Benedict on Capital Punishment

Benedict on Capital Punishment December 1, 2011

Read the whole (very brief) address or watch the (very long) video.

I express my hope that your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.

(Hat-tip to K. Estrada, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville’s “Students for a Fair Society”)

"How jaded must I be to feel the words of bishops against any atrocity today ..."

US Bishops Speak on Gun Violence
"I was also thinking of a song I heard, and in fact misheard, in childhood, ..."

The Church is not an Army, ..."
"I can actually see this text being read in two very opposite ways. Unfortunately it ..."

The Church is not an Army, ..."
"There seems to be a real tendency on the part of some people in the ..."

The Church is not an Army, ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I’ll let the Holy Spirit speak via Paul situated in an imperfect Roman Empire which had very secure life sentences in the mines:

    Romans 13:3-4
    “For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it,
    for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer.”

    This passage nowhere makes an appearance in John Paul II’s “Evangelium Vitae” in which he sees God’s immunity for Cain as relevant to death penalty matters while he then repeatedly cites Genesis 9:5-6 (post Cain) while never showing the reader the death penalty part within that couplet which means he saw it and kept it from view knowing that 99% of Catholics would not spot the editing or hiding of the death penalty therein.
    “Sword” in Romans is machaira and the same Greek word is used for an execution sword in Acts 12:2

    1″About that time King Herod laid hands upon some members of the church to harm them. 2He had James, the brother of John,* killed by the sword (machaira).”

  • Kurt

    IT’S NOT BINDING! IT’S PRUDENTIAL JUDGMENT!! Catholics don’t HAVE to believe this!! The Pope does not understand economics/criminal justice/personal security, after all, he has his own police force and the Swiss Guards to protect him. THIS WAS WRITTEN FOR HIM BY A VATICAN BUREAUCRAT. I can tell which parts are the Pope speaking and which were inserted in his text by aides. In a SECRET statement, the Pope said that however, the actions of those in civil responsbility should not be second guessed when they think circumstances allow killing.

    • The Pachdyderminator

      A tiresomely predictable reaction.

    • The Pachyderminator

      Just to be clear, my comment refers to Kurt’s sarcasm as much as to the attitude he satirizes.

  • brian Volck


    If I read you rightly (please correct me if I’m wrong), you’re using Romans 13 as a proof text in support of capital punishment. I see where you get that, reading Romans 13 in isolation, yet Scripture is never read in isolation:

    • Actually Brian…there are thousands of Biblical passages that can be quoted in isolation and Christ does it Himself in the gospels starting in the desert with Satan… and Aquinas does it from the beginning of the Summa T. to the end. I read both Bible and Summa end to end.
      It’s simple. You…yourself… are deputed by your state to kill intruders in your home. You arrive home one day and a muscular large man on meth is attacking your wife. You need to get behind her and shoot him. I would and I nearly killed a criminal on the sidewalk after fleeing my home last year. I confessed the details to the police when they arrived late. I could have been arrested but they were common sense Jersey boys like me and said, ” Ehh….ehhhhh…..yu did what yu had to do….now hide that pistol grip shotgun before the detectives get here….it needs a stock in Jersey.” No I didn’t use that on the thug. Then the one cop drove me to improbable neighorhoods in search of the guy I let flee….he didn’t want to do paperwork that late in the day so he was intent on not finding the guy.
      Returning to your wife, you have a right to kill to protect her life. Read the Petit home invasion case online. Life doesn’t satisfy “God’s wrath” for raping two innocent females and burning them to death. A Connecticut jury agreed.
      Lifers killed both Jeffrey Dahmer and Fr. Geoghan….prison murder in non death penalty states or countries with tight budgets is a “free kill”….nothing else can be done to a lifer murderer and solitary is no longer solitary. The Pope is spreading “free kills” because he’s about as familiar with thug life as Mrs. Bush or Mrs. Clinton was.

      • ps. bad writing above. I came home and opened my front door and heard the side door slam at a time of day that meant it was a thief not a family member. I backed out the front door and ambushed the thief as he was going away on the sidewalk and well that I did: he had stolen a weapon along with other things and would have sold it to thugs and he had all in my large athletic case. I rear choked him…but draw the curtain on the rest.

  • Bill:

    Thank you for responding to my comment.

    First, and most importantly, I am sorry for your encounter with the intruder fleeing your home, which must have been deeply disturbing. I have listened to victims of serious crimes – in my role as a physician, as a representative to a committee addressing cases of child abuse, and recently as a member of a county grand jury – and I appreciate how traumatic the experiences and the memories are. Such has never happened to me, for which I am grateful, and I am well aware that I can say that largely because the police act – sometimes with lethal force – to ensure some degree of public safety. More on the circumstances surrounding the use of that force in a moment.

    Second, I hope you will interpret my response below in the best possible light, as Ignatius Loyala instructed the first Jesuits. Nothing that follows should be read as a critique of you, who are after all a fellow member of the Body of Christ, but rather an engagement with your ideas. From what you say, your knowledge of the Bible and the Summa clearly exceeds mine, but I would like to formulate a response, if for no other reason than to clarify my own thought.

