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The Evolution Of The Christian Position On The Death Penalty

January 2011

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FIACAT calls upon all churches and Christians to stand against the death penalty and to pray for those condemned to death.

THE EVOLUTION OF THE CHRISTIAN POSITION ON THE DEATH PENALTY

Historical Position of Christians
Until the IVth Century, the Church was fully against the death penalty. But after its integration with the Roman state, the Church gradually recognized the right of the state to impose and enforce the death penalty.
Indeed, Christianity inherited from Judaism the legitimacy of the death penalty and it was practiced daily in the Roman Empire. As such, the sovereign holds divine power over man, the power of taking life:
“Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand” (Exodus 21, 23-25);
“The avenger of blood himself shall slay the murderer when he meets him, he will kill him” (Number 25, 19).
Despite the law of the Church, “Thou shall not kill” (Exodus 20, 13), the Old and New Testaments provide the death penalty for certain crimes:
“Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed” (Genesis 9, 6).

Christian emperors became aware of Roman law after its revival in the 12th Century; just as there was a legal power of the state, there became a legal power of the Church. The Pope affirmed this power in the Vergentis senium decree of 1199: “If the criminals who slander the state are sentenced to death […], there is even more reason to condemn to death those who offend Christ […] because it is much more serious offending the eternal king than to offend the temporal king.”
In the Middle Ages, the Church brought the culprit to the state power, which was obligated to proceed with the execution. The interdependence of religion and politics made the crime of heresy a political offense, punishable by death.

However, in the 13th Century, for the first time in the history of mankind, the principle of the death penalty was challenged by the Vaudois. They found a strong argument against the death penalty in the Old and New Testaments: “I do not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should be converted.” Yet in 1208 Pope Innocent III forced the Vaudois to sign a renunciation of their views: “We affirm that the secular power can, without mortal sin, exercise judgment of blood, provided that the sentencing was made not by hatred, but by judgment.”

All lawyers in the Middle Ages, secular or ecclesiastical, shared this view. In the 13th Century St. Thomas Aquinas wrote: “If any individual becomes a danger to society and if his sin is contagious to others, it is laudable and beneficial to put him to death on behalf of the common good” [1];
“If he who voluntarily kills his fellow man is committing a murder, there are nevertheless cases where death can be given without sin, as when a soldier kills his enemy or a judge pronounces a death sentence against the author of a crime” [2].

We find this same reasoning throughout the Church’s theology and practices; for example, at the time of the Reformation. Once the Catholic Church officially recognized the state, the punishment of crimes by the secular power was legalized and allowed to shed blood.

With the advent of absolute monarchy, and with the burden of public order entrusted to the sovereign alone, religious and local courts were denied the right to decide life or death. Heresy, formerly the responsibility of the justices of the Church, was claimed by royal courts. But the principles that guide the legislature and the courts did not change. The idea of reforming the criminal was totally absent.
The excessive use of the death penalty is not unique to France; Russia, Spain and Germany have often implemented it.

George Fox (1624-1691), founder of the Quakers, was imprisoned by the English for his religious beliefs. Fox protested the conditions of detention and the implementation of the death penalty; in the 17th Century, the Quakers were one of the first Christian communities to speak out against the death penalty.

In 1764, the publication of Italian jurist Cessare Beccaria’s treatise On Crimes and Punishments, which challenged the idea of punishment in Europe, began to gain popularity.
Beginning in the 18th Century, the abolitionist movement gained support from the intellectual class. The abolition of the death penalty became part of the ideological movement for social progress. The death penalty was first abolished by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany (Italy). However, executions continued in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In the New World in the 19th Century, pragmatism led many governments to fully or partially abolish the death penalty, as it was seen as unnecessary and barbaric. Much of Latin America and Canada were among those states that completely abolished the practice; several states in the US did as well, but the nation as a whole has not condemned the practice.

Supporters and opponents of capital punishment can be separated by their conception of the role of punishment in society. For the former, the death sentence safeguards legal order and preserves social morality; for the latter, punishment should allow for rehabilitation. In this light, the death penalty appears absurd.

Current Positions of Christian Communities
The abolition movement has been widely accepted in Protestant circles; its extension to the secular world involved the Catholic Church, which was encouraged by Vatican II to understand the men of their time and the values that affected them most. As for the Orthodox, they are far sharing the abolitionist approach.

The Protestant Churches
The World Alliance of Reformed Churches reaffirmed its position in 1989: “Where the death penalty is implemented, God’s redeeming love is violated.”

