue forcibly that the teaching that the state can legitimately exercise capital punishment is a long standing and consistent teaching of the Catholic church.

More tenuously, though not unreasonably, they also argue that even recent pontificates (from John Paull II on) have not taught anything that opposes capital punishment in principle, only the prudence of the application of the punishment in this day and age. In a Catholic context, this distinction makes all the difference. Were current popes to teach that capital punishment is in principle wrong, it would seem to contradict past authoritative teachings from the Catholic church, and undermine the teaching authority of the whole. It is precisely for this reason that Feser and Bessette so forcibly attack (there is no other word for it) the position of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on the issue of the death penalty. According to Feser and Bessette, the USCCB has come dangerously close to rejecting the validity of capital punishment in principle (292).

Again, for those interested in the question of the legitimacy of capital punishment in principle and in practice in the United States, this book is an invaluable contribution to the discussion, especially as an articulation from within the Catholic context. Readers should be warned, however, that there are many disturbing accounts about the crimes committed by those who have been put to death in the US. While this reviewer acknowledges that it seems to be a necessary part of the conversation, nevertheless, the sensitive would do well to steer clear of those sections.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel Lendman is a doctoral student in systematic theology at Ave Maria University.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Edward Feser is associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. Called by National Review "one of the best contemporary writers on philosophy," he is the author of The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, Aquinas, Scholastic MetaphysicsBy Man Shall His Blood Be Shed, and many other books and articles.

Joseph Bessette is a professor of government and ethics at Claremont McKenna College in Southern California, and also teaches in the Dept. of Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate University. He has a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago. Prior to arriving at CMC, Bessette worked nine years in criminal justice.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.