The issue on the death penalty is trending nowadays. Thanks to the recently approved extremely “watered down” version of the death penalty bill and Philippine President Duterte’s strong stance on death penalty.
Before we go to the topic let me clarify that this blog post is what exactly it is as stated in the title and the discussions here should be limited within the confines of the title as stated. If you don’t believe in the Bible or wish to argue for or against the death penalty from a sociological, historical anthropological or any other perspective outside the confines of the title of this topic or if you would like to address the issues as to whether the death penalty is effective in deterring crime based on studies etc., I would gladly address your concerns in another blog post. For now this addresses the issue from the perspective of what the Bible says about the death penalty and a historical survey on the position of the Roman Catholic on the matter.
When religion and politics mix, indeed it becomes one heck of a party. Both pro-life and pro-death penalty advocates cite the Bible as the basis for their stand. But what does the Bible really say about the death penalty? Further considering that most in the pro-life group are Roman Catholics, what is the historical position of the Roman Catholic Church with regards to this issue? Consider these points.
1.) In the Old Testament, God instituted the death penalty – The Old Testament is literally replete with verses wherein God commanded the death penalty for certain acts and here are some: Murder (Exodus 21:12), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), bestiality (Exodus 22:19), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), homosexual sexual acts (Leviticus 20:13), being a false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:5), prostitution and rape (Deuteronomy 22:24), and several other crimes. Genesis 9:6 (NLT) states that “If anyone takes a human life, that person’s life will also be taken by human hands. For God made human beings in his own image”
2.) The government has been authorized by God to punish evildoers – Romans Chapter 13 verse 1 to 5 (NLT) states that “Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.”
One can see that through these verse, it is very clear that the death penalty is allowed by God and that the government is the instrumentality wherein this penalty should be implemented. The Bible is very explicit on this matter
3.) Those in the “Pro-life” position (And by this I am using the term to refer to those against the death penalty) cannot really point out a single verse that is explicity against the death penalty – If they do have a biblical basis, it is often taken out of context and misinterpreted to fit their position – Prolife advocates often refer to the incident in John chapter 8 verse 1 to 11 wherein a woman was caught in adultery and the Pharisees brought her to Jesus. Adultery is punishable by death by stoning according to Leviticus 20:10. The text says that the Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus into saying something that they could use against him, but Jesus turned the tables against them and told them that whoever has never sinned; let him cast the first stone. This particular incident doesn’t explicitly prohibit the death penalty. It does not mean Jesus rejected capital punishment. Jesus here simply wanted to expose the hypocritical stand of the Jewish religious leaders. A rule of the thumb in Bible interpretation is that obscure texts will always give way to texts that are clear in its meaning. The Bible is very clear on its position that favors death penalty and this particular incident cannot be used to construe that Jesus is against the death penalty. Aside from exposing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, the passage simply shows that in some instance grace may be demonstrated instead of imposing capital punishment. This is not the only instance wherein grace was demonstrated for offenses wherein capital punishment should have been due. God who is rich in mercy did not take David’s life, who committed the crimes of adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11:1-5, 14-17, 2 Samuel 12:13) when such crimes should have been punished by death. However in the Bible, in a lot of instances also, grace was not given to certain persons and when they committed crimes wherein the death penalty was due, such was imposed upon them.
If you ask me why God extended mercy in some cases while in a lot of cases imposed the death penalty, I have no answer to that because God is God and in His sovereignty He will have mercy to anyone He choose, and will show compassion to anyone He choose. (Romans 9:15) In the absence of God with a booming voice from heaven choosing as to who should get the death penalty and who shouldn’t for those who has commit crimes that warrant such, then what should be followed is the general rule, that is the instrumentality upon which death penalty should be implemented should then take over. The government should then impose punishment whatever that might be including the death penalty should they wish to do so for certain crimes in accordance with the laws of the land.
Another biblical text relied upon by those in the pro-life position include Jesus forgiving his executioners in Luke 23:34. But take note that the crucifixion is part of God’s sovereign plan and Jesus even subjected himself to this gruesome death penalty even if he was innocent as it is all in accordance with the plan of redemption. Other verses those in the pro-life position rely upon are verses such as turning the other cheek (Mathew 5:38), avoiding passing judgment (Mathew 7), loving your enemies Luke 6:35-37, vengeance is to be left to God (Romans 12:14-19) among other passages. But again none of these passages expressly or even impliedly repealed the fact that God instituted the death penalty and that He has authorized the government to punish evildoers.