    I am aware that Bible passages are often quoted in isolation, and have been so quoted by many people over the course of many centuries. My point is that citation in isolation, i.e NOT placing a quoted text in conversation with the entirety of Scripture, is a very dangerous interpretive game. At the risk of confirming Godwin’s Law far too soon in this discussion, I note that among the more egregious examples of this occurred when the Deutsche Christen used Romans 13 to justify their acceptance of the Fuehrerprinzip. The same text was used, along with decontextualized readings of Genesis and Exodus, to underwrite apartheid in South Africa.

    I think the New Testament itself teaches better habits of exegesis. Note that in the case you cite, i.e Jesus quoting scripture to Satan, both Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 show Jesus placing Satan’s quotation of an isolated text in richer, more definitive context. At another time, when Jesus is asked to identify the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31, and Luke 10:25-37) he cites not one text in isolation, but brings two into conversation, one from Deuteronomy and the other from Leviticus. (In Luke, it’s the lawyer who speaks, but Jesus quickly approves.) In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus is bolder still, repeatedly saying, “You have heard it said…But I say…” I suggest that verses 21-26 and 38-48 are particularly apposite in this discussion. One might argue in response that the advice to have one man die rather than permit the people to perish occurs twice in John’s gospel (John 11:49-50 and 18:14), but both the speaker and the intent render these passages suspect.

    What I take from this and many other examples is a hermeneutic of caution, context, and conversation. Aquinas’ frequent use of scriptural citations, rather like his use of Aristotle, Maimonides, and Ibn Sina, still requires the reader to analyze carefully and sometimes question the uses to which he puts them. Aquinas certainly would not assert that a single passage ever stands alone, and Reformation claims of “a plain sense of scripture, available to all,” crashed upon the reef of interpretation at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529.

    At this point, I hoped to move on to the meat of your argument – your nod toward the Summa and the case of home invasion – but I’m on call at the hospital tonight, and the lull that permitted me to dash off the above has come to an end. I need to get to work. I do plan to address these issues soon, though not tonight. Once again, thank you for your response. You are in my prayers.

    • Brian
      Here’s Matthew…where are you seeing any difference as to isolation of quotes by the devil and Christ. If you are really saying that Christ is broadening an initial quote of the devil by complementing it with His own isolated cite, that is different….but neither the devil nor Christ is giving context in the way that you link to a man who is using an entire Romans 12 to delineate Romans 13. Sorry, the latter can be a clever way of deleting the severe from the bible and that trend goes way ..way…beyond the death penalty to all aspects of the wrath of God which “wrath” itself is an anthropopathism not for something less than wrath but for something more sure than wrath…the consequent will of God hereby some are damned like Judas and Herod in Acts 12….unless in the latter case, you think God has worms devour the body of someone who is glory bound and unless you ignore Christ saying that Judas “perished” and said that in the past tense prior to Judas sinning just as Isaiah predicted Christ in the past tense ( “he was pierced for our sins” Isaiah 53:4 ).

      The Temptation of Jesus.
      Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.
      He fasted for forty days and forty nights,* and afterwards he was hungry.
      The tempter approached and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread.”
      He said in reply, “It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone,
      but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.’”
      * Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple,
      and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written:
      ‘He will command his angels concerning you’
      and ‘with their hands they will support you,
      lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”
      Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.’”
      Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,
      and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”*
      At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan! It is written:
      ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship
      and him alone shall you serve.’”

  • brian Volck


    Thank you again for your kind reply. I appreciate your sending the text from Matthew by way of response. It is helpful for me to remember that Jesus, like Paul, is a Jew deeply influenced by the Pharisaic tradition, which embraced the study and debating of Torah as a process through which Jews embody the example of Moses and, in turn, the heavenly court. The Pharisees distinguished themselves from the Sadducees in part by recognizing an oral Torah, the product of scriptural engagment and debate that finds written form later in Mishnah and Talmud. In engagement and debate, one learns not to condemn the other but to embrace the fullness of Torah (Paul’s exegetical tour de force in Galatians is his way of saying, “Here’s how you do Torah,” though, as a first century Mediterranean Jew, prone to rhetorical excess, he does cry out in Galatians 3:1, “ You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you!”)

    In Matthew (as in Luke), Jesus counters Satan’s citation of Scripture as a Pharisee would: by citing more scripture. The point is not necessarily Antonio’s in The Merchant of Venice, I, iii: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” Jesus, rather, demonstrates how to engage Satan’s cited passage in light of another. If, on the other hand, all scripture, including Jesus’ words are to be read as independent utterances, disconnected from other sayings and from the example of his bodily life (rather like the disembodied portrait of Jesus in the “Gospel of Thomas”), am I to take as certain, per Luke 14:26, that the love I maintain for my parents means eternal damnation for me? I could raise other examples of Jesus’s stark first century Palestinian Jewish Hebraisms, but not now.

