January 16, 1999

St. Thomas and The
Death Penalty
By Rainier R.A. Ibana, Ph.D.
Institute on Church and Social Issues

Philosophy Department, Ateneo de Manila University

THE CURRENT use of St. Thomas Aquinas to support the death penalty springs from isolated citations that actually contradict his central ideas. A more holistic interpretation will show that his teachings are intended to preserve, protect and respect life in all its forms.

In ''Summa Theologica,'' St. Thomas wrote that the first precept of natural law ''pertains to everything that makes for the preservation of human life and all that impedes its death.'' This follows from the desire of every being to preserve its own existence according to its nature.

Human beings are unique because they are the only ones who can affirm their own existence. Animals, plants and minerals cannot proclaim: ''I am, I exist!'' Human existence, therefore, has an inherent and inviolable dignity that cannot be reduced to any of its derivative acts. One of the key contributions of Thomism to the philosophy of the human person is the critical distinction between the person's being by virtue of its existence, and being a person as a consequence of its particular acts.

There were cases, especially during the time of St. Aquinas, when human institutions actually took away the lives of individuals in order to protect their communities. Such cases, however, were exceptions to the general rule. Aquinas himself put a high premium on the dignity of human persons as the only beings who can fully participate in ''divine providence'' because only they can provide for their own existence and care for the existence of others.

We must be alarmed if our current social situation indeed belongs to one of these exceptional cases. This implies that we have lost our capacity to care for one another as fellow human beings and that our government has failed to provide the necessary political conditions that make caring possible.

The justification cited by President Estrada in killing a man ''to safeguard the common good'' hinges on an organic model of society that views the relationship between an individual person to the whole community ''as part to whole.'' It cannot be denied that St. Thomas did write about the advantage of cutting an infectious limb in order to save the health of the whole body. Such an analogy, however, falsely transposes the organic model of medieval societies as a metaphorical device to understand the complex relationship of modern human individuals and their societies.

The organic model can no longer serve as an adequate metaphor to understand contemporary Philippine society. Our knowledge of the social sciences has advanced since the time of St. Thomas. Our social organizations today are created and dissolved by the implicit or explicit consent of its individual members. Contemporary social problems, therefore, can no longer be solved simply by amputation.

This is especially true when the primary cause of social problems is the whole structure of society itself. St. Thomas may have some perennial insights that transcend history. But some of the examples that he extracted from the medieval age are inapplicable to our country today.

Even if we employ the organic model as a justification for the death penalty, severing the criminal from the social whole by means of death may actually destroy our moral right, as a whole nation, to defend the lives of other members who may have been condemned to die in countries that also subscribe to the death penalty. After this execution, what human law can our government appeal to in attempting to defend the lives of our overseas contract workers who may also be condemned to death?

The surplus psychological value to be gained by killing Leo Echegaray or the perceived disvalue that is to be retained by the imposition of life imprisonment on him is symptomatic of social pathologies that should be exposed and discussed.

Frenzied cries for his blood are symbolic expressions of structural defects in our social systems that prevent the majority of our people from living decent and peaceful human lives: inadequate job opportunities, unfair wages, ineffective government and social services, congested housing conditions, uneven distribution of wealth, unsatisfactory marital and familial relationships.

No one--neither those who condemn Echegaray nor those who try to protect him--can exempt themselves from being implicated by the inadequacies of our social systems. Our active or passive participation in the death of another human being mirrors the kind of society that we find ourselves in.

The possibility of being enlightened about the complicity of our social situation, however, may be compared to the hushed moments of silence by cockfighters at the sight of dying cocks. The round of executions that will follow Leo Echegaray's will be drowned, most likely, by cries for more blood that will muffle the pains of systematic oppression.

We are about to allow one life to be snuffed out. I cringe from the possibility that the ideological justification that made this possible was an uncritical interpretation of selected texts from St. Thomas Aquinas.

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