The most crushing objection I’ve ever seen against the use of the death penalty is given by St. Thomas Aquinas as the first objection in ST II-II Q64 a2. Let’s marvel at the objection for a bit and then look at how Aquinas responds.
In the Summa Theologiae, very often the first objection of an article is the conclusion of a previous article. You might think of these as consistency objections, or an introduction to further refining a point. “But wait a minute, you just said…” in the most annoying student voice you can muster.
On the other hand there are many objections which are just very intuitively powerful or insightful. Reading the really great objections, being rocked on your heels, finally seeing the problem, really seeing it for the first time–these are perhaps the greatest the pleasures of reading St. Thomas.
The first objection against the use of death as a penalty is one of these, but with a bit of a twist: it’s a quotation from Sacred Scripture. Why is that weird? Well, very often I find his Scriptural objections fairly week or formulaic, or at least a bit of an interpretive strain to see how it really works as an objection. There are exceptions of course, but I usually steer my students away from these so they can focus more on the main argument.
Well this is definitely one of the exceptions. I’m not sure Aquinas ever gives a Scriptural citation with as much power as this one. For those who know the reference, you probably don’t even need to see the text or have it explained to realize the problem for someone inclined to argue in support of the death penalty. It is the famous parable of the wheat and the tares from the thirteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.
The text, si placeat: Continue reading Aquinas Against the Death Penalty