In March 1990, the World Council of Churches (WCC)—which was established in 1948 and includes most Protestant and Orthodox churches—adopted a declaration proclaiming its unconditional opposition to the death penalty: “Recognizing that all human beings are created in the image of God,” they proclaim that “in taking away a human life, the state usurps the will of God.” The WCC “declares its unconditional opposition to capital punishment, and calls upon all States to abolish it and to sign and promptly ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights concerning the abolition of the death penalty;” it “calls on member churches, in cooperation with other faiths and non-governmental organizations:

- to advocate the abolition of the death penalty in States where it remains legal;

- to oppose efforts to restore the death penalty in States where it is now abolished;

- to support international efforts towards the universal abolition of the death penalty;

- develop theological and biblical arguments to help their members, and others, in their efforts to abolish the death penalty and to refute the theological and biblical arguments advanced by supporters of the death penalty;

- to encourage and support each other in these efforts by sharing ideas, resources and solidarity.”

In December 1998: “the WCC has long objected to the use of capital punishment, yet the use of this ultimate punishment is often sought by victims in societies ridden by crime and violence. The WCC specifically condemns the death sentence against juveniles. Churches have a responsibility to encourage strict compliance with international law and standards relating to respect for human rights and the treatment of offenders.”

However, in a country like the United States, not all churches stand against the death penalty. Traditional Protestant churches are resolutely opposed, but some Gospel churches, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, actively campaign for the maintenance of the death penalty, relying on the lex talionis of the Old Testament.

The Roman Catholic Church
In 1969 the Vatican State abolished the death penalty for all crimes. But currently, the Roman Catholic Church continues to recognize the right of civil authorities to sentence and implement corporal punishment. The Vatican is thus against the death penalty but does not exclude it 100%.

Indeed, the new 1993 Catechism of the Catholic Church, written in 1992 under the supervision of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), recognizes, “in cases of extreme gravity,” the right of public authority to implement the death penalty. He believes that the death penalty could be imposed on very rare occasions—which are almost “nonexistent”—against an “aggressor” who continues to threaten lives. Such a context would reduce the moral issue of the death penalty to that of self-defense.

In its 1997 edition, No. 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church evolved somewhat to say that “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, when identity and responsibility are plainly identified, the use of the death penalty as the only practical way to defend all human life against the injustice of an aggressor. But if bloodless means are sufficient to defend and protect the safety of the people against the aggressor, authority will stick to those means, which better correspond to the common good and are consistent with human dignity…In fact, given the possibilities afforded to the modern State to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who committed it, without depriving him definitely of the possibility of repentance, the instances where the State must absolutely remove the culprit are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

This last sentence is a step forward from the 1992 version, but is nevertheless unsatisfactory. Yet despite the ambiguous wording of the Catholic Catechism, the many clemency demands made by the last two popes for those condemned to death and their denunciation of supportive positions of the death penalty should be read as condemning the practice of the death penalty.

FIACAT hopes to see the official texts amended and brought into conformity with the declarations of the Holy See. FIACAT has regularly expressed its desire for the Holy See to do so.

The encyclical Evangelium Vitae (1995) and several public statements made by Pope John Paul II and his immediate staff explicitly express a position in favor of abolishing the death penalty.

On March 24, 1997 at a symposium on crime and punishment, organized by the Fordham University of Law (USA), Archbishop Renate Raffaele Martino, then Apostolic Nuncio and Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations (now president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace), made clear his views on the death penalty. He bases his reasoning on human rights, particularly “the fundamental and sacred right to life.” In reference to the encyclical, he believes there are bloodless means to ensure the safety of society.

In addition, he links respect of the life of criminals to respect for the life of innocent children. “In the debate on the death penalty, I agree with you that it would be inconsistent to condemn the killing of a criminal while at the same time allowing—even encouraging—the death of the innocent” (Catholic Documentation, 4 May 1997, No. 2159, page 441).

By signing on 17 July 19989 the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, which does not apply the death penalty, the Holy See noted that “the destruction of life [is] inconsistent with the international rules that underlie the Court.” In doing so, he confirms objectively the abolition of the death penalty.

Pope John Paul II has, on numerous occasions as Head of State and representative of the Roman Catholic Church, called on representatives of non-abolitionists to abolish the death penalty at the turn of the century:

- 25 December 1998: John Paul II, in his Christmas message, called us to take “urgent and appropriate measures to banish the death penalty” (The Catholic Documentation, 17 January 1999, No. 2196, page 51).

