"The Church Does Not Kill" - Testimonies from Church History

This is a collection of statements from the Church Fathers and later Catholic authors about the death penalty. The Church forbids its priests from inflicting the death penalty or requiring others to do so. The State can sometimes execute dangerous people, though the Church has never required them to do so. In regard to heretics, the Church would rather see them repent than perish, and the Church has always encouraged the State to avoid executing them. I made this page because I've sometimes seen people accuse the Church of requiring the death penalty for heretics and others at various times in its history, and I think that's not true. BTW I'd love to add to this; do any of you know of any other examples I could add to this list?

"The Church Does Not Kill" - Testimonies from Church History

249 A.D. - St. Cyprian - “in Deuteronomy...God commanded those who did not obey His priests to be slain... And then indeed they were slain with the sword...but now that [the law] has begun to be of the spirit among God's faithful servants, the proud and contumacious are slain with the sword of the Spirit, in that they are cast out of the Church.” (Letter 61 Chapter 4)

308 A.D. - St. Lactantius - “religion is to be defended, not by putting to death, but by dying; not by cruelty, but by patient endurance; not by guilt, but by good faith... For if you wish to defend religion by bloodshed, and by tortures, and by guilt, it will no longer be defended, but will be polluted and profaned. For nothing is so much a matter of free-will as religion.” (Divine Institutes Book 5 Chapter 20)

387 A.D. - St. Ambrose - “I find that you complain [about] the followers of Valentinian... But what could you expect, when you called for punishment on the fugitives, and put [some of them] to death[?] … But afterwards on finding that I would not communicate with [any] Bishops...who sought the death of any one, even though they were heretics, he grew angry and bade me depart without delay. And I, although many thought I should be waylaid, set forth gladly...” (Letter 24 Paragraphs 11-12)

~403 A.D. - Sulpicius Severus - “Thus, then, all [suspected heretics] were brought before the king. The bishops Ydacius and Ithacius followed as accusers... [Saint] Martin [of Tours], being then settled at Treves, did not cease...to implore Maximus that he should not shed the blood of the unhappy persons in question. He maintained that it was quite sufficient punishment that, having been declared heretics by a sentence of the bishops, they should have been expelled from the churches; and that it was, besides, a foul and unheard-of indignity, that a secular ruler should be judge in an ecclesiastical cause. And, in fact, as long as Martin survived, the trial was put off; while, when he was about to leave this world, he, by his remarkable influence, obtained a promise from Maximus, that no cruel measure would be resolved on with respect to the guilty persons.” (Sacred History Book 2 Chapter 50)

409 A.D. - St. Augustine - “We beg you, therefore, when you are pronouncing judgment in cases affecting the Church, [no matter] how wicked...the injuries may be...to forget that you have the power of capital punishment…[for] we ask you to spare the lives of the men on whose behalf we ask God to grant them repentance. ... [If] your opinion be, that death must be the punishment of men convicted of these crimes, you will deter us from…[bringing] anything of this kind before your tribunal…[for we choose] rather to suffer death at their hands, than to bring them to death by accusing them at your bar.” (Letter 100 Paragraph 2)

412 A.D. - St. Augustine - “As to the punishment of these [heretics], I beseech you to make it something less severe than sentence of death, although they have, by their own confession, been guilty of...grievous crimes. I ask this out of a regard both for our own consciences and for the testimony thereby given to Catholic clemency. … [For] the Catholic Church has found an opportunity of maintaining and exhibiting forbearance towards her most violent enemies; since in a case where such cruelty was practised, any punishment short of death will be seen by all men to proceed from great leniency. And although such treatment appears [too merciful] to some of our communion...nevertheless, when the [negative] feelings...have subsided after a time, the kindness shown to the guilty will shine [brightly], and men will take much more pleasure in reading these Acts and showing them to others.” (Letter 139 Paragraph 2)

439 A.D. - Socrates Scholasticus - “Never has [Emperor Theodosius the Younger] revenged himself on any one by whom he has been injured; nor has any one ever even seen him irritated. And when some of his most intimate friends once asked him, why he never inflicted capital punishment upon offenders, his answer was, 'Would that it were even possible to restore to life those that have died.' To another making a similar inquiry he replied, 'It is neither a great nor a difficult thing for a mortal to be put to death but it is God only that can resuscitate by repentance a person that has once died.' So habitually indeed did he practice mercy, that if any one were guilty and sentence of death was passed upon him, and he was conducted toward the place of execution, he was never suffered to reach the gates of the city before a pardon was issued, commanding his immediate return.” (Ecclesiastical History Book 7 Chapter 22)

