"The Church Does Not Kill" - Testimonies About the Death Penalty 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, if there is no other way to stop them, but the Church has always tried to show mercy. This is particularly true with regard to heretics, who the Church would rather see repent than perish. 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)

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)

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)

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)

~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.)


Is there any documentation showing that the Chruch tried to convince governments not to execute heretics?

“we strongly beseech the secular court to mitigate its sentence in such a way as to avoid bloodshed or danger of death…” You couldn’t hand over a heretic to the court without beseeching them not to execute them.

There is a clear distinction between saying no one should be burned for being a heretic and asking nicely to the authority doling out the heretic’s punishment to consider not killing the heretic.

What does one do when a member of the Church decides whether to hand off a person to an authority who has previously burned someone with heretical views? Does that member still hand the heretic off and beseech once again, knowing that heretic could also be killed? I would say in such a case the beseeching carries no weight and the person handing the heretic off has quite possibly led that person to his or her death.

We know that the Church in its past has been fine with the execution of heretics (a position it thankfully does not hold today),. From this we know the Church believed heretics should be punished if they don’t recant that position. The request to possibly go light on a heretic doesn’t negate the Church’s previous stances both allowing for the burning of heretics as well as being a party to such results.

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