Catholic Morality

Death Penalty 
Is Life an Inalienable Good of the Human Person
From Conception to Natural Death?

By. Fr. Marc van Es


      Theses concerning each human person's right to life.

It seems that the human person possesses life as an inalienable good from conception to natural death.

1:1:1   Opinions from Sacred Scripture
1.1:2  Opinions against killing sinners.
1.1.3 Opinions against war.
1.1.4  Opinions against Self-Defence.

It seems that the human person does not possess life as an inalienable good from conception to natural death.

1.2.1  Opinions in favour of killing innocent people.
1.2.2 Opinions in favour of killing sinners by individuals.
1:2:3  Opinions in favour of suicide.
Catholic and Traditional position.
2.1  The Necessity of punishment.
2.1.1- 5 Reasons.
2.2 Of those who inflict death:


Can God inflict the death penalty?


Can the State inflict the death penalty?

Can the State inflict the death penalty on a foreign enemy?  Can the State inflict the death penalty against evil-doers?
2.2.3 Can a simple individual inflict the death penalty to defend himself?
3 Replies.
3.1  Replies to opinions stating that the human person possesses life as an inalienable good from conception to natural death.
3.1:1   Replies to opinions from Sacred Scripture.
3.1.2  Replies to opinions against the killing of sinners.
3:1.3  Replies to opinions against war.
3.1.4     Replies to opinions against Self-Defence.

Replies to opinions stating that the human person does not possess life as an inalienable good from conception to natural death.

3.2.1 Replies to opinions in favour of killing the innocent.
3.2.2 Replies to opinions of killing sinners, by individuals.
3.2.3   Replies to opinions in favour of suicide.

General conclusion

By its Constitution Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II Council has proclaimed: "All offences against life itself, such as murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and wilful suicide (...) are criminal" (Constitution Gaudium et Spes, 27). Ever since many national Bishops' Conferences have allowed to everyone the right to live, and, as, a consequence, have condemned the death penalty. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has even mentioned in 1987 "the right to life ( ...) of all human beings from conception to death" (Instruction on Respect of Human Life and on the origin and on the dignity of Procreation, 22 Feb. 1987). What exactly is the position of Roman Catholic Tradition on this issue, especially as it is stated by St. Thomas Aquinas, Doctor of the Church?

Let us see first the opinions of those favouring the right to life of all human persons, then of those at the opposing side who reject this same right. Thirdly, the traditional Catholic position, followed by the answer to each of the previously given opinions, each reply bearing the number corresponding to the thesis it answers.

1- Theses concerning each human person's right to life

1.1 - It seems that the human person possesses life as an inalienable good from conception to natural death.

1.1.1) Opinions from Sacred Scripture:

Opinion 1. "Thou shalt not kill". (Ez. XX, 13) .This is the Fifth Commandment. Now, the Decalogue has not been abolished by Our Lord. Therefore it is absolutely unjust to kill human beings.

Opinion 2. "The thief cometh not but to steal and to kill and to destroy.  I am come that they may have life, and may have it more abundantly"(Jn X,.10). By these words, Jesus Christ indicates that He is in favour of life, and not of death. It is therefore contrary to His divine teaching to wish the death of someone.

Opinion 3. Under the Mosaic Law, adultery was liable of the penalty of death (Lev. XX.10; Deut: XXII.22); Now, Our Lord did forgive the adulterous woman. It is therefore preferable under the New Law to forgive rather than to inflict a punishment.

1.1.2) Opinions against killing sinners

Opinion 4. It would seem unlawful to kill men who have sinned. For Our Lord in the parable (Matt. XIII.) forbade the uprooting of the cockle which denotes wicked men. Now whatever is forbidden by God is a sin. Therefore it is a sin to kill a sinner.

Opinion 5. Further, human justice is conformed to Divine justice. Now according to Divine justice sinners be kept back for repentance, according to Ezech. XXXIII.11, I desire not the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Therefore it seems altogether unjust to kill sinners.

Opinion 6. Further, it is not lawful for any good end whatever; to do that which is evil in itself, according to Augustine (Contra Mendac.vii) and the Philosopher (Aristotle) (Ethic. 11.6). Now to kill a man is evil in itself, since we are bound to have charity towards all men, and we wish our friends to live and to exist, according to Ethic.ix.4. Therefore it is nowise lawful to kill a man who has sinned.

Opinion 7. The law which condemns to death inflicts an irreparable pain. Now, it can happen that such a pain be unjustly or erroneously inflicted. Therefore the law which condemns to death can be unjust or erroneous.

1.1.3) Opinions against war:

Opinion 8. It would seem that it is always sinful to wage war. Because punishment is not inflicted except for sin. Now those who wage war are threatened by Our Lord with punishment, according to Matt. xxvi. 52: All that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Therefore all wars are unlawful.

Opinion 9. Further, whatever is contrary to a Divine precept is a sin. But war is contrary to a Divine precept, for it is written (Matt. v, 39): But I say to you not to resist evil; and (Rom. xii 19): Not revenging yourselves, my dearly beloved, but give place unto wrath. Therefore war is always sinful.

