Burning Heretics, Frying Murderers, & Slavery (Analogies)

Burning Heretics, Frying Murderers, & Slavery (Analogies) August 3, 2018

Thomas A Hunt (words in blue) wrote (on a public Facebook page):

[N]o Church Father, no church Doctor, no pope and no council has EVER said the death penalty is in opposition to the Gospel. Many a pope has taught it can be a proper punishment. Pope Francis seems to think that doesn’t matter. He is implying past popes did not understand the gospel. That is what people are upset about. . . . 

[T]he Bible teaches it. JPII taught the modern world doesn’t need it. BXVI clearly defended every Catholic’s right to pro or con opinions on it. Pius Xii taught eloquently on its proper place. So yes there have been different nuances, but never ever ever the claim that it contradicts the gospel.

This is untrue. In Evangelium Vitae (1995), Pope St. John Paul II wrote: “The Gospel of God’s love for man, the Gospel of the dignity of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel.” (2) Then he stated:

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. (56)

All Pope Francis has done is develop “practically non-existent” to “non-existent.” The far greater development lies in Pope St. John Paul II.

This doesn’t imply that “past popes did not understand the gospel” because the rationale for abolishing the death penalty is circumstance– (and thus time-) bound (“Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system . . .”).

The new language in the Catechism (#2267) expresses the same improvement in penal capabilities: “more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.” Then it goes on to say: “Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Analogously, the Church now in effect says, or could say (but didn’t always say): “Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that slavery is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” After all, St. Paul in Holy Scripture itself stated:

Ephesians 6:5 (RSV) Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ;

Colossians 3:22 Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but in singleness of heart, fearing the Lord.

Titus 2:9 Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to be refractory,

Now, the question of the Bible and Christianity and slavery is very complex, too, and “slaves” in the Bible were essentially the same as “servants.” Yet the trajectory throughout Church history was more and more against it, because the same Paul also made statements like:

1 Corinthians 12:13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

Galatians 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Colossians 3:11 Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scyth’ian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.

At length, civilized society, and Christian society, have determined that slavery is inconsistent with the Gospel and the dignity of individual lives. I see that as very analogous to the capital punishment question:

At length, civilized society, and Christian society, “in the light of the Gospel,” have determined that capital punishment is inconsistent with the “Gospel of life” and the dignity of individual lives.

The parallel to slavery is so weak as to be nonexistent. While throughout the centuries the Catholic response to slavery grew and matured over time, no such gradual growth is evident in regard to the death penalty. There is no gradual leaning towards its inadmissibility, as there is with slavery. It is a sudden turn, and you are right that it is done by JPII whom I very much admire. Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, and especially Pius XII make strong clear cases for the admissibility of the death penalty. All in tune with Aquinas and Augustine.

Arguing from what “civilized society” has decided is specious, And the resistance to the death penalty has grown in direct proportion to the slow disappearance of “Christian society.

Some developments are relatively rapid and striking. I would contend that some of the most striking developments of all were done by Jesus and the apostles, with regard to the previous received Jewish teaching (e.g., the cessation of the requirement of circumcision and dietary laws, the principles of the Sermon on the Mount, etc.).

Some relatively recent and rapid developments would be authentic ecumenism, a different view of religious liberty, the theology of the body, views on the Jews and women, and natural family planning.

And what comes next? “At length, civilized society, and Christian society, “in the light of the Gospel,” have determined that some “irregular relationships” are not entirely inconsistent with the Gospel and the dignity of individual lives.” It will be sold in the same way as a development of doctrine.

This is a prime example of your extreme rhetoric and unwarranted conclusions. There is no indication whatsoever that the Catholic Church is about to capitulate to the radical homosexual agenda, and become Anglicanism II. But in your mind you think there is. It’s asinine and beneath you.

I presented that to show the absurdity of making the parallel between slavery and the death penalty. And it’s already been heard as argument.

Do you think it’s equally absurd that the Church no longer calls for heretics to be killed, as it did in the Inquisition? Is that a good development in your eyes?

If so, how is that not analogous to the notion of “The Gospel of Life calls us to regard all lives as sacred and precious, even those of criminals, provided we can properly incarcerate them and prevent society from being harmed by them.”

We shouldn’t kill the heretic (a thing that both Augustine and Aquinas favored); we should attempt to reform and correct them (while simultaneously protecting society from them, by teaching and censure if called for).

We shouldn’t kill the criminal (a thing that both Augustine and Aquinas favored); we should attempt to reform and correct them (while simultaneously protecting society from them, by means of prisons and police).

Slavery was never proclaimed positively “admissible” by the likes of Augustine, Aquinas or even not so distant popes. Can’t you see that makes this a case of apples and oranges. I completely agree with the Angelic Doctor. I’m sure you know the quote. Punishment of criminals serves more purpose than deterrence. You have read Aquinas, Pius XII? Their thinking is well beyond the the atypical pragmatism of JPII on this question. Have you read CS Lewis or Chuck Colson on the nature and purpose of punishment and the danger of reducing it to protecting the citizenry?

