Thursday, March 12, 2015

Erroneous quotation from Roman Catechism of Trent

At various places on the internet one will find (in support of a particular way of looking at the Church's teaching on the death penalty) the following quoted as coming from the Roman Catechism authorized by Trent:

The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thy shall not kill], such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives.

The origin of this "quotation" is not clear. The problem lies in the part in bold. A reliable 19th century translation has:

The end of the commandment is the preservation and security of human life, and to the attainment of this end the punishments inflicted by the civil magistrate, who is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend, giving security to life by repressing outrage and violence.

A similar more modern translation for the bold part has:

The end of the Commandment- is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence.

The original Latin has:

Quum enim legi huic finis is propositus sit, ut hominum vitae salutique consulatur: magistratuum item, qui legitimi sunt scelerum vindices, animadversiones eodem spectant, ut audacia et iniuria suppliciis repressa, tuta sit hominum vita.

Now the two reliable translations (and the Latin if you can follow it)  indicate that the death penalty can be used in a way that has an aim towards the safety of human life. But the purported translation in bold at the top of this post refers to "fulfillment", "taking of guilty lives", and "innocent lives". Such things are simply not present in the Latin. It is not the translation of anything, but an addition from an unknown source.

One can see why such a very definite and concrete conclusion would seem like an attractive thing to provide – depending on the goal of the writer. But it simply isn't there.