Opinion 10. Further, nothing, except sin, is contrary to an act of virtue. But war is contrary to peace. Therefore war is always a sin.

Opinion 11. Further, the exercise of a lawful thing is itself lawful, as is evident in scientific exercises. But warlike exercises which take place in tournaments are forbidden by the Church, since those who are slain in these trials are deprived of ecclesiastical burial. Therefore it seems that war is a sin in itself.

1.1.4) Opinions against self-defence:

Opinion 12. It would seem that nobody may lawfully kill a man in self-defence. For Augustine says to Publicola (Eph.xlvii.) I do not agree with the opinion that one may kill a man lest one be killed by him; unless one be a soldier, or exercise a public office, so that one does it not for oneself but for others, having the power to do so, provided it be in keeping with one's person. Now he who kills a man in self-defence, kills him lest he be killed by him. Therefore this would seem to be unlawful.

Opinion 13. Further, Pope Nicolas I says in the Decretals: (Dist. l, Can.De his Clericis ) Concerning the clerics about whom you have consulted Us, those, namely, who have killed a pagan in self-defence, as to whether, after making amends by repenting, they may return to their former state, or rise to a higher degree; know that in no case is it lawful for them to kill any man under any circumstances whatever. Now clerics and laymen are alike bound to observe the moral precepts. Therefore neither is it lawful for laymen to kill anyone in self-defence.

Opinion 14. Further, murder is a more grievous sin than fornication or adultery. Now nobody may lawfully commit simple fornication or adultery or any other mortal sin in order to save his own life; since the spiritual life is to be preferred to the life of the body. Therefore no man may lawfully take another's life in self-defence in order to save his own life.

Opinion 15. Further, if the tree be evil, so is the fruit, according to Matt. vii. 17.  Now self-defence itself seems to be unlawful, according to Rom. xii.19: Not defending (Douay: revenging) yourselves, my dearly beloved. Therefore its result, which is the slaying of a man, is also unlawful.

1.2 - It seems that the human person does not possess life as an inalienable good from conception to natural death.

1.2.1) Opinions in favour of killing innocent people:

Opinion 16. It would seem that in some cases it is lawful to kill the innocent. The fear of God is never manifested by sin, since on the contrary the fear of the Lord driveth out sin (Eccles. i. 27). Now Abraham was commended in that he feared the Lord, since he was willing to slay his innocent son. Therefore one may, without sin, kill an innocent person.

Opinion 17. Further, among those sins that are committed against one's neighbour, the more grievous seem to be those whereby a more grievous injury is inflicted on the person sinned against. Now to be killed is a greater injury to a sinful than to an innocent person. because the latter, by death, passes forthwith from the unhappiness of this life to the glory of heaven. Since then it is lawful in certain cases to kill a sinful man, much more is it lawful to slay an innocent or a righteous person.

Opinion 18. Further, what is done in keeping with the order of justice is not a sin. But sometimes a man is forced, according to the order of justice, to slay an innocent person: for instance, when a judge, who is bound to judge according to the evidence, condemns to death a man whom he knows to be innocent, but who is convicted by false witnesses; and again the executioner, who in obedience to the judge puts to death the man who has been unjustly sentenced.

1.2.2) Opinions in favour of killing sinners by individuals:

Opinion 19. It would seem lawful for a private individual to kill a man who has sinned. For nothing unlawful is commanded in the Divine law. Yet, on account of the sin of the molten calf, Moses commanded (Ex. xxxii,27): Let every man kill his brother, and friend, and neighbour. Therefore it is lawful for private individuals to kill a sinner.

Opinion 20. A man, on account of sin, is compared to the beasts. Now it is lawful for any private individual to kill a wild beast, especially if it be harmful. Therefore for the same reason, it is lawful for any private individual to kill a man who has sinned.

Opinion 21. Further, a man, though a private individual, deserves praise for doing what is useful for the common good. Now the slaying of evildoers is useful for the common good. Therefore it is deserving of praise if even private individuals kill evildoers.

1.2.3)   Opinions in favour of suicide:

Opinion 22. It would seem lawful for a man to kill himself. For murder is a sin in so far as it is contrary to justice. But no man can do an injustice to himself, as is proved in Ethic. v ii. Therefore no man sins by killing himself.

Opinion 23. Further, it is lawful, for one who exercises public authority, to kill evildoers. Now he who exercises public authority is sometimes an evildoer. Therefore he may lawfully kill himself.

Opinion 24. Further, it is lawful for a man to suffer spontaneously a lesser danger that he may avoid a greater: thus it is lawful for a man to cut off a decayed limb even from himself, that he may save his whole body. Now sometimes a man, by killing himself, avoids a greater evil, for example an unhappy life, or the shame of sin. Therefore a man may kill himself.

Opinion 25. Further, Samson killed himself, as related in Judges xvi., and yet he is numbered among the saints (Heb. xi.). Therefore it is lawful for a man to kill himself.

Opinion 26. Further, it is related (11 Mach. xiv.42) that a certain Razias killed himself, choosing to die nobly rather than to fall into the hands of the wicked, and to suffer abuses unbecoming his noble birth. Now nothing that is done nobly and bravely is unlawful. Therefore suicide is not unlawful.


