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American Catholics and the Death Penalty

The following is based on Jim Megivern’s presentation on April 20, 2002, at a program on Catholicism and the Death Penalty at the University of Dallas, part of a seminar on Religion and Public Life. The editors also participated in that seminar.

Liberal use of death as the penalty for a wide variety of crimes was a practice inherited from the legal system in force when Christianity became the preferred religion of the Roman Empire in the early 4th century. There is little indication that it ever received much attention from Christian churchmen until the 11th century. With the rise of the Papal Monarchy in the Gregorian Reform (named for Gregory VII who was pope from 1073 to 1085) came a new readiness to enlist physical force on behalf of church affairs, especially to put down heretical groups. This sacralization of the sword cleared the way for Pope Urban II to issue his novel call for a “Crusade” in 1095, an idea unprecedented in earlier Christian thought. He thereby fused the tradition of pilgrimage to Jerusalem with the notion of “pious violence,” endorsing the radical idea that war could be a form of doing devout Christian penance. (For details see the 1997 work of Jonathan Riley-Smith, The First Crusaders, 1095-1131). The theologians and canonists throughout the next century had their hands full trying to work out a theory to justify the new practice which had been adopted without significant challenge.

When word first got back to Europe about the victory of the Christian forces in the First Crusade (1099), the exhilaration was so great that many were convinced that the Holy Spirit was opening an entirely new era for the church. Peter of Poitiers was so impressed that he saw this as a whole new dispensation in God’s plan. He suggested that the Church in earlier days “when it was small, it was useful for it to bear its sufferings and maintain itself with patience. But when its numbers grew, it found that (to be) licit which previously was not licit.” The “new ethic” included executing heretics, which up to then had been a disputed question, with theologians on both sides. A series of decrees over the seven decades after 1184, however, made burning at the stake the officially approved punishment for a recalcitrant heretic, putting an end to the dispute. The time-honored principle that “the Church abhors bloodshed” was narrowed down to apply only to clergy, and the duty of carrying out the executions was entrusted to the lay authorities – the “secular arm” of the church – and they in turn were taught by Pope Innocent IV that this task was actually the state’s highest responsibility in the divine plan (1252).

Throughout the crucial period when this novel theology was coming to the fore, the only direct teaching bearing on the topic was a statement inserted in 1210 into a profession of faith drawn up for a group of Waldensians who wanted to return to Catholic communion. It was a minimal assertion, simply affirming that the death penalty was not wrong in itself and that it could at times be used “without mortal sin.” This minimal assurance, however, became virtually the sole object of most subsequent commentators, taken as a kind of blanket approval to use the death penalty habitually without any thought of restraint. Just as in the case of war-making, no further questions were asked. The automatic assumption seemed to take hold that those with proper authority could liberally use the death penalty in all manner of cases for all kinds of offenses with few moral questions asked or objections raised in the next four centuries.
This approved use of bloodshed was taking place even as Pope Innocent III was launching the Albigensian Crusade (1208). Initially intended as a forty-day punitive expedition, it quickly spiraled out of control and became a series of bloodbaths over the next twenty years, including events like the massacre of 7,000 people and the destruction of the cathedral at Béziers. Scaffolds and nooses became more and more an unquestioned part of the Christian social order, used to do away with offenders of any and all sorts, even the poor peasant caught poaching in the royal forests.

Once thus entrenched capital punishment was taken for granted as part of the woodwork of European Christendom from the 13th through the 16th century. One wing of the Anabaptists protested its use, but they were a fringe minority without much influence until later centuries. But the main Lutheran and Calvinist Reformers continued to use the death penalty, seeing it as an essential part of the divine order just as Rome did. Calvin’s execution of Michael Servetus in Geneva in 1553 removed any doubt as to how heresy was to be dealt with, and in the next century thousands of both Protestant and Catholic “witches” were exterminated in the name of orthodoxy.

One often overlooked factor that accounts in part for this aberration can be seen in what was being taught in the Christian education of the time. The Roman Catechism of 1566 was a model in sketching many areas of Christian faith, but when it came to the Commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” it had nothing to say but that the death penalty was an ‘exception’ to the divine command. No explanation was attempted, no limitations were detailed, no conditions expressed. Capital punishment was placed on a privileged pedestal, out of reach of any criticism or question. It was to be accepted “on faith”

How far this uncritical acceptance had gone can be seen in what is perhaps the most infamous episode in Catholic history. A terrible problem of brigandage was afflicting the Roman countryside when the elderly Pope Gregory XIII died in 1585. At the conclave to elect his successor, one candidate indicated that he had a plan that would “fix” the problem. When elected as Sixtus V, he managed in his first five months as pope to have over 7,000 Roman bandits beheaded, and had many of their heads placed on the lampposts of the Ponte Sant’Angelo. When some expressed dismay over the ‘Vicar of Christ’ engaging in such slaughter, he said he was prepared to kill 20,000, if that is what it took to restore order, and he thereupon had a victory medal struck with his own image on it and the motto “Securitas Perfecta.”

