Rending the Seamless Garment, II: Killing the Killers

I have heard liberal Catholic priests and Protestant ministers say that there is something “unchristian” about the death penalty.  I have even heard those who say that the Church has always been opposed to executions, but I challenge them to cite one passage of Scripture or one creed, one conciliar document, one encyclical that unequivocally condemns the execution of murderers.

From the first homicide, our human responsibility has been clear: to preserve the sanctity of life by killing those who have abused it.  “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” [Gen. 9:6] The Old Law lists a great many crimes for which the penalty is death: homicide, witchcraft, idolatry, incest.  It is even permitted to kill a thief with impunity: “If a thief be found breaking up [that is, breaking and entering], and be smitten that he die, there shall be no blood shed for him.” [Ex. 22:2]  And the Christ who came not to change one jot or tittle of the law did not overturn its foundations.

The Christian Church more than once declared executions to be right and proper, and the current Roman Catholic Catechism, while recommending mercy in language whose vagueness approaches equivocation, includes the concession that: 

[T]he traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged a well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.

The writers have adopted a language that distorts, without entirely concealing, the traditional view that for certain crimes the truly just punishment is death. Unfortunately, many  theologians have gone further and taken the line that the purpose of punishment is the protection of the public, and, since we now have the means of locking serial killers up for life, there is little reason to execute them.  The writers of the Catechism  are guilty of making a similar argument, though they begin by conceding that “the primary effect of punishment is to redress the disorder caused by the offense,”  though they are not at all clear about what they mean by “disorder.”  Like so many Vatican pronouncements, it is open to a variety of interpretations.  From the Greek, Roman, Jewish, and traditional Christian perspective, offenses against the Natural Law constitute disorder, a disturbance of the natural order.  On a more trivial level—which is probably what the catechists have in mind—serious crimes are social problems, engendering fear and anxieties that governments must deal with.

They go on to say: 

If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

What are these “concrete conditions”?  Do they include the rising awareness that governments are unwilling to protect innocent citizens from violent predators?   Do they include prisons in which guards and prisoners are slaughtered by convicted killers?  

The modernist Catholic argument is false on many counts.  It is simply not true that putting murderers in prison necessarily prevents them from further killings.  Incarcerated murderers not infrequently attack both prison employees and their fellow-prisoners.  More fundamentally, prevention of crime is, admittedly one purpose of punishment, but not the only or even the most important purpose, which is justice.  In the Pentateuch, punishment for homicide lay in the hands of the family and its Avenger of Blood, but this power was later entrusted to kings and finally to the Roman Emperors, who executed vengeance on behalf of the victims and their families.  That is what St. Paul means, when he quotes (in his “Epistle to the Romans”) the sentence, “Vengeance is mine” and accompanies that declaration with his assertion that the ruler does not hold the sword “in vain.”  Paul’s well-known argument is extremely simple.  Once upon a time, families had been entrusted with the power to exact blood-revenge from those who killed one of its members.  Now that power has been given to the ruler, whose duty it is to protect the innocent and punish the guilty.

Keeping St. Paul in mind, what are we to make of Pope John Paul II’s requests that cold-blooded killers be granted clemency?  These interventions, although they seem (to many Catholics and Protestants alike) to display a callous disregard both for law and for the protection of the innocent, must be understood within the context of a long Christian tradition which forbids bishops and ministers to involve themselves in bloodshed.  The Church has always spoken the language of mercy, knowing full well that in most ages of the earth, that voice will be drowned out by the cries for blood. 

The issue is captured perfectly in an interchange of letters between St. Augustine and Macedonius, Vicar of Africa.  As a provincial administrator and yet a Christian, Macedonius asked Augustine to justify his pleas for clemency.   The bishop of Hippo began by conceding that the state has been given the power to correct wickedness: 

Surely, it is not without purpose that we have the institution of the power of kings, the death penalty of the judge, the barbed hooks of the executioner, the weapons of the soldier, the right of punishment of the overlord, even the severity of the good father....While these are feared, the wicked are kept within bounds and the good live more peacefully among the wicked.

The Old Law, continued Augustine, did preach harsh justice, but the New Testament urges us to pardon offenders either that we may be pardoned or as a means of commending gentleness.  After surveying a number of arguments (not all of them convincing) for mercy, Augustine concludes that there is good both in the magistrate’s severity and in the bishop’s plea for mercy.  “Do not be displeased at being petitioned by the good, because the good are not displeased that you are feared by the wicked.”

Augustine and (one hopes) Pope John Paul have simply repeated Christ’s admonition to be merciful; they did not repudiate the death penalty itself or call for an unqualified defense of life for life’s sake, unlike the modern theologians who, in attempting to weave a seamless garment of life, are really swaddling unborn babies in the uniform of the death-row convict.  

The phrase “seamless garment” appears to have been coined by a Catholic pacifist in the 1970’s, not one of the brighter ages of the Church.  The phrase was picked up by the leftist Cardinal Bernardin, not a cleric one would wish to cite in any discussion informed by orthodoxy.  

