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Paul Griffiths’s sneering review of our book, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed (“Against Capital Punishment,” December 2017), illustrates how much bile—and how little charity—is often to be found in those who speak the loudest of mercy and humanity.

Griffiths suggests that unless one is willing to execute everyone who merits it (which, as he notes, we are not), one must be an abolitionist. This is a false choice. One can instead take the middle position (the Church’s traditional position) that there is a presumption in favor of executing those who merit it, but that this presumption can be overridden. Why? ­Because justice exists for the sake of the good of society and of the offender. There are cases where mercy better serves these ends than inflicting just deserts would.

Griffiths feigns doubt about whether anyone can know what just deserts are. But we needn’t achieve mathematical exactitude, nor be able to settle every case, to know (for example) that a fine can be a fitting punishment for vandalism, or that armed robbery deserves a more severe punishment than petty theft. If Griffiths doubts this, then he owes us a justification of such radical skepticism, and an account of how he can reconcile it with any workable system of criminal justice, never mind one that coun­tenances the death penalty. For thousands of years, public officials and ordinary men and women have been doing precisely what Griffiths says is impossible: deciding which killers deserve to die for their crimes.

Griffiths accuses us of “flat-­footed” readings of Scripture and of magisterial documents. He offers no examples. In fact, we engage in detail with alternative readings of relevant texts, and offer arguments both for and against our own interpretations. Contrary to Griffiths’s insinuation, we do not rest content with mere proof-texting. But perhaps by a “­flat-footed reading,” he ­simply means “one that Paul Griffiths ­disagrees with.”

Griffiths objects to our inclusion of gruesome details of the crimes committed by offenders executed in recent years in the U.S. But this was necessary. For one thing, we aimed to show that, contrary to the abolitionist claim that the system is arbitrary, in fact it is only the very worst of the worst who are executed in the U.S. today. Griffiths seems unaware that it is precisely the details of the crimes that lead juries to make the decisions they do.

For another thing, we needed to illustrate how disproportionate mere life imprisonment is to certain ­offenses. Fancying himself a mindreader, Griffiths dismisses this justification as “disingenuous.” However, telepathy remains scientifically ­dubious and the ad hominem remains fallacious. Awful luck for Griffiths, but there it is.

Edward Feser
pasadena city college
pasadena, california

Joseph M. Bessette
claremont mckenna college
claremont, california

Paul Griffiths recommends that ­Feser and Bessette read Bl. John Henry Newman’s Essay on the ­Development of Christian Doctrine. But in that book, Newman clearly sets out seven “marks” by which one may recognize whether a development in doctrine is legitimate or not. Newman expects that all legitimate developments will preserve the original idea, rely on the same principles, “grow” out of the original idea, be anticipated by prior speculation so that they do not appear out of the blue, display logical sequence of development, and so on.

Perhaps Griffiths could walk us through Newman’s marks and show how they support his preferred development, since it appears that ­Feser and Bessette could also happily appeal to Newman to support their ­opposite view.

Michael Cashman
brisbane, australia

Paul Griffiths’s obliviousness to the economy of social contract in the matter of rights compels him to claim that the Church supported “legalized murder” for two thousand years. There is no such thing as legalized murder, and to assert such is to indulge in the irrational, sensationalist rhetoric which unfortunately so degrades contemporary debate on the death penalty.

Even the more cogent proponents of the so-called “new natural law” theory make this mistake. “New natural law” is an oxymoron if natural law is by definition immutable, and invoking it to impute intrinsic evil to capital punishment paves the way—logically, if unintentionally—to undermining doctrine against contraception, abortion, and sexual inversion.

