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The Catholic Church and the Death Penalty, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Introduction

It is hardly surprising that, in a history stretching literally thousands of years, the Catholic Church has undergone vast changes in doctrine, as it has incalculably impacted on cultural and societal evolutions globally.   A vital foundation for the faith relies upon, in fact, a reliance; adherents turn to the church for resolutions of the most troubling and profound issues.   Given the inextricable ties between church and culture, consequently, each adapts virtually invisibly, to reflect and accommodate the needs of the other.   Doctrine, even of the most extreme kind, is rarely a sui generis affair, for the intrinsic nature of the church is to address the very real concerns of the living.

As societal views on the appropriateness of capital punishment have called into question the most fundamental ideologies held by people worldwide, so too has the Catholic Church been vocal in its traditional stance on the issue.   In ages past, when church and state were frequently synonymous entities, the Catholic powers typically upheld the penalty of death for the most egregious crimes.   Not unexpectedly, as governments deliberately removed themselves from church authority and Western thinking moved away from support of the death penalty, the Catholic Church responded with a shocking reversal of its doctrine,  by declaring capital punishment to be an immoral and unnecessary act.  This is inherently an empowering position.   By assuming this posture,  the Catholic Church effectively reestablishes its time-honored standing as a vast, cultural influence merely by virtue of the enormity of the decision, and it separates itself, equally effectively, from state concerns no longer to be relied upon.

Ancient History of Church Doctrine on the Subject

It is virtually impossible to examine how the Catholic Church has historically viewed the death penalty without an ancillary and ongoing sense of the inherent, political component of the church. It is pleasing to perceive the faith as generating from, and reflecting only, Christian principles as laid out in scripture, and serving only to augment the spirituality of each culture adopting it. Such a view also demands a view of scripture itself as more recently, and more gently, interpreted.  The reality is more prosaic, for two essential factors. On one level, Old Testament doctrine is relentlessly harsh, and far removed from relatively new concepts of the nature of Christianity. Secondly, there is the inescapable fact that any organization reaching to the proportions of the church must be closely allied with the secular institutions comprising the society. Consequently, the history of the church in relation to capital punishment is one that definitively reflects Old Testament severity, as well as being very much a history of governmental approaches to the death penalty.

It is not commonly known even among adherents of the Catholic faith, but the church has, scriptural dictates aside, long been a supporter of capital punishment, or most certainly of the right of the state to enforce it.   Modern times, dating from the mid-20th century, have seen a dramatic and global reversal of this stance, but the reality remains that, from the beginnings of its presence as an established church, “a confidant, consistent, and coordinated defense of the right of the state to kill criminals was maintained by the Catholic Church” (Curran 146). This is uniformly seen in virtually every society which embraced the church, as mutually supportive relationships invariably developed between the temporal and the spiritual foundations of them. For many societies, and for hundreds of years, the authorities of church and state were so interwoven as to be indistinguishable.

Nor was this policy of the church regarding the death penalty entirely founded on an allegiance with existing governments or monarchies, for the ancient church had only to point to the Old Testament for justification of it.  Capital punishment was deemed correct for a vast number of offenses, taking as its ultimate authority the Book of Deuteronomy injunction  that, “And thine eye shall not pity; but life shall go for life, eye for eye…” (Alter, Dt 19:21), colloquially  translated as, “an eye for an eye”. Once again, then, the distinctions between governmental and church mandates become blurred, and this is itself owing to scripture. That is to say, the Old Testament thoroughly acknowledges the necessary obedience of the Christian citizen to the state, as Yahweh commands Moses that justice, or the retribution of death, must be a matter of law, and not of vengeance (Skotnicki 16). In the prevailing view of the Catholic Church, a Christian society translated to a complete parity of authority and morality between the temporal and spiritual leadership, one in which there existed a harmony of motive and agenda. For ages, and in every Western culture, there could be no obedience to the church without an identical compliance with the laws of the land.