    As for your examples of Judas’s and Herod’s deaths, I not only fail to see the connection to the human institution of capital punishment, but I am unwilling to say with certainty that the manner of one’s death indicates God’s judgment for eternity. If that were the case, the entire tradition of Christian martyrdom needs serious re-evaluation, and I would have to accept the Reformation-era theological novelty that a person’s bodily death marks the point after which God is utterly powerless to save. Like the late Hans Urs von Balthasar, I dare to hope that all may be saved, while maintaining what I take to be proper epistemological modesty for those this side of the grave.

    In the end, I suspect you and I read the same words of scripture in different lights. Yours appears to be one of justice, albeit in what seems to me a starkly retributive form. Mine, I hope, is a light of mercy, which engages justice as a friend and ally, not as an enemy, but which may run the danger of falling into naïve sentimentality.

    I have something – perhaps much – to learn from you. I, too, crave justice in an unjust world, though I have lived long enough now that I can no longer entertain righteous indignation without hearing Isaac of Syria’s warning, “Do not say God is just; justice has not been evident in God’s dealings with you.” And, just as I keep Romans 12:17-21 in mind as I read Romans 13 or reason my way through the proper communal response to sociopaths, it’s there when I read Auden’s words from The Sea and the Mirror: “It is precisely in its negative image of Judgment that we can positively envisage Mercy; it is just here, among the ruins and the bones, that we may rejoice in the perfected Work which is not ours.”(italics mine.)

    I have, once again, failed to push on to the life example you raised in your first response. It’s a busy time with little chance to do your posts justice. If you’d like, I can pull that together and share it here. If not, I understand. Blog comboxes so readily become gnostic traps of nasty one-upmanship, and it may be that we already understand one another well enough, rendering further controversy, in John Henry Newman’s words, “…either superfluous or hopeless.” In any case, you remain in my prayers.

    • brian Volck

      Note: The phrase in the Auden quotation that did not come through in italics is” we may rejoice in the perfected Work which is not ours.”

  • Brian
    Peace. I connected the dots well from execution to hell as the real topic. What modern Christianity has the most problem with is not execution or hell….but someone actually being there in hell really… as we type or eat or drive to Wendy’s. Von Balthasar, Rahner, John Paul and Benedict all expressed that Judas may not be there. Augustine and Chrysostom said he was there. In other words, Augustine could believe that God is love simultaneous to Judas really being in hell forever. Hell is myth if no one is there. Hell is a reality only if it’s really possible to get there and scripture said through Christ that Judas was there. That makes hell real as a possible for each of us in our unique matrix of temptation…..not myth. Are we to believe that millions of pirates and criminals throughout history who died fighting law enforcement all are excused through insanity, tough childhood, or invincible ignorance. A rational sense of probability says no. Some of them chose darkness acts…maybe 98% of them.
    Purgatory is not the default setting…hell is. Purgatory is an achievement of struggle to be good. Yes God wills all men to be saved but Aquinas answered, “The antecedent will of God does not always take place.”. God never wills that a little girl is raped and killed but it just happened here in this area in the past week.
    By the way, I do not believe hell is primarily sense because that obscures the primary essence of hell…loss… which is to be away and separated from Him “who loved me and gave Himself for me.” So I don’t believe that Judas is jumping around in fire…..metaphors totally necessary to warn away most humans from losing one’s best friend for eternity. I believe that Judas has himself in total non community….he has chosen himself and that is what he has…. and his surroundings are deficient as opposed to beautiful. Hell…not violence…is the toughest reality Christians must process. A third of the world flees it into reincarnation while groups like Jehovah’s Witnesses use annihilation as the solution.
    Peace and adieu. You’re correct. We’ll not agree. Romans 12:19 presages the wrath of God found in 13:4. Hauerwas then I found simply a man fleeing the severe scriptures by nullifying them with the sweet ones….like a Thomas Kinkaid village with all things sweet simultaneously… sun dappled path spots yet sunset and candles too at the same time. No one sold more paintings than he for decades.

    • Thanks again, Bill. We could talk long into the night about these matters, but I’ll make but two quick observations.

      First, Dante has long been my best teacher in the last things, and my first guide to Aquinas. As you know, for Dante, the punishment for the sin is the sin itself. That which was improperly desired becomes the torment, through the what Dante calls the law of contrapasso. (The resonance with Augustine’s ordo amoris is strong.) The treacherous, then, lie in the frozen lake of Cocytus, at the center of hell, isolated absolutely and for eternity, just as their treachery was a choice for absolute isolation. As for Judas, Dante places him at the very center of Cocytus, and thereby in the center of hell, in one of Satan’s perpetually gnawing mouths. In this, there are profound lessons for me this side of the grave, no matter what my hope (which I must never confuse with certainty) may be.

      Second, the real danger in what one might call Kinkade’s “work” is not heresy, though I think there’s definitely enough of that. The most profound danger is his sentimentality. If you’re interested, here’s what Hauerwas has to say about sentimentality:



  • The sacred and holy institution of “capital punishment” is the SACRAMENT of Protestant Christian Fundamentalist religion in America; it is absolutely intrinsic to their religious culture, and it accurately reflects what William Blake called “the Jehovah-Daddy” who is the principal diety of their religious imaginations.

    • I got Blake wrong in the above comment; I meant “Nobodaddy.”