Fratelli Tutti 265: Early Church Opposition To Capital Punishment

A history lesson of select commentators, starting with an advisor to the Roman emperor Constantine:

265. From the earliest centuries of the Church, some were clearly opposed to capital punishment. Lactantius, for example, held that “there ought to be no exception at all; that it is always unlawful to put a man to death”.[Divinae InstitutionesVI, 20, 17: PL 6, 708]

The mid-ninth century, and a pope gives witness:

Pope Nicholas I urged that efforts be made “to free from the punishment of death not only each of the innocent, but all the guilty as well”. [Epistola 97 (Responsa ad consulta Bulgarorum), 25: PL 119, 991. “ipsi (Christo) non solum innoxios quosque, verum etiam et noxios a mortis exitio satagite cunctos eruere…”] 

One of the early doctors of the Church:

During the trial of the murderers of two priests, Saint Augustine asked the judge not to take the life of the assassins with this argument: “We do not object to your depriving these wicked men of the freedom to commit further crimes. Our desire is rather that justice be satisfied without the taking of their lives or the maiming of their bodies in any part. And, at the same time, that by the coercive measures provided by the law, they be turned from their irrational fury to the calmness of men of sound mind, and from their evil deeds to some useful employment. This too is considered a condemnation, but who does not see that, when savage violence is restrained and remedies meant to produce repentance are provided, it should be considered a benefit rather than a mere punitive measure… Do not let the atrocity of their sins feed a desire for vengeance, but desire instead to heal the wounds which those deeds have inflicted on their souls”. [Epistola ad Marcellinum 133, 1.2: PL 33, 509]

The bishop of Hippo sees rather deeply. Note his desire for safety of a citizenry, striving for the conversion of heart of a criminal, advocacy for healing among victims, and the hope for avoiding vengeance. All of these are still serious considerations for today.

All citations of Fratelli Tutti (which can be found on this link) are © Copyright – Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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