A History of the Catholic Church on the Death Penalty

| January 16, 2020

A History of the Catholic Church on the Death Penalty

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War and persecution constitute an important chapter in which the devil took control over actions of men, although it is often overruled the concept of heroism and progress in terms of civil and religious freedom. In the history of the Catholic Church, there were many persecutors and martyrs. In modern-day teachings of the Catholic Church, the blood of martyrs represents the seed of toleration and liberty, the most precious gift that God gives any man who has been created in his image and then redeemed by Jesus Christ.

Of all forms of persecution that have existed throughout history, religious persecution is the worst since it is enacted in God’s name. It completely violates all the sacred rights of human conscience and rouses the deepest and strongest passions. In the Catholic Church, persecution sprung from malice, hatred, envy, mistaken zeal for truth and sheer narrowness of people’s thinking. 

The origin of religious persecution among Catholics was first introduced by the Mosaic Law, which always punished blasphemy and idolatry by death. The Mosaic theocracy then was superseded in its temporal and national provisions by the kingdom of Christ. The confounding New and Old testaments, the gospel of Christ and the law of Moses were the sources of many evils within the Catholic Church, including persecution.

The New Testament did not furnish any sword of support for this doctrine of death penalty. The teachings and example given by Christ as well as Apostles are completely opposed to it. For this reason, they suffered prosecution but did not persecute anybody. Their weapons, according to the New Testament, were spiritual rather than carnal.

            St. Augustine found only one phrase in the New Testament that was in favor of the principle of coercion: Luke 14:23 which reads: “Constrain them to come in”, which in the literal acceptation of its meaning, would teach the reverse of religious tolerance, or more precisely, a forced salvation. St. Thomas of Aquinas did not quote any verse in the New Testament that advocated intolerance, although he tried to explain away all the verses that commended toleration. In other Words, the Catholic Church has never completely forgotten the teachings of Christ, and even in the darkest eras of persecution, the Christ’s teachings always carried the day.

            During the first three centuries since Christ’s death, the Catholic Church neither had the wish nor the power to persecute. The earliest advocates of the human liberty of conscience were Tertullian, Lancantius and Justin Martyr. The Toleration Edict of Constantine in 313 anticipated the theory that gives every man the right to choose the religion that he deems right and to worship God according to his conviction. However, this was only one step in the process of bringing about a union between the Catholic Church and the empire, in which case the Church assumed a high position of power as the heathen state religion.

            An article published in Christian Classics Ethereal Library entitled History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation contains information indicating that the Era of persecution within the Catholic Church began when the first Oecumenical Council was called and later on enforced by Constantine. This council presents theologians with the first instance when subscription to a creed was called for as well as the first instance where there was banishment for people who refused to subscribe to the Catholic Church faith. Arius and two Egyptian bishops, who completely agreed with Constantine, were banished to Illyria. The violent Arian controversies shook the entire empire during the first and second Oecumenical Councils which were in place between 325 and 381. Both parties exercised power by persecution through deposition, imprisonment, the death penalty and exile. Both the Arians and Orthodox were equally intolerant, and in both cases, the intolerance formed the basis for both theory and public law.

            Theodosius the Great inaugurated the penal legislation which was enacted purposely to deter heresy immediately after Nicene Creed’s triumph in the Second Oecumenical Council. During his reign (379-395), Theodosius the Great promulgated about 15 severe edicts against heretics, majority of whom dissidents of the Doctrine of Trinity. These heretics were deprived of their right of public worship. They were also excluded from holding public offices. In some cases, they were even exposed to capital punishment.

            According to Theodosius, every heretic was rebelling against earthly and heavenly supreme powers, and each of these powers could easily exercise jurisdiction that they possess over the body and soul of all the guilty persons. Maximus, Theodosius’s colleague and rival, put this theory in full practice when he shed the first heretics’ blood by ordering that Priscillian, a Spanish bishop with a Manichean tendency, together with six adherents, to be condemned, tortured before being executed with a sword.

Although a good feeling of the church was raised when Martin of Tours and Ambrose of Milan protested against this show of inhumanity by the church, public sentiments indicated approval. Jerome appears to be in favor of the death penalty on the grounds provided in Deuteronomy 13:6-10. The Great Augustin, who himself had been a Manichaean heretic for about nine years, went as far as to justify forcible measures that were used against the Donatists, in complete contradiction to his own noble sentiment that “nothing can conquer but truth, the victory of truth is merely love”.

It is ironic that the Christian Father who maintained his rule over the thinking of the Catholic Church for very many centuries, as well as molded the theology that reformers used, excluded infants who were not baptized from salvation, even though Christ himself emphatically welcomed them into his heavenly kingdom.

Schaff reports that Leo I is one of the greatest of early popes; he advocated the death penalty for all heresy cases and went ahead to approve the execution of all Priscillianists (106). Thomas Aquinas is the master theologian in the middle ages; he lent a lot of weight of his authority to the persecution doctrine, and even demonstrated using the Old Testament as well as reason, that heretics are criminals who are worse than people who debase money, and for this reason, a civil magistrate should put them to death. In Aquinas’ time, heresy was considered to be the greatest sin, worse than even murder, reason being that it destroyed the soul. In fact, it was equivalent to Idolatry in Mosaic Law.

