David Bentley Hart on the death penalty

Stefano di Giovanni - Burning of a heretic (1430-32)

David Bentley Hart has written an excellent little piece (a review of Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette’s book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment) on why those who argue that there could be any theological justification for the death penalty ‘have essentially excused themselves from civilized Christian discourse’.

[Image: Stefano di Giovanni, ‘Burning of a Heretic’, 1430–32]


  1. Are you interpreting his remark to that effect to mean that “anybody who claims there are theological justifications for the death penalty is outside polite discourse” or that “anybody who claims that the death penalty can be used to enforce theological norms is outside of polite Christian discourse”?


  2. The latter, sort of. As I read him, Hart’s argument is that there is no theological justification – and therefore no civilized Christian discourse – for the death penalty.


  3. “… this book would exhaust the ruthlessness of Torquemada..”
    “… all too often it exhibits a moral sensibility that is truly repellant.”
    “The most appalling aspect of this book is finally not its shoddy reasoning or theological ignorance, but its sheer moral coarseness… [E]very page exudes an atmosphere of almost numbing callousness.”

    There is no greater contemporary master of the theological diatribe than Hart — this one quite capitally executed.

    As for “polite” discourse — Hart doesn’t use the word. He uses the word “civilized [Christian discourse]”. One can be a paragon of good manners while yet expressing utterly barbaric and sub-Christian moral convictions. After all, there is no finer tactician of courtesy than the Devil himself.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Obviously, there are crimes of such heinous evil that one understands the cry for retribution. I have empathy for those scarred by evil and the natural response of conscience that justice demands a proper answer to evil acts. Yet if civilization is ultimately rooted in the Kingdom, it must transcend our horror and ground virtue in the participation of the creature in the agapeic love of God. Faith and forgiveness is a feat of the Spirit, yet upon such foundations only will a people live out the call to human flourishing.


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