2 - Catholic and Traditional position.

Man can be considered in a twofold aspect: "First, in himself; secondly, in relation to something else. If we consider a man in himself, it is unlawful to kill any man, since in every man though he be sinful, we ought to love the nature which God has made, and which is destroyed by slaying him." (ST.II.II q64.a6.) From this first point of view, it appears that one can say that in some ways the human person possesses life as an inalienable good, from conception to natural death. The second point of view is to consider man "in relation to something else", in relation to his natural and habitual milieu which is human society. In that case, "the slaying of the sinner can become lawful" in order "to preserve the common good against the attempts of sin. That is why it is not rare to find in the Bible, Saints who, to preserve the peace and morality of Society in which they lived, caused or were the occasion of violent deaths. Such were the cases of Moses (Num.XVI), Phinees (Num. XXV) or Elias (Kings XVIII). Similarly the Divine Law promulgated by Moses prescribed death as a punishment of adultery (Lev. XX,10), of bestiality (Ex. XXII,19) etc. Now, if these grievous sins were punished in such a way in the Old Testament, under the New Law promulgated by the Sacred Heart, is there still a necessity for chastisements? If yes, who will be entitled to inflict the death sentence?

2.1 - Necessity of punishment.

To this delicate question, whether the acts of a human being can be punished by some chastisement, Saint Thomas Aquinas replies in the affirmative with a number of arguments.

2.1.1) First reason:

"It has passed from natural things to human affairs that whenever one thing rises up against another, it suffers some detriment therefrom. For we observe in natural things that when one contrary supervenes, the other acts with greater energy, for which reason hot water freezes more rapidly, as stated in Meteor. i.12. Therefore we find that the natural inclination of man is to repress those who rise up against him. Now it is evident that all things contained in an order, are, in a manner, one, in relation to the principle of that order. Consequently, whatever rises up against an order, is put down by that order or by the principle thereof. And because sin is an inordinate act, it is evident that whoever sins, commits an offence against an order: wherefore he is put down, in consequence, by that same order, which repression is punishment." (ST 1. II.q87.a1)

2.1.2) Second reason:

"Again, wherever there is a proper order to an end, this order must lead to the end, while a departure from this order prevents the attainment of the end. For things which depend on the end derive their necessity from the end; that is to say, this means is necessary if the end is to be attained - and under these conditions, if there be no impediment, the end is achieved. Now, God has imposed on men's acts a certain order in relation to the final good as is evident from preceding statements. So, it must be, if this order is rightly laid down, that those who proceed according to this order will attain the final good, and this is to be rewarded; but those who depart from this order by means of sin must be cut off from the final good, and this is to be punished." (CG 111 140.)

2.1.3) Third reason:

"Besides, as things in nature are subject to the order of Divine Providence, so are human acts, as is clear from what was said earlier. In both cases, however, it is possible for the proper order to be observed or overlooked. Yet there is this difference: the control of the human will, but it is not within the power of things in nature to fall short of or to follow the proper order. Now, effects must correspond in an appropriate way with their causes. Hence, just as when natural things adhere to a due order in their natural principles and actions, the preservation of their nature and the good in them necessarily follows, while corruption and evil result when there is a departure from the proper and natural order - so also, in human affairs, when a man voluntarily observes the order of divinely imposed law, good must result, not as if by necessity, but by the management of the governor, and this is to be rewarded. On the contrary, evil follows when the order of the law has been neglected, and this is to be punished." (CG III 140.)

2.1.4) Fourth reason:

"Furthermore, Divine Providence not only arranges the order of things, it also moves all things to the execution of the order thus arranged, as we showed above. Now, the will is moved by its object, which is a good or a bad thing. Therefore, it is the function of Divine Providence to offer men good things as a reward, so that their will may be moved to make right progress, and so set forth evil things as punishment, so that their will may avoid disorder." (CG III 140.)

2.1.5) Fifth reason:

"Besides, Divine Providence has so ordered things that one will be useful to another. But it is most appropriate for man to derive profit for his final good, both from another man's good and another man's evil, in the sense that he may be stimulated to good actions by seeing that others who do good are rewarded, and that he may be turned back from evil action by observing that those who do evil are punished." (CG III 140.) Therefore evil men will be punished and good men rewarded.

"However, the punishments of this life are medicinal rather than retributive. For retribution is reserved to the Divine judgment which is pronounced against sinners according to truth (Rom. ii.2). Wherefore, according to the judgment of the present life the death punishment is inflicted, not for every mortal sin, but only for such as inflict an irreparable harm, or again for such as contain some horrible deformity. Hence according to the present judgment the pain of death is not inflicted for theft which does not inflict an irreparable harm, except when it is aggravated by some grave circumstance, as in the case of sacrilege which is the theft of a sacred thing, or peculation, which is theft of common property, as Augustine (Tract.], super Joan.) states". (ST. 11 11 q66.a6.ad2.)