447 A.D. - Pope St. Leo the Great - “the Church…[has a] law of gentleness which...relies upon the priestly judgment, and shuns blood-stained vengeance.” (Letter 15 Chapter 1)

866 A.D. - Pope St. Nicholas the Great - “Just as hitherto you put people to death with ease, so from now on you should lead those whom you can not to death but to life. For the blessed apostle Paul, who was initially an abusive persecutor...[later] converted [because of] a divine revelation, [and] not only did not impose the death penalty on anyone but also wished to be anathema for the brethren [cf. Rom. 9:3]... In the same way...you should no longer desire deaths but should without hesitation recall everyone to the life of the body as well as the soul, when any opportunity is found...[and] attempt to save not only the innocent, but also the guilty from the end of death, according to the saying of the most wise Solomon: Save those, who are led to death; and do not cease freeing those who are brought to their destruction [Prov. 24:11]. … [for] I do not want the death of the sinner, sayeth the Lord, but rather wish that he be converted and live [Ez. 33:11].” (Response to the Bulgarians Chapter 25)

1045 A.D. - Wazo of Liege - “Although Christian piety despises [heresies] and although it condemns [them], nevertheless, in emulation of our Savior...we are commanded for a time to bear such things in some measure. … [In] His Gospel [Jesus] expounded the parable of the field of wheat and the cockle…[and] said…‘Suffer both to grow until the harvest.’ … [A]lthough we [might] think we are practicing righteousness by punishing transgressors…[God] desires not the death of sinners nor rejoices in the damnation of the dying…[therefore] let us not seek to remove from this life by the sword of secular authority those whom God himself, Creator and Redeemer, wishes to spare… [We] must...bear in mind that we who are called bishops do not receive at ordination the sword which belongs to the secular power…[instead] we are enjoined by God our Father not to [sentence people] unto death but rather to quicken [them] unto life.” (Letter to Bishop Roger of Chalons)

Before 1056 A.D. - Anselm of Liege - “see how reprehensible was the deed when certain [heretics] had been seized at Goslar. After...a proper excommunication for obstinacy in error, they were...sentenced to be hanged. When we carefully investigated the course of this [trial], we could learn no other reason for their condemnation than that they refused to obey...one of the bishops… For I can truly say, and I will not keep silent, that if it had happened in his time, our Wazo [of Liege] would have...not at all [agreed] with this verdict, after the example of the Blessed Martin, who...intercede[d] for [heretics] condemned by...the depraved Emperor Maximin…[and] preferred to incur a slur on his most excellent virtue than to be unsolicitous even for heretics who were soon to die. We say these things not because we seek to defend the error of heretics, but to show that we do not approve of that which is nowhere sanctioned in the Sacred Laws.” (Acts of the Bishops of Tongeren, Trier, and Liege Book 2 Chapters 62-64)

~1135 A.D. - St. Bernard of Clairvaux - After some heretics were executed by some Germans, St. Bernard made some comments about it: “Let us capture [heretics] by arguments and not by force. … I cannot at all approve [the Germans’s] excessive cruelty; for faith is a matter of persuasion, not of force.” (In Cantica, Sermon 64 Paragraph 8 and Sermon 66 Paragraph 12)

~1150 A.D. - Gratian’s Decrees - “the holy Church of God is not bound up in worldly laws; she does not have that sword, but the spiritual; does not kill, but gives life.” (Causa 33 Question 2 Canon 6)

1152 A.D. - St. Bernard of Clairvaux - “We perceive...that you must strive to the utmost that...they who have turned may not turn aside, [and] that they who have thus turned may turn back; moreover, you must see that the perverse ones be set in the paths of uprightness, and the subverted recalled to truth; [and] that the subverters of men’s souls may be convinced by invincible reason, so that they themselves, if possible, may either be cured of their errors, or, if that may not be, they may lose their authority, and the power of subverting other men. You must certainly not allow yourself to be imposed upon by the worst sort of foolish men, I mean heretics and schismatics; for these are they who are subverted, and subvert; they are dogs to tear, foxes to deceive. Men, I say, of this sort must be corrected with special care lest they perish, or must be restrained that they may not do damage.” (Considerations Book 3 Chapter 1 Paragraph 3)

1162 A.D. - Gerhoh of Reichersberg - “The priesthood ought to refrain from the shedding of blood.” (De Investigatione Antichristi Book 1 Chapter 42)