It is perhaps understandable that when serious debates about the ethics of capital punishment finally began to appear in the 18th century Enlightenment, Catholic theologians and philosophers were totally outside the loop, taking no part in them, since the institution was so deeply involved in using the death penalty. In the first extensive historical bibliography of the debate, listing contributors from 1765 to 1865, Ernst Hetzel found not a single Catholic author. As long as the Papal States remained as the temporal domain of the church, the pope had his own executioner who dispatched significant numbers of malefactors from this life in much the same way as those of other temporal rulers in Christendom did.

But nearly everything was turned upside down in the 20th century. The Nazi holocaust, obliteration bombing, atomic incineration, ethnic cleansing, the killing fields, and all the other assaults on human life dwarfed the bloodshed of earlier times. But this worst of times was also ironically the best of times, for it gave birth to the idealism of the United Nations Charter (1945), and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) in a desperate effort to salvage the soul of civilization. One of the consultants in the formation of the latter was the papal nuncio to Paris, Angelo Roncalli, who ten years later became Pope John XXIII and brought the human rights revolution into the heart of the Catholic church in his unprecedented encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963).

In it he staunchly affirmed that “any human society must lay down as a foundation this principle: every human being is a person… By virtue of this he has rights and duties of his own… which are universal, inviolable, and inalienable. If we look upon the dignity of the human person in the light of divinely revealed truth, we cannot help but esteem it far more highly.” Two years later the Vatican Council followed up on this new-found personalism, laying great stress “on reverence for humanity: everyone must consider his every neighbor without exception as another self… A special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception.” (Gaudium et Spes, 27).

The legs were thereby cut out from under the privileged pedestal and it was only a matter of time before support for the death penalty began to collapse wholesale. The very year in which John Paul II was elected pope (1978) was also the year in which French theologian Jean-Marie Aubert powerfully applied the newer insights in his ground-breaking book,Christians and the Death Penalty, challenging all to put aside the attitudes of the past as incompatible with today’s understanding of the Gospel. Little did he know that the new pope was soon going to make this a high priority in his pontificate. The new Catholic Catechism (1992) cleared away much of the debris, and his encyclical The Gospel of Life(1995) did the rest, putting the Catholic Church of the 1990s in the forefront of the worldwide abolitionist movement.

The moral triumphalism that was a standard feature of apologetic church histories written in the four centuries of Catholic – Protestant conflict is the only remaining obstacle. Conservative Catholics find it extremely difficult to put aside. Critical historiography, which aims to let the truth be told without whitewash, has not yet been fully applied in this area. Some promising beginnings have been made, and Pope John Paul II, with his strong background in Christian personalism, saw too clearly and moved too quickly for many around him who only reluctantly went along with his urgent call for changing minds and hearts and renouncing capital punishment as no longer deserving a privileged status. Some foot-dragging continues.

But there is no turning back. Never in history has a pope spoken so articulately against the death penalty as John Paul II, and Catholics who are still leery of embracing the human rights movement find themselves in an odd situation, as revealed recently by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissent from the Pope’s teaching. It will undoubtedly take time for the new spirit to prevail over and replace the old. But even as his health declines, John Paul II’s conviction is on this issue is ever more strongly expressed. He hoped and prayed especially that the coming of the New Millennium would help all to become “more conscious of those times in history when (Christians) departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and… indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal… The recognition of historical sins presupposes taking a stand in relation to events as they really happened and which only a serene and complete historical reconstruction can reveal.” (9/1/99). One of the specific sins he called for all to repent of in this same homily was “the use of violence in the service of truth.”

Once the dignity of the human person is given such priority, vindictive attitudes collapse. The next generation of Catholics, raised with the emphases of John Paul II’s personalism, will scratch their heads, wondering how their elders could ever have supported capital punishment. The parallel with 19th century support of human slavery by many Catholics is striking. In both instances calling for abolition is an ethical imperative of belief in the human as made in the image of the divine.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXII, No. 5, September-October 2002.