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Much of the background for this question comes from comments and answers to this question: Is the statement "That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit." still a statement which is against Catholic truth?

It appears that Roman Catholicism considers heresy at least capable of consideration as a capital crime which may rightfully deserve the death penalty. Here is part of a definition of heresy from Catholic Encyclopedia (1910):

St. Thomas (II-II:11:1) defines heresy: "a species of infidelity in men who, having professed the faith of Christ, corrupt its dogmas". "The right Christian faith consists in giving one's voluntary assent to Christ in all that truly belongs to His teaching. There are, therefore, two ways of deviating from Christianity: the one by refusing to believe in Christ Himself, which is the way of infidelity, common to Pagans and Jews; the other by restricting belief to certain points of Christ's doctrine selected and fashioned at pleasure, which is the way of heretics. The subject-matter of both faith and heresy is, therefore, the deposit of the faith, that is, the sum total of truths revealed in Scripture and Tradition as proposed to our belief by the Church. The believer accepts the whole deposit as proposed by the Church; the heretic accepts only such parts of it as commend themselves to his own approval.

An example of an heretic would be a man who was baptized into, catechized in, and confirmed by the Roman Catholic Church and who later, with full knowledge and assent of will, actively rejects and openly refutes some necessary tenets of Catholic truth such as the Marian Dogmas.

It is not that each and every heretic must be put to death (nor even should be put to death) nor is such a sentence to be carried out in lands where such an action is against civil law. In fact, the death penalty for heresy was most often carried out by secular authorities at the behest of the Catholic Church. While it is not any longer a common practice for heretics to be executed by the Catholic Church (the last heretic put to death was Cayetano Ripoll on 7/26/1826 for the crime of Deism) it has been made clear that if and when a heretic is lawfully put to death for the crime of heresy such an action is, according to Roman Catholicism, in accordance with the Divine Law and is not against the will of the Spirit.

There is some interesting information in response to this question which makes it seem as though the Old Testament could be and has been used to justify the Church condemning heretics to death. Indeed, much Christian support for the death penalty is derived from the Old Covenant. This question is not about the death penalty in general nor it's Old Covenant foundation but specifically regards the death penalty for heresy and how it squares with the teachings of the New Testament.

Using an example where the conviction of heresy is clear and uncontroversial and where the death penalty is rightfully carried out (the reader may insert whichever case they feel fits this bill: (partial list here) where would a Roman Catholic find support for this action in the New Testament and where in the New Testament would they find confirmation that God's Spirit was not against such a thing?

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  • It seems like you are asking whether there is explicit New Testament evidence in favor of capital punishment for heresy. Your talk of "squaring" would imply that the NT is somehow opposed to capital punishment for heresy. The problem with this question is that execution for Christian crimes requires a Christian empire, and the NT was written in the context of the Roman empire.
    – zippy2006
    Jun 1, 2023 at 3:04
  • Is there such a thing as a Christian empire? "My kingdom is not of this world" Do you suppose that if Jesus and the Apostles had lived long enough to see Rome "turned Christian" they would have begun handing people over to the government for execution? That perhaps if the geopolitical situation were different Paul would have exhorted the Galatians to round up the judaisers and condemn them to death at the hands of the state? Pagan states were killing Christians for crimes against their religion. Should we take power and turn the tables? Is that the Gospel? Jun 1, 2023 at 13:06
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    It would appear the OP believes that God is against such a thing. This is what Christ taught. "But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;" Mat 5:44. Love them, don't kill them. Not sure what a Roman Catholic might say.
    – SLM
    Jul 28, 2023 at 22:08

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The sin of spreading heresy (and not merely assenting to heresy) is a species of scandal, because it leads the faithful into error regarding the faith. Scandal generally can be considered to be a capital crime, because it has the general effect of destoying souls. Christ had this to say about those who cause scandal, or, in other words, cause others to stumble:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. 6 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. (Matt 18:1-9, NIV)

We are very familiar with this passage, and I fear that may cause us to gloss over it, and to not really consider what our Lord is saying here. First, He says to the disciples that they will only enter the Kingdom if they become like little children. That is, believers are to be childlike in their faith. He continues: if you cause one of these little ones - who believes in me - to stumble, you should be put to death (by drowning). These little ones is not in reference to literal children, but to the faithful generally, who He has just said are called to be like little children.

He continues on, hyperbolically stating that you should destroy even your own body parts if they would cause you to stumble. These eyes and hands are allegorical - they refer to the members of Christ' Body who cause the innocent, child-like faithful to stumble. One of these sort are the heretics. They are to be cut off and thrown into the fire. That is, they are to be destroyed.

Now, we also ought to pray for their repentance, and try to help them to repent. As a good physician knows, if he can heal the ailment in a limb, he ought to prefer that cure to amputation. But, there may come a time when the limb is gangrenous and utterly corrupt, and it must be amputated for the good of the whole body.

St. Thomas Aquinas uses this same analogy of an ill body when he writes of capital punishment generally:

we observe that if the health of the whole body demands the excision of a member, through its being decayed or infectious to the other members, it will be both praiseworthy and advantageous to have it cut away. Now every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since "a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump" (1 Corinthians 5:6). (ST II-II Q64 A2 co)

So if a heretic is infectious to the body, it may, in certain situations, be necessary to put him to death, in order to protect the whole body. Better that the body would enter maimed into paradise than to be thrust whole into Hades.

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  • So to summarize, it's the spreading (scandalous) that is worthy capital punishment, not holding a heretical idea per se. Is it not sufficient in this pluralistic society (even within the billion-strong Catholic church herself) that the individual is publicly censured and proclaimed as not a teacher for the Catholic Church, like the treatment given to Hans Küng when he publicly rejected the doctrine of papal infallibility? Jul 28, 2023 at 21:14
  • That may be sufficient, or it may not. You're going to have to judge each individual case on its own merits. The teaching is merely that it is not intrinsically evil to put someone to death for heresy. In this or that circumstance, it may be the wrong or the right thing to do.
    – jaredad7
    Jul 28, 2023 at 21:39
  • Aren't you misusing the quote? Those who cause the little one to turn away ... wouldn't have the wrong religion per se, just wrong action.
    – SLM
    Jul 28, 2023 at 22:10
  • @SLM those "who cause the little ones to stumble" is a broader category than "teachers of heresy." For instance, priests who engage in sexual misconduct are also guilty of scandal, even if they believe everything the Church teaches. But, the category "teachers of heresy" is contained in the broader category "those who cause the little ones to stumble."
    – jaredad7
    Jul 28, 2023 at 22:14
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    Asking "what does the Catholic Church understand this passage of Scripture to mean" is generally not the right way to ask the question. Typically, the Church will only give official condemnations of certain interpretations of Scripture. This Scripture is about those who cause other Christians to stumble (ie the sin of scandal), and Jesus says here that it would be better if those people had been put to death, than that they cause their brothers to stumble. If we take Him seriously, why wouldn't we consider capital punishment in such cases?
    – jaredad7
    Jul 30, 2023 at 1:27

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