Should Heretics Receive the Death Penalty?

Should heretics receive the death penalty? Not surprisingly, the Catholic tradition has saints on both sides of this question.

Today is the feast of Saint Martin of Tours – he was opposed to the death penalty for heretics and actively sought to stop it.

On the other hand, Saint Thomas Aquinas explicitly stated that formal heresiarchs should be killed by the state for the common good of society.

Let’s break in down in a few easy points:

Saint Martin on Killing of Heretics, 10 Easy Points…


  1. Saint Martin of Tours lived from 316-397.
  2. He was born in what is now modern day Hungary.
  3. Martin was a soldier who converted Christ after giving half his cloak to a homeless man (who turned out to be a vision of Christ).
  4. A bishop named Priscillian had created a large movement in Spain and France teaching the following oddities:
    1. lay people must renounced marriage
    2. fasting on Sunday
    3. ascetic “mountain retreats” for the laity during Lent
    4. bringing the Eucharist home
    5. using the title “Doctor” which is Latin for “Teacher”
  5. The First Council of Saragossa had condemned Priscillian and six of his companions as heretics.
  6. Catholic bishops of the region asked that the Emperor Magnus Maximus bring the death penalty against Priscillian and his followers.
  7. Saint Martin rushed to the Imperial court of Trier to remove them from the secular jurisdiction of the emperor. Martin prevailed upon the emperor to spare the life of the heretic Priscillian.
  8. When Martin had departed, the emperor ordered Priscillian and his followers to be beheaded in AD 385.
  9. Martin was angry and refused to remain in communion with the emperor.
  10. Incidentally, Saint Ambrose of Milan and Pope Siricius agreed with Saint Martin.

Saint Thomas Aquinas on Killing of Heretics, 10 Easy Points…


  1. Saint Thomas Aquinas lived from 1225-1274.
  2. He was a Dominican.
  3. The Dominicans from their inception were dedicated to the extirpation of heresy, namely Albigensianism.
  4. In his Summa theologiae II-II, q. 11. a. 3, he writes: “Therefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.”
  5. Thomas, in accord with the Old Testament and the New Testament (Romans 13), that the death penalty is a present reality and a right of the secular prince.
  6. Murderers kill the body and they get the death penalty.
  7. Heretical teachers kill the soul.
  8. Killing the souls is much worse for the Church and for secular culture.
  9. Therefore, heresiarchs should receive  the death penalty.
  10. Thomas repeats his belief about six times. He’s very confident about it being the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Question: Why don’t you weigh in? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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  • JMJT

    It is a bit late in Church history for this question…..we would have to kill more Catholics than Hitler killed Jews.

    • AugustineThomas

      Maybe then they’d stop murdering more babies than there are Jews.

  • Eileen Mechler

    Perhaps by God , when they meet Him for judgment, but not by mere mortals

  • JoeAllen

    Dr. Marshall, thanks for giving both sides.

    I do think the DEATH PENALTY is the proper punishment for HEINOUS CRIMES. However, I think it should be administered by the Government, not the Church, and it should involve ONLY secular crimes (murder, kidnapping, rape, etc), NOT religious heresies.

    Since these heretics did NOT violate any secular laws, they should be ex-communicated by the Church and should NOT punished in any way by the secular government.

    • TommyD

      The Church never executed anyone for heresy. The State always administered the death penalty for some variant of public disorder, and considered conviction on a heresy charge in a Church trial to be proof of public disorder. This is a subtle difference that is lost on people today, except when they comment on the obvious hypocrisies.

      • TommyBe

        This is correct, but it needs a further clarification.

        Your definition of “the Church” here refers to the clergy. It’s the true, the clergy did not do the sentencing.

        However, the secular courts and the hands bearing the instruments of death were baptized Christians. They are “the Church” in the wider sense. Members of the Mystical Body did in fact bring about the death penalty against heretics. Moreover, they felt that there were fulfilling their juridical vocations as magistrates in fidelity to the Church.

        • TommyD

          True. I’d be willing to wager that if the civil magistrates refused to execute the heretic then they would have been threatened with excommunication. This is partly the reason behind my “hypocrisies” comment.

          • Ronk

            Didn’t you read the article? The secular government (which was comprised mainly but not entirely of Christians) executed Priscillian AGAINST the objections of the reigning Pope and of the two greatest saints of the era. Your comment is like saying “the Church performs abortions” because individual Catholic laymen, and states composed mainly of preofessed Catholics, order abortions against the opposition of the Pope and the leading saints of our day (e.g. Mother Teresa).

      • James Stuart

        The Church, understood firstly as her authorities, is not only the Priesthood, the clerks, but temporal authorities, instituted by those. Popes were declaring the death penalties for some gravest crimes, and were enjoining temporal authorities to do their duty, executing those temporal penalties, including death penalty.

        • TommyD

          Yes, which is why I characterized the position that the Church executed no one as hypocritical. Still, the point that the institution of the clerical Church did not execute anyone as a legal technicality remains valid.

    • I think in the case of the heretic Priscillian, he was executed by the Emperor on grounds of “sorcery.”

      • Kathy b

        Dr. Marshall,
        I put in a reply about 3 hours ago and it doesn’t show up here, can you tell me why?

        • TommyD

          If I may, I have had lots of problems with Disqus in the last year. I’ve given up on its features and only post as a guest.

          • Kathy b

            Thankyou, I was concerned that Dr Marshall
            Deleted it but it wasn’t off topic or abusive, so I couldn’t figure it out.
            May I ask how do you come in as a guest?

    • James Stuart

      Joe Allen: Heresy is one of the most heinous crimes we can commit. It is God Himself who indicated the death penalty for willing and determined heretics. Bear in mind that this is understood in an officially catholic state, where the temporal authorities are an integral part of the sacred authority of the Church, one of chief duties is to repress and chastise heretics. Not certainly the neo-pagans governments like the present in the USA, totally incompetent in those matters.

  • TommyD

    Incidentally, St Ambrose excommunicated two Catholic bishops for their involvement in the killing of a prominent Arian theologian.
    St Thomas Aquinas’ position has two basic weaknesses:
    1) His deference to the state’s use of the death penalty for so many crimes.
    This has been dealt with too often to recount here. Let’s just say that it is highly problematic for a stable state to use the death penalty for nearly any crime.
    2) His definition of the teaching of heresy as the killing of the soul.
    This definition denies the chance of an honest reconversion back to orthodoxy – the only chance allowed is that made under the executioner’s shadow. The heretic may in his youthful inexperience stand firm and die in his heretical martyrdom, when no civil penalty for heresy could result in his reconversion to orthodoxy when he is older and wiser.
    It should be pointed out that St Augustine, had the late Roman empire followed Aquinas’ views, would never have become a saint, because he would have been executed as a Gnostic. Aquinas’ view simply lacks the prudence and humility that the Christian life requires.

    • TommyD

      One more point: Aquinas’ view of the death penalty for heresy is one where heresy develops WITHIN a Christian society. What about the situation where Christians move into a non-Christian society? The heathens would not strictly speaking be heretics, but they would be in theological error.
      Why would heretics be subject to execution but heathens not be?
      The Apostles, it should be pointed out, executed no one.

      • Good point. Thomas’ teaching pre-supposes that the magistrates are orthodox Catholics.

