Is acceptance of the death penalty contrary to the modern understanding of the dignity of the human person? The anthropology of René Girard allows for a rereading of Thomas Aquinas’ defense of capital punishment…

The Catholic Church’s recent definitive revocation of the death penalty[1] suggests that something in the zeitgeist demands a rethinking of one strand of conservative thought. Always the champion of the perennial philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas,[2] the Church seems to be suggesting that this area of Thomism is in need of development; after all, Aquinas (and many contemporary Thomists)[3] argue clearly in defense of the death penalty. Thus, an imaginative conservatism may be needed in the area of penal theory, and it seems that we are emboldened to consider the work of René Girard as a proper path for developing traditional philosophy toward an understanding of the inadmissibility of capital punishment.

The purpose of this essay is to develop a “Girardian Thomism” in order to show that acceptance of the death penalty is contrary to the modern understanding of the dignity of the human person and that elements of St. Thomas’ position on the capital punishment reflect a Medieval mindset incompatible with a modern awareness of the scapegoat mechanism. I aim to show that, had Thomas known what we know today, he would not likely have seen capital punishment in light of eliminating social infection or contagion.

A key place to begin our look at the modern understanding for the dignity of the human person is the Enlightenment. Often, 18th-century developments in Europe and America are seen either from the Left as a great moment when political aristocracies and religious hierarchies began to lose arbitrary power in the face of social revolution or, simultaneously, from the Right as a sad moment in history in which religion began to take a back seat. René Girard, however, opens up a path to seeing the Enlightenment as a triumph both for religion and the dignity of the human person—precisely when that religion is Christianity and its influence is found in the increasing concern for victims of scapegoating whose innocence is discovered by the demythologization of persecution narratives.

In order to see this point, Girard suggests that we meditate on the “modern concern for victims.”

He writes: “Examine ancient sources, inquire everywhere, dig up the corners of the planet, and you will not find anything anywhere that even remotely resembles our modern concern for victims. The China of the Mandarins, the Japan of the samurai, the Hindus, the pre-Columbian societies, Athens, republican or imperial Rome—none of these were worried in the least little bit about victims, whom they sacrificed without number to their gods, to the honor of the homeland, to the ambition of conquerors, small or great.”[4]

In contrast, consider some specifics in Western history: “Our society abolished slavery as well as serfdom. Later has come the protection of children, women, the aged, foreigners from abroad, and foreigners within. There is also the battle against poverty and underdevelopment. More recently we have made medical care and the protection of the handicapped universal.”[5] We might also add here (staying true to our 18th century starting point) that two of the biggest pools of victims from the 16th and 17th century were the accused “witches” and the religious dissidents of Reformation and counter-reformation Europe. The “ethos” of the Enlightenment is certainly linked to a cultural climate that found its forefathers’ persecutions of “witches” and religious dissidents embarrassing. Key proclamations from the 18th century enshrine freedom of religion, and witch trials disappear completely.

This developing concern for victims has paralleled the evolution of thought in areas such as retributive justice. “Since the High Middle Ages all the great human institutions have evolved in the same direction: more humane private and public law, penal legislation, judicial practice, the rights of individuals. Everything changed very slowly at first, but the pace has been accelerating more and more. When viewed in terms of the large picture, the social and cultural evolution goes always in the same direction, toward the mitigation of punishment, greater protection for potential victims.”[6]

Although a common sense philosopher of history can not really debate these points, the cause of this development is worth pondering: Where does this “modern concern for victims” come from? Girard is unambiguous: “humanism and humanitarianism develop first on Christian soil.”[7] Citing Matthew 25 and the call from Jesus to “do unto the least of these,” Girard is certain that it is Christianity that has engendered our contemporary concern for the victim. To be sure, it is difficult at times to argue against those who exalt the Enlightenment and modern humanism as a development separate from Christianity; however, as Girard suggests, these intellectual transformations only take place in the nations and cultures most influenced by Christianity.

At a deeper level, however, it is not simply the call to care for “the least of these” that, Girard says, is at the source of the modern concern for victims. The fact is that the modern world simply is aware of many more victims than any culture ever before. Where has this awareness come from?

According to Girard, the West has a unique ability to decode texts and narratives that reflect the perspective of the persecuting crowd against the victim. Its ability to decode the lies behind these slanders (or “myths” and “persecution texts”) leads it to become more and more aware of victims which previous cultures simply did not see as such.

Girard has shown many times that the fertilization of culture with the Gospel corresponds to an ever-increasing awareness of collective victimage and its processes of concealing the cause of violence. As cultures meditate on the innocent crucified God as well as the sinful disciples who joined the crowd before “hearing the cock crow,” these cultures slowly come to have concern for victims who, in previous societies, would have made easy scapegoats precisely because they can no longer blame them as scapegoats. Now they “know what they do,” and now the blood of the victim who once reconciled them is now crying to them from the ground….

