"And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"
-- Micah 6:8

"The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict."
-- American Bar Association Standard 3-1.2(c)

"There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
--Pope Benedict XVI, June 2004

Friday, March 06, 2015

Part II: A Quick Primer on Catholic Tradition Regarding Capital Punishment


In the last post, we looked at a brief overview of the Scriptural sources supporting the Church's perennial teaching on the morality of the death penalty.  In this post, I'll review, in un-exhaustive summary fashion, what some sources of the Church's Tradition teach about the death penalty.  I'm unaware of any contrary authoritative sources which would contradict my thesis that the Church has always, as part of its ordinary magisterium, taught the moral permissibility of the death penalty.  Again, I will not defend here why these sources are significant, but would direct the reader here for a good overview of how these sources of Tradition relate to Scripture and constitute evidence of the Church's fundamental teachings on issues of Faith and morals.

St. Augustine is representative of the views of the Church Fathers on the question, and he states that:
The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’, for the representative of the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to the Law or the rule of rational justice.[1]
In another place, the great Father argues against the notion that the guilty should live in the hope of their conversion, stating that “inflicting capital punishment…protects those who are undergoing capital punishment from the harm they may suffer … through increased sinning which might continue if their life went on.”[2]

The second century Church Father Athenagoras assumed the morality of the death penalty:
If these charges are true [of atheism, cannibalism, and incest], spare no class: proceed at once against our crimes; destroy us root and branch, with our wives and children, if any Christian is found to live like the Brutes... For when they know that we [Christians] cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly, who of them can accuse us of murder or cannibalism?
Tertullian, in his De Spectaculis, ch. 19 and  De Anima, Ch. 56:
It is a good thing when the guilty are punished.  Who will deny this but the guilty?
But death that comes from the hands of justice, the avenger of violence, should not be accounted as violent.
This patristic theme is adopted by none other than St. Thomas Aquinas, who viewed attacks on capital punishment based on Scripture with scorn, holding that “the civil rulers execute, justly and sinlessly, pestiferous men in order to protect the peace of the state.”[3] Interestingly, St. Thomas expressly refutes one of the commonly stated reasons for opposition to the death penalty:[4]
The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgment that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers.[5]
Ironically, Sr. Helen Prejean’s (of "Dead Man Walking" fame) own involvement with the death
penalty demonstrates this relationship between the ultimate punishment and redemption. For if
Patrick Sonnier had not been sentenced to die for his crimes, he probably would not have met Sr. Prejean, and probably would never have come to take responsibility for his crimes and seek atonement. Shortly before his death he received the Blessed Sacrament and recited with Sr. Prejean Isaiah 43, “I have called you by your name, you are mine.” He did these things, and perhaps died in the state of grace because of receiving the death penalty and knowing, as much as any man may, the moment and hour of his death. In a way, he could be seen as proof of St. Augustine’s observation that repenting and dying in the state of grace is to be preferred to living only to lose one’s soul through increased sinning.

In any event, the Church for Her part continued to insist on the moral propriety and even the necessity of the death penalty. At the Council of Trent, a catechism was prepared, universal in scope, whose theological weight is greater than that of the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church, since the former was an act of a General Council of the Church. It still remains an important source of theology. The Tridentine catechism places consideration of capital punishment in its treatment of the Fifth Commandment:
Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord. (Emphasis added).
As if to underscore this teaching, the Council Fathers urge as a remedy against violating this Commandment a reflection upon the evil of homicide, which is surely vastly more relevant to our society than to theirs:
The enormity of this sin [of murder] is manifest from many and weighty passages of Holy Scripture. So much does God abominate homicide that He declares in Holy Writ that of the very beast of the field He will exact vengeance for the life of man, commanding the beast that injures man to be put to death. And if He commanded man to have a horror of blood, He did so for no other reason than to impress on his mind the obligation of entirely refraining, both in act and desire, from the enormity of homicide.

The murderer is the worst enemy of his species, and consequently of nature. To the utmost of his power he destroys the universal work of God by the destruction of man, since God declares that He created all things for man’s sake. Nay, as it is forbidden in Genesis to take human life, because God created man to his own image and likeness, he who makes away with God’s image offers great injury to God, and almost seems to lay violent hands on God Himself.
These strong words almost sound foreign to us, immersed in a culture of death turned lukewarm to the horror of murder. Yet the Fathers of Trent do not offer pragmatic reasons for the death penalty. They hold it to be a necessity based on obedience to the Fifth Commandment itself, inasmuch as capital punishment does not diminish but affirms the sanctity of life.