        • TommyD

          Dr. Marshall, I left my question unanswered on purpose. 🙂 Three centuries after Aquinas the conquistadores used precisely this line of reasoning in the execution of the Aztec clergy. Of course, this was war and not an act of civil jurisprudence, and only a malignant multiculturalist would think that the murderous Aztec clergy were deserving of clemency, but still…

          • James Stuart

            TommyD: Heathens are not subjects of the Church, they don’t know the Truth she preaches, so they can be accountable for heresy, that only a baptized can commit.

            But even heathens are obliged to the natural law, they know in their inner conscience the X Commandments, so, if they don’t obey them, they are guilty and inexcusables, as saint Paul the Apostle warns us.

            So it was perfectly lawful for Spaniards to execute the demonic aztec “priests”, as holy prophet Elijah has executed the 200 prophets of Baal.

          • TommyD

            Yes, I thought I wrote that (so why reply?), except for the part about it being “perfectly lawful”. What may be lawful and just in a worldly sense (and yes what the conquistadors did to the Aztec religious leaders WAS just) may still not be Christian in the fullest meaning of the word. This is why Christian moral dilemmas are DI-lemmas.

          • James Stuart

            It was lawful and just in both realms, no dilemma here.

          • They Aztec clergy were executed because they practiced human sacrifice. Their pyramid steps were red with blood. Secondly, they were infidels, not heretics.

    • James Stuart

      TommyD: Saint Thomas wasn’t a partisan of systematic use of death penalty. He was perfectly aware that this was a last recourse tool, including cases of heresy.

      Heresy not only kills the soul of those who willing and consciously fall in it, but if externally manifested, can killmany other’s souls, and the whole common good of many states and realms. Here you have some of the many reasons it is such a grave crime.

      But bear in mind that only a very tiny percentage of heretics were actually executed. The Church’s primary intent was not chastisement, but conversion of the person, so only when that person has commited the gravest, public, notorious and dangerous forms of heresy, and was absolutely unwilling to repent, they could be sentenced, and even in those cases, they were frequently spared. Saint Augustine wouldn’t have been sentenced to death, for sure.

      Have you read Saint Thomas? If you had, you would have noted what admirable prudence and humility he was having, as so many holy inquisitors, like Pope saint Pius V, saint Peter of Verona, or saint Robert Bellarmine.

      • TommyD

        So, you are sure that the young Augustine, faced with a hypothetical Roman heresy trial, would have repented then and there of his Gnosticism. Frankly, I doubt it. At that time his mother, St Monica, could not convince him to change. He changed because he needed time to observe and compare the fruits of Gnosticism and of Catholic Orthodoxy, and because he needed to work out the logical problems as he saw them. Prosecution for heresy would have denied him that time, because he likely would have persisted in his error.
        Yes, I’ve read the entire Summa. His methodology was sound and his theological statements about God’s nature as pure existence is admirable and obviously divinely inspired.
        Many of his other statements are less so. Science has falsified the specifics of some of his “first cause” arguments, though of course the basic logic remains valid (despite the modern arguments of atheists). Likewise I don’t have to accept everything he wrote as Scripture. He has no concern for the corrosive effects of heresy trials on the souls of the judges nor on the executioners. He accepted the social norms of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries as valid. From a Christian viewpoint this is a mistake that was true in Jesus’ time, in Aquinas’s time, or in ours.

        • James Stuart

          Wayne: You must concord times with circumstances. Neither Curch and State, nor saint Augustine, were in the same circumstances, than, v.g. the albigensians at the time of S. Dominic. If Saint Augustine, or myself, had lived in a time where, unlike that of s. Augustine, the Roman Empire was confessionaly catholic, and the Emperor had ordered that the public manifestation of heresy be outlaw, do you believe that we had broken this order, no matter what we could be thinking internally? S. Augustine wasn’t that foolish. He would have still researched carefully, and would have still arrived at the catholic faith.

          You are not obliged to believe S. Thomas statements as divinely revealed, certainly, but you are obliged to believe that the Holy Church who has ordered the Inquisition cannot err in her general laws.

          You can object to this ot that other particular aspect of the institution and the reasons behind it, but the essentials of it are not from Thomas, or any other historical figure, but from God Himself and His infallible Church.

          You can’t require from him what has been develloped through time and experience, and from a person who had never known directly a process.

          But the Church was, for sure, knowing, and her regulations were pretty exigent on this field,

          Holy Office’s norms were far ahead and better and more humane than those of all socially accepted norms and the rules of every other tribunal of this time. Better, you should examine if the present accepted norms are able to preserve justice and common good, myself, for my own part, I’m not so sure…

          • TommyD

            Who is Wayne?

            Frankly, I’m a little tired of the “You must concord times with circumstances” argument. It is in direct conflict with the “…even heathens are obliged to the natural law, they know in their inner conscience the X Commandments…” argument. Both cannot be equally true. My take is than the natural law argument is the correct and superior argument. The “concord times with circumstances” argument is useful only for determining the level of moral culpability. Of course, time and circumstances are necessary to understand for a casual understanding of many things, but no “accord” is necessary for that.

          • James Stuart

            There are two different kind of things, here. Natural and positive divine law don’t change with times. But what might or might not have done a saint Augustine in the IV or in the XIII century, certainly change with times and circumstances.

          • Laurence Charles Ringo

            Frankly, if the”Church”was ordering the death(read:murder)of ANYONE, then it did so under the auspices of the the one our Saviour said was the first murderer, Satan.After all, the reigning religious authorities of Jesus’ time sought His death too, didn’t they? It’s disgusting,immoral and wicked, PERIOD.

        • Kjetil Kringlebotten

          “Science has falsified the specifics of some of his “first cause” arguments.”

          Like what? Don’t be vague.

      • Graeme

        James, Pius V had six or so so -called heretic bishops executed in the counter reformation which is a fairly strong lesson and possibly a good means of achieving some ecclesiastical movement. Do you agree with this? Also, how can anyone kill the soul when it is immortal?

        • James Stuart

          It might be scandalous for some readers, but I will answer your question plainly: I fairly agree with his decision, and I have to say that nowadays, not six but more than 600 so-called catholic bishops would be far more guilty than were those six, and more deserving death penalty, no only for heresy, but for many other gravest crimes, as, for example, knowingly allowing pedocriminals.

          No one can kill the soul, meaning making her disappear. But you can kill the supernatural life given to her by the Holy Ghost, with the poison of heresy.

          • Graeme

            That would be a sight to see, phew 600 heads floating in the Tiber! The Colosseo would a good place to get rid of all those Unfeeling church bureaucrats and especially those who ignored the poor little victims of the peds. Would you wield the axe James?

    • Ronk

      You missed the vital word “IF” in the quote from Aquinas. He was not endorsing the state’s over-use of the death penalty. He was saying that heresy is a worse crime against a Catholic State than forgery.

      By the way the maximum over-use of the death penalty reached its zenith in Protestant Britain (and its empire) in the 19th century when there were literally hundreds of different crimes punishable by the death penalty.