- 27 January 1999: In his homily during the public Mass celebrated in St. Louis (Missouri, USA), John Paul II evokes again the abolition of the death penalty. “The new evangelization needs Christians who are unreservedly in favor of life. […] Modern society has the means to protect itself without denying criminals a final chance to reform (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 27). I renew the appeal I launched recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary” (The Catholic Documentation, 21 February 1999, No. 2198, page 183).
It is not by violence that we solve violence. Regularly lambasting the “barbarity of execution and the cruelty of an inhuman agony,” John Paul II invites us to counter the culture of violence and to resolutely support life in all its forms of expression.

- 2 November 1999, during the UN General Assembly discussion on the abolition of the death penalty, Archbishop Renato Martin, Permanent Observer of the Holy See, made a statement appealing for the abolition of capital punishment (The Catholic Documentation, 19 December 1999, No. 2216):

- “The right to life is the inalienable right of every human person. It follows that the current draft resolution under discussion should be understood as a strong affirmation of human dignity, of the sanctity and inviolability of human life. International instruments applicable to the draft resolution are in fact binding expressions of—not substitutes for—the principle of the inviolability and sanctity of human life.”
The position of the Holy See is that authorities should be limited, even for the most serious crimes, to punishments that do not result in death, as these means “correspond better to the concrete conditions of common good and are more consistent with the dignity of the human person” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2267). States now have at their disposal new opportunities for “effectively preventing crime by rendering the one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redemption” (cf. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 56).

- “[…] Too often and in too many societies, unacceptable public signs of vengeance and revenge accompany a death penalty verdict. All to often, the people who are sentenced to death are poor or belong to ethnic minorities. Even young people and those with diminished mental capacity are executed. How many innocent people have been executed by mistake?
[…] Everyone whose life ends in a gas chamber, by hanging, by lethal injection or firing squad, is one of us: a human being, a brother or sister, as cruel and inhumane as his actions may appear.
[…] Criminal activity requires an effective punishment. But there is no definitive evidence to support the belief that capital punishment reduces the likelihood of further crimes of extreme gravity. The populist exploitation of fear or insecurity is not a substitute for hard evidence. Crime will be overcome by a significantly broader civic education, by effective police work and by addressing the root causes of crime. The sentence should be proportional to the crime, but should also aim to allow the criminal, whenever possible, to become a constructive member of society.”

This statement represents a significant change in the official position of the Catholic Church regarding the death penalty.

Since then, the position of the Catholic Church has been consistent in its oppostion to the death penalty.

On 21 June 2006, following the sentencing to death of Saddam Hussein, Cardinal Poupard, president of the Pontifical Councils for Culture and Interreligious Dialogue, restated the Catholic Church’s teaching on the sanctity of human life: “Human life is always inviolable…Every human creature, even the most wretched, was created in the image and likeness of God. God is the master of life and death.”

At the Third World Congress of the Death Penalty, held in Paris from 1 to 3 February 2007, the Holy See reaffirmed his support for all initiatives aimed at defending the inherent value and inviolability of all human life, from conception to natural death. He stressed that the use of the penalty is not only a denial of the right to life but also an affront to human dignity shared by all humanity. Indeed, he recalls that States have new and non-lethal methods of prevention and punishment. He recalled in particular that “any implementation of the death penalty incurs many risks: the risk of punishing innocent people; the temptation to promote violent forms of revenge rather than a true sense of social justice; a clear offense against the inviolability of human life; promoting a culture of violence and death; and, for Christians, a contempt of the Gospel’s teachings of forgiveness. Taking life never achieves the worthy goals for which it was implemented, though it may temporarily appease the appetite for vengeance.”

On October 30, 2007, Cardinal Renate Raffaele Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, called on Christians around the world “to cooperate in the defense of human rights and the abolition of the death penalty, torture, and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, in times of peace as well as war. These practices are serious crimes against the human person, created in the image and likeness of God, and is a scandal to the human family in the 21st Century.”

On 7 January 2008, at the annual meeting of diplomats accredited to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI voiced his hope that the call made by the UN for a moratorium on the death penalty “would stimulate public debate on the sanctity of human life.”

The social doctrine of the Church teaches it is not lawful to put someone to death when there are other ways to prevent further harm. Pope Benedict XVI, like Pope John Paul II before him, regularly requests heads of state to grant clemency to those on death row, as execution is an abomination, destroying life and dignity.

Parallel to the evolution of the Holy See’s position, the past forty years have seen Bishops’ Conferences, joining Catholic bishops in each country, regularly taking a stand against the death penalty:

- Canadian Bishops in 1973: they consider the “excessive use of the Old Testament to justify to continuation of the death penalty” an abuse of biblical texts. They add: “Jesus Christ condemns the usual tendency of man to respond to an insult with another insult, and invites us instead towards magnanimity” (The Canadian Bishops and the Death Penalty, The Catholic Documentation, March 4, 1973, No. 1627, p. 246.)

