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The case of Adolf Eichmann shows that the death penalty can be just

His crimes were of the gravest nature; his life was an affront to the families of those who died in the Holocaust

By on Thursday, 7 April 2011

Adolf Eichmann is flanked by guards in the Jerusalem courtroom where he was tried for war crimes (AP Photo)

Adolf Eichmann is flanked by guards in the Jerusalem courtroom where he was tried for war crimes (AP Photo)

Turning on the car radio yesterday, I chanced on the end of a Radio 4 programme – the sort that makes you park the car and carry on listening. It was broadcaster Gavin Esler in Jerusalem, examining “the legacy of Adolf Eichmann” on the 50th anniversary of his trial and execution. Everyone who followed that trial will recall the kidnapping of Eichmann by Mossad agents from Buenos Aires in 1961, as a result of a tip-off from agents of Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. They will remember the book about Eichmann’s trial by Hannah Arendt, in which she coined the phrase “the banality of evil”. They will visualise the black and white newspaper photographs of a bespectacled, balding, elderly man in the dock of the courtroom – the man who had been the chief organiser of the deportation of millions of Jews to the death camps in Poland. They will have pondered Eichmann’s main defence: “I was simply carrying out orders.”

I tuned in as the three judges in the Israeli court sentenced him to death by hanging for crimes against the Jewish people; crimes against humanity; and war crimes. Those like me who followed the news at the time thought the verdict a foregone conclusion – not unlike the verdicts at the Nuremberg Trials, which Eichmann had successfully evaded by escaping to South America. The sentence was carried out on May 30 1962. It was followed by cremation, with the ashes scattered in the sea outside Israel’s territorial waters.

Why am I writing all this? Because it made me ponder the whole question (yet again) of the morality of capital punishment. Many Catholics think that capital punishment is now forbidden by the Church. Certainly the late pope, John Paul II, in his public statements about it, seemed to indicate that civilised countries should now have recourse to other means of punishment. Other people condemn capital punishment under a general pro-life banner which lumps together the adult guilty, like Eichmann, and the unborn who are innocent.

Personally, I make a distinction between these two categories. Guilt does require some form of punishment and justice must be seen to be done – whereas abortion is always the death of the innocent. Just checking the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I see that on page 488, paragraph 2266, it states: “Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty…”

Writing as a Christian, I am sympathetic to the Israeli trial and execution of this man, proved beyond doubt to have organised mass murder. In the radio programme, Esler interviewed Michael Goldman-Gilad, survivor of Auschwitz and the Israeli police interrogator of Eichmann during his trial. Now in his 80s, Goldman-Gilad said, “We hanged one person; we couldn’t hang him six million times”, thus recognising the symbolic aspect of the trial and execution. He did not sound vengeful, simply adding “I felt relieved” after it was all over.

As I see it, Eichmann’s continued life was a challenge to Israel’s collective memory of suffering; it was an affront to the families of those for whose death he had responsibility, families who wanted justice; his crimes were of the gravest nature. The death penalty was, in this case, appropriate.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry ma’am but your ‘Caiaphas’ attitude sickens me…

    Let’s make this clear shall we? Death is not a valid form of punishment.
    Even in the time of the catechism of Trent it was taught that the criminal was sacrificing themselves as an expiation for their crimes against God and Society – it was a penitential sacrifical act – the form of temporal punishment was NOT a moral punishment – the Church made no demands for their life.

    Capital Punishment – Retributionist Execution – is gravely immoral – a form of judicial murder and an excommunicable offence.
    The Death Penalty [and no - they are NOT the same thing] is a different issue – the individual, community and state has a right to defend itself against a direct immediate grave risk to life.
    Any recourse to a Death Penalty – as is made clear by the Catechism – MUST be a form of self-defence.

    Now before anyone enters this argument and quotes Aquinas or Leo X or Innocent III or Pius XII or Avery Cardinal Dulles or even His Holiness – let’s get this fundamental moral aspect clear:

    The Councils of Arles, Quiercy, Nancy, Valencia and Trent state – Immutable, infallible magisterial dogmatic teaching:

    It is IMPOSSIBLE for any sin to annihilate Human Dignity.

    Therefore we cannot treat anyone in accordance to their ‘bestial’ [Aquinas] or ‘heretical’ [Innocent III & Leo X] or ‘inhuman’ [Pius XII] actions – they must ALWAYS be treated as Human beings.

    ‘Vengeance is Mine’ Sayeth the Lord.
    The Lord gives life: The Lord takes away life – NO Earthly power has the right to take away a life – St Paul’s and St Augustine’s arguments were for a defence of the community against the aggressor – the state took away the life of a direct, immediate threat to it – and ONLY in those circumstances were they wielding .the sword according to God’s will.