Griffiths further fails to understand Newman’s “development of doctrine” when, one assumes by innocent ignorance rather than willfulness, he obscures Newman’s tenets on “preservation of type.” As a consequence, all the doctors of the Church go out the window. It is no wonder that Griffiths needs a “cold compress” when confronting Newman, and finds Aquinas hardly “bearable.” I suppose St. Paul (Rom. 13:1–14) and Christ himself (John 19:11), followed by Augustine, Innocent III, Pius V, Pius XII, and, to add that unsentimental woman, Elizabeth Anscombe (“civil society is the bearer of rights of coercion”), would send the sensitive professor to a fainting couch, revived only by what he thinks is the plausibility of Derrida.

Griffiths accuses death penalty advocates of theatrics, while in fact his whole line of argument is melodramatic, as when he refers to executions as “blood sacrifices.” The sober analysis of Feser and Bessette is totally devoid of the “bloodthirstiness” with which he charges them, and his objection to the “grisly detail” of their descriptions of capital crimes resembles the complaints of abortionists when shown pictures of infants’ body parts.

It was certainly ill-advised to insert a vague and meandering prudential opinion on capital punishment into the 1992 Catechism, but even there, John Paul II did not part from authentic doctrine. The fact that Pope Francis considers capital punishment and even life sentences (“slow-motion capital punishment”) intrinsically evil goes to show that we are living in a dangerously neuralgic time.

There are thoughtful arguments on both sides of the issue, but Griffiths’s perspective seems to make sense only from some flying island of Laputa.

Fr. George W. Rutler
new york, new york

Paul Griffiths replies:

Thanks to my interlocutors.

The most important disagreements I have with Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette are two. First, about how to read the trajectory these past three decades or so of magisterial teaching on judicial execution. I recommend to any readers seriously interested in this a close reading of Evangelium ­Vitae, the 1992 Catechism (nos. 2258–2330, with attention to framing and theme), and the letters and comments of Pope Francis referenced in my essay. Then turn to Feser and Bessette’s comments on magisterial teaching in their book. I’m confident that the strained and desperate implausibility of their reading will be as starkly evident as their lack of religiosum voluntatis et intellectus obsequium to magisterial teaching. For one, they fail to understand the reframing of the question as one of defense, which is what I called in my essay the subordination of the grammar of desert to that of the common good.

The second matter is epistemic, and foundational. Feser and ­Bessette, in their book and their letter, exhibit epistemic optimism, like most Thomists. They think it easy enough to know the deserts of particular crimes. But they ought not think this. Their own rejection of once widely held views about the range of crimes meriting judicial execution shows how little we should trust intuitions (that’s what they are) about these matters, then or now. Without epistemic optimism on this, Feser and Bessette’s edifice falls to the ground, as well it should. And as to bile: That, I suppose, like disingenuousness, is in the eye of the beholder. Bad luck indeed.

Contrary to George Rutler, I nowhere claim anything about legalized murder. Neither do I claim that judicial execution is intrinsically evil. That he thinks I do is evidence of sloppy reading caused, I should think, by ideological blinders. I do call judicial executions killings, and I do call them blood sacrifices. Does he think they’re not? Of course they’re killings, and their intrinsic theatricality makes them sacrifices in form and intent. As to Newman: I commend to Rutler his writings on private judgment, for Rutler clearly elevates his own judgment above that of a succession of popes. He should read, slowly and prayerfully, the texts I recommend above, with Lumen Gentium no. 25 in mind. This might correct his Protestant tendencies, though it rather seems he’s beyond help there.

I’d be happy to walk Michael Cashman through Newman on development and assent and private judgment, were First Things to give me the several thousand words that would take. In the meantime, he might start with the Grammar of Assent on the nature of religious assents, and then turn to the Development on the antecedent probability of there being a magisterial authority. He’ll see, I’m confident, that Feser and Bessette would have a much harder time than I justifying their position à la Newman.

And to all: Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of judicial execution—Catholics, clearly, differ about it—you ought at least lament its necessity if you wrongly think it necessary. That the likes of Feser and Bessette and Rutler do not even do this is the clearest evidence that they’ve abandoned Christian thought on the matter. That causes me to grieve their hard hearts and their febrile longings for blood.


