Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Church Fathers and Capital Punishment: St. Hyppolitus of Rome

WHILE THERE IS TESTIMONY in the Church Fathers that suggest quite strongly that the early Christian Church saw capital punishment--the ius gladii or "law of the sword held by the Roman empire--as legitimate exercise of authority within certain restrictions, there is testimony that appears to take a contrary tack. Such testimony is found in the Apostolic Traditions of St. Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170 - c. 235), bishop and martyr.

To be sure, there are problems with this authority, but they would not seem to impugn the importance of the negative view of killing by early Christians as it related to the military occupation. The original text--which was written in Greek--is lost, and it "can be reconstituted only through a trail of translations through the Coptic, Arabic, and Ethiopic."*

In any event, in his Apostolic Traditions, Hippolytus, who claims to gather together doctrinal and disciplinary traditions in the Church, has one section where he addresses the conditions for baptism, and therein he lists a series of forbidden occupations, including prostitutes, pimps, actors, gladiators, and so forth. One of the prohibited occupations is the military. In his treatment of the soldier, he has the following to say:
The soldier who is of inferior rank [or 'who is in authority'] shall not kill [execute]** anyone. If ordered to, he shall not carry out the order. . . . If a catechumen or a believer seeks to become a soldier, they must be rejected, for they have despised God.
There is a little inconsistency, in that Hippolytus appears to accept soldiers (but only if they limited their activities to acceptable militare, or administrative and peace keeping duties, and to shun bellare, or wartime duties that would involve killing and executions), and at the same time he suggests the ouster of catechumens of believers if they become a soldier without regard, it would seem, to whether they intended to kill or not. Why, on the one hand, soldiers may be conditionally baptized, but catechumens or even one of the baptized who become soldiers must be rejected entirely seems inconsistent. What this suggests is that this is a disciplinary accommodation.

Russian Icon of St. Hyppolitus of Rome

The reason the witness of Hyppolitus is uncertain is that it is unclear whether he is expressing a matter of discipline based on fittingness (such as clerical celibacy) or whether underlying this view is a moral doctrine (that execution or killing is in all times and in all manner wrong, even by properly constituted authority). If the former, it would have little doctrinal weight. If the latter is involved, it would carry more doctrinal weight.

Additionally, as James Megivern acknowledges in his The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey, the statement is "so general it is ambiguous." He notes that it is plausible that this could be alluding to the "'killing of criminals in connection with the gladiatorial games, persecution [of Christians], or simply capital punishment.'" It is unlikely, however, given the context, that it refers to the "taking of life in combat as its meaning." Megivern concludes, that Hyppolitus can not therefore be "invoked as contributing very much, precisely because of its ambiguity."***

Another issue should be mentioned, but how it bears on interpretation of this text is unclear to me. Hippolytus is considered the earliest anti-pope, and he headed a schismatic group in Rome against the legitimate Pope Calixtus I. Hippolytus, however, eventually reconciled himself with the Church by submitted to the second successor to Pope Callixtus, Pope Pontian when both were exiled to Sardinia by Emperor Maximinus Thrax. Indeed, that reconciliation was lasting since both Pope Pontian and the former anti-pope Hyppolitus of Rome are regarded as Saints.

The Apostolic Traditions were written during Hyppolitus's schismatic period. What effect this might have had on their content as to this particular issue is unclear. The controversy in which he involved himself and which led to his temporary schismatic status related to Christological controversies and not matters relating to discipline.

Probably the most significant circumstance that ought to be mentioned is that the office of soldier (as well as any upper-level Roman official) presented a real threat to the nascent Church. To allow soldiers--who enforced the Roman law that viewed Christianity as a capital offense--into Church communion would appear to contradict self-preservation. It is perhaps this reality--and not any per se moral objection to the office of soldier or executioner--that is behind the Hyppolitan prescriptions. As Origen noted in his Homilia in Jesu Nave (9:11): "The kings of the earth, the Roman senate, the Roman people, and the imperial nobility have banded together in order to vanquish at once the name of Jesus and of Israel, for they have established in their laws that there shall be no Christians." Given such hostility on the part of the Roman authorities, how could the Christian Church be expected to allow such into their communion without some limitations?

Given these various historical circumstances, the Hippolytan evidence is uncertain and therefore weak if it is offered to support the view that the nascent Church was pacifistic and objected to the moral legitimacy of the death penalty in all circumstances.

*John H. Yoder, "War as a Moral Problem in the Early Church: The Historian's Hermeneutical Assumptions," in Harvey L. Dyck, ed., The Pacific Impulse in Historical Perspective (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), 101-02. The word is sometimes translated as "execute" (Hegeland, Dix) and sometimes as "kill" (Swift, Easton). "The verbs in the oriental versions allow no such distinction. There is no reason that the difference of rendering would make the prohibition less 'pacifist.'" Id. n. 36 Moreover, the latest text "is the most rigorous. It adds that one who has shed blood shall be excluded from the sacraments." Id. n. 40.
**The full text, translated by Burton Scott Easton may be found here.
***James J. Megivern, The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey (New York Paulist Press, 1997), 27 (quoting in part J. Helgeland, R. J. Daly, and J. P. Burns, Christians and the Military: The Early Experience (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 36).

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