"Accordingly, man can be punished with a threefold punishment corresponding to the three orders to which the human will is subject. In the first place a man's nature is subjected to the order of his own reason; secondly, it is subjected to the order of another man who governs him either in spiritual or in temporal matters, as a member either of the state or of the household; thirdly, it is subjected to the universal order of the Divine government. Now each of these orders is disturbed by sin, for the sinner acts against his reason, and against human and Divine Law. Wherefore he incurs a threefold punishment; one, inflicted by himself, viz. remorse of conscience; another, inflicted by man, and a third, inflicted by God." (ST 1 11 q87.a.1.) The pain can therefore have a triple origin: God, man and the conscience. Leaving this last one apart, let us examine in part this distinction to apply it to the case of the death penalty. Can God and man -taken as a government or as an individual - inflict the death penalty?

2.2 Of those who inflict death:

2.2.1) Can God inflict the death penalty?

God Himself announces that He possesses this power to inflict death by the following text of Deuteronomy: "See ye that I alone am, and there is no other God besides me: I will kill and I will make to live: I will strike, and I will heal, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand." (Dent. XXXII 39) "For it is Thou, O Lord, that hast power of life and death, and leadest down to the gates of death, and bringest back again." (Wis. XVI. 13) Life is therefore a gift given to man by the Creator but which He can withdraw. In fact, this is what took place in a way with Adam and Eve; the sin of our first parents having destroyed original justice has consequently introduced death into the world: "Wherefore as by one man sin entered into this world, and by sin death: and so death passed upon all men in whom all have sinned." (Rom. V,12).

Why such a reason? "Moreover, to leave nothing un-ordered among things pertains to the perfect goodness of God; as a result, we observe that every evil in things of nature is included under the order of something good. So, the corruption of air is the generation of fire and the killing of a sheep is the feeding of a wolf. Hence, since human acts are subject to Divine Providence, just as things in nature are, the evil which occurs in human acts must be contained under the order of some good. Now, this is most suitably accomplished by the fact that sins are punished. For in that way those acts which exceed the due measure are embraced under the order of justice which reduces to equality. But man exceeds the due degree of his measure when he prefers his own will to the divine will by satisfying it contrary to God's ordering. Now, this inequity is removed when, against his will, man is forced to suffer something in accord with divine ordering. Therefore, it is necessary that human sins be given punishment of divine origin and, for the same reason, that good deeds receive their reward." (CG 111 140) This punishment can be sometimes a natural or violent death, e.g. in the case of Core, Dathan and Abiron (Num.XVI).

2.2.2) Can the state inflict the death penalty?

"Since some people pay little attention to the punishments inflicted by God, because they are devoted to the objects of sense and care only for the things that are seen, it has been ordered accordingly by Divine Providence that there be men in various countries whose duty it is to compel these people, by means of sensible and present punishments, to respect justice." (CG III 146) "Indeed, God through the order of His Providence directs lower beings by means of higher ones" (CG III 146) making the latter the "executors" of His Divine Will. That is why it is written about political power: "For he is God's minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God's minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil." (Rom. XIII, 4)

Thus, public authority is entrusted to political governments to make Divine justice respected on earth and not to establish an order conformable to a doctrine which would justify the murder of all its opponents. "Hence it is unlawful for them to use violence or coercion, save within the bounds of justice: - either by fighting against the enemy, or against the citizens, by punishing evil-doers." (ST 1111 q 66.x8.)            Can the State inflict the death penalty on a foreign enemy, i.e. go to war.

According to Saint Augustine: If the Christian Religion forbade war altogether, those who sought salutary advice in the Gospel would rather have been counselled to cast aside their arms, and to give up soldiering altogether. On the contrary, they were told: 'Do violence to no man; ... and be content with your pay.' If he commended them to be content with their pay, he did not forbid soldiering. (Sermo de Puero Centurionis [Ep.138]; quoted by St. Thomas Aquinas: ST. 1111 q 40; al.)

If one can enter into war, war must be just. In order to be just, St. Thomas Aquinas gives the three conditions to be fulfilled:

a) First condition:

"Firstly, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in war-time. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Rom.xiii.4): He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Ps lxxxi.4) Rescue the poor; and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner; and for this reason Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii.75): The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority.

b) Second condition:

Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says ( Hept., qu.x., super Jos.) A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.

c) Third condition:

Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (de Verb. Dom.): True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandisement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good. For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xii.74) The passion for inflicting harm the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt the lust of power, and suchlike things, all these are rightly condemned in war." (ST. II II q40; al)

"The community of nations must take into account the criminals deprived conscience, who, in order to fulfill their ambitious plans, fear not to start a complete war. That is why if the other nations desire to protect their existence and their most precious goods and if they do not want to give room to international evildoers, there remains only one thing for them to do: to prepare themselves for the day when they will have to defend themselves. Even today, one can not refuse to any State this right to defend itself. This however does absolutely not change anything to the fact that unjust war is to be put in the first rank of the most grievous delicts, which international law pillories, sanctions with the heaviest punishments and of which the authors remain in any case, guilty as well as liable of the set punishment". (Pius XII: Address to the International Convention of Penal Law, Oct.3,1953)

In relation to the particular problem of modern war, called ABC "There can be no doubt, mainly because of the horrors and unlimited sufferings caused by modern warfare, that to unleash such warfare without a just motive - that is to say, without its being necessitated by an obvious and extremely grave injustice that cannot otherwise be repelled - would be a "crime" deserving of the most severe national and international sanctions.

