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CHAPTER CXLVIIThat it is Lawful for judges to inflict Punishments

MEN who on earth are set over others are ministers of divine providence. But it is the order of providence that the wicked be punished.

4. Good stands in no need of evil, but the other way about (Chap. XI). Whatever then is of necessity for the preservation of good, cannot be of itself evil.829829St Thomas speaks of a general and ordinary necessity, e.g., of food for the individual, of the union of the sexes for the race, not of an accidental necessity, or particular emergency. To extend the aphorism to the latter case would make it into an assertion of the end justifying the means, a doctrine read into the utterances of Catholic authors by persons who in malice or ignorance misconstrue passages like the present. But for the preservation of concord among men it is necessary for penalties to be inflicted on the wicked.

5. The common good is better than the good of the individual. There fore some particular good must be withdrawn for the preservation of the common good. But the life of certain pestilent fellows is a hindrance to the common good, that is, to the concord of human society. Such persons therefore are to be withdrawn by death from the society of men.830830   Writing later, St Thomas saw the need of qualifying this argument, which, taken absolutely, would make short shrift of lunatics and troublesome invalids generally, and would consecrate the principle of lynch-law. He puts in therefore these two qualifications
   (1) “Man by sinning withdraws from the order of reason, and thereby falls from human dignity, so far as that consists in man being naturally free and existent for his own sake; and falls in a manner into the state of servitude proper to beasts. . . . And therefore, though to kill a man, while he abides in his native dignity, be a thing of itself evil, yet to kill a man who is a sinner may be good, as to kill a beast.”

   (2) “A beast is naturally distinguishable from a man: hence on this point there is no need of judgement. . . . But a sinner is not naturally distinguishable from just men; and therefore he needs a public judgement to make him out, and determine whether he ought to be slain for the benefit of the common weal.”

   The student should read the whole of Sum. Theol. 2a-2ae, q. 64, art. 2 and 3 (Aquinas Ethicus, II, pp. 40-42), whence these extracts are taken.


Hence the Apostle says: He beareth not the sword in vain (Rom. xiii, 4: cf. 1 Pet. ii, 14).

Hereby is excluded the error of those who say that corporal punishments are unlawful, and quote in support of their error such texts as, Thou shalt not kill (Exod. xx, 13): Let both grow until the harvest (Matt. xiii, 30). But these are frivolous allegations. For the same law which says, Thou shalt not kill, adds afterwards: Thou shalt not suffer poisoners (maleficos, φαρμακούς) to live (Exod. xxii, 18). And as for both growing until the harvest, how that is to be understood appears from what follows: lest perchance in gathering the tares ye root out along with them the wheat also: in this passage then the killing of the wicked is forbidden where it cannot be done without danger to the good, as happens when the wicked are not yet clearly marked off from the good by manifest sins, or when there is ground for apprehension that the wicked may involve many good men in their ruin.

The fate of the wicked being open to conversion so long as they live does not preclude their being open also to the just punishment of death. Indeed the danger threatening the community from their life is greater and more certain than the good expected by their conversion. Besides, in the hour of death, they have every facility for turning to God by repentance. And if they are so obstinate that even in the hour of death their heart will not go back upon its wickedness, a fairly probable reckoning may be made that they never would have returned to a better mind.

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