AUTHOR: Bishop Brian Kennedy, O.S.B.
The Death Penalty Is a Moral Option
The Celtic Orthodox Benedictine Fathers remain committed to freedom of choice on this issue. We do not object to others who take a position either for or against Capital Punishment. What we do object to is a Bishop or Priest or a Jurisdiction using their influence to mislead others into thinking that there is only one position that is morally possible in light of the Apostolic and Traditional teaching of the larger Church Catholic. Some have gone so far as to misrepresent the history behind the issue, misleading the faithful into believing that the Church Catholic has always opposed Capital Punishment. Nothing could be farther from the truth than to say the Church Catholic has always opposed Capital Punishment.
We live in a society that does not respect life. It is possible to commit murder and remain in prison only a few years. Armed robbery may carry an equal, or greater, Sentence. Consequently, the criminal will frequently murder any witnesses in order to increase his chances of escape. This is a terrible miscarriage of justice as well as the ultimate disrespect for life.
We see endless pleas made in behalf of the murderer based on the misguided notion that the death penalty shows disregard for life and represents cruel and unusual punishment.
God gave a law through Moses to the Israelites. It was a strict but balanced system that held life in great reverence. So esteemed are its concepts that much of our legal system in the past has been influenced by it. In recent years, our courts have been influenced by those who consider themselves more enlightened.
Although God did not intend that we live under the Law of Moses, it does reveal to us the mind of God in the matter of the death penalty.
The law given through Moses to the Israelites includes the command, "You shall not kill" (Exodus 20:13). The word translated "kill" means "murder." The Law of Moses prohibited murder and authorized the civil authorities to take the life of the murderer (Leviticus 24:17). It should be noted that the Law of Moses contained several safeguards to protect against injustice. Perjury was not taken lightly. One of the ten Commandments forbade the bearing of false witness (Exodus 20:16). Also, the accused must have been observed in the act by two or more witnesses Deuteronomy 17:2-7).
The death penalty was not invoked in instances of circumstantial evidence. These principles preserved justice with respect for life for fifteen hundred years among those who kept the law of Moses.
It is widely believed that the Law of Moses was a vengeful law. The statement,"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth" (Exodus 21:24) is often misunderstood. It did not justify vengeance. It prohibited vengeance by protecting the accused from receiving punishment worse than the crime. For example: If a neighbor knocked out your tooth, the law prohibited you from burning his house.
The teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5:43-44 does not suggest that forgiveness would prohibit the death penalty. Jesus was teaching concerning the abuse of the Law of Moses by those who added the instruction to hate. Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy. (The religious teachers had added, "and hate your enemy.") But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you." The instruction of Jesus is a correction of a false teaching. It does not conflict with the use of the death penalty when justly used by civil government.
The followers of Jesus realize that murder is wrong and look to civil government to punish the murderer. "Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are established by God. Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they will receive condemnation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil." (Romans 13:1-4) This results in an orderly society by putting fear into the heart of the one who has no respect for life.
The apostle Paul knew the mind of Christ. He said, while making his own defense, "If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die..." (Acts 25:11). This Apostle of Jesus did not protest the death penalty. He accepted it as just in instances where crime justified death.
Jesus warned that civil government would take the life of the murderer when He said, "Put your sword back unto its place; for all who take up the sword shall perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52).
The death penalty is a deterrent because a murderer put to death will never murder again. Some convicted murderers repeat their heinous crimes again and again while in prison serving life sentences. Others escape from prison and murder again before they are apprehended.
A society cannot long endure without respect for life. If crime is allowed to increase unchecked, it will unravel the very fabric of our society. Even a brief look at history will demonstrate this. Will we fail to learn the lessons of history? If so, we are doomed to repeat them.
In the Old Testament the Mosaic Law specifies no less than thirty–six capital offenses calling for execution by stoning, burning, decapitation, or strangulation. Included in the list are idolatry, magic, blasphemy, violation of the Sabbath, murder, adultery, bestiality, pederasty, and incest. The death penalty was considered especially fitting as a punishment for murder since in His covenant with Noah, God had laid down the principle, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image” (Genesis 9:6).
Jesus cites with approval the apparently harsh commandment, “He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die” (Matthew 15:4; Mark 7:10, referring to Exodus 2l:17; Leviticus 20:9).
When Pilate calls attention to his authority to crucify him, Jesus points out that Pilate’s power comes to him from above—that is to say, from God (John 19:11).
The early Christians evidently had nothing against the death penalty. They approve of the divine punishment meted out to Ananias and Sapphira when they are rebuked by Peter for their fraudulent action (Acts 5:1–11).
The Letter to the Hebrews makes an argument from the fact that “a man who has violated the Law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses” (10:28). Paul repeatedly refers to the connection between sin and death. He writes to the Romans, with an apparent reference to the death penalty, that the magistrate who holds authority “does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the Wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). No passage in the New Testament disapproves of the death penalty.
Turning to Christian tradition, we may note that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church are virtually unanimous in their support for capital punishment, even though some of them such as St. Ambrose exhort members of the clergy not to pronounce capital sentences or serve as executioners.
To answer the objection that the fifth commandment forbids killing, St. Augustine writes in The City of God: " The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time. 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”, to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice."
