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.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Church Fathers and Capital Punishment: Lactantius

LACTANTIUS, known as the Cicero of the Christians, never addresses capital punishment directly. Yet in two of his works there are mentions of the death penalty and these offer us an intriguing view into the early Christian mindset. On the one hand, we have the typically Christian horror sanguinis. On the other hand, we have such a recognition without any seeming rejection of the State's right to punish wrongdoers even with the ultimate penalty.

Turning to Lactantius's famed Divine Institutes we find the following:

For he who reckons it a pleasure, that a man, though justly condemned (ob merita damnatum), should be slain in his sight, pollutes his conscience as much as if he should become a spectator and a sharer of a homicide which is secretly committed. And yet they call these sports in which human blood is shed. So far has the feeling of humanity departed from the men, that when they destroy the lives of men, they think that they are amusing themselves with sport, being more guilty than all those whose blood-shedding they esteem a pleasure. I ask now whether they can be just and pious men, who, when they see men placed under the stroke of death, and entreating mercy, not only suffer them to be put to death, but also demand it, and give cruel and inhuman votes for their death, not being satiated with wounds nor contented with bloodshed. Moreover, they order them, even though wounded and prostrate, to be attacked again, and their caresses to he wasted with blows, that no one may delude them by a pretended death. They are even angry with the combatants, unless one of the two is quickly slain; and as though they thirsted for human blood, they hate delays. They demand that other and fresh combatants should be given to them, that they may satisfy their eyes as soon as possible. Being imbued with this practice, they have lost their humanity. Therefore they do not spare even the innocent, but practice upon all that which they have learned in the slaughter of the wicked. It is not therefore befitting that those who strive to keep to the path of justice should be companions and sharers in this public homicide. For when God forbids us to kill, He not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but He warns us against the commission of those things which are esteemed lawful among men. Thus it will be neither lawful for a just man to engage in warfare, since his warfare is justice itself, nor to accuse any one of a capital charge, because it makes no difference whether you put a man to death by word, or rather by the sword, since it is the act of putting to death itself which is prohibited. Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all; but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man (quia occidere hominem sit semper nefas), whom God willed to be a sacred animal (Deus sanctum animal esse voluit with other versions sacrosanctum animal).
Div. inst., VI.20*

Two things should be mentioned. First, the context of Lactantius's treatment is the public executions and public games where victims were put to death in public exhibitions. Getting pleasure from, and indeed even witnessing, these spectacles is hardly conducive for virtue. Lactantius therefore is referring to the impropriety of the blutlust or the schadenfreude or epicaricacy so typical of Pagan times and so ill-befitting the dignity of a man redeemed in Christ. Second, he states during the course of his treatment that a man may be "justly condemned" to death and even then the public spectacles are not rendered more respectable.

Public Exhibitions of Death Against Which Lactantius Railed

Lactantius's belief that the death penalty was not something that was itself immoral, but was indeed something that ought to be incorporated into the very Providence of God, is further buttressed by his comments in the seventeenth chapter of his book De Ira Dei, On the Anger of God. The context of the excerpt below is as follows. Lactantius is arguing against the Epicurean view that God is not concerned with the affairs of men. On the contrary, Lactantius argues, God's Providence is active in men's affairs, and his justice will ultimately reign, and in fact, reigns even now through the just laws and just punishments of human judges.
But in what can the action of God consist, but in the administration of the world? But if God carries on the care of the world, it follows that He cares for the life of men, and takes notice of the acts of individuals, and He earnestly desires that they should be wise and good. This is the will of God, this the divine law; and he who follows and observes this is beloved by God. It is necessary that He should be moved with anger against the man who has broken or despised this eternal and divine law. If, he says, God does harm to any one, therefore He is not good. They are deceived by no slight error who defame all censure, whether human or divine, with the name of bitterness and malice, thinking that He ought to be called injurious who visits the injurious with punishment. But if this is so, it follows that we have injurious laws, which enact punishment for offenders, and injurious judges who inflict capital punishments on those convicted of crime. But if the law is just which awards to the transgressor his due, and if the judge is called upright and good when he punishes crimes—for he guards the safety of good men who punishes the evil—it follows that God, when He opposes the evil, is not injurious; but he himself is injurious who either injures an innocent man, or spares an injurious person that he may injure many.
De ira Dei, 17. What Lactantius condemns is not capital judgment and capital punishment, but capital judgment and capital punishment unjustly applied.

Megivern, in his The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey,*** suggests that Lactantius had a reversal, a "volte face" caused by the changes in the legal situation of the Church after Constantine's rise to power. But that view is based upon his seeing inconsistency between the Lactantius of the Divine Institutes and that of the On the Anger of God.

