Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Church and the Death Penalty -- Modern & Historical

8 October 2019 (ORCNS) - The death penalty is certainly a controversial topic in Catholicism today. Unlike some issues, though, there is actually plenty of room for disagreement. Good Catholics may hold divergent views on this topic as long as they are well-grounded in doctrine and theology, with a love of humanity in the model of Christ. As Pope St. John Paul II expressed, there is little if any actual need for the death penalty today. However, this was not always the practice of the Church during the different circumstances that existed in the past. Though obviously no element of the Church today imposes a death sentence, it was a different matter in earlier periods of Church history.

Reigning from the late 1800s to just after the turn of the 20th century, Pope Leo XIII stated that the church possessed the right to impose the death penalty and that it was just to impose it for offenses such as spreading heresies, for the damage to the soul is by far greater than anything a murderer could ever do. However, Leo also made it clear that the Church in her mercy, following the example of Christ, does not actually impose such a penalty or promote it being imposed. That was just over 100 years in the past, which, in the span of Church history, is not that long ago. Even with Leo's justification of the death penalty as a right of the Church, it was clear that its ultimate purpose was for the good of souls, and it was further made very clear that the Holy Church is merciful and would not and should not actually impose such a penalty or promote it being imposed.
Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor

Earlier in church history came an institution that enemies of the church, Protestants, and indeed modern society have all continually slandered. Truly, the Spanish Inquisition is the subject of much "fake news," both centuries ago and still to this day. If one actually considers the reality of what the Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada actually did, it paints a different picture. He was in fact known as a man of great piety and caring for others, and he softened the whole interrogation method so that it was quite mild by the standards of the day. And, the conditions of interrogation were highly controlled and limited, unlike those of the civil state. As Blessed Fulton Sheen pointed out some years ago, the church has vices, but at any given time in history, the church's vices are far better and far better meaning than those of the civil state. 

In the case of the Inquisition, the death sentence was only ever imposed for repeat offenders. When they were at the stake, they were given the chance to repent. If they did, they were immediately strangled. That seems certainly harsh to modern ears, but at the time the point was to prevent them from being able to sin again, thereby helping to ensure their salvation. Only if they did not repent were they then burned at the stake – but even that had its spiritual purpose. The hope of those at that time was that the flames would give them a picture of the flames of hell, thereby prompting a last-minute repentance before actual moment of death. Of course, this seems surely thoroughly odd to most modern ears, but it is not right to judge another age by the standards of this age. The Church, of course, promotes salvation and repentance exclusively through non-violent means now. 

Throughout the Church is history, even when a death sentence was involved, whether related to the Church or criminal proceedings of the civil state, the Church was far more interested in the condition of souls and in mercy than in the laws of man. Today that same sentiment remains, following the example of Christ.