The major reason why those in the pro-life position is against the death penalty is because of the stand of the Roman Catholic Church. I may be Protestant but considering this fact, it is therefore very important to look at what is really the position of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the matter.
4.) Historically, the official position of the Roman Catholic Church has been in favor of death penalty. – While today, the official stand of the Roman Catholic Church today is against the death penalty, historically it was not their position. For hundreds of years after Christ was crucified, mainstream Christianity always favored the death penalty. Early church fathers such as Augustin of Hippo (354 to 430 A.D), a prolific scholar, doctor of the church, theologian, philosopher and whom the Roman Catholic church canonized as a saint, was very vocally in favor of the death penalty. In Book 1 Chapter 21 of his seminal work “The City of God” he writes “The same divine authority that forbids the killing of a human being establishes certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time. The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason” (Catholic Church and capital punishment, n.d)
In a summary of the “Liber de veritate catholicae fidei contra errores infidelium” (Book on the truth of the Catholic faith against the errors of the unbelievers) Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a Roman Catholic priest, Doctor of the church and an immensely influential philosopher, theologian, jurists, scholar and who also was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint wrote in Book 3, Chapter 146 that for those who have been appropriately appointed, there is no sin in administering punishment. For those who refuse to obey God’s laws, it is correct for society to rebuke them with civil and criminal sanctions. No one sins working for justice, within the law. Actions that are necessary to preserve the good of society are not inherently evil. The common good of the whole society is greater and better than the good of any particular person. “The life of certain pestiferous men is an impediment to the common good which is the concord of human society. Therefore, certain men must be removed by death from the society of men.” This is likened to the physician who must amputate a diseased limb, or a cancer, for the good of the whole person. (Catholic Church and capital punishment, n.d)
The 1911 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia even states that “the infliction of capital punishment is not contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, and the power of the State to visit upon culprits the penalty of death derives much authority from revelation and from the writings of theologians”, but that the matter of “the advisability of exercising that power is, of course, an affair to be determined upon other and various considerations.” (The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1911)
In the 1912 Catechism of Christian Doctrine Pope Pius X states “It is lawful to kill… when carrying out by order of the Supreme Authority a sentence of death in punishment of a crime.” (Feser, E., Besette J., 2016)
Section 2267 of the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church even favors death penalty and states that “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n.d)
Pope Pius XII in 1952 even argued, “When it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live.” (Catholic Church and capital punishment, n.d)
The fifth commandment of the Roman Catholic Council of Trent held between 1545 to 1563 even considers the execution of criminals as an exception to the 5th Commandment (“Thou Shalt not Kill”) (Catholic Apologetics, n.d) and according to the catechism of the Council of Trent, “Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.” (Novus Ordo Watch, 2013)
It was not until in 1962 after hundreds of year, in the Second Vatican Council wherein the Roman Catholic Church reversed its position and has been staunchly opposing the death penalty ever since. Is the Second Vatican Council up to the present Roman Catholic hierarchy then saying that the church fathers, the previous popes, those they canonized as saints, all the church councils who took a pro-death penalty stand and all of the gamut of mainstream historical Christianity then wrong?
The Bible supports death penalty and even the Roman Catholic Church historically supports it. With that, I rest my case. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Catholic Apologetics. (n.d). The Fifth Commandment: “Thou shalt not kill,” Two Parts of This commandment, Execution of Criminals. Retrieved from: http://www.catholicapologetics.info/thechurch/catechism/TenCommandments-fifth.shtml
Catholic Church and capital punishment, (n.d). In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 14, 2017 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_Church_and_capital_punishment
Catechism of the Catholic Church. (n.d). Part Three Life in Christ, Section two the Ten Commandments, Chapter Two “You shall your neighbor as yourself” I. Respect for human life. Retrieved from: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm
Feser, E., Besette J. (2016, July 17). Why the Church Cannot Reverse Past Teaching on Capital Punishment, Retrieved from: http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/4928/
Novus Ordus Watch (2013, April 17). The Morality of Capital Punishment. Retrieved from: http://novusordowatch.org/2013/04/morality-of-capital-punishment/
The Catholic Encyclopedia. (1911). Capital Punishment. Retrieved from :http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12565a.html