Maggie Gallagher and Frank ­Cannon’s trenchant essay “Culture Is Downstream of Politics” (December 2017) is correct that politics is itself part of culture. In my 2001 essay, “The Culture: Upstream from Politics”—the first to use the now-­commonplace formulation that ­Gallagher and Cannon criticize—I was careful to qualify my argument by recognizing the important educative, and not merely prohibitive, function of law.

Yet even as conservatives in the last two decades have made notable strides in access to influential cultural institutions in entertainment and the media, the influence of civil society and nonpolitical leaders on public opinion is still underappreciated. Politics is more akin to a mirror than a comb, and the unwritten constitution of hearts and minds constrains the interpretive boundaries of the written Constitution. Bolder political leadership would surely help to shape our culture, but mobilization of the nonpolitical sphere to make downstream political changes possible remains the dominant leitmotif in American public life. 

Politics is the art of the possible, and culture makes some policy changes impossible. Americans may be slowly souring on abortion, but would a majority countenance outlawing it altogether today? Could middle-class entitlements be significantly scaled back to balance the budget in the course of the next few years? These things are unimaginable, and the majority party that attempted them would quickly become a minority. 

Even the courts are constrained by public opinion. Would Roe v. Wade have been possible in 1953 instead of 1973? Could Brown v. Board of Education have been handed down in 1924? All governance, judicial or legislative or regulatory, is hemmed in by cultural assumptions. Policy-makers are forced to work on either side of the fifty-yard line of public opinion. 

Frustrated wings of both parties blame cowardly political leadership for failing to accomplish the impossible. But neither conservatives nor liberals have come to terms with the fact that many other Americans ­deeply disagree with their policy agendas. Cloistered in red or blue communities and steeped in tell-me-what-I-want-to-hear media coverage, both sides have duped themselves into believing that our current crisis stems from a failure of the political class—“the swamp”—rather than the tragedy of a divided nation.

Facing this reality brings us back to the long and arduous work of cultural change—including the political realm, but without neglecting the academy, entertainment, religion, and the arts. It’s not a worn-out trope but deeply and enduringly true that the polis is the soul writ large and ­culture is upstream from politics.

William Wichterman
oakton, virginia

Maggie Gallagher and Frank ­Cannon are right. Culture may indeed be downstream of politics. The ocean’s tide can reverse the natural flow of a river. And faith, too, may ­sometimes be downstream of politics. Take ­abortion: If the Church does not fight politically for the right to life of the unborn, even mere belief in their human dignity becomes more difficult, especially for the young. So even if we were to give up on our political agenda, we ought to continue fighting evil in that sphere simply for the sake of good catechesis. The March for Life in D.C. would help us, even if it did not also save lives. 

Richard Stith
valparaiso university law school
valparaiso, indiana

Maggie Gallagher and Frank ­Cannon make a powerful argument that culture takes its cues from politics. As political issues carve a toehold in public discourse, they become constitutive elements of the American experience. We see clearly in the result of the 2016 presidential election that political outcomes can act as a brake on runaway cultural agendas promoted by activists and elites at the extremes of public opinion. Social conservatives should learn from this.

Yet Gallagher and Cannon go too far when they dismiss attempts to influence society by nonpolitical means as merely lost opportunities for electoral gain. In fact, such strategies have won repeated victories in recent American history. The shift in public opinion on gay marriage in our country is not primarily the result of social conservatives’ recent failures to stand and defend the few political leaders speaking openly about their opposition to it. The battle was lost in the decades before the issue went to the polls, in elementary and middle schools in the 1990s, and in the national mania for the sitcom Will & Grace. Following strategies suggested by the book After the Ball, homosexual lifestyles were mainstreamed. Churches remained largely silent on the issue. By the time the issue reached ballot ­boxes, many Americans didn’t have the will to argue. They knew loved ones and ­coworkers who had come out as gay. Even those who disagreed lost confidence to speak out as their arguments were caricatured and their convictions mocked.