Centuries later, the church’s condoning of the death penalty would be pushed to its least defensible extremes.  To this day, the Catholic Church manifests an extreme aversion to regarding its role in the years of the Inquisition, when it fully supported the more barbaric manifestations of capital punishment.   The torture and killing of those opposed to Catholicism was not an activity restricted to one nation, nor to a short time span; versions of the Spanish Inquisition, equally horrific, were to be found in other European nations throughout most of the 16th century, as in France’s Chambre Ardente. Then, Spain’s reach was massive, and it established Inquisitions throughout its other dominions, as in the Netherlands.  The rationale for the Catholic endorsement of these cruelties, which frequently dictated state-sanctioned executions, is, in hindsight, explicable, if inexcusable. The reality was that the enormous and turbulent rise of Protestantism erupting everywhere was shaking the foundations of the church to its roots, and threatening its very survival. The new schools of theology were uniformly branded as heresies by the monarchies in place, which were indissolubly linked to the church itself (Daly, Doody, Paffenroth  89).   In basic, if disagreeable, terms, the church was left with no alternative, if it wished to maintain its exalted position in governmental affairs. Opposing the Inquisitions and the subsequent murders would have conceded too much authority to the strictly secular arms of the governments, who were intent on enforcing these policies anyway. To fight these rulings would have rendered the church ostensibly weak; to support the actions presented the appearance of being the guiding power in the entire strategy.

Then, it must be remembered that there were concerns beyond the political. As noted, Protestantism was an unexpected and enormous eruption in the fabric of life at the time, and one which was not, interestingly, completely spiritual in focus itself. While many devout Calvinists, Lutherans, and Protestants objected to the Catholic Church for reasons primarily regarding what was perceived as a usurpation of the individual’s right to connect with God and scripture, there was a more pressing, somewhat commercial aspect to the revolt. Ultimately, the pope was viewed by dissidents as a head of state unjustly placed, and one ceaselessly extracting taxes while exerting a rule tyrannical and unacceptable.  When Henry VIII, for example, broke from the Catholic Church in 1530, the repercussions of the devastating action, later to be reversed by his daughter Mary, were largely financial; the people were less inclined to return vast papal lands and incomes than they were morally against a return to Catholic worship (MacCaffrey 2).  Such influences, then, must go to how the church would soon react to the Inquisitional death penalties, for its very existence was in jeopardy. As history reveals, something of an unholy and utterly savage alliance was in place.

Modern Issues and Changes

With reference to the United States and more recent eras, an uneasy marriage of sorts between the nation and the Catholic Church came rapidly on the heels of the end of the Revolutionary War.   By 1789, Baltimore, Maryland, was the first official see of the country, and John Carroll, its first bishop, began negotiating the new and difficult waters of so radically different a society. A politicizing of the church was essential, for a way had to be found to unite ancient spiritual authority with a nation established on the premises of liberty, and a government of and for the people (Yamane 19). These were concepts at utter variance with traditional, church authority; only a meeting of mutual interests, whereby Catholics would concede powers as the government would strive to accommodate so large a measure of its citizens, effected a working relationship. Interestingly, as in the past, a similar dynamic was in place, wherein the church would be defined by the surrounding society and its needs.

This would not long be a stable relationship. As the nation expanded, old-fashioned Catholicism also evolved, and the very size of the national expansion rendered any real assessment of Catholic hold, either internally or externally manifested, virtually impossible. It was known that a large percentage of Americans were Catholic, but they were not the Catholics of years past, and they were forging new interpretations regarding their own faith. They were, moreover, difficult to pin down in regard to issues such as the death penalty, quite possibly because their evolution was too rapid, and ongoing.  For example, the early 20th century saw in the U.S. an increasing determination to end capital punishment, and nine states in those first years of the century repealed the law. Then, as now, it is suspected that Catholics at a grassroots level were instrumental in moving these changes forward, but no actual evidence of outright participation has been found (Megivern 313). What is known is that Congressmen, fervently debating the issue in Washington, continually quoted scripture to back their arguments.

Today, those alive from the last two generations know only a Catholic Church adamantly opposed to the death penalty. The shift in position came remarkably quickly; there were signs that the staunch support of the church for the death penalty was weakening in the 1950s, and it was utterly shattered by the 1970s, and hundreds of official statements decrying it have emerged from the highest tiers of the Catholic Church hierarchy (Curran 146). This begs, of course, the question: why?  Multiple answers have been proposed, as each generates great debate, but the most logical explanation is that the church, facing a severe waning in its power and simultaneously noting how rapidly modern policies shift in regard to the death penalty, is adopting a stance that both reinforces its own authority and safeguards it from shifting political tides. In a very real sense, modern life has revealed to the church that no state affiliations can cement its standing.  Then, and certainly in the U.S., ideas of what Catholicism and Christianity are have undergone radical changes, and are far less harsh than those of previous eras.  Consequently, the church’s best avenue to remaining a vastly influential force in the lives of its adherents is one more in keeping with reflecting popular feeling, which predominantly is ill at ease with capital punishment.