    Death is not , nor has it ever; been a valid form of punishment – surely the Branding of Cain – one of God’s first lessons to humanity in Genesis – must waken us from our complacent slumber that we may treat humans in such a way…?!!

    Yes Eichmann was a monster who did not deserve to live – be we had no right to descend to his level and take his life – yes Justice cried to Heaven for his punishment – but we are not in the business of Justice – if we were we’d all be falling headlong into hell – We have been treated mercifully : Therefore we must be merciful – in the opening words to Pius XI’s Quadragessima Anno “Charity goes beyond all demands for Justice”

    Yes we should have let him rot in prison and prayed for his unworthy pitiable soul – but to kill him to simply appease the vindictive bloodlust for revenge of a Jewish nation [and I say this as someone of Jewish descent] is absolutely, unequivocally inexcusable.

    That he remained alive might very well have been a visible tortuous infliction upon those people – but it doesn’t matter – many people are an affront to their humanity – there’s the tale of the jew in the concentration camp laughing at the nazis – his friend asks why are you laughing? He replies “I am laughing because I am NOT THEM!”
    We need to prove to ourselves and our neighbour that we are indeed – NOT THEM!

    They sinned because they murdered millions – if we were to kill him – and make no mistake it would have been judicial murder – he was no direct immediate aggressive threat – we would have descended down that slippery slope which would have indeed taken us to more closely being ‘Like Them!’

    …and in our weakness, in our anger and frustration – we did kill the monster: May God forgive us for it.

    The affront was that Israel’s collective consciousness merely gathered more blood and saw one more death.

    Ms Phillips : For you to come on here and justify this action within some reprehensible appeal to pity ‘martyr fallacy’ saddens me deeply….

  • Father Maurer

    We can never fail to consider the passage of the Catechism immediately following what you quoted:

    The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.

    If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

    Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]
    CCC 2267

    It seems reasonable to conclude that the death penalty is never to be considered in the light of punishment. And rightly so, because human emotions pervert punishment into vengeance, which wasn’t ours to begin with.

  • Michael Petek

    What is distinctive about Adolf Eichmann is that his crime – the genocide of God’s chosen people the Jews – is the characteristic crime of Amalek, of whom God declares in Exodus 17 that He will be at enmity with him throughout the generations. He took away the anointing from King Saul to punish him for allowing King Agag of the Amalekites to live and sent the prophet Samuel the next day to kill Agag and cut him in pieces.

    There is a Jewish tradition in which King Agag slept with a woman that night, the night he should not have lived to see. She conceived his child, and that child was the ancestor of Haman whom we meet in the story of Esther. As the chief minister of Persia he had at his mercy all the Jews then alive, and it was only Esther’s intervention which saved them from total annihilation.

    So it is reasonable to conclude from Scripture that the execution of Adolf Eichmann at the hand of the civil authorities was also – in mystery – authorised and ordered by Our Lord Himself as the Anointed King of Israel.

  • Michael Petek

    There are two possibilities concerning the traditional teaching of the Church. Either the judicial execution of a murderer is itself murder, or it is a just punishment in retribution for murder.

    To hold the first would be inconsistent with the proposition that Pope Pius V and Pope Pius X are Saints, for they taught the second which they could have had no excuse for teaching were it a false doctrine.

    There is no title to punish any offence at all in any way except on the basis that it is deserved in retribution, be it murder or jaywalking. If the retributive indication is not there, then the right of the state to administer any punishment at all, let alone the death penalty for murder, cannot exist even in the concessive terms in which the Catechism allows it in principle.

    Protecting the public from murderers by imprisoning them is only part of the task. What if the murderer is a corrupting influence on other inmates less wicked than he is and whose rehabilitation he might interfere with?

  • Michael Petek

    If you’re correct, then Pope Pius V and Pope Pius X are not in heaven, but rotting in hell for teaching false doctrine on a point on which they had no excuse to be mistaken.

  • Weary Convert

    I fully agree with Paulpriest. At the time of the Eichmann trial I was quite young but even then I felt that the proper sentence would be continued imprisonment with some form of repetition of the trial every decade to remind the world of what he had done. Looking at the host of holocaust deniers today, I more than ever feel that I was right.

  • Father Maurer

    See my reply above – this is an incomplete assertion at best.

  • Father Maurer

    “So it is reasonable to conclude from Scripture that the execution of Adolf Eichmann at the hand of the civil authorities was also – in mystery – authorised and ordered by Our Lord Himself as the Anointed King of Israel.”

