The history of the Catholic Church is full of different reasoning on the vital issues of the society. It is well constructed over the scriptures in the Holy Bible and what Catechism teaches believers to do. However, the will of the Pope is central for understanding this or that feature of great concern. The research going on through this paper sheds light on how the Catholic Church treated the capital punishment over a period of time since 1850 to 2000. In this respect special attention is paid to how the Church changed its position in the course of time.
Previous history of the Catholic Church outlines different ideas on the death penalty. It is all about the revenge of God toward heretics as it was interpreted by the church in the medieval times. Thomas Aquinas was an ardent supporter of the death penalty in order to reduce the amount of heretics throughout Europe and overseas. However, with the Pope John Paul II the hot debate over the capital punishment has acquired particular frames of logic and humane. The last decades of the twentieth century have shown that the humanity needs the church patronage in solving contradictory problems and positing legal norms toward offenders.
Thus, Pope John Paul II believed that the death penalty should be omitted anyway, unless it is an extreme and the only measure to punish an offender, that is, he insisted on that the capital punishment should be “rare if not particularly non-existent” (Gillis 70). It means that only in the turn of the twenty-first century, the Church has maintained a strong position as of people’s lives and the abolitionist way they should be punished in. Thus, it is important to take a look at the changes in the Catechism as of the attitude of the Catholic Church to death penalty.
First of all, in the year 1850, traditional standpoints by the Church were compromised or opposed due to a myriad of philosophical treatments on the problem of human life and death penalty, in particular. It was a whole debate on whether death penalty should be appreciated by the Church or not. It was universally stated at that time that if the law and the court confirms the capital punishment for an offender, the Catholic Church just follows such prescriptions and feels righteous about death penalty.
As the case stands, there was a cleric named Giuseppe C. Zanghy who in 1874 published a work called Catholicism and the Death Penalty opposing the incrimination of death penalty (Megivern 242). This work was a real precedent for the Church to go apart with the official claim according the capital punishment. Zanghy became one among the enemies of the church for his arguments against death penalty. Later on, his ideas are well justified by the concept of “God image” which characterizes every single human according to the Bible and Catechism.
Nonetheless, the main attention of the Church was still grabbed to fulfilling death penalty. Philosophers, such as Hetzel, Schleiermacher, were helping in getting the difference between the Old and the New Testaments. In this respect they were insisting on the fact that “Christ and his apostles nowhere defended the death penalty” (Megivern 247). The moral theology of the Catholic Church was in part for making death penalty not just a means for taking other people away from the crime. Violence for the sake of violence would not do anyway.
Fr. Franz X. Linsenmann was one of the opponents to death penalty in the late nineteenth century. He illuminated the best of the Christian morale according to death penalty thus: “It is imperative to recognize that the death penalty can be justified only if it is absolutely necessary from the perspective of self-defense” (Megivern 250). It was a time when the Church was getting through a series of changes throughout the world. This is why vicars and clerics were trying to take care more of some other issues of greater concern, as they saw it initially.
Frankly speaking, the late nineteenth century was a stage from so-called Vatican I to Vatican II (Megivern 253). The politics of Retention in the late nineteenth century had been replaced by the Vatican’s Death-Penalty Statute (1929-1969). The ecclesiological imperialism that preceded the twentieth century was well concerned with a great influence of Vatican over Europe. However, it was a temporal feature that provided the loss of Papal States. This is why the situation over death penalty should have changed on the part of the Church.
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Vatican was quite considerable according to the capital punishment in between two wars. It was all about the values and virtues transferred by Jesus to people. On the other side, it was a kind of the Catholic teaching or, better to say; amendments to how the Church interpreted (supported) the point on death penalty. Thereupon, with Mussolini in office the following scenario was accepted: Up until the settlement with Mussolini in 1929, there were still those whose “immutable” ecclesiology required that the church, as a “societas perfecta,” have that crown jewel of state power, the right to kill, even if it chose not to use it (Megivern 261). The question is that the Church should remain in force to show its new position regarding death and death penalty, in particular.
The Second Vatican Council knows that embarrassing example of how Concordat Vatican City approved the only passage for the death penalty in 1929 “reserving death penalty for anyone who tried to assassinate a pope within Vatican City” (Megivern 261). Contradicting in terms of the rest of Catholics, the statute was well acclaimed at the outset. However, it was removed by Pope Paul VI in 1969 (Megivern 261). In fact, such a claim gave no results on hearing something distinctive on the part of the Church regarding the capital punishment. Conversely, it was a kind of an unsolved document with narrow interpretation on the vital issues of Catholics.