  • James Finn

    “Off with their heads!”
    (I’ve always wanted to say that)

    [disclaimer: do not take that comment seriously. It is meant to make you laugh and smile]

  • Terry

    Another aspect of this (as I see it): just as in secular cases of
    murder, it is necessary to at least prove intent, so to, I think it
    would have to be shown that a heretic’s action are deliberately intended
    towards the detriment of the Church and the killing of a soul. Of
    course, the Church can make this call, but many heretical groups, at
    least in a fair reading, aren’t founded with the intention of doing
    either of the above (I’m thinking of the more ascetically-mind heresies
    of the Middle Ages, or Arius, who thought he was preserving the Unity of

    Further, it is dangerous to murder
    heretics until it is determined whether their theology is actually
    heretical (and here, I’m think of St. Thomas Aquinas himself, some of
    whose theology was condemned right after his death, and questioned in
    his lifetime; conversely, Origen’s theology was widely adopted and
    utilized by the East, until it was subsequently condemned). I think the
    Church has to give time for some theologies to breath, before we can
    make that call (for example, Liberation Theology, some of which is good,
    and some of which is bad, but time is needed to discern this).

    • Terry

      And yes, I do buy into the modern discourse of “orthodoxy” and “heresy”. This doesn’t, in the end, mean I subscribe to the view that these are relative terms, since I recognize the authority of the Magisterium. Rather, I give a more sympathetic reading to “heretical” authors in light of the discourse on this, especially the further back one goes in Christian theology (for instance, when wading through the post-Nicene discussion between the homoousians, homoiousians, and the homoeans, and the hard and soft versions thereof).

    • James Stuart

      Terry: To have an actual heresy, it is not necessary that the straying person say “I want to harm the Church and/or kill souls. It is sufficient to say: I know that the Church orders to all to embrace such belief as a matter of death or life for souls, but I don’t want to obey, preferring to follow in this my own will. You can fool yourself into believing you are doing good, but still, objectively, you will still harm the Church and endanger souls.

      Inquisition was firstly making completely sure that the crime she was judging was truly heresy, and not some lesser offense. Once done, she was judging if the person who had commited it was really, knowingly of the gravity of the matter, and wilfully committing it, or if there were some attenuations. By the processes remaining, you will be shown that the caution of the judges was extreme, their leniency, proverbial, normally condemning to the gravest poenas only if forced to by the gravity of the offenses, and the inexcusable Common Good of Church and State, gravely endangered by heresy.

      Take on account that a theologian can err in one point or another, even gravely, without being a heretic, because at this time, the Church wasn’t obliging to maintain as de fide a belief. For example, denying the Inmaculate Conception of Our Lady in the XV century, I wouldn’t have been a heretic, but denying it in 1855, after Pius IX definition, certainly I would.

      • Terry

        As I said, I’m sympathetic to heretics, but generally find their thought too simplistic, at least in terms of overly clarifying theology until it stripes it of depth and nuance. That being said, in a third century context, in which religious affiliation had a more public and political connection (with the greater good of the State being tied with right belief), executing heretics as criminals made a sort of sense (lest we forget, Christians were once the heretics in the old Roman order).

        In a modern, pluralistic society, where State and religious duty are separate (and recognizing the dignity of the human person), executing heretics clearly doesn’t fly.

        I’m not sure what your point on the Inquisition is suppose to make, though I do think it naive.

        • James Stuart

          Wayne: Of course that in our present, secular, pluralistic societies and states, we are not going to kill any heretic! If we were attempting so, we would surely commit a great injustice, because of the state of mind of modern world, unable to understand the importance of right belief. For a similar reason, were exempted indians from the authority of Spanish Inquisition, because they were “nuevos en la fe”.

          Even in past times, how many of our realms were forbiding heresy, but not sentencing anyone, or so few? Here in Castille, we haven’t had Inquisition till the end of the XV century…

          This is not the point proposed by the webmaster. The question is, why, at saint Martin’s time, the general opinion was against death penalty for heretics, while the contrary was true at saint Thomas times, with the Church’s authorities having ordered it century after century?

          I think that this is a clear case of homogeneous evolution of catholic teaching and magisterium, in which, without abandoning the mind of earlier Popes and Saints, other aspects of the same reality have been better highlighted, until the complete acceptance of the legitimacy of death penalty for at least the gravest and most public and dangerous cases of heresy.

          • Terry

            Who is Wayne?

            The Spanish Inquisition was, arguably, one of the poorer decisions the Church made, especially in terms of persecuting Jewish converts, and becoming a instrument of human retribution.

            Frankly, I’m with other saints who think that willing conversions are necessary, and holding the death penalty over someone for heresy isn’t conducive to honest conversion of the will.

            The point of the webmaster wasn’t to compare to point two points in time, but two different opinions on the matter. It is dubious to assert the Church’s authorities (and not, say, the State’s) have ordered execution for centuries.

          • James Stuart

            The Spanish Inquisition has been one of the wisest and more necessary decision in history. Originally instituted to repress the wickedness of those jews who were converting falsely, with the deliberate intention to continue following their false religion, and to harm with all their newly-found power the Church and Christian society.

            Yes, the willfulness of a conversion is always necessary. For this very reason, jews were not subjects to Inquisition. If someone was forced to baptize, he was allowed to go back to Synagogue, being this baptism invalid.

            But once you had freely received Holy Baptism, if you were caught judaizing, you were perfectly aware that you couldn’t claim you were innocent.

            Once sentenced, the primary intent is reestablishing justice, and protect the flock. Then, comes the possibility of repentance, and of mercy and commutation of death penalty.

            You have dozens of official Bulls from Popes and Councils ordering temporal authorities to carry their duty in this respect, for more or less a millenium.

          • Laurence Charles Ringo

            “The Spanish Inquisition has been one of the most wisest and more necessary decisions in history”…??? Dude, who ARE you?

    • Laurence Charles Ringo

      Thank you, Terry, for calling it what it is: MURDER.All this peurile, nonsensical drivel put forth as excuses to murder those who disagreed with the dogma and fables of the roman catholic church is sick, twisted, and utterly contrary to Our Saviour’s Spirit and teachings; HE asked for forgiveness for the very people who were murdering HIM, and NEVER told ANYONE to kill in HIS NAME.I don’t presume to speak for anyone but myself, but the pseudo-ecclesiatical murders committed by ANY of the churches, catholic or protestant,can NEVER be justified-EVER.

  • My simple view on this is that St. Martin de Tours sought to stop the physical execution of heretics thus allowing time for public repentance with God remaining the ultimate judge.

    I view St. Thomas Aquinas’ view valid, in that the Church executes or can execute the heretic by public and formal excommunication. Should a person die in that state without public ally repenting and returning to the Church, then you get the whole bound on earth bound in heaven thing.

    Either way, the Church allows for the heretic to repent and should they remain a heretic, it is on them.

    • Laurence Charles Ringo

      Wow.All I can say to that is: “THANK GOD I AM NOT A CATHOLIC!!! I CANNOT, in my WILDEST imagination, dream of having the heart of a murderer like that!!

      • Stephen Sponsler

        Wow, thank you, what part of though shalt not kill can they not understand! Insane.

    • Stephen Sponsler

      Catholicism is to Christianity as ISIS is to Islam..this is awful, Can’t believe these words are coming out of a Christians mouth.

  • Patti Day

    You might get the attention of some of the “small c” Catholics in Washington if this practice were brought back…just saying.

