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Death Penalty: An Historical and Theological Survey

NCJ Number
J J Megivern
Date Published
654 pages
This book traces the history of views on punishment by death in western civilization as expressed by Christian thinkers across 2,000 years.
Central to this story is the Christian church's long struggle against heresy. From its earliest decades, the Christian church believed that only death could rid the world of heresy, as determined by those who wielded theological power in the church hierarchy. The historical theme that emerges is the struggle within the church between two opposed value systems: belief in the right of the state to kill as punishment and the necessity of exercising that right, versus belief in the sanctity of human life and the equal dignity of all persons. There were early but solitary voices raised against the church's endorsement of the death penalty; these voices were drowned out by centuries of clerical manuals that argued for death, as epitomized in St. Thomas of Acquinas' metaphor of the criminal -- whether heretic, witch, traitor, or murderer -- as a "diseased member" necessarily amputated if the otherwise healthy body politic is to survive. There were also the insurmountable difficulties the church faced in accommodating the Enlightenment protest against the death penalty without embracing Enlightenment principles hostile to the church itself. Approximately half of the book is devoted to the last two centuries, in which the attitude toward the death penalty changed among contemporary leaders of the American Catholic Church. Although a majority of American Catholics and American Christians generally give nominal support for the current death penalty, American Catholic clergy are increasingly united in outspoken and unequivocal condemnation of capital punishment. The author places this transformation among the clergy in the context of objective events in American legal, constitutional, and political practice as they affect the death penalty in America. Chapter notes, a 585-item bibliography, and author and subject indexes