In the Middle Ages a number of canonists teach that ecclesiastical courts should refrain from the death penalty and that civil courts should impose it only for major crimes. But leading canonists and theologians assert the right of civil courts to pronounce the death penalty for very grave offenses such as murder and treason.
Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus invoke the authority of Scripture and Patristic Tradition, and give arguments from reason.
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.”
In the high Middle Ages and early modern times the Holy See authorized the Inquisition to turn over heretics to the secular arm for execution.
In the Papal States the death penalty was imposed for a variety of offenses. The Roman Catechism, issued in 1566, three years after the end of the Council of Trent, taught that the power of life and death had been entrusted by God to civil authorities and that the use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to the fifth commandment.
In modern times Doctors of the Church such as Robert Bellarmine and Alphonsus Liguori held that certain criminals should be punished by death. Venerable authorities such as Francisco de Vitoria, Thomas More, and Francisco Suárez agreed. John Henry Newman, in a letter to a friend, maintained that the magistrate had the right to bear the sword, and that the Church should sanction its use, in the sense that Moses, Joshua, and Samuel used it against abominable crimes.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the consensus of Catholic and Orthodox 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 from 1929 until 1969 had a penal code that included the death penalty for anyone who might attempt to assassinate the pope. Pope Pius XII, in an important allocution to medical experts, declared that it was reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life in expiation of their crimes.
There are today differing views. Some take the absolutist position that because the right to life is sacred and inviolable, the death penalty is always wrong. The respected Italian Franciscan Gino Concetti, writing in L’Osservatore Romano in 1977, made the following powerful statement: "In light of the word of God, and thus of faith, life—all human life—is sacred and untouchable; No matter how heinous the crimes ..... [the criminal] does not lose his fundamental right to life, for it is primordial, inviolable, and inalienable, and thus comes under the power of no one whatsoever. If this right and its attributes are so absolute, it is because of the image which, at creation, God impressed on human nature itself. No force, no violence, no passion can erase or destroy it. By virtue of this divine image, man is a person endowed with dignity and rights."
To warrant this radical revision—one might almost say reversal—of the Catholic and Orthodox tradition, Father Concetti and others explain that the Church from biblical times until our own day has failed to perceive the true significance of the image of God in man, which implies that even the terrestrial life of each individual person is sacred and inviolable.
In effect, he is saying the Holy Spirit was wrong or he is saying the written Scriptures are not divinely inspired. Obviously, he is saying the undivided Church has taught error for 2000 years.
In past centuries, it is alleged, Jews and Christians failed to think through the consequences of this revealed doctrine. (Divine Revelation is found to be defective and even barbaric in this position.) They were caught up in a barbaric culture of violence and in an absolutist theory of political power, both handed down from the ancient world.
But in our day, a new recognition of the dignity and inalienable rights of the human person has dawned (This states in truth the Holy Spirit waited 2000 years to reveal to the Churchmen of today His will which guidance He denied the Church for the same 2000 years).
Those who recognize the signs of the times will move beyond the outmoded doctrines that the State has a divinely delegated power to kill and that criminals forfeit their fundamental human rights, (In this idea, the Doctrines revealed by the Holy Spirit, taught by the Church and the Fathers of the Church are outmoded) The teaching on capital punishment must today undergo a dramatic development corresponding to these new insights).
This abolitionist position has a tempting simplicity. But it is not really new. It has been held by sectarian Christians at least since the Middle Ages. Many pacifist groups, such as the Waldensians, the Quakers, the Hutterites, and the Mennonites, have shared this point of view. But, like pacifism itself, this absolutist interpretation of the right to life found no echo at the time among Catholic and Orthodox theologians, who accepted the death penalty as consonant with Scripture, tradition, and the natural law.
The mounting opposition to the death penalty in Europe since the Enlightenment has gone hand in hand with a decline of faith in eternal life. In the nineteenth century the most consistent supporters of capital punishment were the Christian churches, and its most consistent opponents were groups hostile to the churches. When death came to be understood as the ultimate evil rather than as a stage on the way to eternal life, utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham found it easy to dismiss capital punishment as “useless annihilation.”
Many governments in Europe and elsewhere have eliminated the death penalty in the twentieth century, often against the protests of religious believers.
While this change may be viewed by some as moral progress, it is probably due, in part, to the evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to biblical religion and the Orthodox and Catholic faith.
The abolition of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the gospel. Arguments from the progress of ethical consciousness have been used to promote a number of alleged human rights that the Orthodox and Catholic Church consistently rejects in the name of Scripture and Tradition. The Ordinary Magisterium appeals to these authorities as grounds for repudiating divorce, abortion, homosexual relations, and the ordination of women to the priesthood. If the Church feels herself bound by Scripture and tradition in these other areas, it seems inconsistent for Catholics and Orthodox to proclaim a “moral revolution” on the issue of capital punishment.
Every Christian must seek the answer from within themselves. However, nobody has a right to condemn as Unorthodox or Uncatholic any who do not agree with them.
Mentally bowing to the light of Christ within you, I remain,
His Unworthy Priest,
Bishop +Brian J. Kennedy, O.S.B.