  • vjoe

    1. The original heresy was gnosticism, which taught a person’s salvation depended on right thinking about God, Jesus, the Trinity. That was soundly defeated, for salvation doesn’t depend on that. Jesus never said it did. It depends on a love of God, which–if sincere–flows over to a love of humankind.
    2. Then arose discussions whether Jesus had one nature or two, whether he had one will or two.
    3. Those whose understanding went contrary to the political structure of the Church were deemed heretics. But it never mattered at all. Salvation doesn’t depend on right thinking.
    4. At least 50% of the time-honored magisterium needs to be discarded. For the Paraclete has deepened our understanding of the ways of God and of man. We cannot move forward, as Jesus promised we would in John’s Gospel, if we must maintain the correctness of the wrong teachings.

    • James Stuart

      vjoe: Your understanding of salvation is far from catholic. If we want to be saved, the first thing we must do, is to believe what Our Lord has ordered us to believe, through the authority of Holy Mother Church, who cannot err in her teaching, because the Holy Ghost will never allow her to fall even into the most minute error in matters of faith and morals, as Jesus solemnly promised. We are not saved because of what we think or not think by ourselves and our small and weak intelligence, but because we receive from above a knowledge and wisdom infinitely beyond earthly and natural opinions.

      Gnostics, on the contrary, believe that they have a secret knowledge, different and deeper of that publicly taught by the Church, by which only those “initiated” will be saved.

      Once promulgated, magisterium can never be discarded, because it is the teaching voice of the Holy Ghost, eternal, ageless and timeless, Who teach for all ages and circumstances, even for the crazily prideful “modern” world.

      • Laurence Charles Ringo

        Please…spare us the tired, worn-out catholic groupthink propaganda. The so-called”magisterium ” is NOT in charge of Almighty God, and Our Saviour Himself is THE SAVIOUR, not the adherence to various incoherent rites, rituals, and ceremonies. The Saviour invited us to embrace and be embraced by Him, not the bogus, contrived, man-centered institution known as the roman catholic church. Get a grip, James.

  • Iwonam

    When is killing justified? To protect yourself? To protect Faith? The commandment say: “Thou shall not kill”. Are soldiers killing for a country committing sin? Is it right to create exceptions from God’s law? I would appreciate some light on this.

    • Wayne

      In Hebrew, the commandment is “Lo tirtzac” which is “do not murder.” Otherwise it would make no sense for God to give instructions on how to kill all the Caananites man, woman, child and beast.

      • Iwonam

        Thank you Wayne. Where in the Bible I can find these instructions? I did not read the whole Bible yet, so I can use some help here. I always thought that since we did not create life we do not have right to take it. Again, thank you for helping me understand this. I also would understand if God asked us to kill (not to murder) but it is difficult for me to understand a man making decision to kill (i.e. in wars).

        • Wayne Buse

          There are a large number of Torah references to it but probably the most famous instance is when King Saul fails to execute King Agag of the Amalekiites and his kingdom is stripped from him and given to David. The prophet Samuel then kills Agag himself. But the survival of some of the Amalekites was a disaster as Haman who tried to kill all the Jewish people in the time of Esther was a direct descendant. In Deut. 25, God instructs Israel to erase the memory of Amalek from beneath heaven.

          • Iwonam

            Thank you Wayne. I will look it up.

        • James Stuart

          There are many places, you can beging with Deuteronomy. chapter 13, and keep reading this same book, you will find some examples.

          But you make a really great point, not sufficiently understood nowadays: Only Who has given life, is able to take it. It would appear that this forbids all death penalty, Right?

          This is precisely here that we must understand that God has entrusted to authorities a truly divine power that makes them, if they are truly legitimate, so tremendously honorable. That is the reason why saint Paul says first Fear God, inmediatly, honor the King, and thirdly, love the brotherhood.

          So saint Paul the Apostle says about the Roman Emperor, legitimate authority, albeit still pagan, in Rom. 13,4 : ” for he is a minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil”.

          “Per Me Reges regnant” By my order are Kings ruling, says the divine Wisdom. Legitimate rulers were well aware that their power was coming from God, and that they were going to be strictly accountable of the death sentences they were pronouncing in the Name of God.

          But nowadays, we are absolutely orphans of legitimate rulers, willing to govern under God and His Law, so it is understandable that people feels that they are not anymore allowed to pronounce a death penalty, because they can’t say this is in the Name of the same God they spurn and expulse from every public or private place, and from the hearts of his most beloved children.

    • James Stuart

      The Commandment orders not to kill AN INNOCENT. But if you keep reading your Bible, you can see that God Himself orders death penalty for a certain number of crimes, for example, idolatry, or sodomy. So as a general rule, you are not allowed, as a particular, to kill anyone, except, as legitimate defense, if there is no other solution.

      You might be obliged to kill, by order of a legitimate ruler, at war, even if the poor lad you have in front of you is as innocent as you can be, but this is another story…

      But a rightful, legitimate temporal authority is obliged by the same law of God to punish the offenses against this same law, in the measure and extent it endangers the common good of the society entrusted to it, and the more extended common good of the whole Catholic Church.

      Public, manifest offenses against Faith are always gravely harmful to the common good of both societies, so authorities have the strict duty to intervene,

      Normally, only the gravest, most dangerous, and guiltier faults against faith or natural law will be sentenced to death, firstly, to re-establish the violated proper divine order of things, give back the stolen honor due to God, to punish the malefactor, to protect the rest of society, and to instill a salutary fear in all those who might be tempted to do the same.

      I’m perfectly aware that the modern mind has a very hard time trying to understand those things, but please, be sure that this is the common divine natural and positive law, known, at least essentially, by all peoples and nations until our poor and wretched contemporary era.

      • Iwonam

        So if we kill by the order of legitimate authority then we do not sin because whether the killing is justified or not is on conscience of the authority ordering killing. I think this is what you were saying. Thank you for helping me with this, and sorry if it was a bit off topic.

        • James Stuart

          No problem, Wayne. And yes, you have rightly understood. It is not in the power of subjects to meddle in the secret counsels of the rightful ruler when he has decided that, in good conscience, he was obliged to go at war.

          He bears a terrible responsability, but he must bear it alone. All this, of course, when we were still having legitimate rulers.

          A Mr Obama, or Hollande, or Cameron, demonic tyrants waging an evidently unjust war that endangers all humanity cannot impose any true obligation upon anyone, rather they should be put to death as war criminals, even following present, onusian laws.

          • Iwonam

            In a sense Obama is a heretic because he goes against God’s law so he is responsible for killing the unborn. So sad that he does not understand his true responsibility and he gives in to what is popular not what is right. Thank you James.

  • CGS

    I for one am extremely glad that no one with authority in the Church considers the execution of heretics a good idea (at least I never hear it proclaimed publically). I don’t care how noble the idea of saving souls may be, we humans are just too petty to take on such responsibility. If we can not win the heretics over with the power of our proclaiming and living out the truth, then something is wanting with the messengers. Killing the opposition will not fix this.

    • Wayne Buse

      I agree totally. I’m glad that the Church stands unequivacly for life. In the womb and at all times forward.