            The completion of Theodosian Code was accomplished in the Justinian Code (527-534). Soon, the Justinian Code found an entry point into the Holy Roman Empire, later on becoming the foundation of legislation in Christian Europe. In fact, this is the very reason why Rome managed to rule longer by the cross and the law compared to the rule the empire maintained by the power of the sword. Through the canon law, persons convicted of heresy were condemned to the flames.

            In her isolation, England was more independent, and its society was founded on the common law. However, Henry IV, with the aid of his parliament, devised the famous sanguinary statute known as haeretico comburendo. By this statute, a parish priest by the name William Sawtre was publicly burnt to death at Smithfield on February 26, 1401 simply for opposing the doctrine of transubstantiation. In 1428, Bishop Fleming of Lincoln burnt the bones of Wiclif. This statute remained in full force until 1677, when the parliament in England formally abolished it.

            Upon this theological foundation, the mediaeval church completely soiled her annals with a lot of blood of a large army of heretics, an army that is larger than the army of Christian martyrs who fell under heathen Rome. A good reference point to illustrate this point is the crusades that were launched against the Waldenses and Albigenses, which Innocent III, one of the greatest and best of popes, sanctioned. 

            The tortures that were carried out during the Spanish Inquisition, which Roman Catholics celebrated with religious festivities, constitute another reference point on attitudes of the Catholic Church towards persecution. Additionally, during Duke of Alva’s reign in the Netherlands, more than 50,000 Protestants were executed (1567-1573). Reference is also made to hundreds of martyrs who perished after being lynched in Smithfield during the reign of bloody Mary. The repeated persecutions that innocent Waldenses suffered in Piedmont and France, which cried bitterly to heaven for vengeance, are a further exemplification of the extent to which the death penalty was strongly upheld by the Catholic Church during the mediaeval period and middle age.

            It is unfair to shift the responsibility for these executions towards contemporary civil governments. When Pope Gregory XIII commemorated St. Bartholomew, he did it only using a Te Deum in Roman churches; he also did it deliberately using a medal representing “The Slaughter of the Huguenots” by a wrath’s angel. French Bishops, headed by the Great Bossuet, took the pain to laud Louis XIV

Some of the most prominent individual instances of persecution worth mentioning here include the burning of Jerome of Prague and Hus (1416) by the order given by the Council of Constance, the lynching of three reformers from England at Oxford in 1556, of Aonio Paleario in Rome (1570) as well as of Giardano Bruno in 1600. In the last instance, Italian Catholic liberals erected a statue in memory of the victim of execution.

            Norko notes that with time, the Roman Catholic Church has continually lost power and a significant measure of disposition, to command and execute the death penalty, either by sword or fire. In fact, some if the church’s highest dignitaries frankly and publicly disown the doctrine of persecution (512). For the past three hundred years, our Catholic ancestors have suffered so immensely for exercising the freedom of conscience that, if they were to rise and become defenders and advocates of religious persecution, they would rise up against every one who professes the Catholic Church faith.

            According to The Vatican, we would be a complete disgrace to all our sires if we were to trample on the liberty principle that the martyrs held dearer than their lives. It is not surprising that the Roman curia is yet to officially disown the theory upon which the past practice of persecution was based. On the contrary, a few popes have endorsed the theory since the Reformation. Pope Clement, for instance, while publicly denouncing the Toleration Edict of Nantes, said that “the most accursed thing that can ever be imagined was a situation whereby everybody is given liberty of conscience” adding that this is the worst thing that can happen in this world.

            Pope Innocent and several of his contemporaries rejected, annulled and condemned the toleration articles contained in the Westphalian Treaty of 1648. His successors even protested against it, in vain. In the Syllabus (1864), Pope Pius IX expressly condemned, among many other “errors” of his age, the principle of complete religious toleration and liberty.

            Very recently, Pope John Paul II has been a strong opponent of the death penalty. The pope is on record appealing to world leaders to consider commuting death sentences. However, a little earlier, in 1999, the Catholic Church had acknowledged the right of the state to make use of the death penalty as an effective “legitimate defense” against any danger that some people tend to pose to safety of citizens and public order.

            U.S Catholics and many other Catholics elsewhere differed sharply with the stance taken by Pope John Paul II on the death penalty. One of the reasons given by Roman Catholic Church leaders is that the death penalty, for whatever reason, portrays human beings as very brutal and lacking in “human touch and compassion”. For the past 1500 years, the Catholic Church taught that it was the responsibility and right of the state to punish criminals through means that are commensurate with the level of crimes that have been committed. By opposing the death penalty, Pope John Paul II said that this was an exceptional case that touched on issues of existence, which he explained in great detail in his 1995 encyclical entitled “Evangelical Vitae” meaning “Gospel of Life”.

Works Cited

Christian Classics Ethereal Library, “History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation”

Norko,Michael. “The Death Penalty in Catholic Teaching and Medicine: Intersections and Places for Dialogue” J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 36.4(2008): 470-548.

Schaff, Chris. The Progress of Religious Liberty as shown in the History of Toleration Acts. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc8.iv.xvi.iii.html?highlight=history,of,the,catholic,church,on,death,penalty#highlight, June 1, 2005, Retrieved on April 4, 2010.

The Vatican “Declaration of the Holy See To the first world congress on the death penalty” http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/secretariat_state/documents/rc_seg-st_doc_20010621_death-penalty_en.html, Strasbourg, 21 June 2001, Retrieved on April 4, 2010.

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