An Elementary Distinction
In thinking about what it means to be pro–life, Christians must, to begin with, distinguish between protecting innocent life and protecting society against those who destroy life. There is a 2000 year record of Catholic saints, popes, biblical scholars and theologians speaking in favor of the death penalty, a record of scholarship which overwhelms any "modern" position to the contrary.
Catholics who support Capital Punishment need not fear that they are not in accord with the traditional teaching of the Catholic Faith. To support capital punishment is to be nothing less than authentically Catholic. The magisterium of the Catholic Church has always recognized the morality of capital punishment and its necessity for a just ordering of society. Many passages in the Old and New Testament promote it's use. The Fathers and Doctors of the Catholic Church are virtually unanimous in their support. In modern times Doctors of the Church such as Robert Bellarmine and Alphonsus Liguori held that certain criminals should be punished by death. Blessed John Henry Newman and St. Thomas More sanctioned it's use. (see sidebar, Avery Cardinal Dulles)
Pope Innocent I in 405
“It must be remembered that power was granted by God, and to avenge crime the sword was permitted; he who carries out this vengeance is God’s minister. What motive have we for condemning a practice that all hold to be permitted by God? (Innocent 1, Epist. 6, C. 3. 8, ad Exsuperium, Episcopum Tolosanum, 20 February 405, PL 20,495)
Pope Innocent III 1198 - 1216 (Avery Cardinal Dulles, see sidebar)
Giving magisterial authority to the death penalty, Pope Innocent III required disciples of Peter Waldo seeking reconciliation with the Church to accept the proposition: "The secular power can, without mortal sin, exercise judgment of blood, provided that it punishes with justice, not out of hatred, with prudence, not precipitation."
Pope Saint Pius V 1566 - 1572
Fifth Commandment, On the Execution of Criminals:
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. ... 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.
Pope Saint Pius X in his Catechism, 1908 EWTN
Question #3, 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 defence of one's own life against an unjust aggressor.
Pope Pius XII in 1952 - The Moral Limits of Medical research and treatment. EWTN
“Even when it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual's right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the <enjoyment> of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live.”
St. Thomas Aquinas
Summa Theologica, 11; 65-2; 66-6.
"If a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended.
Summa Theologiae, II, II, q. 64, art. 2
Now every individual person is related to the entire society as a part to the whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since "a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6).
Executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer:
"...a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear, for capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. ...the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy."
The City of God
“The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human beings allows certain exceptions, ... the representatives of the State's authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice.”
Jesus and Scripture
Jesus and Scripture were very severe in advocating punishment for crimes less terrible than murder. And the verdict was much more harsh, not just the loss of earthly life, but eternal life.
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
... woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed. It would be better for that man if he had never been born.
Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
The magistrate does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer.
When God saw how corrupt the earth had become, since all mortals led depraved lives on earth, he said to Noah: "I have decided to put an end to all mortals on earth; the earth is full of lawlessness because of them. So I will destroy them and all life on earth.
Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image.
... Then the angels said to Lot: "We are about to destroy this place, for the outcry reaching the LORD against those in the city is so great that he has sent us to destroy it."….the LORD rained down sulphurous fire upon Sodom and Gomorrah… .He overthrew those cities and the whole Plain, together with the inhabitants of the cities and the produce of the soil.
... when I strike the land of Egypt, no destructive blow will come upon you.
At midnight the LORD slew every first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh on the throne to the first-born of the prisoner in the dungeon ...
(In commeration of the Passover, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal before his death)
Then the LORD told Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may flow back upon the Egyptians …” . As the water flowed back, it covered the chariots and the charioteers of Pharaoh's whole army which had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not a single one of them escaped.
In the Papal States the death penalty was imposed for a variety of offenses.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the consensus of Catholic theologians in favor of capital punishment in extreme cases remained solid, as may be seen
from approved textbooks and encyclopedia articles of the day. The Vatican City State had a
penal code that included the death penalty for anyone who might attempt to assassinate the pope. It was revoked in 1969. (see sidebar - Avery Cardinal Dulles)
Today, many leaders of the Catholic church are seeking to ban capital punishment by pressuring the laity and politicians to support this ban.They claim that capital punishment is not (now) consistent with Catholic belief and not (now) necessary for the protection of innocent life ... as if our present day culture has somehow made a great advance beyond those terrible bygone days of the 1950s when Pope Pius XII reaffirmed the traditional church teaching on capital punishment.
Including capital punishment with the evils of contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia has opened a loophole for duplicitous Catholics, especially politicians, allowing them to be inconsistent and unprincipled about valid pro-life issues. This leads many of the faithful to conclude that those issues also can be made situationally acceptable.
The modern opposition to the death penalty has gone hand in hand with the advance of pacifism, secular humanism and the degeneration of faith and morals. It originated in the 60s and 70s with the anti war movement and the sexual revolution. The sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice has evaporated. In past times the most consistent supporters of capital punishment were the Christian churches while its most consistent opponents were groups hostile to the churches. Grave harm has always come to the Church when contemporary opinions displace traditional teaching.
"Consistency with scripture and long-standing Catholic tradition is important for the grounding of many current teachings of the Catholic Church; for
example, those regarding abortion, contraception, the permanence of marriage, and the ineligibility of women for priestly ordination. If the tradition on capital punishment had been reversed, serious questions would be raised regarding other doctrines."
(2004, Avery Cardinal Dulles - see sidebar)