    • bboster

      ‘something is wanting in the messengers’ – while true, that is only half the story. those receiving the message bear responsibility also. If some heretics are not won over, it is often because of their own obstinacy. By your standard, Jesus and the apostles are to blame because some did not believe them

  • windjammer

    Kind of hard to argue with the logical conclusion of STA. One is dead a very long time. There’s no revisions, extensions or redo for the soul. Must admit it might (ever so slightly) get folks to clearly focus on their thinking a bit more.

  • Colleen Sheehy

    Since God alone can read Hearts and Minds, and God alone is capable of Perfect Judgement, when we judge, we must needs err on the side of mercy, since we are NOT God.

    It’s a bit late to repent of our sins, even extremely serious ones such as heresy, when we’re dead. So long as there’s life, there’s hope that one can be brought to repentance through God’s Grace and Mercy. No Death Penalty, says I, unless the person presents a clear and present danger and cannot be contained in any other manner. Such cases are extremely rare!

  • OneTimothyThreeFifteen

    If people who kill the body are put to death bodily, then surely those who kill the soul should have only their souls put to death? 🙂

    • James Stuart

      Well, lately, we are pointing to the issue of general death penalty, if it is not too harsh, or not leaving room for repentance and conversion, or be occasion of irreparable judicial errors, when we are going to execute an innocent, etc… This could be another great debate!

  • Trying to understand

    Leaving it up to the Govt. is like the Jews turning Jesus over to Pilot. I do hope we have grown in our Tradition in understanding the dignity of the human person that killing in any form, like hiring the Govt. as the Hit Man, is against God’s Law of Love. Sorry I’m not with Thomas Aquinas on this one.

  • Patrick Gruber

    Dr. Marshall,

    Wouldn’t we have to say that the Church’s teaching authority has authoritatively rebuffed St.Thomas position once and for all, through it’s support for religious freedom in the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council? It would seem that holding St. Thomas position is no longer permissible for Catholics.

    • Patrick,

      I’m not so sure.

      I read Dignitatis humanae from Vatican 2 as pertaining to the post-Christian epoch of Europe. Christian nations, according to previous papal teaching, have the responsibility of passing Christian (Catholic laws). For example, laws against commerce on Sunday, laws against contraception, and laws against blasphemy and they can punish violators rightly.

      Dignitatis humanae speaks to our post-Christian secular age.

      We could see Catholic nations once again and then the Catholic prince or senate could use the sword to enforce religious laws.

      Just my opinion.

      Also, we should remember that heresies almost always led to bloodshed in the history of mankind. Moreover, heresy is a kind of treason against the temporal and supernatural realms.

      • Laurence Charles Ringo

        Yeah…and those who presumed to know”the truth”didn’t hesitate to resort to murder in order to force the imposition of that supposed truth…like the Inquisitors.

  • TommyD

    I am going to throw something on the table.
    I would argue that the time of St Thomas Aquinas was much different than the time of Sts Ambrose and Martin of Tours. By the time of Aquinas Christendom had already seen over half a millennium of Islamic persecution. Frankly there was nothing like Islam in the classical world. The pagan persecutions were never as determined or focused or decentralized as Islamic jihad would become.
    I would argue that by the time of Aquinas a pervasive collection of attitudes had permeated Europe to the effect that survival in the face of the Islamic onslaught required adoption to a certain degree of Islamic methods. Recall that Islam mandates the death penalty for an apostate and that any Muslim is empowered to execute that penalty. Arguably Aquinas’ writings on heresy reflect this attitude.

  • sheila defoor

    Interesting topic. After the typhoon in the Phillipines that has killed so many, I was curious as to why a primarily Catholic population, known for their pro-life stance, was hit by such an awful disaster. I started reading on the internet and ran across a short film on how the majority of Catholics & pro-lifers had been fighting with all their might, money, energy & prayers, a bill to be passed by the govt. that would not only impose terms on the people of having to use birth control, and have abortions,
    but would jail any doctors that wouldn’t perform abortions, distribute birth control, but ordinary citizens as well. Any who spoke out against the law would also be jailed, and there were additional fines as well. Despite the protests of a huge part of the population, and years of battle against this
    new law, the govt won and the bill was passed. If you look at what has happened to the Phillipines
    since,, it isn’t pretty.
    So my point being, if we don’t take care of heretics, not to worry God will. We are not supposed
    to kill, it is a violation of the Commandments, but when evil seems to triumph, God will prevail.
    And though it seems to us an awful thing, what happened in the Phillipines, I cannot help but
    wonder if God was not only punishing the heretics, but saving His anointed from worse fates,
    such as having to make choices that may tempt them to violate their beliefs, or many to be
    imprisoned, and many unborn children of the Lords, to be destroyed by abortion. His ways
    are not our ways……

  • Mark Connolly

    Dear Taylor Marshall,
    In your point 4 above you quote: In his Summa theologiae II-II, q. 11. a. 3, he writes: “Therefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.”

    My comment 1: We no longer, at least in the United States, put to death “forgers of money.”

    My comment 2: The part you quoted was preceded by Thomas noting that there were two points to be observed. You provided most of the first point. However part of II-II, q. 11. a. 3, continues with the second point: “On the part of the Church, however, there is mercy which looks to the conversion of the wanderer, wherefore she condemns not at once, but “after the first and second admonition,” as the Apostle directs: after that, if he is yet stubborn, the Church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby
    from the world by death.” NOTE: “delivers to the secular tribunal”.

    This statement seems more in line with the idea that the Church defends the State’s right to capital punishment, and therefore Thomas’s position, after establishing that it rises to the same level of crime as “forgers of money” and therefore deserving of capital punishment, is simply consistent with the notion of the State’s right to exercise capital punishment. However, leaving off Thomas’s second point makes it look as if he is a little blood-thirsty.

    Also, Thomas is not advocating immediate death; rather, he is calling for Christian Charity even for heretics. Which is consistent with what follows, namely in the Summa, II-II, q. 11. a. 4, “Whether the Church should receive those who return from heresy?” To which he concludes: “I answer that, In obedience to Our Lord’s institution, the Church extends her charity to all, not only to friends, but also to foes who persecute her, according to Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies; do good to them that hate you.” Now it is part of charity that we should both wish and work our neighbor’s good. Again, good is twofold: one is spiritual, namely the health of the soul, which good is chiefly the object of charity, since it is this chiefly that we should wish for one another. Consequently, from this point of view, heretics who return after falling no matter how often, are admitted by the Church to Penance whereby the way of salvation is opened to them.” NOTE: “after falling no matter how often”.

    My comment 3: Clearly, summary execution of all heretics would prevent their Penance, not to mention falling repeatedly. Now, he goes on to say regarding repeat offenses of heresy “when they fall again, after having been received, this seems to prove them to be inconstant in faith, wherefore when they return again, they are admitted to Penance, but are not delivered from the
    pain of death.”

    My final comment: The Church today, while still supporting the State’s right to capital punishment, holds that it is rarely actually necessary. Thomas, being a realist, would recognize this fact, as should we all.
    Frater Bovious

    • James Stuart

      Esteemed Mark Connoly: Among the “forgers of money”, we must include all those bankers, producers of fiat money out of thin air, guilty of the monstrous usury debt upon which is based the whole world financial-economical system nowadays. They deserve the death penalty far more than those petty money forgers of st Thomas times.