In our own times the Church has not modified this ancient and venerable teaching. Pope St. Pius X promulgated a catechism which also, following Trent’s arrangement, refers to capital punishment in discussing the Fifth Commandment:
Q. Are there cases in which it is lawful to kill?
A. It is lawful to kill when fighting in a just war; when carrying out by order of the Supreme Authority a sentence of death in punishment of a crime; and finally, in cases of necessary and lawful defense of one’s own life against an unjust aggressor.
Papal teaching was in accord with this view as late as the pontificate of Pope Pius XII, who stated in an address that “when it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.”[6]

So it is not surprising that even up to the very eve of the Second Vatican Council, Adolph Tanquerey could address the issue of the death penalty in his seminal moral theology text by first stating this principle:
The civil authority is able to punish with the ultimate punishment of death evildoers duly convicted of the most grave crimes, as often as the public good requires (quoties id requirit bonum publicum). (emphasis added).[7]
Father Tanquerey supports this principle by demonstrating that recourse to capital punishment is strongly rooted in both history and human psychology, and ends his discussion by emphasizing the ethical probity of the death penalty:
Justice demands that the offended moral order be repaired and restored by a congruent satisfaction; and therefore the duty devolves upon the leaders of the Republic to take care that grave crimes are punished by proportionate penalties; for otherwise the moral order is disturbed and endangered. Certainly there are crimes of such gravity committed which, in the general estimation, will only be able to be expiated by means of the death penalty; of such a kind especially is murder cruelly committed after mature deliberation; for crimes which are the greatest affront to the moral order, and encompass the greatest harm, require of their nature the greatest punishment, that is, capital punishment. And therefore this rule is established by common sense: ‘Whoso sheds the blood of man, shall by man have his blood shed.’[8]
Sacred Tradition, then, has consistently viewed capital punishment as a vindication of the sacredness of life. This is clearly shown by the way various Doctors, Popes, and Councils have firmly rooted their validation of the death penalty in discussing the Fifth Commandment; not only to explain why capital punishment does not offend against this Commandment, but also to underscore that by this punishment the sacred gift of life is vindicated. Clearly, the moral approval of capital punishment in the sources just examined is based, not on political expediency or practical concerns such as deterrence, but on obedience to the Fifth Commandment and in recognition of the sanctity of life.

Moreover, as a perennial teaching touching on a matter of morals, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Church’s teaching on the death penalty belongs to the Ordinary Magisterium of the Church. It is a teaching to which the following statement of the Fathers of Vatican I applies:
[T]he Church would lose its immutability and dignity and it would cease being a life-giving society and a necessary means of salvation if it could wander from the safe path of truth in matters of faith and morals, and if, in preaching and explaining these matters, it could deceive or be deceived.[9]
The moral liceity of the death penalty thus belongs to the perennial moral teaching of the Church, and one would have to posit that the Church had erred and thus failed in its Divine mission, if one would affirm that the death penalty is in fact always and everywhere immoral. The Church would, for its entire history, have not taught the truth to society about morality, but rather affirmed the moral good of what is in fact a moral evil. But this is impossible for a Catholic to admit. The Church could no more have taught erroneously that capital punishment is not only licit but laudable than She could have erroneously taught that use of artificial contraception is always and everywhere contrary to the moral law. The Church is Divinely protected from leading men astray in its constant teachings concerning moral issues. She is the teacher and informer of consciences and would have failed in Her mission if She had suddenly been found to have erred for so long on such a fundamental issue of morality.

In the next post, we will see what has apparently changed and what has not, in Catholic teaching in recent years.


[1] City of God, Book I, chapter 21.
[2] On the Lord’s Sermon, 1.20.63-64.
[3] Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 146.
[4] See, e.g., Evangelium Vitae, no. 27.
[5] Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 146.
[6] Address, 9/14/52.
[7] Synopsis Theologiae Moralis, IV, 284. (Translated by author).
[8] Id., IV, 286 (Translated by author).
[9] Draft on the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Christ, Chapter 9.

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