De Laicis — Saint Robert Bellarmine’s Treatise on Civil Government

Chapter 13

Fourth proposition: It is lawful for a Christian magistrate to punish with death disturbers of the public peace. It is proved, first, from the Scriptures, for in the law of nature, of Moses, and of the Gospels, we have precepts and examples of this. For God says, “Whosoever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed.” 159 These words cannot utter a prophecy, since a prophecy of this sort would often be false, but a decree and a precept. Hence in the Chaldaic paraphrase it is rendered, “Whosoever sheds blood before witnesses, his blood shall be shed by sentence of the judge.” And Judas says, “Bring her out that she may be burnt.” 160 Here the patriarch Judas, as head of a family, condemned an adulteress to death by fire.

In the law of Moses there are many precepts and examples. “He that striketh a man with a will to kill him, shall be put to death.” 161 And Moses himself, Josue, Samuel, David, Elias, and many other very holy men put many to death. And as for “All that take the sword shall perish with the sword,” 162 these words cannot be rightly understood except in this sense: Every one who commits an unjust murder ought in turn to be condemned to death by the magistrate. For Our Lord rebuked Peter not because a just defense is unlawful, but because he wished not so much to defend himself or Our Lord, as to avenge the injury done to Our Lord, although he himself had no official authority, as St. Augustine correctly explains, 163 and St. Cyril also. 164 Besides, “If thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister.” 165 St. Paul says that the sword is given by God to rulers to punish evildoers, therefore, if like men are found in the Church, why may they not be put to death?

Secondly, it is proved from the testimony of the Fathers. Innocent I., being asked whether it was lawful for a magistrate who had been baptized, to punish by death, answered that it was entirely lawful. 166 St. Hilary says that it is certainly lawful to kill in two cases, if a man is fulfilling the duty of a judge, or if he is using a weapon in his own defense. 167 St. Jerome says, “To punish murderers, and sacrilegious men, and poisoners is not a shedding of blood, but the administration of law.” 168 St. Augustine, “Those who, endowed with the character of public authority, punish criminals by death, do not violate that commandment which says, Thou shalt not kill.” 169

Lastly, it is proved from reason; for it is the duty of a good ruler, to whom has been entrusted the care of the common good, to prevent those members which exist for the sake of the whole from injuring it, and therefore if he cannot preserve all the members in unity, he ought rather to cut off one than to allow the common good to be destroyed; just as the farmer cuts off branches and twigs which are injuring the vine or the tree, and a doctor amputates limbs which might injure the whole body.

To the argument of the Anabaptists from “An eye for an eye, etc.,” 170 there are two solutions. One, that the Old Law, since it was given to imperfect men, allowed the seeking for revenge, and only forbade that the retaliation be greater than the injury; not that it is lawful to seek revenge, but because it is less evil to seek it in moderation than inordinately; besides, Christ, Who instructed more perfect men, recalled this permission. Thus says St. Augustine, 171 and St. Chrysostom and St. Hilary are of the same opinion regarding this passage; but since retaliation is prohibited, “Seek not revenge,” 172 and, we read, “He that seeketh to revenge himself, shall find vengeance from the Lord,” 173 we shall, indeed, reply correctly with St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure and some others, in their commentary on the third Sentence of Peter Lombard, 174 when Our Lord says: “You have heard that it hath been said of old, an eye for an eye, etc.,” He does not condemn that law, nor forbid a magistrate to inflict the poena talionis, but He condemns the perverse interpretation of the Pharisees, and forbids in private citizens the desire for and the seeking of vengeance. For God promulgates the holy law that the magistrate may punish the wicked by the poena talionis; 175 whence the Pharisees infer that it is lawful for private citizens to seek vengeance; just as from the fact that the law said, “Thou shalt love thy friend,” they infer that it is lawful to hate enemies; but Christ teaches that these are misinterpretations of the law, and that we should love even our enemies and not resist evil, but rather that we should be prepared, if necessary, to turn the other cheek to him who strikes one cheek. And that Our Lord was speaking to private citizens is clear from what follows. For Our Lord speaks thus: “But I say to you not to resist evil, but if one strike thee on thy right cheek, etc.”

But it should be observed that when He says, “not to resist evil,” just defense is not prohibited, but retaliation; for Christ commands not to strike him who strikes you, as Theophylactus rightly teaches. But he is said to strike who strikes to injure, not he who strikes to protect himself; and, briefly, revenge, not defense, is forbidden, according to “Revenge not yourselves, my dearly beloved,” 176 that is, not avenging yourselves. For thus it is in the Greek .., whence it goes on to say: “But set aside wrath, for it is written: Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” But neither is revenge forbidden absolutely, if, indeed, it is sought from a lawful judge and for a good end, either because there is hope that the malefactor will be reformed by this punishment, or because his malice can be kept in check and restrained in no other way, and he will continue to do evil if he is allowed to go unpunished; therefore, what is forbidden is only that revenge which private citizens wish to take on their own account, and which they seek from a judge through the desire of harming an enemy, and of satisfying their own ill-will and hatred.

159 Gen. IX., 6.

160 Gen. XXXVIII., 24.

161 Exod. XXI., 12.

162 Matt. XXVI., 52.

163 Treatise 112 on St. John.

164 Bk. II. on St. John, ch. 35.

165 Rom. XIII., 4.

166 Epis. 3, to Exuperius, ch. 3.

167 Canon 32 on Matt. XXVI.

168 Commentary on Jeremias, ch. 22.

169 City of God, Bk. I., ch. 21.

170 Matt. V., 38.

171 Bk. I. on Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, ch. 35, and Against Adimantus, ch. 8.

172 Levit. XIX.

173 Ecclus. XXVIII., 1.

174 Distinct. 30.

175 Exod. XXI., and Levit. XXIV.

176 Rom. XXII., 19.