      But conscious, heresy preachers (not simply errands or deceived poor christians) are even more gravely guilty, so they justly deserve death, at Moses times, at S. Thomas times, or even in ours.

      This said, I agree on all you say about exercizing patience with them, and reserving death penalty as a last recourse, when the gravity of the crime, and the stubborness of the person doesn’t leave room for anything else without wounding justice and leaving unprotected the Church and State, and the eternal life of every Christian.

  • Graeme

    What did Tom Aquin not understand about the Lord’s primary command to love one’s enemies????very surprising for a Doctor of the Church.

    • James Stuart

      Say better: What don’t YOU have understood about true exigencies of real charity, not the fakery we are so habituated to hear preached nowadays?

  • geekborj

    Great answers here. We have to put into context our judgement of the Angelic Doctor of the Church.
    1. St. Thomas only uses his contemporary established science and philosophy in order to put forward his points. That would include the rational that those convicted of heinous crimes be punished by death.
    2. Our understanding of divine Justice and Mercy is still developing. Thus, we cannot judge the Doctor in his many theological position.

    We have to remember that the Church espouses not St. Thomas’ positions but only his **methodology** of reaching Truth. In particular, I like how he has connected natural science and theology especially outlined in Fide et Ratio and related Church documents.

    ‘Killing’ a soul would be an action heretics are to be guilty of. However, we must take into consideration that most heretics are actually just too passionate about knowing the Truth except that they often lack Obedience and Respect to the authority instituted by God through Christ our Lord — The Church Magisterium.

    We cannot judge effectively the Heretics but to the worst that the Church declares the they be Spiritually Dead as well (sounds like: eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth?). Exactly, this spiritual death is the separation of the heretic (or any person) from the Sacraments (Life itself!), excommunication. Excommunication is a (spiritual) death sentence! The good thing is that the same Church provides ordinary avenues to come back to Life: Fountain of Life = Mercy Seat = Sacrament of Reconciliation (I think heresy and formal apostasy is reserved to the Pope or the local bishop with the Pope’s authorization).

    In summary, I’m neither with St. Martin nor with St. Thomas. While both saints have many points and theological teachings regarding mercy and justice, in the end I’LL GO WITH THE CHURCH’s DECISION.

    • James Stuart

      The Church has already decided this matter, in doctrine as well as in practice. The answer she pronounces is clear: Being the crime of heresy (that is, not only believing internally an error against faith, knowing that it is contrary to what Holy Mother Church obliges us to believe, but manifesting it externally, usually with the intention to tempt others into falling in the same trap) one of the worst a human being can commit, it must be punished with a proportionate poena, firstly, because of the direct offense against God, and secondly, because they are consciously endangering the eternal salvation of many souls, and the common good of Church and State. Each one of those reasons would be sufficient for a death penalty, but the three combined are definitive.

      This is the theory, not just of sant Thomas, but of the Church herself, mandatory for all catholics.

      But when we come to practical decisions, the same Church demands, with the same energy, a great moderation, so to achieve that only the truely guilty and genuinely dangerous would suffer this fate, and normally, after having tried to help them, clarify the doubts they may have, and searching for every attenuants they could present.

      This, in times when we were having true pastors of the Church, and true christian sovereigns. Now that they don’t exist anymore, this is not possible, nor would be rightly understood.

      It is very difficult to say wether a modern mind, raised since birth in a liberal ideology, can really understand the gravity of heresy. So who can know how much responsability they have. In those conditions, a death penalty, even if possible, is absolutely excluded, not due to an intrinsecal unfairness, but due to the special conditions of contemporary men.

      • nannon31

        Read Luke 9 where Christ rebukes the apostles (and implicitly you internet Torquemadas) who wished to burn the heretical Samaritans with lightning. The OT killed false prophets rightly for the same reason they killed adulterers….man was weak without sanctifying grace and satan was stronger than he was after Christ who said…” He said to them, “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning” Lk10:18. Now that satan is weakened, heresy is not as seductive as it was during Deuteronomy. Billions resist the Jehovah Witnesses and Salafi Islam. So Aquinas was odd in comparing heresy to murder. You have to cooperate to become a heretic.

  • akaldas

    St. Thomas said IF forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to
    death by the Secular Authority, much More Reason is there for heretics.
    Much more reason doesn’t mean reason enough.

    Luke 9:52-56 And he sent messengers before his face: and going, they entered into a city of the Samaritans, to prepare for him. And they received him not, because his face was of one going to Jerusalem. And when his disciples, James and John, had seen this, they said: Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?

    And turning, He rebuked them, saying: “You know not of what spirit you are.The Son of man came not to destroy souls, but to save.” And they went into another town.

    Has it or could it have been absolutely determined by us that this heretics life cannot be saved?
    I answer NO.

    What word from God have we been given?

    Did Christ who died for every heretic commission us to preach unto them? Yes. How can we say we are given to kill them?

    Should not our Lord’s words ring out from our hearts

    “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” John 8:7

    “And not (as we are wrongly accused, and as some report us to say), Let us do bad things so that good things may come, the judgment of whom is just. ” Rom 3:8

    Moreover it has not been absolutely determined that in the set of all possibilities, only where this person dies are the other lives saved. For example, let us ask ourselves, as per the principle of double effect [ see St. Thomas Aquinas Article 7. Whether it is lawful to kill a man in self-defense?] how could we ever will the death of a man?

    We must fight for the life of all as much as is possible and if the only possible way to preserve the other people as far as we can see it seems so dire as to require this conversation. Let us remember always that “.. with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:26. Moreover as we read in article 7 “moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention”

    I am not sure if they were set up for life in prison sentences back then but in any event should we not only strive to do the good given us to do and hope in Christ against the bad?

    I agree with Saint Martin, Saint Ambrose of Milan, and Pope Siricius.

    May we know of what spirit we are.

    p.s. Though my condemnation may have been just, though I may be worthy of death,
    thanks be to God His Mercy justifies!!!
    May we open and have within us His spirit of mercy!!!

    As they commonly say sometimes we hope against hope and through faith comes His victory indeed.

    • nannon31

      Agreed on heretics not on murderers.
      What do you think of Romans 13:4 which is inspired by the Holy Spirit and uses
      “machaira” for sword…the same “machaira” used by Herod to execute James in Acts 12:2. See also Gen.9:6 where God gives Gentiles also ( Ham and Japheth) a religious reason for the death penalty for murderers ( not for heretics).

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  • dom Jason

    Just fuel for the fire, Leo X states in Exsurge Domine that it is an error to hold “That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit”.

    • nannon31

      But you now would let Lutherans transplant your heart and fix your brakes. Exsurge Domine, non infallible, is refuted in Splendor Veritatis section 80 which calls “coercion of spirit” an intrinsic evil.
      Exsurge Domine excommunicated latae sententiae any Catholic who agreed with Luther on this…..which would mean virtually the entire Catholic clergy and body now.

      • James Stuart

        I’m answering with this to many messages.

        1. Exsurge Domine is as infallible as every other true Papal teaching, so you can’t say it is wrong. The same cannot be said about post-conciliar teaching, as is well known when so many are dealing with homogeneity or not between pre and post conciliar teachings.

