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.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Capital Punishment and St. Thomas Aquinas

THE STATEMENT OF POPE INNOCENT III on capital punishment we addressed in our last post is probably the most significant Papal pronouncement on the matter in the Middle Ages. It is difficult to imagine how one can take the position that the Papal magisterium did not hold, as Innocent III clearly held, that the secular power can kill a malefactor without mortal sin as long as it was done within the constraints of law and justice and due process.

Probably the most influential theological treatment on capital punishment is found in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. From a canonical perspective, we might point to Gratian and his Decretum. It is impossible to gather together these witnesses of the medieval Church (and the many others that could be added) and not come away with the conclusion that the death penalty is, in the order of justice, something within the the secular power that is exercisable, in the proper circumstance, without moral fault.

We shall here treat of St. Thomas Aquinas's view of capital punishment. While St. Thomas handles the issue of punishment generally and capital punishment specifically in numerous of his writings,* we shall focus on his treatment of it in the Summa Theologiae. St. Thomas handles the issue of homicide in question No. 64 of the IIaIIae in the context of vices, which itself is within the greater context of virtues, which itself is nestled within the context of justice.

St. Thomas Aquinas, the Common Doctor

In Question No. 64, St. Thomas addresses eight questions regarding homicide. Our greatest interests lies in questions 2 and 3. Question 2 asks whether sinners (malefactors) may be put to death. After answering the question affirmatively, Question 3 asks who has the power to put sinners death. St. Thomas's conclusion is that the secular public power, entrusted with the care of the common good of a community, can lawfully--that is without sinning against justice--put a malefactor to death.

Rather than discuss St. Thomas Aquinas, I think the best thing to do is to present his treatment here entire:
Article 2. Whether it is lawful to kill sinners?

Objection 1. It would seem unlawful to kill men who have sinned. For our Lord in the parable (Matthew 13) forbade the uprooting of the cockle which denotes wicked men according to a gloss. Now whatever is forbidden by God is a sin. Therefore it is a sin to kill a sinner.

Objection 2. Further, human justice is conformed to Divine justice. Now according to Divine justice sinners are kept back for repentance, according to Ezekiel 33:11, "I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live." Therefore it seems altogether unjust to kill sinners.

Objection 3. Further, it is not lawful, for any good end whatever, to do that which is evil in itself, according to Augustine (Contra Mendac. vii) and the Philosopher (Ethic. ii, 6). Now to kill a man is evil in itself, since we are bound to have charity towards all men, and "we wish our friends to live and to exist," according to Ethic. ix, 4. Therefore it is nowise lawful to kill a man who has sinned.

On the contrary, It is written (Exodus 22:18): "Wizards thou shalt not suffer to live"; and (Psalm 100:8): "In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land."

I answer that, As stated above (Article 1), it is lawful to kill dumb animals, in so far as they are naturally directed to man's use, as the imperfect is directed to the perfect. Now every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part is naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we observe that if the health of the whole body demands the excision of a member, through its being decayed or infectious to the other members, it will be both praiseworthy and advantageous to have it cut away. Now every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since "a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump" (1 Corinthians 5:6).

Reply to Objection 1. Our Lord commanded them to forbear from uprooting the cockle in order to spare the wheat, i.e. the good. This occurs when the wicked cannot be slain without the good being killed with them, either because the wicked lie hidden among the good, or because they have many followers, so that they cannot be killed without danger to the good, as Augustine says (Contra Parmen. iii, 2). Wherefore our Lord teaches that we should rather allow the wicked to live, and that vengeance is to be delayed until the last judgment, rather than that the good be put to death together with the wicked. When, however, the good incur no danger, but rather are protected and saved by the slaying of the wicked, then the latter may be lawfully put to death.

Reply to Objection 2. According to the order of His wisdom, God sometimes slays sinners forthwith in order to deliver the good, whereas sometimes He allows them time to repent, according as He knows what is expedient for His elect. This also does human justice imitate according to its powers; for it puts to death those who are dangerous to others, while it allows time for repentance to those who sin without grievously harming others.

Reply to Objection 3. By sinning man departs from the order of reason, and consequently falls away from the dignity of his manhood, in so far as he is naturally free, and exists for himself, and he falls into the slavish state of the beasts, by being disposed of according as he is useful to others. This is expressed in Psalm 48:21: "Man, when he was in honor, did not understand; he hath been compared to senseless beasts, and made like to them," and Proverbs 11:29: "The fool shall serve the wise." Hence, although it be evil in itself to kill a man so long as he preserve his dignity, yet it may be good to kill a man who has sinned, even as it is to kill a beast. For a bad man is worse than a beast, and is more harmful, as the Philosopher states (Polit. i, 1 and Ethic. vii, 6).