Some defenders of the "evolving" consensus opposed to capital punishment speak, citing John Henry Newman,  of the "development of church doctrine."   If Newman argued--and I have never imagined him to be guilty of such an error--that the explicit teachings of Christ, the Apostles, and nearly 2000 years of teaching from the doctors of the Church could be overturned by a more enlightened generation of theologians, then it would be best to consign that part of his work to the oblivion to which Origen's heretical  teachings were consigned.  The Holy Spirit, working through theologians and councils, has refined the Christian understanding of many things, from the nature of Christ to the rules on marriage, but no council and no Pope could ever refute such  fundamental teachings as the divinity of Christ, the requirement to perform works of charity, the sinfulness of men using other men sexually, the obligation of governments to execute justice.  

Something so basic as the Old Testament's teachings on capital punishment, not one bit of which was contradicted by Christ and was strongly confirmed by St Paul, is simply not up for discussion. The argument I hear is one of our greater humanity. This must be a joke. Serious opposition to the death penalty began in the century of two world wars, the dictatorships of Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot, the war crimes of Churchill, FDR, and Harry Truman. If any age of the world has entirely given way to savage cruelty, it is the past 100 years. That is not an age from which I am willing to take any lessons on either justice or kindness.

This is not the place for a refutation of Christian pacifism—though that is hardly a difficult matter—except to say that pacifism is inconsistent with the Old Testament and that there is no explicit repudiation in the New.  Of course, one can over-interpret or allegorize specific sentences, but John the Baptist was content to instruct soldiers to do their duties without oppression, and neither Christ nor his apostles, in their meetings with Roman officers and officials, condemned their professions. We find nothing in the Apostolic Fathers to support pacifism—on the contrary.  

If all human life is equally precious, then none can be very valuable.  In most cases, perhaps, the proponents of a seamless garment have simply failed to understand the consequences of their reasoning.  But in using the same language to defend the innocent unborn and the condemned murderer, they are equating innocence with guilt.  Part of the explanation lies in moral cowardice.  As Christians, they have to incur unpopularity by opposing abortion, but if, by opposing the death penalty, they can prove that their support for life is based on not on Christian moral considerations but on leftism or Buddhism, it is easier to maintain their respectability as leftists.  On a deeper level, though, they are deliberately confounding the categories of good and evil, willfully perverting the teachings of Christ and his church to celebrate sin as sin, evil as evil.  

Authentic Protestants will search their traditions in vain for arguments against the death penalty.  In their renewed emphasis on the Law, reformers were sometimes even more severe than their opponents, and good Lutherans have always based their view of government on the explicit testimony of Romans xiii, that the rulers do not hold the sword in vain.  Neither Luther nor Calvin displayed any hesitation, when they needed to call upon secular power to execute heretics and scoff-laws.  

Catholics have, if anything, even less excuse for their confusion.  St. Thomas, sorting through this questions with his typical thoroughness and acuteness, [Summa Th. II ii, 64], concluded that it is both licit and necessary to kill sinners.  Malefactors are to be put to death for the health of the community, and he compares the duties of rulers and physicians: it is the physician’s duty to preserve life and health in individuals, and rulers have been given the power to protect the community. 

Avatar photo

Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Brent says:

    I appreciate the excerpt from Augustine on the mutual respect the spiritual and civil estates owe each other. Another way confusion of roles is created, and by the State in this case, is when capital punishment is carried out by lethal injection administered by a doctor. The death penalty is the just consequence for murder, but it makes no sense for it to be administered by a physician. My suspicion is doing it that way is part of a larger plot to inure society to euthanasia. Somehow it’s not really killing if it’s by a drug administered by a doctor.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    “defenders of the “evolving” consensus opposed to capital punishment speak, citing John Henry Newman, of the “development of church doctrine.” If Newman argued–and I have never imagined him to be guilty of such an error-”

    He didn’t but Newman did write in real English which precludes most modern theologians from accessing his work let alone providing honest assessments of it.

  3. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, the citing of Newman is a travesty. I did not deny that he ever might have said such a thing–which I believe to be an absurd contention–because it is off-topic.

  4. Robert Reavis says:

    More off topic English for the dear reader about death of another kind.

    At this season a sky which is of so delicate and faint a blue as to contain something of gentle mockery, and certainly more of tenderness, presides at the fall of leaves. There is no air, no breath at all. The leaves are so light that they sidle on their going downward, hesitating in that which is not void to them, and touching at last so imperceptibly the earth with which they are to mingle, that the gesture is much gentler than a salutation, and even more discreet than a discreet caress.

    They make a little sound, less than the least of sounds. No bird at night in the marshes rustles so slightly; no man, though men are the subtlest of living beings, put so evanescent a stress upon their sacred whispers or their prayers. The leaves are hardly heard, but they are heard just so much that men also, who are destined at the end to grow glorious and to die, look up and hear them falling.