In principle it is wrong even to ask if atomic, bacteriological and chemical warfare is lawful except when such warfare must be deemed indispensable for defence in the conditions previously stipulated."

"Even then, however, all means must be taken to avert it through international agreements or to place upon its use such well-defined and rigid limitations as will guarantee that its effects will be confined to the strict needs of defence."

"Moreover, should the evil consequences of setting this method of warfare in motion ever become so widespread as to pass utterly beyond human control, then its use must be rejected as immoral. It would then no longer be a question of "defence" against injustice and of the necessary "protection" of lawful  possessions, but of pure and simple annihilation of all human life within the radius of the destructive action. This is not permissible on any count." (Pius XII: Address to the Eighth Assembly of the World Medical Association, Sept. 30, 1954) Can the State inflict the death penalty against evil-doers?

It is written in Sacred Scripture: "Wizards thou shalt not suffer to live." (Ex. XXII, 18) and in the Psalms: "In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land". (Ps.C,8) Saint Paul says the same: "Know you not that a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump". (I Cor.V,6.) And further down: "Put away the evil one from among yourselves". (I Cor.V,l3.) To whom is this teaching aimed at if not to the political riders? This opinion is moreover confirmed by the abjuration formula and the profession of faith, which Pope Innocent III imposed to the Waldenses in which it is written: "We affirm that the secular power can, without mortal sin, pronounce a capital sentence as long as it does so in a process and not out of hatred, after deliberations and not without precautions". (Letter Ejus Exemplo; Dec. 18, 1208; DzS 795)

"The greater power should exercise the greater coercion. Now just as a city is perfect community, so the governor of a city has perfect coercive power: wherefore he can inflict irreparable punishment such as death". (ST II II q65.a2.ad2.)

What authorises the State to punish evildoers with death?

"Since a member is part of the whole human body, it is for the sake of the whole, as the imperfect for the perfect. Hence a member of the human body is to be disposed of according as it is expedient for the body." (ST 1111 q65.a1) "For this reason we observe that if the health of the whole body demands the excision of a member, it will be both praiseworthy and advantageous to have it cut away. Now every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good." (ST II II q64.a2.)

Elsewhere, Saint Thomas has summarised this argument when he said: "Furthermore, just as a physician looks to health as the end in his work, and health consists in the orderly concord of jurors, so too, the ruler of a state intends peace in his work and peace consists in 'the ordered concord of citizens'. Now, the physician quite properly and beneficially cuts off a diseased organ if the corruption of the body is threatened because of it. Therefore, the ruler of a state executes pestiferous men justly and sinlessly in order that the peace of the state may not be disrupted". (CG 111 146)

Thus, "it is lawful to kill an evildoer in so far as it is directed to the welfare of the whole community, so that it belongs to him alone who has charge of the community's welfare. Thus it belongs to a physician to cut off a decayed limb, when he has been entrusted with the care of the health of the whole body. Now the care of the common good is entrusted to persons of rank having public authority: wherefore they alone, and not private individuals, can lawfully put evildoers to death." (ST 1111 q64.a3)

2.2.3 Can a simple individual inflict the death penalty to defend himself?

The answer is yes, such is the teaching which comes forth from Sacred Scripture. "If a thief be found breaking open a house or undermining it and be wounded so as to die: he that slew him shall not be guilty of blood." (Ex.XXII,2) "Now it is much more lawful to defend one's life than one's house. Therefore neither is a man guilty of murder if he kill another in defence of his own life." (ST 1111 q67,a7)

Let us give however the precisions added by the Angelic Doctor: "Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above. Accordingly the act of self-defence may have two effects, one is the saving of one's life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one's intention is to save one's own life, is not unlawful, seeing that it is natural to everything to keep itself in being, as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defence, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defence will be lawful, because according to the jurists, it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defence. Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self ­defence in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one's own life than of another's. But as it is unlawful to take a man's life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated, it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defence, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defence, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity." (ST II II q64.a7)

3.- Replies:

3.1 - Replies to the opinions stating that the human person possesses life as an inalienable good from conception to natural death.

3.1.1) Replies to opinions from Sacred Scripture:

Reply 1 a: "Indeed, in the law which says Thou shalt not kill there is the later statement: Wrongdoers thou shalt not suffer to live (Ex.XXII,18). From this we are given to understand that the unjust execution of men is prohibited". (CG III 146)

Reply 1 b: 'The slaying of a man is forbidden in the Decalogue, in so far as it bears the character of something undue: for in this sense the precept contains the very essence of justice. Human law cannot make it lawful for a man to be slain unduly. But it is not undue for evil-doers or foes of the common weal to be slain: Hence this is not contrary to the precept of the Decalogue; and such a killing is no murder as forbidden by that precept, as Augustine observes (De Lib.Arb.i.4). - In like manner when a man's property is taken from him, if it be due that he should lose it, this is not theft or robbery as forbidden by the Decalogue.