Article 3. Whether it is lawful for a private individual to kill a man who has sinned?

Objection 1. It would seem lawful for a private individual to kill a man who has sinned. For nothing unlawful is commanded in the Divine law. Yet, on account of the sin of the molten calf, Moses commanded (Exodus 32:27): "Let every man kill his brother, and friend, and neighbor." Therefore it is lawful for private individuals to kill a sinner.

Objection 2. Further, as stated above (2, ad 3), man, on account of sin, is compared to the beasts. Now it is lawful for any private individual to kill a wild beast, especially if it be harmful. Therefore for the same reason, it is lawful for any private individual to kill a man who has sinned.

Objection 3. Further, a man, though a private individual, deserves praise for doing what is useful for the common good. Now the slaying of evildoers is useful for the common good, as stated above (Article 2). Therefore it is deserving of praise if even private individuals kill evil-doers.

On the contrary, Augustine says (De Civ. Dei i) [Can. Quicumque percutit, caus. xxiii, qu. 8: "A man who, without exercising public authority, kills an evil-doer, shall be judged guilty of murder, and all the more, since he has dared to usurp a power which God has not given him."

I answer that, As stated above (Article 2), it is lawful to kill an evildoer in so far as it is directed to the welfare of the whole community, so that it belongs to him alone who has charge of the community's welfare. Thus it belongs to a physician to cut off a decayed limb, when he has been entrusted with the care of the health of the whole body. Now the care of the common good is entrusted to persons of rank having public authority: wherefore they alone, and not private individuals, can lawfully put evildoers to death.

Reply to Objection 1. The person by whose authority a thing is done really does the thing as Dionysius declares (Coel. Hier. iii). Hence according to Augustine (De Civ. Dei i, 21), "He slays not who owes his service to one who commands him, even as a sword is merely the instrument to him that wields it." Wherefore those who, at the Lord's command, slew their neighbors and friends, would seem not to have done this themselves, but rather He by whose authority they acted thus: just as a soldier slays the foe by the authority of his sovereign, and the executioner slays the robber by the authority of the judge.

Reply to Objection 2. A beast is by nature distinct from man, wherefore in the case of a wild beast there is no need for an authority to kill it; whereas, in the case of domestic animals, such authority is required, not for their sake, but on account of the owner's loss. On the other hand a man who has sinned is not by nature distinct from good men; hence a public authority is requisite in order to condemn him to death for the common good.

Reply to Objection 3. It is lawful for any private individual to do anything for the common good, provided it harm nobody: but if it be harmful to some other, it cannot be done, except by virtue of the judgment of the person to whom it pertains to decide what is to be taken from the parts for the welfare of the whole.
S.T. IIaIIae, q. 64, arts. 2, 3.

Modern Catholics seeking to abolish the death penalty have in their zeal, when confronted by St. Thomas's clear teaching, either ridiculed St. Thomas's teaching or chastised it as puerile or simplistic, being based on a "medicinal" (Bugger) or "gangrene" analogy (Megivern), being an argument that proves too much (Crowe), or being an argument of an Aristotelian, and not a Christian (Blázquez), etc.

To criticize St. Thomas's reasoning is really beside the point. The point is Saint Thomas taught that the public authority had the power justly to put a malefactor to death and that in the proper situation, in other words justly applied, it complied with the order of justice and constituted no mortal sin. In holding this doctrine he was within the Tradition of the Church. More than that, we might say that St. Thomas is an epitome of the Church's Tradition in that he is regarded the Common Doctor of the Church. It might behoove us to recall the words of Pope John XXIII to the Fifth International Thomistic Congress, September 16, 1960: "His [St. Thomas Aquinas's] teaching was, more than any other, fully in keeping with the truths that God has revealed, with the writings of the Holy Fathers, and with the principles of right reason and therefore Holy Church has adopted it as her own, and has given the name of common or universal teacher to its author." And what is true generally is true specifically with respect to St. Thomas Aquinas's teaching on the moral legitimacy of capital punishment.

*See, e.g., Summa Contra Gentiles, III.146.

No comments:

Post a Comment