        But what I want to say here, is that we are not in saint Martin’s times, when it was still a disputed question wether it was legitimate to punish real heretics with death penalty. Since then, the Church, through her higher authorities, has decided the matter positively, in theory as well as in practice. Saint Thomas is just explaining what was already and still is now the mandatory teaching of the Church, not just his personal and particular opinion.

        A catholic is bound to believe that the Church cannot teach an error in faith or morals. The Church cannot make general laws that contain error in faith or lead to sin.

        So if the infallible Church of Our Lord has taught authoritatively, and has ordered by her laws, that it is lawful and virtuous to punish real heretics even with death penalty, and has ordered christian Kings to do their duty enforcing practically her laws on the matter, it is no longer permitted that catholic pretend this is wrong, and even sinful and unjust. You can discuss about practical matters of opportunity, but not the fact itself.

        If a catholic contradicts the church this way, he is showing that he doesn’t believe in the Church infallible, so he might be a heretic himself.

        This is precisely what happens nowadays. How many purported catholics, or even bishops and higher prelates, pretend to be catholics, while they show by words, deeds and omissions, that they aren’t in the least!

        • nannon31

          I stopped at your first odd sentence period. Consult with your pastor on the non infallibility of the ordinary papal magisterium. Infallibility is more rare than ubiquitous. Exsurge Domine tells you it is non infallible when it references not the world’s Bishops in unity on the topic but….good grief…Cardinals. Lol…14 year old nephews were made Cardinals in the 16th century. In any event consulting professors and Cardinals doesn’t cut it for infallibility….and that’s ED’s cache…and it tells you so.

  • nannon31

    St. Thomas uses a non parallel comparison. The heretic only kills a soul with the victim’s cooperation whereas the murderer kills his victim against resistance. God commanded the Jews (not us) to kill false teachers in Deut.13:5 but that was prior to Christ reducing the devil’s power. God commanded death for adultery by the Jews also and Christians don’t do that and for the same reason: Satan’s power is reduced by Christ ergo great violence is not needed in the sin area but only in the crime area wherein Romans 13:4 implies execution for physical murderers…as did Genesis 9:6 for the gentiles aside from Jewish death penalties for sin. Splendor Veritatis in section 80 denounces “coercion of spirit”. Christ rebukes the disciples in Luke 9 because they want to call down lightning on an heretical Samaritan town which refused Christ hospitality because Christ was headed to Jerusalem and not Mt. Gerizim. Pope Innocent IV missed this detail when he bound secular rulers to burn heretics under pain of excommunication in 1253 AD ( see Inquisition/ J. Blotzer/ newadvent encyclopedia). Generally excluding Jerome et al, saints of the first millenium were against killing heretics and thus were aligned with Christ in Luke 9. And I say all this as one who dissents from the new capital punishment view of the catechism which never researched arrest rates for murder (62% in the US but 6% in Catholic Guatemala). Life sentences do not protect society from uncaught murderers who are the majority in many Catholic countries of latin America. bill bannon

  • English Catholic

    Interesting question (though not one I’ve ever discussed with my Protestant family!).

    It seems to me that the Church has always claimed a right over the lives of her members — just look at Acts 5! But people who were never Catholic are a different matter.

    • nannon31

      The deaths of Ananias and Saphhira were miraculous accompanied by Peter’s words.
      No burning or weapon wielding was used by anyone in the Church hierarchy. Ergo if it is a template for anything, it would be for being open to miraculous punishing deaths by God. I know of none since Acts 5 within a Church context. God has an angel kill Herod in Acts 12 but that is outside a church context.

      • English Catholic

        Could it not be said that St Peter killed them, but by miraculous means?

        • nannon31

          My long reply went into moderation…cest’ la vie.

        • nannon31

          But note Titus 3:10
          “After a first and second warning, break off contact with a heretic.” Nothing about killing him and if added to Luke 9 where Christ rebukes the apostles for wanting to bring lightning on the heretical Samaritans, both passages are prelude to section 80 of Splendor Veritatis which forbids “coercion of spirit”.

          • Laurence Charles Ringo

            Watch out,Bill B.!! You’ll get in trouble quoting the Scriptures with James Stuart; the Word of God disagrees with the”gods”he actually worships, I.e., the many advocates of ecclesiastical murder he’s quoted on this site!

        • Laurence Charles Ringo


  • donashby

    Oh man, do I gotta go there?
    Don’t we already have a checkered past on this subject?
    The Spanish Inquisition comes to mind, though I think that was the brain child of the prevailing monarch of Spain at the time, still the Catholic Church hasn’t brushed that aside yet. And now with Islamist Extremist obviously taking that stance, the higher ground for us to stand, is NO on the death penalty.
    And, rationally, isn’t there a chance of conversion for all evil doers, if only they live long enough to learn the errors, in their ways.

  • AugustineThomas

    You really need to edit the part out where it says “converted Christ”.. That hurts to even look at.

  • douglas kraeger

    I have been told that St. Thomas Aquinas got it wrong on the Assumption of Mary. The Church’s position is that everything anyone writes (even canonized saints) must be held as less authoritative than Church teaching (St. Thomas Aquinas would certainly agree) Since killing a body can be done without the compliance of the victim and killing the soul cannot (the hearer of serious error must will to accept the error or at least not to question it and in not questioning it they violate many scriptural passages, 1thessalonians 5:19-22) and therefore the hearer of error impunes some culpability. They are responsible for their souls and they can not simply say “I trusted him”. Also, there is the idea that once you kill the heretic there is no possibility that someone could convince them of their error and bring them back to the Church. and since “with God, everything is possible” I, Therefore do not believe the death penalty is proper, especially when the publication that someone’s views are heretical should protect those people who are testing everything.

    • nannon31

      It was the Immaculate Conception that both he and Augustine got wrong. They believed Mary contracted original sin but was cleansed of it prior to birth. The Church defined 600 years later than Aquinas that Mary never even contracted it. Thus Aquinas and Augustine were not formally heretical since it had not been settled by the Church during their lives. Augustine was for years though a manichaean heretic prior to converting. Fortunately no one at his time killed him for heresy.

  • BigBlueWave

    Heresy kills the soul but only if it’s accepted by the person listening. Whereas murder is imposed. I think that’s an important distinction to make. You can’t make a heretic against their will. And ultimately people’s salvation is up to them. If we criminalize heresy, we’d have to criminal every form of mortal sin susceptible of killing souls. Do you want the death penalty for porn? Masturbation? Big lies (I did not have sexual relations with that woman!) So I think Aquinas is wrong.

  • Allan Daniel

    The Catholic Church has approved the death penalty since the beginning with few dissenting voices. A good case has been made that to not use the death penalty is an injustice in extreme cases of violence. The question is not whether it is acceptable, but when should it be administered. For heretics today? Probably not as there would needs be a world-wide massacre.

  • Justas399 .

    Where did Jesus or the apostles teach that heretics should be put to death?

  • lroy77

    I’ll have to side with Saint Martin on this one. As long as the person is alive, there was always a chance of a change of heart for heretics. Once you’re dead, there is no hope for a heretic to see the error of his ways. Sorry, St Thomas.

  • r622

    Does Thomas’ #7 (Heretical teachers kill the soul.) deserve a IT DOES NOT COMPUTE?

    To maintain such implies that right thinking about God is what saves us. That is gnosticism, the first heresy defeated. From #7 shall we conclude Thomas was a secret gnostic?

