One of the most common scriptural arguments used by death penalty dissenters revolves around Gen 9:6. In fact, the most foundational book for their position, written by notable death penalty counter-apologist Edward Feser, borrows its title from that biblical quote.
This biblical excerpt refers to the so-called Noahide Laws, given by God to Noah after the flood as an “eternal covenant.” According to this specific law, the killing of a human being would demand retribution by shedding the killer’s blood. Since all humankind is descended from Noah, the Noahide laws – so it is argued – would still be in effect, even if the Mosaic Law governing the nation of Israel is not.
To see if this is the case, let us quote the biblical passage in question (my emphasis):
“Every thing that moveth and liveth shall be meat for you: even as the green herbs have I delivered them all to you: Saving that flesh with blood you shall not eat.”
The reader might be feeling confused now, but it’s normal. I misquoted, but did so on purpose. I didn’t read Gen 9:6, but rather Gen 9:3-4, two verses before the actual quote.
But why did I misquote? Because Gen 9:4 forbids the eating of flesh with blood. This prohibition is a Noahide law, just like Gen 9:6. Yet, many Catholics today eat flesh with blood. Portugal, my traditionally Catholic country, features a rich gastronomy with lots of equally traditional dishes made out of blood. However, never have I heard any condemnation from the pulpit of this most anti-biblical practice.
Some may argue that this prohibition is not in effect, for Old Testament dietary laws have been superseded by the New Testament. But it is not so. Already in New Testament times, all the bishops of the Catholic Church gathered together in Council and reaffirmed this most venerable and ancient prohibition. And it was not just any set of bishops: it was the Apostles themselves, in the Council of Jerusalem!
“For it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay no further burden upon you than these necessary things: That you abstain from things sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; from which things keeping yourselves, you shall do well. Fare ye well”
— Acts 15:28-29 (DRV)
Why is the Church not enforcing this traditional teaching with a vigor equal to its disobedience across Catholic world? Well, it seems like the Church herself has overturned this Noahide law, thereby “contradicting” herself.
In 1442 AD, the Ecumenical Council of Florence promulgated this:
“[The Holy Roman Church] firmly believes, professes and teaches that every creature of God is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because according to the word of the Lord not what goes into the mouth defiles a person, and because the difference in the Mosaic law between clean and unclean foods belongs to ceremonial practices, which have passed away and lost their efficacy with the coming of the gospel. It also declares that the apostolic prohibition, to abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled, was suited to that time when a single church was rising from Jews and gentiles, who previously lived with different ceremonies and customs. This was so that the gentiles should have some observances in common with Jews, and occasion would be offered of coming together in one worship and faith of God and a cause of dissension might be removed, since by ancient custom blood and strangled things seemed abominable to Jews, and gentiles could be thought to be returning to idolatry if they ate sacrificial food. In places, however, where the Christian religion has been promulgated to such an extent that no Jew is to be met with and all have joined the church, uniformly practising the same rites and ceremonies of the gospel and believing that to the clean all things are clean, since the cause of that apostolic prohibition has ceased, so its effect has ceased. It condemns, then, no kind of food that human society accepts and nobody at all neither man nor woman, should make a distinction between animals, no matter how they died”
— Council of Florence, Session 11
If we are going to say that a Council has introduced novelties in doctrine, so that the Church contradicted herself, then we must acknowledge that the smoke of Satan infiltrated the Church many centuries before Vatican II. The biblical prescriptions (including Gen 9:4) were “suited to that time“, but have in effect “ceased.” Some distracted traditionalist might confuse this wording with modernism, if uttered by the Church today.
However, I think Florence overturning Gen 9:4 is very similar to Francis overturning Gen 9:6. The justifications in both have very similar foundations.
On one hand, in both we see an “increasing awareness” of certain foundational points of doctrine. Florence quotes the Lord Himself, Who said it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person. This teaching was a development from the Old Testament Scriptures, even if it seems a contradiction at first glance. However, even if the Apostles at the Council of Jerusalem were most certainly aware of these words from Jesus Christ, they still reasserted Gen 9:4. So, the development, while traditional, can only be accounted for by an increasing awareness of where Jesus was coming from, an increasing awareness that took place from Apostolic times right into the 15th century.
On the other hand, both Florence and Francis try to explain why these prescriptions were appropriate for a certain historical context, but no longer apply, since that historical context ceased to exist. Not because doctrine has changed, but because the cultural shifts that took place in the meantime changed the meaning underlying those norms. In an ancient mindset, blood symbolized a life force that should be offered to the gods. Therefore, it had an enormous religious significance and was inextricably tied to idolatry. Modern day society simply does not attribute to blood the same religious and ritualistic value that ancient pagan and Jewish societies gave to it (even in Apostolic times.) So, forbidding the eating of blood does not add anything of value to our faith anymore. In fact, by getting gung-ho in defending a literalist interpretation of Gen 9:4, we risk interpreting it in anachronistic and life-threatening ways, like Jehovah’s Witnesses do regarding blood transfusions.
Most importantly, both with Florence and with Francis, we have an “overturning” of the Noahide law based on authoritative sources. Both Florence and Pope Francis have received the magisterial authority to interpret Scripture and Tradition. Theirs is the correct interpretation for their corresponding age.
By doing away with a literalist application of Gen 9:4, the Council of Florence has re-focused Catholicism on what is quintessential to that quote. By not allowing us to get preoccupied with secondary questions regarding the eating of blood, it allowed a greater continuity with the doctrine of Gen 9:4. For Gen 9:4 is mostly about idolatry, and idolatry nowadays has nothing to do with eating blood. Focusing too much on the blood bit might distract us from dealing with idolatry, which is the main theme of the biblical passage in question.
In the same vein, I argue that by doing away with a literalist application of Gen 9:6, Pope Francis has actually re-focused Catholicism on what is quintessential to that quote. I explain that in further detail in this article.
So, if you allow me, I will stuff myself up with some morcelas, before going out and lobbying for a full death penalty abolition. And, sincerely, I do not think I am less Catholic for doing that. In fact, by showing my complete trust in the teachings of the Church that Jesus Himself instituted, I believe I am not only not sinning, but actually demonstrating my faith.
[Featured image: “Noah’s Sacrifice”, Daniel Maclise, ca. 1850]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.