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.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Church Fathers and Capital Punishment: St. Augustine--Justice and the Death Penalty

ALTHOUGH HE NEVER EXPRESSLY wrote a treatise on the subject, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) has in his writings a well-developed understanding of capital punishment. In a nutshell, St. Augustine recognizes that civil authorities have the God-given power to put a man justly to death for grave crimes, and that a Christian as a judge or magistrate, may exercise without penalty of sin that power in proper circumstances. However, that is not where he leaves the matter. Capital punishment is, for St. Augustine, not only a matter that must be looked at in the light of justice. It must also be looked at in the light of mercy. The light of mercy tempers the steel of justice to the point where capital punishment ought rarely be applied. St. Augustine's letters are full of requests for magistrates or judges to exercise clemency in applying the death penalty.

The writings where St. Augustine recognizes the law of the sword to include the ultimate punishment are many. We see it in his early Christian works, e.g., On Order and On Freedom of the Will. We see it in his mature works, for example, his On the City of God.

For what is fouler than the executioner? What is his cruel and barbarous purpose? But he has a necessary place within the well-ordered laws themselves of an orderly city. And though in his own person he does evil, the punishment of evildoers is not ascribed to him.

Quid enim carnifice tetrius? quid illo animo truculentius atque dirius? At inter ipsas leges locum necessarium tenet et in bene moderatae civitatis ordinem inseritur estque suo animo nocens, ordine autem alieno poena nocentium.

De Ordine, II.4.12.

In his dialogue On Free Choice of the Will, St. Augustine introduces the subject of capital punishment through his interlocutory Evodius which elicits absolute agreement:
Ev. If murder means taking the life of a man, this can sometimes happen without any sin. When a soldier slays the enemy, when a judge, or his deputy, executes a criminal, when, by chance, a deadly weapon leaves someone's hand unintentionally or thoughtlessly, I do not think that these are guilty of sin in killing a man.
Aug. I agree, but such men are not usually called murderers. . . . .

Ev. - Si homicidium est hominem occidere, potest accidere aliquando sine peccato: nam et miles hostem, et iudex vel minister eius nocentem, et cui forte invito atque imprudenti telum manu fugit, non mihi videntur peccare, cum hominem occidunt.
Aug. - Assentior: sed homicidae isti appellari non solent.

De lib. arb., I.4.9.

St. Augustine of Hippo

In a letter to the magistrate Macedonius (Letter No. 153), who apparently complains about the episcopate penchant for urging clemency in punishment of crimes, St. Augustine clearly supports the power of punishment in the State, including the death penalty:

Nor does it follow that the power of the sovereign, the judge's right over life and death, the executioner's instruments of torture, the weapons of the solider, the discipline of the ruler, and the severity of a good father were instituted to no avail. All these have their limits, causes, reasons, and utility.

Nec ideo sane frustra instituta sunt potestas regis, ius gladii cognitoris, ungulae carnificis, arma militis, disciplina dominantis, severitas etiam boni patris. Habent ista omnia modos suos, causas, rationes, utilitates.

Letter to Macedonius, 153.6.16.

This view is carried over into St. Augustine's great work, The City of God.
However, there are some exceptions made by the divine authority to its own law, that men may not be put to death. These exceptions are of two kinds, being justified either by a general law, or by a special commission granted for a time to some individual. And in this latter case, he to whom authority is delegated, and who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals. And, accordingly, they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, "You shall not kill."

Quasdam vero exceptiones eadem ipsa divina fecit auctoritas, ut non liceat hominem occidi. Sed his exceptis, quos Deus occidi iubet sive data lege sive ad personam pro tempore expressa iussione, (non autem ipse occidit, qui ministerium debet iubenti, sicut adminiculum gladius utenti; et ideo nequaquam contra hoc praeceptum fecerunt, quo dictum est: Non occides, qui Deo auctore bella gesserunt aut personam gerentes publicae potestatis secundum eius leges, hoc est iustissimae rationis imperium, sceleratos morte punierunt.
De civ. Dei, I.21.

It cannot be questioned that St. Augustine supported the doctrine that the legitimate authority had the power to put a malefactor to death for a serious crime. It was an exception to the Fifth Commandment, part of the natural law as revealed in the Old and New Testaments, and the magistrate or judge exercising that authority justly and in accordance with law was not in any way in mortal sin. St. Augustine was comfortably within the Christian tradition in handing this teaching down. If it is true, as Jaroslav Pelikan said, that Western theology is nothing but a "series of footnotes to Augustine," then we might expect the Roman Catholic Church to have carried this doctrine within its bosom. And she did.

That much is certain. But, as we shall see in the next post, that is not the whole story.

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