    By this logic, Saint Paul – for his part in the attempted genocide of God’s chosen people (those Jews who followed Christ) – should have been executed as well.

    Your reasoning fails to take into account God’s continuing work of redemption after the time of Amalek in Christ, Who assumed the punishments of all sin – rendering enmities moot, save at that final Judgement reserved to Christ Himself.

  • Anonymous

    No – they taught that the temporal state has a God given authority to protect and serve in accordance with the defence of the state – up to and including eliminating direct immediate lethal threats to it – a position which with modern forms of incarceration is no longer tenable. Pius V & X maintained the teaching that the victim of execution was offering themselves up as a form of penance – accepting temporal punishment for the sake of society and their soul – BUT NOT as Punishment by God or the Church – their Death was not demanded by them!!!
    …and please – all this reductio ad absurdsam appeals to Our Pontiffs of blessed memory burning in Hell if they were in error…these were merely expressed opinions of the doctrinal interpretation of a dogmatic position – when Pius XII of blessed memory said murderers who acted without humanity could be treated without humanity and executed – he was expressing a heated opinion – not making a magisterial pronouncement…if he were it would contradict the domatic position of the Church stated above…

  • Father Maurer

    - This is a false dichotomy. Since capital punishment is not an intrinsic evil, there are always other factors to consider. Thus CCC 2266.

    - That someone is in heaven now doesn’t preclude the possibility that they were in error while on earth. I’m not asserting that this is the case; only that your argument is incomplete. Some quotes from authoritative sources would go a long way in making and proving your point.

    - Of course there is authority to punish offenses. The Catechism lays this out quite explicitly. Moreover, it makes no mention of retribution ever being a part of punishment. Instead it asserts (CCC 2266) that a government is to care for the common good through punishment with the goals of: redressing disorder, preserving public order & safety and contributing to the correction of an offender. If this can be voluntarily accepted, it can even be expiatory – though the government would have less choice than the offender in that regard.

    - CCC 2266 is very clear that capital punishment is only permissible in order to protect the lives of others from an aggressor. Corrupting influences are not life-threatening – and are simple to address, though difficult given the modern desire to put simply such influences out of sight & mind, rather than working to try to tailor correction that may result in a change of heart. And short of that lofty goal, solitary confinement can easily prevent such influences.

  • Anonymous

    On point 1 :
    Agreed – all punishment must be specifically retributive – it cannot be morally justified for any other reason – concepts of rehabilitation or reform are not in the business of punishment. Crime committed = proportionate punishment.

    2] Rubbish – see below in my other response to you.

    3] It allows a death penalty in principle – NOT Capital Punishment – and even then it is only ever justifiable as the last recourse after ever other action has been exhausted in preventing a direct
    immediate threat to life.

    4] Ridiculous and specious argument – inflicting injustice to promote deterrence or rehabilitiation is just as bad as injustice against those preventing it..injustice is injustice in whatever form it takes – your argument is reminiscent of the justifications for Socrates’ execution.

  • Anonymous

    This is a very interesting topic indeed, and one which (as a quick scan down the page at the rest of the comments reveals) arouses strong passions, usually against – since, in our times, this earthly life is seen as the most important thing of all, a goal in itself. I’ve suffered from this short-sightedness myself but when I heard on yesterday’s news that the judge sentencing the murderer of two girls in England, said that this was a case when life must mean life, I wondered, for the first time in years, whether or not it would be better for all concerned, if the killer was given not life, but the death sentence.

    Of course, the key argument (that I have used myself) is that, “where there’s life there’s hope” and the hope is, of course, that the sinner will repent, given time. But that is to forget two things: firstly, that the justification for the death penalty is not, as another blogger says, mistakenly, only as a means for society to defend itself, but as a means of exercising justice. Secondly, we forget that we want the sinner to repent in order to make retribution and prepare for judgment but, as a much greater mind than mine has pointed out: “it is by consenting to sacrifice that (earthly) life, that the fullest expiation can be made… the expiation that the innocent Christ made for the sins of mankind was itself effected through is being condemned to death.” (‘The Death Penalty, p.434, Iota Unum, A Study of the Changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century, by Professor Romano Amerio, peritus at Vatican II)

    So, just because we think we live in more enlightened times, doesn’t mean we do…

  • Anonymous

    Father Maurer,

    You speak as if “God’s continuing work of redemption” takes place solely in retreat centres or in the local parish church hall at Women’s Guild Bring & Buy sale.

