In an apparent effort to reassure his audience of the orthodoxy of Amoris laetitia, speaking at the opening of a diocesan conference in Rome in June 2016, Pope Francis appealed to St. Thomas Aquinas. “So that you might be at peace,” he said, “I must tell you that what is written in the Exhortation … from beginning to end, is entirely Thomistic. It is sound doctrine (dottrina sicura).” The Pope told his audience that in making this claim, he was reaffirming something already asserted by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, “a great theologian who was secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith” – not to mention a member of St. Thomas’s own Dominican order.
The Holy Father has repeated his characterization of Amoris laetitia as Thomistic on a couple of occasions. Speaking to the Jesuits assembled in Rome in October 2016 for their 36th general congregation, Pope Francis told them that “the morality of Amoris laetitia is Thomistic.” And again speaking to Jesuits, but this time in Colombia in September, the Pope had this to say:
Some people contend that the morality that is at the foundation of Amoris laetitia isn’t a Catholic morality, or at least that it isn’t sound morality (moral segura). In response, I would like clearly to reaffirm that the morality of Amoris laetitia is Thomistic; it is that of the great Thomas.
However, not everyone agrees with Pope Francis about the Thomistic nature of Amoris laetitia. It is disputed, for instance, by some of Cardinal Schönborn’s Dominican confreres. Here I have in mind Basil Cole (here and here) and Thomas Crean (here).
While I must admit that my sympathies lie with Cole and Crean, I don’t want in this essay to enter into the debate about the alleged Thomistic nature of Amoris laetitia. My purpose in mentioning the Pope’s claims about the document is only to highlight the privileged place that he has repeatedly assigned to St. Thomas as a standard in judgments about doctrinal matters. These gestures of Papa Bergoglio are not, as we know, anomalous in the history of the Holy See. Since John XXII, who canonized Thomas in 1323, pope after pope has commended Thomas’s doctrinal guidance. This statement by Urban V to the archbishop of Toulouse and to the professors of its university in 1368 is typical:
Moreover, we wish, and it is the purpose of the present letter, to enjoin upon you that you adhere to the teaching of the said Blessed Thomas as the true and Catholic teaching, and that you endeavor to spread it with all your power.i
Signaling his agreement with previous papal directives, in 1777 Pius VI wrote:
In many schools Thomas Aquinas was rightly called the Sun of doctrine (Sol doctrinae) and the standard for theologians, because he taught only what was consistent with Sacred Scripture and the Fathers … And so our predecessors commended his doctrine with outstanding praises as the shield of Christian religion and the resolute guardian of the Church.ii
Of course, we could go on. The esteem that later pontiffs had for St. Thomas – Leo XIII, for example – is common knowledge. The point – easily made – is that Pope Francis’s appeal to the doctrinal authority of St. Thomas has excellent papal precedent.
Pope Francis’s recent remarks on the death penalty
By now, anyone who follows Catholic Church news is aware that Pope Francis has recently made some surprising statements in opposition to the death penalty. Speaking on October 11 to a gathering organized by the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, the Pope proposed what he understood to be a legitimate development of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty. The Pope’s remarks strongly suggest that he regards recourse to the death penalty as never morally acceptable:
It must be forcefully affirmed that it is inhuman to condemn a person to death and that, however the sentence is carried out, it humiliates personal dignity. In itself it is contrary to the Gospel because it is a free decision to suppress a human life that is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and that, in the final analysis, has God alone as the true judge and guarantor.
But how does the Holy Father explain the Church’s previous acceptance of the death penalty as a legitimate measure taken by the state? On the one hand, he believes that historical circumstances and a certain social immaturity prevented us from seeing clearly.
In past centuries, when there were few means of defense and social maturity had not yet enjoyed a positive development, recourse to the death penalty appeared to be a logical consequence of the application of the justice that needed to be respected.
On the other hand, he believes that because she was too much concerned with material power and wealth, the Church over-valued law and was blind to what the Gospel really demanded.
The preoccupation with protecting material power and wealth led to an exaggerated regard for the value of law and prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel.
Edward Feser (here, here, and here), Brian Harrison (here), Eduardo Echeverria (here), and others have questioned the soundness of the Pope’s recent statements about the death penalty. I think they raise very important points, points that merit our (and the Holy Father’s) consideration.
St. Thomas, law, punishment, and the death penalty
Given Pope Francis’s own high regard for St. Thomas (together with the historical papal approbation he has enjoyed) when it comes to doctrinal issues, we might ask how the opposition to the death penalty articulated by the Pope compares with the teaching of the Doctor Communis.