- American bishops, since 1981 and especially in 1999, present a counter-argument to the use of violence to end violence: “[…] We call on all people of good will, particularly Catholics, to work for the abolition of the death penalty […]. We seek to educate and convince our citizens that this punishment is often unfair and tainted by racism. We oppose state laws that authorize the death penalty and federal legislation that would expand its scope […]. We fully support and encourage attempts to enhance the dignity of every human life […].”
“Our affirmation of respect for life is stregnthened when we ask for the respect of the lives of each and every person, including the lives of those who have failed to show such respect to others. The antidote to violence is love, not more violence […]. We oppose capital punishment not only for the fate that awaits those guilty of horrendous crimes but also for the impact it has on our society. Growing confidence in the death penalty is a sign of the increasing lack of respect for human life. We cannot overcome crime simply by executing criminals, nor do we make life by ending the life of murderers. The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life […] Through education, argument, prayer and contemplation of the life of Jesus, we must position ourselves as permanent witnesses against the death penalty, aginst a culture of death, in favor of the Gospel of life” (US Bishops Conference, 2 April 1999).

- Bishops of the Philippines since 1981have regularly affirmed and publicized their position against the death penalty and have actively worked to achieve a national moratorium on executions.

- Irish Bishops in 1981

- The French Bishops stated in 1991 that, “for various reasons, many states have abolished the death penalty. Christians cannot but rejoice to see the development of such respect for life. Justice must be ensured and society protected. Whatever his crime, a human person is a child of God and must be respected as such. Christian faith still holds that man is capable of forgiveness” (The bishops of France, Catechism for Adults, No. 588).

- Bishops of Brazil in 1993

- Bishops of Slovakia in 1994

Orthodox Churches
According to Nicolas Berdyaev, an Orthodox theologian in the first half of the 20th Century: “No man, taken individually, is the incarnation or personification of evil. Yet each of us carries an amount of evil within us, making it impossible to pass final judgment on anyone. This is what sets the limits to the principles of punishment. A man may commit a crime, but man, as a complete person, is not a criminal. We should not treat him as an incarnation of the crime: he is a person; he carries within him the image of God […]” [3] [3].

To date, there is no unified position of the Orthodox churches, which remain autocephalous and independent. Some Orthodox churches, like the American Orthodox Church in their 1989 resolution, have spoken clearly against the death penalty.

The Russian Orthodox Church is, by comparison, less absolute in their condemnation. In May 1998 Alexy II, Patriarch of Moscow, said “The death penalty is premeditated murder and a violation of the biblical commandment not to kill.”
However, in 2000 at the Jubilee Council, the Russian Church produced a document called “Foundations for a Social Doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church.” This document presents the official views of the Moscow Patriarchate regarding relations between the state and civil society. The paragraph dealing with the death penalty states that “under the influence of Christian morality a negative attitude has developed in people’s consciousness towards the death penalty. […] The abolition of the death penalty would open the door to new opportunities for pastoral work with those who have sinned and more opportunities for them to repent. […] Today many states have abolished the death penalty by law or have ceased to apply it. The Church approves these decisions by state authorities. At the same time, the Church believes that the decision to abolish or no longer apply the death penalty should be freely made by the state, taking into consideration the crime rate and the state of development of its judicial system and its ability to protect civilian life” (Section IX, 3).

Historically linked to an authoritarian and centralist political power, the Russian Orthodox Church has, in recent years, been influenced by anti-terrorist securitization. Thus, despite its position in favor of a moratorium on the death penalty, the Orthodox Church protects and supports the war in Chechnya, calling it a holy war and a patriotic struggle.
In January 2000, Patriarch Alexis II declared himself as a leader of the operations in the Caucasuses.
In 2007, Kiril of Smolensk (Russia) stated that “for human rights to be recognized by society, they must correspond with the duties of man in that society.”
Today, the Russian Orthodox Church “is not wholly against the death penalty.” The practice remains legitimate given the “contemporary level of crime” in the society.

Clearly, the Christian community as a whole is largely against the death penalty. However, evangelical and fundamentalist Protestant groups and some Orthodox churches remain in favor of the death penalty for the most serious offenses.

Footnotes

[1] cf La Somme théologique

[2] cf Sur le libre arbiter

[3] cf De l’esclavage et de la liberté de l’homme

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