There is in fact no inconsistency if the following simple fact is kept in mind. The prohibition that man must not kill is absolute in regards to the power given man inasmuch as the power over life and death is God's alone. However, God, in His Providence, has granted to the State the power over life. However, that power is not to be used in unseemly ways (such as gladiator combats and public spectacles). Nor is that power to be used to enforce unjust laws, or to impose unjust sentences. This, in fact, is how the traditional doctrine of the Church regarding capital punishment saw it, and so Lactantius comfortably fits into the tradition without falling into any inconsistency.

*Voluptas oculorum varia et multiplex est, quae capitur ex aspectu rerum quae sunt in usu hominum, vel natura, vel opere delectabiles. Hanc philosophi rectissime sustulerunt. Aiunt enim multo esse praeclarius et homine dignius, coelum potius, quam caelata intueri: et hoc pulcherrimum opus intermicantibus astrorum luminibus, tanquam floribus adornatum, quam picta, et ficta, et gemmis distincta mirari. Sed cum diserte ad contemptum terrestrium nos exhortati sunt, et ad coeli spectaculum excitaverunt, tamen spectacula haec publica non contemnunt. Itaque his et delectantur, et libenter intersunt. Quae, quoniam maxima sunt irritamenta vitiorum, et ad corrumpendos animos potentissime valent, tollenda sunt nobis, quia non modo ad beatam vitam nihil conferunt, sed etiam nocent plurimum. Nam qui hominem, quamvis ob merita damnatum, in conspectu suo iugulari pro voluptate computat, conscientiam suam polluit, tam scilicet, quam si homicidii, quod fit occulte, spectator et particeps fiat. Hos tamen ludos vocant, in quibus humanus sanguis effunditur. Adeo longe ab hominibus secessit hamanitas; ut cum animas hominum interficiant, ludere se opinentur, nocentiores iis omnibus, quorum sanguinem voluptati habent. Quaero nunc, an possint pii et iusti homines esse, qui constitutos sub ictu mortis, ac misericordiam deprecantes, non tantum patiuntur occidi, sed et flagitant, feruntque ad mortem crudelia et inhumana suffragia, nec vulneribus satiati, nec cruore contenti: quin etiam percussos iacentesque repeti iubent, et cadavera ictibus dissipari, ne quis illos simulata morte deludat. Irascuntur etiam pugnantibus, nisi celeriter e duobus alter occisus est; et tanquam humanum sanguinem sitiant, oderunt moras. Alios illis compares dari poscunt recentiores, ut quamprimum oculos suos satient. Hac consuetudine imbuti, humanitatem perdiderunt. Itaque non parcunt etiam innocentibus: sed exercent in omnes, quod in malorum trucidatione didicerunt. Huius igitur publici homicidii socios et participes esse non convenit eos, qui iustitiae viam tenere nituntur. Non enim cum occidere Deus vetat, latrocinari nos tantum prohibet; quod ne per leges quidem publicas licet: sed ea quoque ne fiant monet, quae apud homines pro licitis habentur. Ita neque militare iusto licebit, cuius militia est ipsa iustitia; neque vero accusare quemquam crimine capitali: quia nihil distat utrumne ferro, an verbo potius occidas; quoniam occisio ipsa prohibetur. Itaque in hoc Dei praecepto nullam prorsus exceptionem fieri oportet, quia occidere hominem sit semper nefas, quem Deus sanctum animal esse voluit.
**Dei vero actio quae potest esse, nisi mundi administratio? Si vero mundi curam gerit, curtat igitur hominum vitam Deus, ac singulorum actus animadvertit, eosque sapientes ac bonos esse desiderat. Haec est voluntas Dei, haec divina lex; quam qui sequitur, qui observat, Deo carus est. Necesse est igitur, ut ira moveatur adversus eum, qui hanc aeternam divinamque legem, aut violaverit, aut speverit. Si nocet, inquit, alicui Deus, jam bonus non est. No exiguo errore, qui censuram sive humanam, sive divinam, acerbitatis et malitiae nomine infamant, putantes nocentem dici oportere, qui nocentes afficit poena. Quod si est, nocentes igitur leges habemus, quae peccantibus supplicia sanxerunt; nocentes judices, qui scelere convictos poena capitis afficiunt. Quod si et lex justa est, quae et nocentitribuit quod meretur, et judex integer ac bonas dicitur, cum male facta vindicat (bonorum enim salutem custodit, qui malos punit), ergo et Deus cum malis obest, nocens non est; ipse autem est noceas qui aut innocenti nocet, aut nocenti parcit, ut pluribus noceat.
***James J. Megivern, The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey (New York: Paulist, 1997), 26.

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