Document: Letter 25
Date: c. 388
Addressee: Studius (Iranaeus)
English Translation: FC 26.492-494
Summary of Contents: On Christian use of capital punishment

I know well the love in your pure soul, your zeal for the faith, and the fear of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yet I fear to send you an answer on this matter, being restricted on the one hand by what is enjoined on you as a guardian of the law, and on the other by mercy and grace, unless you follow the Apostle’s authority on this matter: “For not without reason does he carry a sword, who gives judgment,” for he is the avenger of God against those who do evil.

Although you understand this, you have determined to make diligent inquiry. There are some persons outside the Church, however who do not admit to communion in the divine sacraments those who believe in capital punishment. Some stay away on their own accord. They are praised and cannot be admonished in so far as we observe the authority of the Apostle and do not refuse them Communion.

You see, then, what authority permits and what mercy encourages. You will have no excuse, if you have taken action, and praise, if you have not done so. But, if you have been prevented from acting, I nevertheless approve of your not letting the guilty languish in prison, but, more in the manner of a priest, absolving them. For it can happen that, when a case has been studied, a prisoner will be sentenced who later wins pardon, or at least lives without great hardships, as they say, in prison. Yet, I have heard some heathens say that they returned from governing their province with ax unstained by blood. If heathens say this, what should Christians do?

In answer to all their questions hear the response of the Savior. When the Jews had found an adulteress they brought her to the Savior, seeking to entrap Him, so that if He freed her He might appear to destroy the Law, He who had said: “I have not come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it.” And if He would condemn her He would seem to have come against the purpose of His plan. The Lord Jesus, foreseeing this, bent His head and wrote on the ground. What did He write except the prophetic saying: “Earth, earth, write that these men have been disowned,” that which is written in the Prophet Jeremiah concerning Jechonias?

When the Jews demand payment, the names of the Jews are written on the ground; when Christians come forward, the names of the faithful are written, not on the ground, but in heaven. Those who have been disowned by their Father are written on the ground, for they tempt their Father and flood the Author of salvation with insults. When the Jews demand payment Jesus bows His head. And because He has nowhere to lay His head, He raises it again as if to pronounce sentence and says: “Let him who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her!” And again He inclined His head and wrote on the ground.

Those who were listening to Him began to go away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, either because they who had lived longer had more sins, or because, being older and supposedly wiser, they knew the righteousness of His sentence. They even began to weep more for their sins, since they had been the accusers of another’s sin.

When they went away, Jesus remained alone and, raising His head to the woman, He said: “Where are they who accused you? Has no one stoned you?” And she said: “No one.” Jesus said to her: “Neither will I condemn you. Go and see that from now on you sin no more.” He does not condemn, as if purchasing her back; He as life restores her; like a fountain He washes her clean. And because when Jesus inclines His head He does so that He may raise up those who have fallen, He, the redemption of sins, says: “Neither will I condemn you.”

You have this model to follow. It is possible for the guilty one to have hope of correction; if he is unbaptized, that he can receive forgiveness; if he has been baptized, that he can do penance and offer his body to Christ. How numerous are the paths of salvation!

Thus, our predecessors preferred to be rather indulgent toward judges, so that, while their sword was feared, the madness of crime was checked and not aroused. But, if Communion is refused, the punishment of the guilty seems avenged. Our elders preferred that there be more tempering of the will than need of the law.

Farewell, and love us, for we also love you.

Translation from FC 26.492-494, adapted by SMT

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Last updated: 5-6-2011

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