In Capital Punishment, E. Christian Brugger, Assistant Professor of Ethics at Loyola University in New Orleans, sets himself a ponderous task: he hopes to demonstrate that Catholic moral teaching, which traditionally has been interpreted as supporting the death penalty, uses language that lays the foundation for a rejection of state-sponsored execution.
Brugger’s book is a veritable gold mine of information, tracing the history of doctinal and moral thinking about the death penalty. He begins in the present, with explorations of The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Evangelium Vitae, and Veritatis Splendor. He suggests that, since the documents use the principle of self-defense to justify the death penalty, this places the question under the model of the double effect. Brugger contends that the same logic may be applied to show that the death penalty cannot, in fact, be justified, since it involves the intentional killing of a human person.
The second part of the book reviews the history of writings on the death penalty, beginning with the bible and continuing through the Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation periods to the present day. Admitting that this review shows a “cumulative consensus” that the death penalty is morally legitimate, Brugger clarifies what he sees as key concepts in the capital punishment debate, such as retribution, the common good, and the order of justice. The final chapter in this part traces the Catholic Church’s move away from support for to opposition to the death penalty, a move that he says began in the late eighteenth century.
In the final section of the book, Brugger discusses the “development of doctrine” in the Catholic tradition. To that end, after an extensive section on infallibility, he proposes two models, “Development as Filtering and Reformulating” and “Development as Specification,” to show how Catholic teaching on capital punishment is developing. The last chapter envisions a developed teaching that rejects capital punishment on principle.
Bruggers’ notes and bibliography are extensive. His book serves as a valuable resource for anyone interested in the history of and possible changes in the Roman Catholic teaching on the death penalty. The book struck me as dense for undergraduate students but excellent source material for their professors. One note: Brugger himself admits that, since he hopes to spark an “intra-ecclesiastical conversation,” he has not dealt with many questions surrounding capital punishment, such as justice in sentencing, the question of deterrence, penal reform, and so on. Even so, the conversations his book will spark are timely and critical.