Consequently when the children of Israel, by God's command took away the spoils of the Egyptians, this was not theft; since it was due to them by the sentence of God. Likewise when Abraham consented to slay his son, he did not consent to murder, because his son was due to be slain by the command of God, Who is Lord of life and death: for He it is Who inflicts the punishment of death on all men, both godly and ungodly, on account of the sin of our first parent, and if a man be the executor of that sentence by Divine authority, he will be no murderer any more than God would be.

Again Osee, by taking unto himself a wife of fornication, or an adulterous woman, was not guilty either of adultery or of fornication: because he took into himself one who was his by command of God, Who is the Author of the institution of marriage.

Accordingly, therefore, the precepts of the Decalogue, as to the essence of justice which they contain, are unchangeable: but as to any determination by application to individual actions, for instance that this or that be murder, theft, or adultery, or not - in this point they admit of change; sometimes by Divine authority alone, namely, in such matters as are exclusively of Divine institution, as marriage and the like; sometimes also by human authority, namely in such matters as are subject to human jurisdiction: for in this respect men stand in the place of God; and yet not in all respects." (ST III q100;a8.ad3)

Reply 2: The life of which our Saviour speaks (Jn X, 10) is not the life of our corporal nature: according to Saint Augustine, (tract 45) it is the life of faith by which the just man lives (Rom. I, 17); according to Saint Thomas Aquinas, (Super Ev. Joannis Chp. X; lect 2; no.1396) it is either the life of justice which introduces us in the militant Church by faith, or the eternal life which we reach after our corporal death.

Reply 3: Our Lord forgave the adulterous woman "her sin without inflicting her any other punishment, because if He was justifying her completely in forgiving her according to the (Mosaic) law, he was also very well able to transform her heart by a sufficient contrition of her sins in such a way that all the punishment be spared her. However, one must not, under the pretext of following the example of the Lord, fall into the habit of absolving (or of judging) someone (...) without inflicting on him any punishment. Christ had in fact the excellence in the sacraments and was able to confer the sacramental effect (of confession) without the sacrament itself which no ordinary man can do." (Super Ev. Joannis. Chp.VIII; Lect.2;n:1138)

3.1.2) Replies to opinions against the killing of sinners:

Reply 4: "Our Lord commanded them to forbear from uprooting the cockle in order to spare the wheat, i.e. the good. This occurs when the wicked cannot be slain without the good being killed with them, either because the wicked lie hidden among the good, or because they have many followers, so that they cannot be killed without danger to the good as Augustine says (Contra Parmen. iii.2). Therefore Our Lord teaches that we should rather allow the wicked to live, and that vengeance is to be delayed until the last judgment, rather than that the good be put to death together with the wicked. When, however, the good incur no danger, but rather are protected and saved by the slaying of the wicked, then the latter may be lawfully put to death." (ST 1111 q64.aZad1.)

Reply 5: "According to the order of his wisdom, God sometimes slays sinners forthwith in order to deliver the good, whereas sometimes He allows them time to repent, according as He knows what is expedient for His elect. This also does human justice imitate according to its powers; for it puts to death those who are dangerous to others, while it allows time for repentance to those who sin without grievously harming others." (ST II II q64,a2.ad2)

Reply 6: "By sinning man departs from the order of reason, and consequently falls away from the dignity of his manhood, in so far as he is naturally free, and exists for himself, and he falls into the slavish state of the beasts, by being disposed of according as he is useful to others. This is expressed in Ps. xlviii.21: Man, when he was in honour, did not understand; he hath been compared to senseless beasts, and made like to them, and Prov. xi.29: The fool shall serve the wise. Hence, although it be evil in itself to kill a man so long as he preserve his dignity, yet it may be good to kill a man who has sinned, even as it is to kill a beast. For a bad man is worse than a beast, and is more harmful, as the Philosopher ( Polit.i.1 and Ethic. vii.6) states". (ST II II q64.a2.ad3)

Reply 7: It is quite true that judiciary errors can take place. However, if the death penalty is inflicted only "after deliberation and not without precautions " (Innocent III) these judiciary errors can only be exceptional. The benefits brought to the common good of society by the death penalty are without comparison much more numerous than the prejudices which it can provoke in a few rare cases. Governments can also grant a delay or a diminution of the punishment to allow to defend the judgment or to overcome an uncertainty. Moreover, the acceptance of an indefinite series of particular or hypothetical cases renders impossible the making of any legislation.

3.1.3) Replies to opinions against War:

Reply 8: "As Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii 70): To take the sword is to arm oneself in order to take the life of anyone, without the command or permission of superior or lawful authority. On the other hand, to have recourse to the sword (as a private person) by the authority of the sovereign or judge, or (as a public person) by the authority of the justice, and by the authority, so to speak, of God, is not to take the sword, but to use it as commissioned by another, wherefore it does not deserve punishment. And yet even those who make sinful use of the sword are not always slain with the sword, yet they always perish with their own sword, because, unless they repent, they are punished eternally for their sinful use of the sword." (ST.II II l.)