Girard explains that “the complex influence of Christianity spreads in the form of a kind of knowledge unknown to pre-Christian societies, and it continually penetrates them in a more and more profound fashion. This knowledge, which Paul says comes from the Cross, is not esoteric at all. To grasp it, we need only ascertain that we all now observe and understand situations of oppression and persecution that earlier societies did not detect or took to be inevitable.

“The biblical and Christian power of understanding phenomena of victimization comes to light in the modern meaning of certain expressions such as ‘scapegoat’…. The modern understanding of ‘scapegoats’ is simply part and parcel of the continually expanding knowledge of the mimetic contagion that governs events of victimization.”[8]

The term “scapegoat” enters the English lexicon through the English translation of the Vulgate in the Reformation. It only gradually comes to mean the blaming of others for our own faults.[9] This suggests—and, in a sense, proves—that an anthropological awareness of group-deceiving collective victimage against arbitrary and falsely accused victims is a “kind of knowledge” that slowly pervades more and more of the collective consciousness of Western peoples. By the very fact that we cry, “scapegoat,” we show that we know something about this mechanism of persecution that previous societies did not know. To help this point, Girard cites Masao Yamaguchi: Japanese has no word for “scapegoat.”[10] The word, however, exists remarkably and universally in the languages of the cultures influenced by Christianity: bouc emissaire, sundenbock,… scapegoat.[11]

Can we reasonably say that Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century understood social relations with this much depth of insight? Did Aquinas understand the scapegoat mechanism in all its dimensions with the same clarity that we moderns do?

I know that it is dangerous to say that we might know more than St. Thomas. To be sure, the “Angelic Doctor” constantly reminds us in areas of epistemology, ontology, natural and supernatural philosophy, and theology that his own insights are still valid today.

At the same time, we cannot expect Aquinas to understand the Big Bang theory, even though the priest that discovered it was a Thomist.[12] Just as scientific knowledge has expanded greatly since the 13th century, so has anthropological (or social scientific knowledge). It is simply unfair to pretend that Aquinas knew everything that we know today.

At the same time, it is completely fair to follow how the core principles of Thomism endure through the ages while the particulars of our time can yield different conclusions as new information emerges about created reality. Only if we see Thomas’ teaching on the death penalty as some kind of statement about universal human nature can this approach to a “development of Thomism” be considered “unholy.”

In reality, though, even in the midst of a development of penal philosophy, nothing in Thomas’ teaching on law or natural law changes if we eliminate his thesis on capital punishment. Law remains an ordinance of reason for the common good, and the proper goods of created nature remain intrinsically connected to the fundamental precepts of natural law.[13] Indeed, the very principle of law’s relation to the common good remains a deep and significant connection between Girard and Thomas.[14] Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we cannot be philosophers of common sense if we refuse the new knowledge what has emerged since the 13th century.

Now, back to Girard’s list of the modern concern for victims: “The social and cultural evolution goes always in the same direction, toward the mitigation of punishment, greater protection for potential victims.” Thus, the death penalty enters the scene as more and more a “cruel and unusual punishment,” more and more potentially the kind of action that will allow scapegoaters to vent their violence rather than any kind of establishment of justice. In one sense, the death penalty is the quintessential expression of man’s dark history of using the scapegoat mechanism to establish a false and unstable peace in his midst. It is our closest form of ritual sacrifice in the modern world.

In order to see how Thomas himself is crippled by a myopic view of this anthropology, we must examine his use of the word infection or contagion. He writes: “If the health of the whole body demands the excision of a member, through its being decayed or infectious (putridum et corruptivus) to the other members, it will be both praiseworthy and advantageous to have it cut away (abscinditur). Now every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous (periculosus) and infectious (corruptivus) to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed (occiditur) in order to safeguard the common good, since ‘a little leaven corrupteth (corrumpit) the whole lump.’”[15]

At first, it looks like corruptivus is being improperly translated as “infectious.” After all, “corruptivus” seems more in line with corruptible or perishable; its “infecting” connotation is not immediately apparent. Nevertheless, if this were the case, then we would have to ask: Why would the “perishability” of a sinner be a problem to the community? This cannot be Aquinas’ meaning. Rather, it is the capacity of the person to corrupt, to cause to perish, and, thus, to infect the community that concerns Aquinas.

Moreover, Aquinas is clearly using this word in line with its use in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians where the Apostle describes the corrupting leaven.[16] The Latin in this case (as Aquinas would have read in the Vulgate) is “corrumpit” which more directly means “infects.”

