Capital Punishment means the killing of a criminal imposed by competent public authority. Unlike the act of a private person exacting revenge for a wrong done to himself or to his family, this penalty manifests the community's will to vindicate its laws and system of justice, to atone for wrongful conduct, and to deter criminal acts by others in the future. Among some primitive peoples, a popular assembly might order death not only to retaliate for murder or treason, but also to appease spirits offended by sorcery, incest, or sacrilege.
It was the Nazis who gave the started concentration camp to give capital punishment to Jews, in its definitive and most notorious shape. There anti-Semitism is quite obvious and Catholic Church's response to the Jew's capital punishment was in opposition to Nazis. Under their regime, concentration camps became a central element of the repressive system and the racial state. The Nazi concentration camps imparted to the twentieth century some of its defining images that achieved almost iconic character, such as the gate and ramp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, or the skeletal survivors behind the barbed-wire fences of Bergen-Belsen. This paper discusses the history of the Catholic Church on the death penalty and note how it has changed.
Capital punishment is present in the legal codes of the ancient Middle Eastern churches. These codes usually advised killing for murder and for some religious or sexual offenses. Thus, for Israel, it was declared that “whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gn 9.6) and further that “you shall not let the sorceress live. Anyone who lies with an animal shall be put to death. Whoever sacrifices to any god, except to the Lord alone, shall be doomed” (Ex 22.17-19). The law of the Israelites at one time or another listed as capital crimes bearing false witness in a capital charge, kidnapping, sexual immorality, blasphemy, witchcraft or magic, homicide, insult or injury to a parent, sacrilege, and idolatry. Hebrew law clearly distinguished between voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. (Brugger, 25-30)
The term capital punishment derives from caput, a word used by the Romans variously to mean the civil rights, the head or the life, of any person. Roman law also knew the death penalty as the summum supplicium. In addition to death, Roman law looked on perpetual hard labor and banishment (interdictio aquae et ignis et tecti— denial of fire, water, and shelter) as lesser capital punishments.
Christian Attitudes Towards Capital Punishment
Ancient Israel had prescribed capital punishment for some crimes, but the Old Testament spoke also of divine mercy: “As I live, says the Lord God, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man's conversion, that he may live” (Ez 33.11). Few took these words, however, as a limit on the society's authority to perform a fairly condemned criminal. The same proved true of Christ's new teaching on the lex talionis. Christians tended to hear in these ...