Turning back to the early decades of the twentieth century, Catholics of higher range were likely to consult specific directory on how Catholicism treats every single issue. Dictionnaire de Theologie Catholique (DTC) was a strong instrument on how the Catholic Church should behave according to the Word of God (Megivern 263). It is a monumental record on each sphere of human life. Moreover, it encompassed the versatility of opinions coming from the early Catholic scholars.
Edouard Thamiry was one of those who once paid special attention to the volume ten where there is a lengthy entry dedicated to the standpoints on death penalty (Megivern 263). He had enough arguments on stating a diverse nature of the capital punishment so as to leave it as it stands. Even after bloodshed of the World War I his ideas on death penalty were greatly supported by the Church and Catholics all around the globe.
By contrast, Jacques Leclercq proposed a total reevaluation of the traditional Catholic trend for capital punishment (Megivern 266). Catholic morale was well shaped with the earlier treaties on death penalty. Thus, Leclercq tried to bring it to everyone’s attention that the Catholic tradition positions itself bilaterally as a “Christian standard for clerics (no bloodshed) and a natural-law standard for laymen (sanctioned violence)” (Megivern 267).
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In post-World War Europe people faced numerous losses in human lives. It was time to remember the canons which were the etalon of behavior. However, it was hard to get the idea of death penalty and its progression throughout the society after such events as Holocaust, atomic bombings, genocides. As a matter of fact, the Church should act immediately toward strengthening the frameworks of piece. Thus, it had to justify its position on the death penalty.
The Roman Catholic Church bear it in mind that a conversion is what should be done at the moment. Catholic scholars tried to blame or simply oppose to the traditional place of the capital punishment in Catechism. However, in a changing post-war world, the Church was too slow to provide a new position on the death penalty. After the Death-Penalty Statute was removed, the Church was at the edge of emphasizing a so-called ‘conversion’ according to the capital punishment. In the 1960s, Pope John XXIII was the first to provide a change in the Catholic tradition, as he “took the Catholic Church into the heart of the United Nations human rights debates” (Hodgkinson and Schabas 126).
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Further decades since 1970 up to 1995 have shown a strict opposition of the Church to execution. The voice of Pope Paul VI had raised several times in order to show more clemency to the prisoners in the USSR and the USA (Megivern 264). Since that time, the Church had taken aside the traditional prescriptions on death penalty. It was a matter of the humanity at large and each Catholic, in particular.
Such a position became stouter in the 1970s. However, in the United States, the capital punishment was left unchanged in a number of states. It was especially obvious in the 1980s when the claims in pursuit of “eye for an eye” were constantly heard on the part of some bishops: “After 1983, the death penalty rulings were a string of defeats for the defense bar” (Hodgkinson and Schabas 128). Thus, neither Gerhard Gloege’s Framework (1966) nor Article 102 of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic had no long-term effect for the Catholic Chuch and the mankind on the whole (Megivern 270).
The debate on death penalty has become officially against the punishment, but it seems the Church has become an alleged tool in hands of politics like former US president Reagan and powerful business elite. Nevertheless, until 2000, the capital punishment has been reduced in the law bases of most of the countries in Europe and in the world. An abolitionist viewpoint has demonstrated more arguments in pro-life tensions regarding both the concept/image of punishment and deterrent. Thus, the history of the Roman Catholic Church since 1850 up to 2000 provides people with a deep discretion of the Church leaders causing the conversion of the traditional appreciation of the capital punishment.
In addition, the theological world owes to Pope John Paul II who was among the ardent supporters of the abolitionist way of punishment. It is better to say that he was that cornerstone in providing a clear justification on why death penalty should be opposed by the Church and Catholics worldwide. With the words by Gerhard Cloege, everything becomes more or less clear for a believer interwoven into the myriad of socio-political debate. A theological claim by Cloege was stated thus: “The Death penalty has been abolished on earth by the execution of Jesus Christ on Golgotha” (Megivern 275). Contemporary Catholicism opposes the capital punishment. With Pope John Paul II this tradition has become mainstream for Catholics and those still debating on the issue under analysis.
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