The death penalty in the ancient Church

National Catholic Register | 5/21/2019 | Steven D. Greydanus
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Last week there was celebration among pro-life Alabamians as Gov. Kay Ivey signed one of the nation’s strongest bans on abortion. Similar measures advanced in other states, including Missouri and Tennessee.

On Thursday of last week, the governors of Alabama and Tennessee declined to intervene in scheduled executions of convicted murderers, and both men were put to death.

Signature - Gospel - Life - Evangelium - Vitae

In his pro-life signature encyclical The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), on which this series of “Being Pro-life” posts is based, Pope St. John Paul II denounced laws permitting abortions as intrinsically unjust and affirmed the duty of societies to defend in law the rights of all members of the human family, including the unborn.

The Catholic Church teaches that abortion is intrinsically evil and that the death penalty is not. Yet what is gravely evil extrinsically, dependent in part on circumstances, is no less gravely evil for not being intrinsically evil, and the moral case that all human life is sacred is felt by many on both sides of the abortion debate, including John Paul II, to be undermined by support for the death penalty.

Church - Tradition - Death - Penalty

But doesn’t the Church’s tradition unanimously support the death penalty?

Not so fast. The history on this topic is more complex than it seems.

Church - Deeply - Capital - Punishment - Torture

The ancient Church deeply disapproved of capital punishment and judicial torture. A Roman church order of about A.D. 200 forbids a Christian magistrate to order an execution on pain of excommunication. No Christian layman could tolerably bring a charge against anyone if the penalty might be excommunication (John Boardman et al. [eds.], The Oxford History of the Classical World [2001], p. 471).

In 405 Pope Innocent I reversed that order of excommunication, decreeing that magistrates could not be excommunicated for pronouncing death sentences. In doing so, he did not endorse the death penalty on the basis of Catholic teaching;...
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