Reply 9: "Suchlike precepts, as Augustine observes (De Serm.Dom. in Monte i.19), should always be borne in readiness of mind, so that we be ready to obey them, and, if necessary, to refrain from resistance or self-defence. Nevertheless it is necessary sometimes for a man to act otherwise for the common good, or for the good of those with whom he is fighting. Hence Augustine says (Ep. ad Marcellin. cxxxviii.): Those whom we have to punish with a kindly severity, it is necessary to handle in many ways against their will. For when we are stripping a man of the lawlessness of sin, it is good for him to be vanquished, since nothing is more hopeless than the happiness of sinners, whence arises a guilty impunity, and an evil will, like an internal enemy." (ST. II II

Reply 10: "Those who wage war justly aim at peace, and so they are not opposed to peace, except to the evil peace, which Our Lord came not to send upon earth (Match. x 34) Hence Augustine says (Ep. ad Boni. clxxxix.): We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace." (ST II II q,ad3)

Reply 11: "Manly exercises in warlike feats of arms are not all forbidden, but those are which are inordinate and perilous, and end in slaying or plundering. In olden times warlike exercises presented no such danger, and hence they were called exercises of arms or bloodless wars, as Jerome states in an epistle." (ST. II II

3.1.4) Replies to opinions against self-defence:

Reply 12: 'The words quoted from Augustine refer to the case when one man intends to kill another to save himself from death. The passage quoted in the Second Objection is to be understood in the same sense. Hence he says pointedly, for the sake of these things, whereby he indicates the intention." (ST.II II q64.a7.adl)

Reply 13: "Irregularity results from the act though sinless of taking a man's life, as appears in the case of a judge who justly condemns a man to death. For this reason a cleric, though he kill a man in self-defence, is irregular, albeit he intends not to kill him, but to defend himself." (ST II II q64.a7.ad3)

Reply 14: "The act of fornication or adultery is not necessarily directed to the preservation of one's own life, as is the act whence sometimes results the taking of a man's life." (ST II II q64.a7.ad4)

Reply 15: "The defence forbidden in this passage is that which comes from revengeful spite. Hence a gloss says: Not defending yourselves, - that is, not striking your enemy back." (ST II II q64.a7.ad5)

3.2 Replies to opinions stating that the human person does not possess life as an inalienable good from conception to natural death.

3.2.1) Replies to opinions in favour of killing the innocent:

Reply 16: "God is Lord of death and life, for by His decree both the sinful and the righteous die. Hence he who at God's command kills an innocent man does not sin, neither does God Whose behest he executes: Unless his obedience to God's commands is a proof that he fears Him." (ST II II q64.a6.ad1.)

Reply 17: "In weighing the gravity of a sin we must consider the essential rather then the accidental. Therefore he who kills a just man, sins more grievously than he who slays a sinful man: first, because he injures one whom he should love more, and so acts more in opposition to charity: secondly, because he inflicts an injury on a man who is less deserving of one, and so acts more in opposition to justice: thirdly, because he deprives the community of a greater good: fourthly, because he despises God more, according to Luke x 16, He that despiseth you despiseth Me. On the other hand it is accidental to the slaying that the just man whose life is taken be received by God into glory." (ST II II q64 a6.ad2.)

Reply 18: "If the judge knows that a man who has been convicted by false witnesses, is innocent, he must, like Daniel, examine the witnesses with great care, so as to find a motive for acquitting the innocent: but if he cannot do this he should remit him for judgment by a higher tribunal. If even this is impossible, he does not sin if he pronounce sentence in according with the evidence, for it is not he that puts the innocent man to death, but they who stated him to be guilty. He that carries out the sentence of the judge who has condemned an innocent man, if the sentence contains an inexcusable error, he should not obey, else there would be an excuse for the executions of the martyrs: if however it contain no manifest injustice, he does not sin by carrying out the sentence, because he has no right to discuss the judgment of his superior; nor is it he who slays the innocent man, but the judge whose minister he is." (ST II II q64.a6.ad3.)

3.2.2,) Replies to opinions of killing sinners by individuals:

Reply 19: 'The person by whose authority a thing is done really does the thing, as Dionysius declares (Coel. Hier.iii). Hence according to August. (De Civ. Dei 1.21), He slays not who owes his service to one who commands him, even as a sword is merely the instrument to him that wields it. Wherefore those who, at the Lord's command, slew" their neighbours and friends, would seem not to have done thus themselves, but rather He by whose authority they acted thus: just as a soldier slays the foe by the authority of his sovereign, and the executioner slays the robber by the authority, of the judge:" (ST II II q64. a3.ad1.)

Reply 20:  "A beast is by nature distinct from man, wherefore in the case of a wild beast, there is no need for an authority to kill it; whereas, in the case of domestic animals, such authority is required, not for their sake, but on account of the owner's loss. On the other hand a man who has sinned is not by nature distinct from good men; hence a public authority is requisite in order to condemn him to death for the common

good." (ST II II q64 a3.adl)

Reply 21: "It is lawful for any private individual to do anything for the common good; provided it harm nobody: but if it be harmful to some other, it cannot be done, except by virtue of the judgment of the person to whom it pertains to decide what is to be taken from the parts for the welfare of the whole." (ST II II q64 a3.ad3.)