1179 A.D. - Eleventh Ecumenical Council - "As St. Leo says...the discipline of the church should be satisfied with the judgment of the priest and should not cause the shedding of blood." "[Rather] it is helped by the laws of Catholic princes so that people often seek a salutary remedy when they fear that a corporal punishment will overtake them." (Canon 27)

~1187 A.D. - Peter Cantor - “Whether they be convicted of error, or freely confess their guilt, [heretics] are not to be put to death, at least not when they refrain from armed assaults upon the Church. For although the Apostle said, ‘A man that is a heretic after the third admonition, avoid,’ he certainly did not say, ‘Kill him.’ Throw them into prison, if you will, but do not put them to death.” (Verbum Abbreviatum Chapter 78)

1215 A.D. - Twelfth Ecumenical Council - “No cleric may decree or pronounce a sentence involving the shedding of blood, or carry out a punishment involving the same, or be present when such punishment is carried out. If anyone, however, under cover of this statute, dares to inflict injury on churches or ecclesiastical persons, let him be restrained by ecclesiastical censure. A cleric may not write or dictate letters which require punishments involving the shedding of blood, in the courts of princes this responsibility should be entrusted to laymen and not to clerics.” (Canon 18)

1234 A.D. - Code of Canon Law (as promulgated by Gregory IX) - “No cleric may decree or pronounce a sentence involving the shedding of blood, or carry out a punishment involving the same, or be present when such punishment is carried out. If anyone, however, under cover of this statute, dares to inflict injury on churches or ecclesiastical persons, let him be restrained by ecclesiastical censure. A cleric may not write or dictate letters which require punishments involving the shedding of blood, in the courts of princes this responsibility should be entrusted to laymen and not to clerics.” (Decretals of Gregory IX Book 3 Title 50 Chapter 9)

1234 A.D. - Code of Canon Law (as promulgated by Gregory IX) - “As St. Leo says...the discipline of the church should be satisfied with the judgment of the priest and should not cause the shedding of blood." "[Rather] it is helped by the laws of Catholic princes so that people often seek a salutary remedy when they fear that a corporal punishment will overtake them." (Decretals of Gregory IX Book 5 Title 7 Chapter 8)

1252 A.D. - Pope Innocent IV - “The head of state or ruler must force all the heretics...without killing them or breaking their arms or legs...to confess their errors and accuse other heretics whom they know.” (Ad Extirpanda Law 25)

1274 A.D. - St. Thomas Aquinas - “it is unbecoming for [priests] to slay or shed blood, and it is more fitting that they should be ready to shed their own blood for Christ, so as to imitate in deed what they portray in their ministry. For this reason it has been decreed that [priests] who shed blood...become [defrocked].” (Summa Theologiae Part 2-2 Question 40 Article 2)

And: “[Priests] ought to withstand...the wolf who brings spiritual death upon the flock...by means of spiritual weapons, according to the saying of the Apostle: ‘The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God.’ Such are salutary warnings, devout prayers, and, for those who are obstinate, the sentence of excommunication.” (Summa Theologiae Part 2-2 Question 40 Article 2)

And: “It is unlawful for clerics to kill...because clerics are entrusted with the ministry of the New Law, wherein no punishment of death or of bodily maiming is appointed: wherefore they should abstain from such things in order that they may be fitting ministers of the New Testament.” (Summa Theologiae Part 2-2 Question 64 Article 4)

And: “The ministry of clerics is concerned with better things than corporal slayings, namely with things pertaining to spiritual welfare, and so it is not fitting for them to meddle with [executions].” (Summa Theologiae Part 2-2 Question 64 Article 4)

~1323 A.D. - Book of Sentences of the Inquisition of Toulouse - “We therefore the foresaid Inquisitors...do declare and pronounce, and deliver you over to the secular Court, as relapsed into the Heresy which you have before juridically abjured, and as an impenitent and obstinate Heretic, affectionately bewailling [the court], as the canonical Sanctions oblige us to do, to preserve your Life and Members untouched. Signed, (L.S.) William Juliani, public and sworn Notary for the Office of the Inquisition; and James Masquetius, Notary of the Inquisition.” (Book of Sentences of the Inquisition of Toulouse, as cited in Limborch, The History of the Inquisition vol. 1-2 [London, UK: J. Gray, 1731], 50.)