    God uses punishments, as well as spiritual moments reading the lives of the saints, to bring His people to heel. And there is no shortage of stories of convicts at the gallows, repenting and seeking absolution.

  • Anonymous

    Well, the new Catechism, like the new Mass, new Rosary, new everything, is flawed in claiming that the only justification for the death penalty is to defend society against an aggressor. That is not the traditional view of the Church, nor is it revealed thus in Scripture. Justice, not national security, has always been the logic behind the Church’s permissive teaching on the death penalty.

  • Anonymous

    You’re miles out of line in terms of the Church’s traditional teaching. Read my responses to others above.

  • Anonymous

    Agreed again – many people are against the Death penalty for all the wrong reasons – redolent of the pacifists allowing evil to occur all around them…

    I have repeatedly stated on here that the state has a God-imbued temporal right to ‘exercise justice’ as you state – but the option these days where forms of incarceration and solitary confinement are the way they are – and every state has lost its divine mandate by judicial murder via unjust war or assault upon the voiceless and vulnerable from conception to naural death – their remit becomes neither tenable nor viable…and when it becomes both unjust and unnecessary – it becomes judicial murder – an excommunicable offence!!!

    I think the most poignant sentence said by anyone in this was by Fr Maurer when he said if circumstances had differed maybe we’d have executed Saul of Tarsus [before he became St Paul] for his unspeakable crimes??!!

  • Anonymous

    Imagine that, the modern popes are more concerned with achieving government objectives in the matter of crime and punishment, that they are concerned for the soul of sinners who have committed one of the four sins that cry to heaven for vengeance.

    How times change!

  • Anonymous

    I can see that you are unaware of the distinction between taking innocent and taking guilty life. Your arguments are entirely earthbound. Politically correct and earthbound.

  • Anonymous

    Holocaust deniers? Are you referring to those people who research historical events to test the claims made about them with the facts?

    Has anyone complained about any of the authors of the countless books written about World War II, which frequently contradict one another in matters of alleged fact and various details?

    I’m so sick of the fact that nobody can question any aspect of the holocaust, that I now refuse to use a capital letter for it unless it is at the start of a sentence. There have been plenty of holocausts in the world and we hear next to nothing about most of them. Give it a rest.

  • Anonymous

    I accidentally clicked “like” instead of “reply” just now so just to make sure you know that I do not remotely like your post, allow me to say that your shocking comment about canonised popes (or anyone else for that matter) is beyond the pale and identifies you as someone whose arguments are not to be taken seriously. Nasty, very nasty.

    Whether you like it or not, the Church permits the death penalty. So, I take you think no popes every have been, are, or ever will be in heaven?

    Get a grip.

  • Father Maurer

    “You speak as if “God’s continuing work of redemption” takes place solely in retreat centres or in the local parish church hall at Women’s Guild Bring & Buy sale. ”

    Really? How do you see that from what I’ve said so far?

    God uses all things to save souls – but we’re not talking about God’s action, are we? We’ve been talking about people’s actions, about their use of killing to punish. God may use that – as He used even the Fall of Man – to save souls, but that doesn’t justify anything. It only proves that our all-powerful and all-good God is not limited by our sinfulness.

    In any case, the logic used to justify capital punishment above (in this sub-thread of the comments) remains unproven.

  • Father Maurer

    Christ’s death was the expiation of sin. We make up for what is lacking in our suffering and in purgation (Purgatory, that is). Not only is no other punishment necessary – no other punishment is sufficient.

    Your key argument – “that the justification for the death penalty is not, as another blogger says, mistakenly, only as a means for society to defend itself, but as a means of exercising justice” could use the support of some teachings, perhaps from the Catechism or Church documents. Can you provide that?

  • Father Maurer

    You’re betraying a lot of bias on issues that are superfluous. Either the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and therefore unerring, or She has lost Her way and thus untrustworthy. If you believe the former, you don’t get to claim errors in the Catechism – which is the authoritative compilation of our doctrine & dogma.

  • Father Maurer

    If you’re going to impute modern popes (and imply a negative distinction to them apart from previous popes), it’d be helpful to our conversation to be less rhetorical and more factual.

  • Ratbag

    There are child molesters, serial murderers and other heinous criminals who show no remorse whatsoever for their crimes. They are psychopaths and sociopaths who, for them, life should mean life with no possibility of parole.

    When I read about Eichmann, I thought hanging was too good for him. What on earth did that achieve? He let innocent people die slow and painful deaths in squalor and disease whilst with him it was a case of jerk -choke -death within a matter of seconds. That’s no punishment. He should have been made live to with his crimes, looking over his shoulder and watching his back… that would be restitution enough.