Politicians speaking loudly in opposition to gay marriage might have helped stall the movement for a time. But elected officials’ willingness to dissent is proportionate to their expectation of gain in the form of votes and donations. Once Americans fell silent on the issue, unsure of what to say to loved ones, afraid of being labeled as bigots, so did our leaders on Capitol Hill.

A similar culture-before-politics strategy was effectively deployed by the anti-smoking lobby in the 1980s and 1990s. Every person my age remembers the pictures of black lungs displayed at admonitory lectures we attended in elementary and middle school. My husband and I both ­remember being disciplined for going home and hiding our parents’ tobacco products. But it wasn’t until I was older, in high school and college, that the campaign to ban smoking in restaurants and other indoor facilities really took off. By then, an entire generation had been raised with constant warnings about the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke. Passing the necessary state and local ordinances was easy.

I am grateful for those courageous politicians who have kept the grave crime of abortion in the public eye since 1973. Again, however, politicians didn’t do it alone. It was the Catholic Church that launched National Right to Life and the rhetoric of Jerry Falwell that compelled Christians across the nation to keep abortion at the forefront of their agenda. Many have forgotten that the Republican party was not anti-abortion in the 1970s.

Ultimately, whether culture is downstream of politics or vice versa is a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum. Both are equally constitutive of the sum total of institutional forms and social interactions that has classically been called “politics.” Ideally, social conservatives would cede neither politics nor culture to the opposition. Any plan that proposes to recapture one at the expense of the other is not wholly political in the most useful sense of the term.

As head of Students for Life of America, overseeing student-led organizations on around 1,200 high school and college campuses nationwide, I know from experience that social conservatives cannot cede the territory of culture and expect to survive. Planned Parenthood and its allies prey on young people for business by setting up shop next to colleges and high schools, sometimes even inside them. Students who choose abortion or have a personal story about abortion are more likely to support proabortion politicians—even if they regret their choice, they interpret political condemnation of abortion as a personal affront.

For those students, we are too late in multiple ways. We’ve lost their child, we’ve lost their minds to the lies of the abortion industry, and we’ve lost their votes. A comprehensive response is required.

Kristan Hawkins
fredericksburg, virginia

Maggie Gallagher replies:

Thanks to William Wichterman, Richard Stith, and Kristan Hawkins for their thoughtful responses. I fear the essay’s provocative title might have been a distraction. Politics or culture is indeed a classic false dichotomy. It reminds me of the way liberals used to want to construct the debate about the causes of family breakdown as poverty or ­fatherlessness—as if both can’t matter, and, in any event, one way fatherlessness matters is that it leads to poverty.

My essay with Frank Cannon attempts to answer the question “How should social conservatives respond to their increasing political weakness?” This question becomes urgent as cultural elites grow more hostile, and orthodox Christian beliefs (shared by most other traditional faiths and by many with no faith) about sex and marriage are redefined as hatred and bigotry. Politics is the low-hanging fruit in this fight. Transforming the culture of Hollywood or Silicon Valley isn’t feasible, but building political power is.

Of course, to sustain a Christian subculture in America in the long term, much must be done in other facets of public life. But social conservatives must answer this question: Why, more than forty years after Roe, has their political investment produced so little effect, not only in the rarefied air of elite cultural institutions, but even in the open competition of ­politics? “Culture Is Downstream of Politics” proposes that the primary cause of social conservatives’ current weakness is their failure to invest in actual politics. Politics means contesting elections directly—with the requisite financial backing—to protect our friends and threaten our enemies with retirement. Politics means campaigning on specific legislation, not generic “values.” The March for Life is a great thing, but it is not politics. 

Either social conservatives will devise effective new political strategies now, in 2018, or the Republican party will turn against them, and Democrats will exercise their power more aggressively, unhampered by fears of opposition. The situation is dire, it is only going to get worse quickly, and we need to act now.