You completely ignored my point about the killing of heretics. If I were in your shoes, I suppose I would, too.

It’s not quite so clear-cut that Augustine and Aquinas totally opposed slavery. But that wasn’t my argument anyway. My argument was that an apostle (Paul) in inspired Holy Scripture, upheld slavery of some sort. He also provided the rationale for the Church’s eventual call for abolition of the practice.

All the arguments you make, pretty much, were made about the capital punishment of heretics. At length the Church decided against that course (going back to the early Church stance). Do you wish to argue that that was a wrong turn in development, and call for a return to the burning of heretics?

Likewise, different approaches in different times is a factor in the debate on capital punishment for “conventional” criminals. It’s inadmissible today in our situation, just as the burning of heretics and slavery are inadmissible in our time (even you agree with that!: I’m assuming . . . ).


Further comments in my Facebook comboxes:

“Change” in this instance means “further develop.” He’s not saying it is intrinsically wrong. But he’s saying that in our time there is no situation in which it is admissible. It’s not the language of “intrinsically wrong” but of “inadmissibility” [in the current situation].

This doesn’t have to do with “wrong in all times and places” but rather, “inadmissible given our current ability to detain criminals.” Apples and oranges.

The Church could not (I would argue) say that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong because it would contradict what God Himself commanded in the old covenant and the Mosaic Law (in which the times and situation were very different).

Jesus looked at it differently (see my article, “Jesus, the Death Penalty, & the Adulterous Woman”).


Being “pro-life” is important; not just human dignity. It’s trying to consistently apply an ethic of life.

The solution there [in the case of prisoners killing each other or running crime operations from prison] is to reform the prison system, not put people to death. That’s more in line with the Christian outlook. Prisons must be reformed, just like most institutions are in constant need of reform. Like this is something new? We have the capacity to reform them.


I have always sought to faithfully, obediently follow the teachings of Holy Mother Church and the Mind of the Church. As it turns out, I already was, since last December. If it hadn’t been my position, it would have immediately been, once learning of this.

This is the magisterium: ordinary magisterium of the Church. It was essentially already asserted in Evangelium Vitae in 1995. That was a papal encyclical. I agree with James Layne, who wrote:

It’s simply revising St. John Paul II’s assessment that the situations where the death penalty is needed are “practically non-existent” to saying the situations are actually “non-existent.”

It’s crystal clear. It only takes what Pope St. John Paul II proclaimed to its logical conclusion.


“Change” will of course be taken to mean “essential change” or “departure” when in fact it means “consistent developmental, non-essential change”: which is perfectly fine.

It’s not being taught that it is intrinsically immoral in all times and places (like abortion); rather, that it is “inadmissible” in our present circumstances (particularly, our much better ability to constrain criminals).

Therefore, there is no contradiction and it is a legitimate development. But I knew, sure as I’m sitting here — as soon as I heard the news — that many would think there was, because they fail to make this crucial distinction.

I’ve explained this development to the best of my ability. I don’t see it as any big deal. But the spin will be that it is yet another supposed “liberal” innovation of Pope Francis. It’s not at all. It’s the Gospel of Life.

The Church learned long ago not to kill people because they deny tents of the faith. Now it is saying that we shouldn’t kill convicted criminals, when we are able to incarcerate them and protect society from them.


Lots of teachings are hard, but true. We all want justice. If it isn’t achieved in this life, it will be in the next, and all unrepentant criminals (or those with other mortal sins in their souls and subjectively guilty of them) will wind up in hell. We have hard cases in abortion, too (rape, incest, and the women who mutilate and/or kill themselves with coat hangers in self-afflicted abortions). None of that makes abortion right. If the “Gospel of Life” principles expressed by now three popes in a row about capital punishment are correct, then it doesn’t follow that we make exceptions for the most horrific murderers and terrorists (as I myself passionately held, prior to eight months ago).


Pope St. John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae (1995) “broke” with tradition only in a very limited sense; technically, as a striking and provocative development, in a way that the abolition of slavery did, or in the same way which the cessation of killing heretics did. I think all three are good things and of a piece.

Photo credit: The Burning of Protopope Avvakum (1897), by Pyotr Yevgenyevich Myasoyedov (1867-1913). The raskol (schism) was a religious-political movement of the 17th century, as a result of which there was separation from the Russian Orthodox Church of the faithful, in opposition to the reforms of Patriarch Nikon. The leader and ideologist of the Old Believers protopope (archpriest) Avvakum as well as priest Lazarus, deacon Theodore, and monk Epiphany were exiled to the far north and imprisoned. After 14 years of imprisonment and torture, they were burnt alive in a wooden house in 1682. [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


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