3.2.3) Replies to opinions in favour of suicide:

Reply 22: "Because it is opposed to charity which a man should have towards himself: in this respect suicide is a sin in relation to oneself. In relation to the community and to God, it is sinful, by reason also of its opposition to justice." (ST II II q64. a5.ad1.)

Reply 23: "One who exercises public authority may lawfully put to death an evildoer; since he can pass judgment on him. But no man is judge of himself. Wherefore it is not lawful for one who exercises public authority to put himself to death for any sin whatever: although he may lawfully commit himself to the judgment of others." (ST II II q64:a5.ad2.)

Reply 24: "Man is made master of himself through his free-will: wherefore he can lawfully dispose of himself as to those matters which pertain to this life which is ruled by man's free-will. But the passage from this life to another and happier one is subject not to man's free-will but to the power of God. Hence it is not lawful for man to take his own life that he may pass to a happier life, nor that he may escape any  unhappiness whatsoever of the present life, because the ultimate and most fearsome evil of this life is death, as the Philosopher states (Ethic.iii:6). Therefore to bring death upon oneself in order to escape the other afflictions of this life, is to adopt a greater evil in order to avoid a lesser. In like manner it is unlawful to take one's own life on account of one's having committed a sin, both because by so doing one does oneself a very great injury, by depriving oneself of the time needful for repentance, and because it is not lawful to slay an evildoer except by the sentence of the public authority. Again it is unlawful for a woman to kill herself lest she be violated, because she ought not to commit on herself the very great sin of suicide, to avoid the lesser sin of another. For she commits no sin in being violated by force, provided she does not consent, since without consent of the mind there is no stain on the body as the Blessed Lucy declared. Now it is evident that fornication and adultery are less grievous sins than taking a man's life especially one's own life: since the latter is most grievous, because one injures oneself, to whom one owes the greatest love. Moreover it is most dangerous since no time is left wherein to expiate it by repentance. Again it is not lawful for anyone to take his own life for fear he should consent to sin, because evil must not be done that good may come (Rom.:ii.8) or that evil maybe avoided, especially if the evil be of small account and an uncertain event, for it is uncertain whether one will at some future time consent to a sin, since God is able to deliver man from sin under any temptation whatever." (ST II II q64.a5.adi.)

Reply 25: "As Augustine says (De Civ:Dei.i.21):-. not even Samson is to be excused when he crushed himself together with his enemies under the ruins of the house, except the Holy Ghost, Who had wrought many wonders through him, had secretly commanded him to do this. He assigns the same reason in the case of certain holy women, who at the time of persecution took their own lives, and who, are commemorated by the Church." (ST II II q,S4.a5.ad4.)

Reply 26: "It belong to fortitude that a man does not shrink from being slain by another, for the sake of the good of virtue, and that he may avoid sin. But that a man take his own life in order to avoid penal evils has indeed, an appearance of fortitude (for which reason some, among, whom was Razias, have killed. themselves thinking to act from fortitude), yet it is not true fortitude; but rather a weakness of soul unable to bear penal evils, as the Philosopher (Ethic.iii.7) and Angustine (De Civ.Dei 1.22.23) declare." .(T II II  q64:a5ad5:)

4. General Conclusion:

"Hence there is no man, no human authority; no science, no medical, eugenic, social, economic or moral indication that can offer or produce a valid juridical title to a direct deliberate disposal of an innocent life; that is to say, a disposal that aims at its destruction whether as an end or as a means to 'another end,’ which is, perhaps, in no way lawful in itself." (Pius XII, Allocution to midwifes, Oct. 29, 1951) "So long as a man commits no crime, his life is intangible, and therefore every action which tends directly towards its destruction is illicit. Whether, this destruction be the goal intended or only a means to an end, whether this life be, embryonic, or in full flower, or already approaching its term, only God Lord of the life of a man who is not guilty of a crime punishable  with death." (Pius XII, Allocution to the Italian Medial-Biological union of St. Luke. Nov. 12,1944)

But it happens that man renders himself guilty of grievous sin, thus exposing himself to the obligation to suffer to his own detriment the revenge of the injured order to which he is subjected. Among possible punishments, there is the death penalty: this capital sentence can either come from God, or from the State whose function it is to protect its citizens against enemies from the outside as well as from the inside, or from the simple individual, if he has no other means to protect his life.        

The Death Penalty is therefore a means conforming to the Roman Catholic Tradition to maintain the order set by Divine Providence. It must be utilised however with measure, with great care and as a last resort. In one word, it must be used according to the virtue of justice, tempered by the virtue of mercy. By abolishing it, is the door not open to the multiplication and the impunity of transgressions?

Note: the following abbreviations ST and CG refer respectively to the Summa Theologica and the Contra Gentiles of St. Thomas Aquinas.


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