~1376 A.D. - Directory of the Inquisition - This Catholic document includes legal formulas for Inquisitors who deal with suspected heretics. It includes this formula for use when handing over a convicted heretic to the secular power: “We dismiss you from our ecclesiastical forum, and abandon you to the secular arm. But we strongly beseech the secular court to mitigate its sentence in such a way as to avoid bloodshed or danger of death.” (Eymeric’s Directorium Inquisitorum 3a pars, p. 515, col. 2, as cited in Vacandard, The Inquisition: A Critical and Historical Study of the Coercive Power of the Church [London, UK: Longman, Greens & Co, 1908], 178-179.)

1482 A.D. - Pope Sixtus IV condemned the violence of the Inquisitors, and intervened on behalf of the accused. He said: “In Aragon, Valencia, Mallorca, and Catalonia the Inquisition has for some time been moved not by zeal for the faith and the salvation of souls but by lust for wealth. Many true and faithful Christians, on the testimony of enemies, rivals, slaves, and other lower and even less proper persons, have without any legitimate proof been thrust into secular prisons, tortured and condemned as relapsed heretics, deprived of their goods and property and handed over to the secular arm to be executed, to the peril of souls, setting a pernicious example, and causing disgust to many. ... Provoked by the complaints of many men against this, we desire to and are bound to provide that the office [of the Inquisition] itself is duly carried out by such means that no one is unnecessarily and unjustly harmed. ... In the example of [Jesus], whose vicar we are on earth (cujus vices gerimus in terris), not willing the death of sinners but rather desiring to restore their salvation, we choose to show mercy rather than to punish.” (Papal Bull Ad Perpetuam Rei Memoriam, reproduced in page 587 of Volume 1 of Henry Charles Lea’s “A History of the Inquisition of Spain.”)

1528 A.D. - St. Thomas More - “The fear of [the] outrages and mischiefs [which] follow upon...sects and heresies, with the proof that men have had in some countries thereof, have been the cause that princes and people have been constrained to punish heresies by terrible death, whereas else more easy ways had been taken with them.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies Part 4 Chapter 13)

And: “[The princes] never indeed [would have] fallen so sore to force and violence against heretics, [unless] the violent cruelty first used by the heretics themself against good catholic folk, [drove] good princes thereto.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies Part 4 Chapter 13)

And: “[As] I said before, if the heretics had never begun with violence, though they had used all the ways they could to [attract] the people by preaching...yet if they had set violence aside, good Christian people [would have perhaps] yet unto this day used less violence toward them than they do now.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies Part 4 Chapter 13)

And: “[For] in the beginning, never were [heretics] by any temporal punishment of their bodies anything sharply handled till that they began to be violent themself.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies Part 4 Chapter 13)

And: “[Therefore] the order of the [ecclesiastical] law therein is both good, reasonable, piteous and charitable, and nothing desiring the death of any man therein.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies Part 4 Chapter 13)

And: “[A]ll the sore punishment of heretics wherewith such folk as favour them would fain defame the clergy, is, and hath been, for the great outrages and temporal harms that such heretics have been alway wont to do, and seditious commotions that they be wont to make, beside the far passing spiritual hurts that they do to men's souls.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies Part 4 Chapter 18)

And: “[The severe punishments were] devised and executed against them of necessity by good Christian princes, and politic[al] rulers of the [kingdom], for as much as their wisdoms well perceived that the people should not fail to fall into many sore and intolerable troubles if such seditious sects of heretics were not by grievous punishment repressed in the beginning, and the [spark] well quenched ere it were suffered to grow to over great a fire.” (Dialogue Concerning Heresies Part 4 Chapter 18)

1582 A.D. - An edition of the Code of Canon Law was published this year during the pontificate of Pope Gregory XIII. An online Latin version can be read here (vol. 1) and here (vol. 2). This edition combined Gratian’s Decrees with the Decretals of Gregory IX, along with some additions that had been made since the 1200s. It retained Book 3 Title 50 Chapter 9 of Gregory IX’s Code of Canon Law (forbidding priests from inflicting the death penalty and from writing letters requiring others to inflict the death penalty) and Book 5 Title 7 Chapter 8 from the same pope (forbidding priests from causing bloodshed), thus keeping the death penalty illegal in Church law. This collection retained its status until Pope Benedict XV promulgated the 1917 Code of Canon Law during World War 1.

1748 A.D. - Bianchi de Lucca - “In earlier ages the Church had not the power to condemn to corporal inflictions or to exile; still less to mutilation or death. … Does she not expressly forbid it by her Canons, both of modern and of ancient law?” (Della Potesta e della Polizia della Chiesa, as quoted in Tolerance [page 66] by Arthur Vermeersch)

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