    Everyone has the opportunity to feel genuinely sorry for what they have done with a firm promise to make amends with God. Christ died for our sins. We should never lose sight of that.

    When one murder was sent to the gallows, Saint Therese of Lisieux prayed that he would find the mercy of God. Before he was executed, he grabbed the padre’s cross and kissed it – having vehemently refusing to acknowledge anything to do with God.

    That was why Wormwood Scrubs was one of the venue for St Therese’s Relics when they visited England and Wales in 2009.

  • Father Maurer

    Repeating the trial every decade to remind him of what he had done? So when does he get to go on with his life after repentance (in the assumption that he might have)?

    What if we were tried, if you will, for all of our sins repeatedly to remind the world of them? The principle that restricts capital punishment also limits punishment in general. Either we are a people under God’s mercy or not, which needs to inform how we extend that mercy.

    When did we start putting our limits on God’s forgiveness (recall the parable of the Unmerciful servant. The 24th footnote on the USCCB website of this passage offers a worthwhile point of reflection: “The Father’s forgiveness, already given, will be withdrawn at the final judgment for those who have not imitated his forgiveness by their own.”

  • Anonymous

    Nothing of the sort.

    Death is not a valid form of punishment: Get used to it.

    You might wish to adopt a donatistic line that we can be judge, jury and executioner to the guilty – but you’re the one in error – taking a life is the last recourse – and by the very nature of a human being – being made in the image of God and therefore praising and glorifying God by their very existence – taking ANY life is always an intrinsic moral disorder – ONLY ever justified in a position of moral dilemma when the only other option would be allowing the occurrence of objective evil.

    The Holy Spirit is the Lord, the Giver of Life – we can only take away life when it is a critical imperative in the prevention of an objective evil – and that is invariably only a viable option when we’re acting in immediate defence to an imminent threat to life.

    Earthbound my sweet aunt fanny!!
    And most certainly NOT politically correct – merely doctrinally!

  • Anonymous

    Cry to Heaven for vengeance – not you with your guillotine and your knitting madame tricoteuse

  • Anonymous

    New Catechism is very poorly constructed – but that’s Schonborn for you – you can virtually see the Ratzinger overhauls and rewrites in some places where Schonborn abjectly refuses to be ‘insensitive and ill-mannered’ by categorically stating Catholic Doctrine.

    New mass: Open to the most virulent abuse and neo-protestantising – we gave an inch they took a parsec.

    New Rosary: Don’t get it : Luminous Mysteries could have been wondrous: Instead JPII messed them up: We should pray that a future Pope reforms them and brings them into dogmatic/spiritual cohesion.

    New Stations of the Cross? A Mistake.

    New Teaching on the Death Penalty? IT ISN’T NEW TEACHING – Look at the Catechism of Trent!!! It states categorically that the executed person’s death is NOT a moral punishment – it is an offering up for expiation of their sins and for social cohesion – not as a blood price!

    Sorry ma’am – you’re the one confused.

  • Petrus

    Exactly! God used the flood to bring His people to heel. The First World War was a punishment for sins of impurity and violation of the Sabbath. Surely the recent earthquake in Japan was God’s punishment for sin.

    Regarding the death penalty, I agree with everything EditorCT has said. Certainly where there is life, there is hope. However, some crimes are so grave that the death penalty would be the only just sentence. Who knows, perhaps only through the death penalty, sufficient reparation is made for certain sins. We mustn’t forget that God is merciful, but He is also just.

  • Michael Petek

    “That someone is in heaven now doesn’t preclude the possibility that they were in error while on earth.”

    If he taught error while on earth, and did so as Pope and in a matter concerning the probibition on taking human life, then he has no excuse for his error and died in his sins unless he repented before death.

  • Michael Petek

    Go back and read my argument carefully. In order for the judgement to be correct that it is morally illicit per se to impose the death penalty, it is necessary to impugn the sanctity of Pope Pius V and PopePius X.

    Since their sanctity cannot be impugned, it follows that they taught no error in teaching that capital punishment is just retribution for murder.

  • Michael Petek

    St Paul’s sin was that of persecution, not genocide. The Romans wouldn’t have allowed him to go that far.

    The ministry of Christ for the forgiveness of sins runs alongside His office to destroy Amalek lest Israel be destroyed. Several Nazi war criminals availed themselves of the Divine Mercy while awaiting execution at Nuremberg. But they still had to die.

  • Father Maurer

    Its nice to know where you stand, but are there any Church teaching that backs up these claims? Nothing in what we believe suggests that natural evils like earthquakes or moral evils committed by men like wars are willed by God.

