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 11, 2012

The Papacy and Capital Punishment: Pius XII

OUR LAST WITNESS OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH'S traditional teaching on capital punishment is Pope Pius XII. Pope Pius XII clearly accepts the traditional teaching on the moral liciety of capital punishment in his public addresses to a variety of groups. Although the form of Pius XII's teaching does not rise to the level of an ex cathedra statement, it remains nevertheless true that it is part of the ordinary teaching of the Church. Certainly, it is consistent with all the other witnesses we have reviewed in a series of postings--the Church Fathers, Popes Innocent I and Innocent III, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Roman Catechism, St. Alphonsus Liguori, and so forth.

For example, in his address to the First International Congress of Histopathology of the Nervous System held in Rome on September 14, 1952, Pope Pius XII discussed the moral limits of medical research and treatment. During the course of his address, Pius XII contrasted the right to life and the benefit of life in the case of a justly condemned criminal:
Even when there is question of a person condemned to death, the state does not take away the 'right' of the individual to life. It is then reserved to the public authority to deprive the condemned person of the 'benefit' of life in expiation for his guilt, after he himself, by his crime, has already deprived himself of his right to life.*

The "right to life" is in a manner of speaking inalienable, as it is given to man by God and not by any human authority.** However, such a right is, in another manner of speaking, something that one can alienate, even if it is God who allows it, through a serious criminal act which causes significant harm to the common good. In distinguishing between the "benefit" of life and the "right" to life, it is as if Pope Pius XII suggests that a justly condemned criminal guilty of a capital offense remains alive only through courtesy of the public authority responsible for the common good, as the benefits of his life, a life which he has forfeit through his crime may, as a result of the power given to the public authority by God, be taken away.

For Pius XII, the imposition of the death penalty was seen as the vindication of the moral order. It is part of the need for retribution, one of the classic reasons for punishment. Indeed, as Pope John Paul restates in his Evangelium vitae, the "primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is 'to redress the disorder caused by the offense.'" EV, No. 56. Such vindication or retribution, however, is distinct from vengeance. Indeed, Pope Pius XII clearly taught that punishment primary function was to vindicate the injustice caused by the wrongful act:
It would be incorrect to reject completely, and as a matter of principle the function of vindictive punishment. While man is on earth, such punishment both can and should help toward his eternal salvation, provided he himself raises no obstacles to its salutary efficacy.***
Pope Pius XII stated the traditional teaching of the Church regarding the death penalty in a speech dated March 13, 1943 to the parish priests of Rome:

God ... the fountain of justice reserved to himself the right over life and death. . . . Human life is [therefore] untouchable except for legitimate individual self-defense, a just war carried out with just methods, and the death penalty meted out by public authority for extremely grave and very specific and proven crimes.†

There are other addresses--for example those to the Italian jurists--that could be elicited where it is clear that Pius XII believed, held, and taught that the death penalty imposed upon a malefactor can be, in the proper circumstances, consonant with moral principles and with principles of justice.

The death penalty is supported by the notion of punishment as retribution or vindication of a disrupted moral order. In this regard, Pope Pius XII stated the following:
Up to a certain point, it may be true that imprisonment and isolation, when properly applied, constitute the penalty most likely to effect a return of the wrongdoer to right order and life in the community. But it does not follow from this that imprisonment is the only just and effective punishment. Our remarks on international penal law on October 3, 1953, referring to the theory of retribution apply here. Many jurists, thought not all, reject the concept of vindictive punishment, even when it is to be accompanied by medicinal penalties. In our remarks, we declared that it would be incorrect to reject completely, and as a matter of principle, the function of vindictive punishment. While man is on earth, such punishment both can and should help towards his eternal salvation, provided he himself raises no obstacle to its salutary efficacy. The effectiveness of vindictive penalties is in no way opposed to the function of punishment, which is the re-establishment and restoration of the order of justice which has been disrupted, a function which we have already indicated as essential to all punishment.††
It is this notion of vindication or retribution that explains the justification for imposing the death penalty on a malefactor who seriously disrupts the moral order. The putting of a man to death by public authority is not something immoral; indeed, it may be fully compatible with the demands of justice.

It is repugnant to reason and to the inclinations of mankind to suggest that a serial murderer such as Ted Bundy, a genocide such as Slobodan Milošević, a traitor such as Robert Hanssen, a terrorist such as Timothy McVeigh, may not, in the order of justice, without any moral fault, be put to death. Such as these deserve to die, and they cannot--nor can any on their behalf--claim any injustice should the State put them to death.

But while such as these cannot claim injustice if they are condemned to die and are in fact put to death, they can--until their dying breath--beg for mercy. And the public authority, which has power over their lives, may, and--under the state of affairs of modern society it is the opinion of the Pope and a good many others--in most cases should, exercise mercy. But that is entirely another order, the order of mercy.

*Pius XII, The Moral Limits of Medical Research and Treatment, An address given September 14, 1952 by His Holiness Pope Pius XII to the First International Congress on the Histopathology of the Nervous System.
**Evangelium vitae, 20, 101.
***Discourse of ***December 5, 1954, AAS, XLVII, p. 67.
†Pius XII, Sulla Osservanza dei Commandamenti di Dio, Ai Parroci ed ai Quaresimalisti Di Roma , Mar. 13, 1943, in Discorsi e Radiomessaggi di Sua Santità Pio XII, Tipografia Poligotta Vaticana, vol. V, p. 197.
††AAS 47 (1955) 81-82:

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