If there were any doubt that Aquinas sees the main problem with the condemned sinner as one of contagion and infection, we can look to the corresponding discussion in the Summa Contra Gentiles. Here Aquinas claims that “the life of certain pestiferous (pestiferorum) men is an impediment to the common good which is the concord of human society. Therefore, certain men must be removed by death from the society of men.”[17] The use of the word “pestiferous” clearly indicates the link between the viral, infectious, and poisoning effect of this criminal sinner on society.

For Aquinas, then, certain sins can infect and harm the community and the common good. If extreme enough, the one who has care for the community may licitly kill the sinner to save it.

But this is precisely where the logic of the primitive sacred has held Thomas’ thought captive. For him, the reason that the malefactor is killed is that his sins are potentially dangerous: that is, because they are mimetic. It is because the crimes of the evildoer can be imitated that we think they can infect the community. Thus, eliminating the apparent source of social contagion is paramount to eliminating the infectious spread of malevolent sin in the community.

However, to eliminate one person whose sins are particularly mimetic is to miss the fact that this sinner is himself following the lead of others. No one infects unless he has first been infected. And because his sinful desire (and even sin) has “always already begun,”[18] his death is going to be, in a sense, a “standing in” for the sins of the group. If there is one thing for certain: no man can adopt a mimetic desire on his own.

Look at it another way. If we kill those whose mimetic sins are dangerous by the fact that they are mimetic, we say, in a sense, that we cannot avoid falling into those sins if we are tempted to imitate them. The sinner is a scandal who is too tempting not to imitate. But if we say that about ourselves, then why are we to hold this one guilty of the sin himself?

In order to fully grasp the mythical dimension of St. Thomas’ justification for the death penalty, we have to understand exactly how scapegoating comes about in the first place: How does a group “gang up” against a victim and condemn or kill him as one dangerous and infectious to the community?

When mimetic rivalries infect a community, then the passions of hatred, envy, and resentment consume more and more individuals. Since these “scandals” can lead to substitution, at any point, rivals can become “friends” in exchanging their hatred for one another onto an arbitrary victim. Thus, the scandal of the one is polarized by many onto only one.

At this point, says Girard, “no one in the community has an enemy other than the victim, so once this person is hunted, expelled, and destroyed, the crowd finds itself emptied of hostility and without an enemy. Only one enemy was left, one who has been eliminated. Provisionally, at least, this community no longer experiences either hatred or resentment toward anyone or anything; it feels purified of all its tensions, of all its divisions, of everything fragmenting it.

“The persecutors don’t know that their sudden harmony, like their previous discord, is the work of contagious imitation. They believe they have on their hands a dangerous person, someone evil, of whom they must rid the community.”[19] A Girardian Thomism then must be very careful before justifying killing in the name of eliminating an infectious member of society.

Moreover, it is important to see that, because of the mimetic relationship between the crowd and the victim (which is, in the early stages of social crisis, really just a large set of one-on-one rivalries and “finger-pointings”) the perception of the victim’s guilt can easily be an extension of the community’s own guilt. That is to say, we “scapegoat” the victim by seeing in him our own faults. Hence Jesus warns: “The measure you use will be the measure you receive. Judge not….”[20]

To rid the community of its infectious, contagious members is to seek cleanliness from communally shared ills. To come to believe in the radicality of one man’s guilt in this area is to project one’s own sins onto him. Thus, to believe in the salutary effects of killing the infectious one is to believe in a scapegoat myth.

Now, although Aquinas uses the word “infectious,” it is also the case that he reserves the death penalty for those who are “dangerous” (periculosus). Perhaps we are to interpret Thomas’ description of the dangerous criminal as simply a physical threat (as in just war policy). This seems to be where key figures in the modern death penalty defense have gone.[21] Was this what Aquinas was saying?

I don’t think so. Aquinas is concerned with the possibility that some wicked people might have an infectious wickedness that must be rooted from the community like a disease is cured from a person through amputation or excision. The danger is based on the perception that this criminal’s sin can infect the community and destroy it like poison or cancer destroys the body. And this is the logic of the scapegoat mechanism. One stands in the place for all to “atone” for the mimetic desire that threatens all.

Now, to be sure, the exacting of the death penalty in any given circumstance is not the same thing as the spontaneous victimage that Girard discusses when he describes “the scapegoat mechanism.” If anything, it is more like the “ritual repetition” that he sees at the origin of sacrifice in archaic religion. The community has a crisis and knows that through elimination of the infectious evildoer it can restore peace. Thus, it sacrifices its victim and worldly peace is restored—in imitation of the founding murder that brought the cultus together in the first place.[22]

In this light, the appeals to justice and crime deterrence must all be read in light of man’s savage fallen state. Original sin transforms Cain into a murderer, and this is his primal urge regardless of the justifications and lies that he uses to support his actions. Appeal to the death penalty for justice and deterrence is another myth concealing a desire to “purify” the community at the expense of one victim standing in pace of others.