    Similarly, no one here seems willing or able to offer authoritative teaching from the Church that supports the claim that killing someone is ever meant to be punishment or reparation.

    So while this has been an interesting exercise in opinion and emotion, it is sadly lacking in asserting and explaining Church teaching. Too bad.

  • Anonymous

    Are you saying, then, that the Biblical evidence for the acceptability and justification of capital punishment, is irrelevant? That, in the Scriptures, God is not really revealing His mind to us after all?

    That, in the New Testament, when St Paul spoke of “the sword” being used against offenders “to serve God” (Romans 13:4) that he didn’t really mean it, or, as the modernists claim, Scripture is time-bound and therefore irrelevant in our situation? Was St Paul only speaking with reference to the first century offenders and not those of the 21st century?

    Really? Is that what you are saying?

  • Nick

    “modern popes”? It seems you are accusing our contemporary popes of the heresy of modernism. So blessed John Paul II the Great and Benedict XVI are heretics?

    You might as well call Gauss a dumbass.

    Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

  • Anonymous

    My apologies, Michael Petek – I do tend to read too fast so I apologise unreservedly for misreading your comment. My “like” stands, after all!

  • Father Maurer

    Is that what you’re saying I’m saying? ;) I certainly didn’t even imply that. Let’s stick with the assertions I did make.

    I’m happy to wait for you to read those and, if you’d like to continue in a conversation where we are both seeking understanding, address them.

  • Father Maurer

    Since God intervened, we’ll never know if what the Romans would have allowed – but Saint Paul’s intent was clear.

    How does Christ’s salvific act of assuming our nature and its punishment run alongside the destruction of Amalek. I assert – w/ the Church, I submit – that His sacrifice ensured that such destruction was unnecessary and that instead the opportunity for repentance and new life was opened. So why did these criminals still have to die?

  • Anonymous

    The fact that capital punishment has always been taught by the Church as acceptable for the state to use when necessary, should be clue enough as to the mind of the Church on the matter. One of the ways we know the validity of a teaching, is if it has always been taught and believed by the Church. Whether or not there is a written document. Often, the written documents, the public pronouncements only come about when the teaching is challenged. Until Vatican II, that was also true of Councils – they were only called when there was a matter of dispute to settle. Thus, until very recent times, every society used capital punishment. Now that this is no longer the case, the Church’s teaching is being questioned.

    Scripture sources abound, which I’m sure you know, to support capital punishment. Someone else has quoted the Catechism of Trent, and there’s the quote from Pope Pius XII who told Catholic jurists on 5 February 1955, that St Paul’s exhortation in Romans 13:4, to wield the sword against evil-doers, in the service of God, “was of permanent and universal value, because it refers to the essential foundation of penal authority and to its inherent purpose.” (cf Romano Amerio in his excellent book on the changes in the Church since Vatican II – I’ve given details elsewhere about him, a peritus at the Council – Romero ~189).

    That such an important moral issue has been taught and sanctioned by the Church down the centuries, is all the evidence any Catholic should need as to its legitimacy. The Church doesn’t say the death penalty must be used but permits its use, which she would not do, could not do, were execution per se, an evil.

    In fact, until recent years, as I’ve already said, just about every society in the world resorted to the death penalty as a capital punishment for capital crimes. Following, like puppets, the worldly – ‘liberal’ – spirit, the Church Trendies (I believe the French bishops in the seventies, were among the first to take this line) started to allege that punishments, including the death penalty, ought to be less severe (or in the case of the death penalty abolished) on the grounds that the Gospel is a gospel of mercy, blah, blah, and that now was the time to right this wrong. It seems the copies of the bible used by these liberals doesn’t have the account of Christ’s whipping the money-changers out of the temple, or his warnings about hell-fire or of him warning folk that it’s better to have a millstone put round one’s neck and drown than to sin. Wish I could find a copy of that bible.

    Now, in all truth it has to be acknowledged that whilst the Church has always accepted that capital punishment can be legitimately used by the state, “…the Church always drew back from blood….(and) canon law traditionally decreed the “irregularity,” that is the banning from holy orders, not only of executioners, but of judges who condemned people to death in the ordinary course of law, and even of advocates and witnesses in trials that led to someone being put to death.” (Romano # 187) So, the Church cannot be accused of being bloodthirsty, and seeking revenge for the sake of it. Still, however unwillingly, even in our times, the Church acknowledges that a case can be made for imposing the death penalty.