In his treatise on law in the Summa theologiae,iii Thomas explains that the laws of a political community and the punishments for violating them must be consistent with the natural law and that they have the purpose of leading people to virtue. To be sure, he doesn’t believe that they are sufficient for that purpose. They are just one piece of the puzzle, an important piece indeed, but just one piece nonetheless. The laws and punishments instituted by a political community supplement the moral formation provided by families and the Church.
Thomas also holds that laws and punishments must be appropriate to the general character of the political community in which they have been instituted. He is, thus, prepared to accept a great deal of diversity in laws and punishments across political communities and across time. This too he makes clear in the Summa’s treatise on law.iv
The end of the virtuous life that we live in the present, says Thomas, is “heavenly beatitude (beatitudo caelestis).”v He sees this as the ultimate reason why virtue should be promoted in political communities. It is, therefore, the ultimate purpose of all laws and punishments. Thomas conceives of the Church and the temporal power as formally distinct from each other but also sees the latter as being subordinately ordered to the proper ends of the former. Thomas, you see, isn’t terribly modern.
Because he thinks that laws and punishments must be appropriate to the people to whom they apply and knows that this will entail differences across political communities, Thomas is no absolutist about the implementation of the death penalty. In Summa contra gentiles, III, 146, Thomas says, for example, that “the execution of wicked people (malorum) is forbidden wherever it cannot be done without danger to good people (bonorum).” We have every reason to believe, then, that he would recognize the legitimacy of a prudential opposition to the death penalty of the sort that John Paul II has called for, which is not to say that he would necessarily agree with John Paul II’s particular reasoning.
But Thomas would not accept the claim that the death penalty is, in principle, morally impermissible, that is, that the death penalty is what moralists call a malum in se (“evil in itself”). Put otherwise, Thomas would not accept a principled opposition (as opposed to a prudential one) to the death penalty. In Thomas’s view, the death penalty is a morally acceptable means of punishment. On this he takes himself to be following the teaching of Scripture. Consider this string of quotes he offers to support his position in Summa contra gentiles, III, 46:
The Apostle says, therefore, in 1 Corinthians 5:6: “Know you not that a little leaven corrupts the whole lump?” And a little later he adds: “Put away the evil one from among yourselves.” And in Romans 13:4 it is said of earthly power that “he does not carry the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him who does evil.” And in 1 Peter 2:13-14 it is said: “Be subject therefore to every human creature for God’s sake: whether it be to the king as excelling, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of the good.”
Thomas might have added other passages from Scripture. For instance, Genesis 9:6 and John 19:11.
However counterintuitive it may appear to us at first glance, Thomas regards the death penalty – like all other punishments (if properly implemented) – as an aid to virtue and, ultimately, to heavenly beatitude. This it does by functioning, he believes, as a deterrentvi and by protecting the political community from people who are a threat to the peaceful order that is conducive to virtue.vii Furthermore, in his impending execution, Thomas thinks that a person condemned to death has a powerful stimulus to conversion.viii In that respect, you could argue that Thomas understands the death penalty also as rehabilitative.ix
Commenting on this last point, Thomas has a response to the proposal of life imprisonment as an alternative to the death penalty:
The fact that wicked people, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at the critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgment that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers.x
I don’t think that this is a decisive argument against life imprisonment as an alternative to the death penalty. Even so, Thomas’s reasoning is worth considering.
But Thomas might reject life imprisonment as an alternative to the death penalty for other reasons. Thomas thinks that the death penalty can likewise serve “natural equity” (naturalis aequitatis). Here’s how he puts it:
Natural equity seems to demand that each person be deprived of the good against which he acts, for by this action he renders himself unworthy of such a good. So it is that, according to civil justice, he who offends against the political community is deprived completely of association with it, either by death or by perpetual exile.xi
The particular example that Thomas uses here in discussing recourse to the death penalty (offense against the political community) isn’t important. What is important is his suggestion that natural equity itself might require the life of the criminal. In other words, even if life imprisonment were an option, it might not always be the just option, or so Thomas would appear to think. Whether in a particular case it would be the just option would, presumably, depend on the right prudential judgment of the relevant public authority.