The objection immediately is raised: But what if the criminal is really guilty and the crime is really heinous? What if his death really can stimulate virtue for him and others as they fear sin more and he converts on his death scaffold/chair? The objection is a good one, but it misses the point completely.

First of all, it misses the fact that, though these are issues Thomas brings up tangentially related to the death penalty, these are not the ones used to prove its validity as a proper means of punishment. For Thomas, the proof of the validity of the death penalty stems from analogy to the doctor removing the tumor for the good of the body: the State eliminates the sinner to remove the threat of the infection of his sin.

Second, once we show that death for one to purify all is not a valid approach to social relations, then all of its justifications become suspect. To be sure, we can try to evaluate how effective death is for instilling fear, leading to conversion, and leading the community to make right choices. At the same time, if the action is something based solely on the Fall and a distortion of human nature, then these “reasons” are simply myths hiding the truth of mimetic crisis seeking satisfaction at the expense of another.

The next objection comes from scripture. Consider the ones listed by Aquinas: “The Apostle says, in 1 Corinthians (5:6): “Know you not that a little leaven corrupts the whole lump?” And a little later he adds: “Put away the evil one from among yourselves” (1 Cor. 5:13). And in Romans (13:4) it is said of earthly power that “he does not carry the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him who does evil.” And in 1 Peter (2:13-14) it is said: “Be subject therefore to every human creature for God’s sake: whether it be to the king as excelling, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of the good.’”[23]

We have already addressed the Corinthian “corruptivit” line. We might add, though, that this passage refers to an early form of excommunication—hardly the death penalty!

As far as Paul’s political theology is concerned, it is important to see the fundamental goal of his arguments : We are to be subject to the ruling authorities. This is not a small claim from a man who suffered martyrdom under Roman Imperial death penalty. His interest here is in preventing the Christian community from fomenting internal discord and violence based on revenge and political resentments. A key message of the Gospel is that the Messiah is not a violent conquering king but rather the suffering servant. The Christian is called to defuse any form of potential mimetic rivalry leading to violence. He is not called to seek overthrow of the government, even if it brings “the avenging sword.” At no point is Paul endorsing or even justifying the death penalty; that would be like saying he endorsed slavery because he did not outright condemn it. Paul’s concern is that the Christian community understand the mechanism of collective violence—the principle of “satan”—so that they can die more to sin and live more for Christ, the crucified one.

In conclusion, the anthropology of René Girard allows for a rereading of Thomas Aquinas’ defense of capital punishment. Following the lead of the likes of E. Christian Brugger,[24] however, it might not be necessary to use Girard to see Thomas’ errors on this point. Still, it is not sufficient simply to critique St. Thomas’ argument on the death penalty, as this runs the risk of invalidating the precise logic which he applied to the world that he understood. What Girard allows us to see is that, in his worldview, Aquinas applied reason correctly to the phenomenon of collective punishment of the one through death. And, thus, again, there is no need to throw out the perennial philosophy of Aquinas with its enduring principles of reason. Nevertheless, from the current modern perspective, in which we have no excuse to ignore the reality of scapegoating with all its faces of self-deception, common sense demands that we reject Aquinas’s claim that sinners are pestilent, infectious, and, as such, dangerous to society. Finally, then, in this light, we can accept that a Girardian Thomism is a proper development of Christian Aristotelian thought for the modern world.

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[1] See here.

[2] Cf. Pope Leo XIII, Aeterni patris

[3] A good example.

[4] René Girard. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Trans. James G. Williams. (Orbis: NY, 2001), 161.

[5] Girard. I See Satan, 166.

[6] Girard. I See Satan, 166.

[7] Girard. I See Satan, 163.

[8] Girard. I See Satan, 154-155.

[9] See here.

[10] René Girard. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Trans. Bann & Metteer. (Continuum: London, NY, 1987), 131.

[11] Girard. Things Hidden, 132.


[13] See ST I-II q.’s 90-94

[14] I have tried to develop these connections here.

[15] ST II-II q.64 a.2 [I am using the 1920 literal translation by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, as promulgated on]

[16] 1 Cor 5:6

[17] SCG III 146.4

[18] The famous, or infamous, “toujours déja” of Derridean deconstruction is re-read in light of Girardian anthropology as a statement about the mimetic dimension of desire, especially in the throes of crisis. leading up to scapegoating. See Andrew McKenna’s, Violence and Difference, for a deeper discussion of the connections between Girard and Derrida.

[19] Girard. I See Satan, 36.

[20] Cf. Matthew 7:1-2

[21] See, for example, Pope John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 27.

[22] The development of this thought is best seen in Violence and the Sacred, though the summative approach in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning is eminently readable and, in a sense, more clear.

[23] SCG 146.6

[24] See here.

The featured image is “The Expiation” (1908) by Friant Emile, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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