    My position is quite simple. I’ve been as infected as anyone else by the modern spirit of “mercy” towards offenders and even murderers. Whether or not our modern “liberalism” is true mercy (not to mention satisfying justice – both divine and natural) is why I am rethinking the issue from scratch.

    Turning now to your assertion that “nothing in what we believe suggests that natural evils like earthquakes or moral evils committed by men like wars are willed by God.”

    Again, my first point of reference has to be the Old Testament. Now, don’t gimme “OT God is a God of vengeance but now we have the NT God of love”- baloney.

    When God brought the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery, he did so out of love: the beautiful story of Hosea’s persistent love for his unfaithful wife, reflects God’s love for us, His unfaithful people, no matter what we do. So, the same unchanging, loving and faithful God fills the pages of the Old as well as the New Testament. Anything else is Theology for Dummies.

    Two things:

    1) It is clear in the pages of the Old Testament, that after much coaxing and pleading, through His prophets, for example, God does everything He can to make His people see the error of their ways. The chosen people noticed that when they strove to be faithful to Yahweh, they were happy and their land grew and was successful, fruitful. When they turned away from God, disaster struck. Through the lips of the prophets and psalmists, God reveals his will, His mind and, often, His might. The mistake is to see divine punishments in a pejorative sense instead of as manifestations of God’s love for his unfaithful people.

    2) It is also a mistake to think that the age of prophecy belongs to the past, to the Old Testament era. That’s not what St. Paul writes “Do not extinguish the spirit. Do not despise prophecies. But test all things and hold fast that which is good.” (Thessalonians 5: 19-21,) Thus, God continues to speak to us, most crucially in the twentieth century at Fatima, when Our Lady (in 1917) warned of both the diabolical disorientation in the Church to come, and the problem of world peace, with a very simple “peace plan” to restore order in both the Church and the world. And please don’t gimme “private revelation” – there just has never been any prophecy that was quite so public.

    And for good measure, Our Lady appeared again in 1973 with a message that sounded very much like what the Fatima scholars have deduced is contained in the suppressed “Third Secret” of Fatima, when Our Lady foretold that “cardinals would oppose cardinals, bishops against bishops and that humanity would suffer a “deluge”.

    God’s ways are not our ways. The modern mind wants an entirely human God who is more or less a perfect image of ourselves at our very best. Can’t be done. “incomprehensible” and “inscrutable” are the words that spring to mind.

  • Frjohndowney

    Thank you Father Maurer!

  • Father Maurer

    a) Not everything the Pope says, even in written form, is infallible. Nor would an error in such a statement necessarily be a sin. And errors by their nature are not sins, inasmuch as they are not willed.

    b) Your last sentence affirms my initial point: sinners can become saints – and saints (who were sinners) aren’t necessarily infallible

  • Father Maurer

    Please know that I read your entire comment. Please return the favor – I’ll help by keeping it fairly short.

    On the primary issue: whether capital punishment is called for in modern times. The Church lays out very specific guidelines as to when that might be. Again, CCC 2267 lays that very explicitly: “when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor. ”

    There seems to be no room for arguing any other position. Which has been the consistent position of the Church throughout history. The difference is that in the past, we did not have practical ways of defending the lives of human beings. Thus the practice of capital punishment was much more common – and appropriately so.

    (I have never asserted that capital punishment is an intrinsic evil – I’ve been quite explicit to the contrary, in fact. Enough said.)

    Secondary issue: No baloney here. God is the same throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament. Everything in the Old Testament, including His severity, led up to Christ. That was the point of His severity. Christ became the ultimate focus of that severity, so that we might be justified and receive the mercy He had always intended for us. The tools of the Old Testament are not longer required inasmuch as they were pointing towards Christ. Christ made them obsolete by taking on our (just) sentence. He makes them obsolete in that He Himself will return to judge how we have accepted or refused His salvific act.

    Tertiary issue: Sorry, but you get the ‘private revelation’ spiel whether you like it or not. Its private inasmuch as it is not Christ, Who was the fulfillment of all revelation. The Catechism is quite explicit (CCC 67):

    “The Christian economy, therefore, since it is the new and definitive Covenant, will never pass away; and no new public revelation is to be expected before the glorious manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

    Private revelation, despite being public in the secular sense, is not public in the universal sense. It may be worthy of belief (as the Church has declared the apparition of Mary at Fatima), but it is not necessarily authoritative.

    You know what’s really incomprehensible and inscrutable for modern man? A God who forgives even the most heinous of sinners – just like you & me – and allows us to live a life of grace here and in heaven.

  • Matthew J Wright

    Thank you Father Maurer.