Some people might wonder whether Thomas’s endorsement of the legitimacy of the death penalty is consistent with what he says about human dignity. As the work of Lawrence Dewan, Elinor Gardner, and others makes clear, this isn’t an issue that Thomas overlooks.xii He addresses it directly in Summa theologiae, IIa-IIae, q. 64, a. 2. There is a certain dignity that we always retain as human persons, namely, the dignity of our nature. No evil deed we do nor any evil we suffer can eliminate that dignity. Thomas implies this in the body of q. 64, a. 6. It isn’t because human persons are human that we are punished, whether by the death penalty or any other punishment. We are punished for our actions, actions that aren’t in accord with the dignity of our nature. If we only ever considered each person’s human nature in the abstract and not his concrete actions, it would seem that we could never have grounds for punishing anyone in any way. In q. 64, a. 2, ad 3, Thomas says that by sinning a person falls away from his human dignity (decidit a dignitate humana). Thomas can’t mean by this that by sinning we absolutely lose the human dignity that belongs to us by nature. He must mean either that we have lost some acquired, i.e., non-natural, human dignity or simply that our actions aren’t what they should be given our nature. Whatever the truth of the matter, the punishment for our sins – including the death penalty – that Thomas goes on to discuss in ad 3 is meted out not because of our nature but because of the evil that we have done.
The Pope and St. Thomas
I don’t pretend to give a complete treatment of Thomas’s teaching on the death penalty in the foregoing, only to present what is sufficient for my purposes here. I should also add that, although I agree with a lot of Thomas’s teaching on this matter, I’m not trying to defend that teaching in this essay. My aim is expository.
It’s important to notice that none of the motivations that Pope Francis attributes to previous Catholic proponents of the death penalty can be attributed to Thomas in any obvious way. Does Thomas propose the death penalty because the political community of his time had few other means of defense? That consideration doesn’t explicitly enter into his reasoning. The burden of proof, therefore, would be on people who want to claim it as determinative of his thought. As we have seen, if life imprisonment were suggested to him as an alternative to the death penalty, it’s not evident that he would see it as a wise or even just alternative.
Does Thomas lack social maturity (maturità sociale)? It’s not clear to me what the Holy Father intends by this locution. He doesn’t explain it and its meaning isn’t self-evident. Because of that, we can’t reasonably make any judgments about Thomas on this score.
Does Thomas’s concern for law stem from a preoccupation with protecting material wealth and power? Hardly. As we have seen, for Thomas, law is above all in the service of virtue and heavenly beatitude.
Does a preoccupation with protecting material wealth and power prevent Thomas from achieving a deeper understanding of the Gospel’s teaching on human dignity? Well, what can I say? Thomas doesn’t strike me as someone obsessed with material wealth and power. Moreover, these things don’t figure in any significant way in his teaching on the death penalty. He holds that our nature confers a dignity upon each one of us, but he doesn’t regard human dignity as constituting the only relevant consideration when it comes to punishment or the death penalty. Our actions must also be evaluated.
As I observed at the beginning of this essay, Pope Francis (like so many of his predecessors) has a high regard for Thomas’s judgment in doctrinal matters. One way that he has defended the soundness of the teaching of Amoris laetitia is simply to claim that it is Thomistic. But the Pope’s views on the death penalty seem to be profoundly at odds with Thomas’s. It may be, however, that the Holy Father has failed to express himself properly or that I have just misunderstood him. Regardless of whether either of these is true, I’m sure the Holy Father would agree that he could only benefit from a careful review of what Thomas has to say about the death penalty and from reflection on the extent to which his personal views may depart from Thomas if they do at all.
i Laudabilis Deus in J.J. Berthier (ed.), Sanctus Thomas Aquinas: Doctor Communis Ecclesiae, vol. I, Testimonia Ecclesiae (Rome: Editrice Nazionale, 1914), 64.
ii Speech to the general chapter of the Dominican order in Rome, May 17, 1777 in B.M. Reichert (ed.), Monumenta Ordinis Fratrum Praedicatorum Historica, vol. XIV, Acta Capitolarum Generalium, vol. IX (Rome: Propaganda Fide, 1904), 310.
iii Ia-IIae, qq. 90-108
iv Especially in qq. 94-97.
v De regno, 16.
vi Summa theologiae, Ia-IIae, q. 87, a. 3, ad 2.
vii Summa contra gentiles, III, 146; Summa theologiae, IIa-IIae, q. 108, a. 3, ad 2; De regno, 16.
viii Summa contra gentiles, III, 146.
ix Ed Feser and Joseph Bessette offer the same interpretation. See their By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 199.
x Summa contra gentiles, III, 146.
xi Summa contra gentiles, III, 144.
xii Lawrence Dewan, “Thomas Aquinas, Gerard Bradley, and the Death Penalty: Some Observations.” Gregorianum 82 (2001): 152-161; Elinor Gardner, Saint Thomas Aquinas on the Death Penalty. PhD dissertation, Boston College, 2009, 288-303. Gardner’s dissertation is available online here. Dewan’s and Gardner’s discussions of this issue are detailed and nuanced and I highly recommend them, especially because I don’t have the space here to be as detailed or nuanced.
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