    • Janne

      The Catholic Church believes grave sin kills the spirit. That’s why we call mortal sin mortal. Mortal as like the phrase morality wounded. The death blow. In the sacrament of confession we are resurrected. Google it.

      • Janne

        I meant to write mortality not morality.

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  • yan

    Great stuff as usual, Dr. M. I think it is very interesting that St Thomas is certain, according to you [and I have no reason to doubt you] that executing heretics is Catholic teaching, whereas, soon-to-be-St. John Paul II taught in his encyclical Evanglium Vitae that capital punishment is only to be resorted to in modern-day civilized society when there is no other way to keep violent criminals from hurting other people.

    We need a theological synthesis that can explain why both these saints are correct [as i would prefer]; or at a minimum, why the Pope is more right than St Thomas in this instance. I assume that the Pope must be more right, since he exercises magesterial authority on some level, while St. Thomas does not per se do so.

  • Shilo Beardmyer

    I’ve never commented on a blog before, but I thought I should weigh in.

    Let me start by saying I am a strong, orthodox Catholic trying to live out the faith to the best of my ability. I believe in the Magesterium and hold dear all the teachings of the church.

    I am having a hard time believing what you’ve said about Thomas Aquinas is true. How can someone be so adamantly and blatantly opposed to the teachings of the Church on the death penalty??

    To me, St. Thomas loses all credibility in all of his teachings by advocating killing people, and I dont’ want to associate with anyone who listens or has anything to do with St. Thomas if they subscribe to this heresy. I’m glad to official teaching of the Church is not to kill people who cannot otherwise be locked up for life. I still am in shock that St. Thomas was so violent and heretical. Shocked!

    Please someone explain because I’d really like to know….

    • nannon31

      You’re shocked because you are not reading scripture enough on your own and outside the current Catholic zeitgeist ( over a hundred Popes implicitly affirmed the death penalty throughout history). Read Genesis 9:6. It’s God saying murderers should be executed…not heretics. But later God gives the Jews over thirty death penalties in Leviticus and Deuteronomy…including for false teachers because mankind prior to Christ’s arrival was very weakened by sin and the devil was more powerful than after Christ. After Christ the judicial laws of the Old Testament ( not Gen.9:6) are void.

    • Laurence Charles Ringo

      Brsvo, Dave!! You SHOULD be shocked; I’m not catholic but I myself was an admirer of Aquinas until I found out that he advocated the murder of those deemed heretical, I.e.those foolish enough to disagree with the bogus, contrived, man-centered institution known as the roman catholic church.Sad to say, Dave, you can’t explain the unexplainable…

  • Imitation Augustine

    Thomas view is not something we should promote. It is something we should hang our heads in shame over.

    The belief held by Thomas and many others about delivering over heretics to the state for execution is an premier example of moral blindness of the Church. Though the Church is infallible in faith and morals, this doesn’t mean she is infallible in disciplinary actions nor does this always mean she is aware of the immorality of a particular action in a historical moment in time.

    This rationalisitic teaching has a basis at the hands of Augustine who tried to make a very weak argument about why Constantine was correct in executing the donatists. Unfortunately, even great lights can error grievously and are not infallible which applies both to Augustine and Aquinas.

    This teaching has never received either formal or implicit approval at the doctrinal level of the Vatican, and has been, more or less, the fanciful artful construction of certain saintly theologians trying to stretch out an argument about why one can violate the sixth commandment: “Thy Shall not Kill” (Exodus 20:16)

    It has no real strong basis of argumentation from scripture in the new testament which sanctions this type of behaviour. In a public address, John Paul II apologized to the world for the various sins of the Church throughout history including allowing Catholic princes to participate in slavery, turning a blind eye to sanctioning torturers for various crimes administered by the civil magistrate (yes there used to be sanctioned public torturers), and this type of execution for heresy.

    Though a primary difference exists between the individual and a states duties, both are subject to the eternal laws of God. A state has the power to enact unjust laws in contradiction to the natural law, which would render its law unjust. Even in the idealic Catholic state, the execution of someone’s life for heresy, could never be morally justifiable in light of the recent majesterium.

    The recent majesterium has narrowed the limits and conditions of when execution at the hands of the state can be enacted. Basically, it is only when the state can’t restrain a wicked criminal when force is to be used to terminate his life. To disagree with this will put you against the ordinary majesterial teachings of the Holy Father and constitutes rebellion. Here are the current majesterial teachings:

    Evangelicum Vitae #56:

    It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and
    extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

    In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the
    Catholic Church remains valid: ‘If bloodless means are sufficient to
    defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.'”

    In effect, the current ordinary majesterium has limited the conditions where the death penalty can be imposed which is only in cases of absolute necessity for self defense for the state.

    • Laurence Charles Ringo

      Couldn’t have said it better myself, Imitation Augustine! (Cool handle by the way. I myself am Athanasius2; LOVE that guy!!).

  • Kjetil Kringlebotten

    What does sincerity has to do with anything? Can I ‘sincerily’ steal a car and demand not to be arrested?

  • elena

    Jesus was a heretic by definition, denying his own religion, and the Roman gods. Crucifixion was common for heretics.

  • So you believe that the targeted killing of children and babies is, sometimes, under some circumstances, justifiable??

    Even in war, the targeted killing of children is considered a war crime. Killing children as “collateral damage” in the act of war is not a war crime, but deliberately targeting children for killing; hunting them down; looking for their hiding places and then running them down as they scream in terror as they see you raise your sword or knife, IS a war crime.

    Your god would be arrested, tried, and convicted of the most heinous war crimes if he were put on trial today. He is a monster. How can you teach your children this barbaric nonsense? How can you call yourself a “moral” person and believe this?

    There is NEVER any justifiable reason to target children for killing. Never.

  • John

    We all know its antiChrist. We are sure of it. All of us have NO doubt. But it is wickedness and pathological Bias that causes people to defend or excuse it.

    If we are to love our enemies, if love is how we show ourselves to be disciples, then obviously lighting a human being on FREAKING FIRE is antiChrist.

    Condemn wickedness, speak up and be a man, not a pathetic weasel. The Pharisees did the same exact thing to Christ, they handed him over to be murdered….this isnt killing…its Murder. Is God so weak He cannot safeguard those who are His? Or do we need to count our armies like David. Even Gamaliel, the jew, advised the Sanhedren to release the apostles because not only is killing those who disagree with you evil but you might just end up picking a fight with God. Mercy is what God has given us, so we in turn murder those who may be guilty?

    You put them out of the church and then, as Paul says, we have no right to judge them. Protestants and Catholics alike have allowed Satan to be their master on this question. But modern man excusing it is a sure sign of a corrupted worldly soul.

    All of this shows unequivocally that the so called infallible church was spending much of its time fighting Christ rather than reflecting His will. When the RCC and the despicable acts of Luther, Calvin and others are honestly, through the Spirit, faced and denounced as Power trips by people who only thought –as many leaders do that they have a mandate on the truth– Christianity can move foward and back to the simplicity of the Gospel and not the hypocrisy and selfishness of the Pharisees.

  • John

    I re-read my post and just wanted to make it clear the weasel comment is not directed at the author of the excellent article but to those of us who allow bias to overrule what we know in our hearts is wrong