It must be said, in defense of the church and its possible motives for enacting so striking a reversal of policy, that the statements issued from the Catholic Church indicate a thoughtful analysis of its own decision to amend its stance. In the 1997 Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 5 of Part III indicates the thrust of the thinking behind the policy change, in that it refers to an acknowledging of how, today, the state has recourse to a wide variety of means to ensure than an offender is no danger to the society (Curran 148). This is the keynote, for it reinforces ancient church doctrine that capital punishment has always been sanctioned because it serves and protects the community. Then, it effectively both relies upon the modern resources of a modern state to employ nonlethal methods to “disarm” the offender, even as it accords to it full responsibility for determining when such measures are not sufficient for the public good, or when the crimes are so egregious as to demand death as justice. Viewed in a favorable light, the Catholic Church has in the last century accepted the changes in the world, and consequently accepted as reality that the killing of a criminal is no longer necessary to ensure public safety.  Conversely, it may be argued that, facing enormous image issues and a less certain future due to

increasing global interactions, which in turn weaken existing faiths through exposure to new ones, the church is merely switching ground to gain favor with a more ostensibly “merciful” population. However it happens, one thing is irrefutable: after thousands of years, and in a remarkably brief time, the immensely powerful Catholic Church has completely revised its posture on capital punishment.

Conclusion

Founded largely on Old Testament injunctions, and serving as a highly convenient control mechanism for existing states, the death penalty was for many centuries a commonality of power uniting governments and the Catholic Church. This endured even through the most severe enforcing of it, during the Inquisition years. Today, as modern Catholics turn more to New Testament leniency and tailor Catholic ideologies to suit their not necessarily “Catholic” viewpoints, the church itself has been compelled to amend an age-old stance, and relent on capital punishment. It is certainly true that the Catholic hierarchies have promoted seemingly sound rationales for so stunning a reversal of doctrine, yet a degree of cynicism is inevitably called into play. For a church in crisis, and even one as august in stature and authority as the Catholic Church, concessions must be made to popular feeling, if the organization is to survive.

By declaring that the death penalty is not acceptable, the Catholic Church effectively reinforces its traditional standing as a cultural influence merely by virtue of the enormity of the decision, and it separates itself from state concerns no longer to be relied upon.

Works Cited

Alter, R.  The Five Books of Moses. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004. Print.

Curran, C. E.  Change in Official Catholic Moral Teaching.  Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2003. Print.

Daly, C. T.,  Doody, J., &  Paffenroth, K.  Augustine and History.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. , 2008. Print.

MacCaffrey, W.   Elizabeth I. London, UK: Edward Arnold, 1993. Print.

Megivern, J. J.  The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey. Mahwah, NJ: Pauilist Press, 1997. Print.

Skotnicki,  A.  Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2008. Print.

Yamane, D.  The Catholic Church in State Politics: Negotiating Prophetic Demands and Political Realities.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005. Print.

Authors Cited

Robert Alter’s edition of the Pentateuch, The Five Books of Moses, is generally considered the most scholarly and exact translation of the original Hebrew to date. While it is not cited to excess, the precision of the translations is most helpful in comprehending Old Testament creeds regarding the death penalty.  Charles Curran’s  Change in Official Catholic Moral Teaching is an extraordinarily complex and informative examination of the title subject, which offers a great deal of documentation from papal sources, as well as rigorous argument. Dody’s, Doody’s, and Paffenroth’s  Augustine and History is selected chiefly for its emphasis on Catholicism in antiquity, as it covers the rise of Christianity and its reflection of existing Roman law. Harvard professor Wallace MacCaffrey’s Elizabeth I has been employed only for its pre-Elizabethan information regarding Henry VIII’s schism from the Roman Catholic Church, which is valuable in any understanding of the historical, commercial ties of it. James J. Megivern’s 1997  The Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey, is an invaluable resource for any examination of how church doctrine has influenced, and been influenced by, state concerns.   In Criminal Justice and the Catholic Church, Andrew Stotnicki provides a modern, academically sound analysis of the inherent interplay between the title subjects.  The scholarship is unusually valid, and the approach is balanced and unbiased.   Lastly, David Yamane’s 2005 The Catholic Church in State Politics: Negotiating Prophetic Demands and Political Realities offers an excellent background in the little-explored arena of the Catholic Church as developing within the new United States.

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