    You have demonstrated patience and shown reasoned arguments, backed by Catechism.

    I was surprised some months ago, when referencing the Compendium of Catholic Catechism, to read that Church teaching wasn’t categorically against the Death Penalty. However, I read on (and noted the Pope John Paul II letter in the 1990′s) and that for all intents and purposes, in a developed society, the Death Penalty could not be justified as other measures were available to protect society from further harm.

    I often refer to Catechism for help in understanding Church teaching and I am reassured by your argument; Either the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and therefore unerring, or She has lost Her way and thus untrustworthy. If you believe the former, you don’t get to claim errors in the Catechism – which is the authoritative compilation of our doctrine & dogma.

  • Matthew J Wright

    Thank you Father Maurer.

    I am against the Death Penalty as am I also against Abortion.

    You have demonstrated patience and shown reasoned arguments, backed by Catechism.

    I was surprised some months ago, when referencing the Compendium of Catholic Catechism, to read that Church teaching wasn’t categorically against the Death Penalty. However, I read on (and noted the Pope John Paul II letter in the 1990′s) and that for all intents and purposes, in a developed society, the Death Penalty could not be justified as other measures were available to protect society from further harm.

    I often refer to Catechism for help in understanding Church teaching and I was interested by your argument; Either the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and therefore unerring, or She has lost Her way and thus untrustworthy. If you believe the former, you don’t get to claim errors in the Catechism – which is the authoritative compilation of our doctrine & dogma. I liked this reasoning, but then thought if there are any holes in the logic,that an opponent might use.

    I agree that Catechism is the definitive resource to understand Church teaching, but is the statement above, still completely valid as future editions, may contain changes and alterations, which change our understanding of doctrine or dogma. I don’t ask to be contrary, I ask to see if there have been examples where Catechism has altered over the years to the extent where what was once seen as doctrine is now no longer the case.

    When discussing the similarities and differences of faith with my Anglican Parents in Law I have pointed out that to Roman Catholics the Scriptures are not the only infallible source of Christian doctrine. Is the published Catechism seen as infallible?

  • Michael Petek

    Teaching false doctrine is a sin. It is a grave one if taught by a Pope and if he teaches that the taking of life is morally licit when in fact it is not.

  • Father Maurer

    Sorry for the double post – I didn’t want to make the first response longer.

    Its worth noting that the current edition of the Catechism is the not the first edition. The second edition superseded and abrogated the first. A good analogy might be the editions and translations of the Roman Missal. When the new edition of the Missal – whose translation will take effect in the English-speaking countries of the world this coming Advent – is fully implemented, it supersedes the current edition and translation.

    That isn’t to say that the current edition and translation is invalid, but that it is no longer to be used: it is not a negation, but a building upon.

  • Michael Petek

    What you have to understand about Amalek is that his identifying characteristic is his remorseless commitment to the destruction of the Jews. Either he survives of they do. Since God is committed to the preservation of Israel, He cannot tolerate the existence of Amalek.

    Why do you think Our Lady came to Fatima with the number 13 written all over the apparitions, even the date of Sister Lucia’s death. The number 13 is the date of the 12th month on which the Jews were to be exterminated in the story of Esther. She came because God’s chosen people were in peril of genocide, and to save them the task was to prevent World War II.

    By the time it was all over, Germany had been cut into six pieces of which only three (West and East Germany and West Berlin) were ever put back together again, and then only after Rudolf Hess had died.

  • Matthew J Wright

    Thank you Father for your reply. PV

  • Father Maurer

    Augh. It would appear I lost my original response. Ouch.

    Short answer: I can’t definitively answer the question of if the Catechism is infallible. My suspicion is that it is not.

    Commentators point out that Pope John Paul II, in Fidei Depositum declared it to be a “valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion and a sure norm for teaching the faith.” From this we can have great confidence that the Catechism is trustworthy.

    Commentators have pointed out – reasonably, I think – that the Catechism does not carry weight on its own, but garners it’s authority because of its contents. In other words, it doesn’t say anything new; it is simply a compilation of already-authoritative doctrine. Jimmy Akin offers a good explanation of this point.

    With regards to the death penalty (or capital punishment, if you prefer), we should be aware that this is made clear in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium vitae 56. The text of CCC 2267 is directly addressed in the encyclical.

    Evangelium vitae, in turn, was affirmed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (in Doctrinal commentary on the concluding formula of the professio fidei to be an expression of the ordinary and universal magisterium (as defined in Lumen Gentium 25)

    So not only can we have confidence in the Catechism, but also in its statement on the death penalty.