The killing of a tyrant. The question to be dealt with here is whether such an action can ever be justified. The Greeks and Romans, and during the Christian Era John of Salisbury (d. 1180), Jean Petit (d. 1411), and the Protestant theologians Melanchthon, Zwingli, and Calvin, considered tyrannicide, whether executed by public or private authority, a lawful, patriotic, and praiseworthy deed.
Catholic theologians commonly distinguished between a tyrant by usurpation, i.e., one who is such by an illegitimate seizure of power, and a tyrant by oppression, i.e., one who, though legitimately enthroned, rules oppressively and is unjust in the exercise of his power. The killing of a tyrant by oppression has generally been considered unlawful by Catholic moralists when there is question of the deed being done by a private citizen acting on his own authority. The violent execution of justice is not the province of private citizens, and furthermore, it cannot be safely left to individuals to determine who is and who is not a tyrant.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, "he who kills a tyrant (i.e., a usurper) to free his country is praised and rewarded" (In 2 sent. 44.2.2). Some have doubted whether in this text St. Thomas was expressing his own opinion or merely interpreting the words of Cicero. More probably, however, he was giving his own thought, and in any case the opinion is in accord with principles he enunciated elsewhere. It was the view taken by his faithful commentators, Cajetan, Vitoria, Billuart, and others. They added by way of clarification that the private citizen in taking the life of a usurper acts with public authority just as a soldier does in time of war. The required conditions are that the killing be a necessary means to end the usurpation, that there be no higher authority able and willing to remove the usurper, and that there be no probability of bringing about greater evils by the assassination than would have to be faced in enduring the tyranny. St. Thomas held that no private citizen, acting on his own authority, can legitimately take the life of a tyrant by oppression. The community, however, could lawfully depose such a tyrant and probably would have the right to sentence him to death. F. Suárez was of the same opinion, although he went further than St. Thomas, and held that in some circumstances it would be permissible even for a private citizen to kill the tyrant, e.g., if he actually attacked a citizen, or jeopardized the state with the intention of destroying it and killing its citizens, or perpetrated similar evils. Moreover, the tyrant who, being deposed, does not step down, ceases to be a legitimate ruler and becomes a usurper, in which case the principles concerning the killing of a tyrant by usurpation become applicable.
Juan de mariana (d. 1624) was somewhat more liberal in his view of tyrannicide. His opinion, however, when stripped of certain unfortunate and inadmissible expressions used in the first edition of his book De rege et regis institutione (3 v. Toledo 1599), is that either type of tyrant may be slain, not only by the state, but also by a private citizen when there is no other way of defending the nation, and when the citizen knows that the act would meet with general approval. This thesis differs from that of Salisbury, for the individual in this case would act, so to speak, in the name of the community.
After the 17th century, Catholic moralists, influenced undoubtedly by the new revolutionary theories and their social and political consequences, abandoned the scholastic teaching regarding tyrannicide. St. Alphonsus Liguori (d. 1787) condemned any type of tyrannicide and rejected as false and pernicious the opinions of Suárez and other 16th–century theologians, as well as their democratic principle regarding the source of political power.
The Church has made no authoritative declaration upon the subject. The Council of Constance condemned a statement representing the position of Jean Petit, although he was not named by the Council (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum, ed. A. Schönmetzer [Freiburg 1963] 1235). This decision of the Council never received papal approval, and, moreover, the statement is so convoluted and contains so many qualifications that it is impossible to say precisely what was anathematized. Proposition 63 of the Syllabus of Pius IX (Enchiridion symbolorum, 2963) has not the scope some authors have attached to it: it refers only to the withdrawal of obedience from legitimate rulers.
Bibliography: xenophon, Hiero, Scripta Minora, tr. e. c. marchant (Loeb Classical Library; London-New York-Cambridge, Mass. 1925) 4. cicero, De officiis, tr. w. miller (Loeb Classical Library ; 1913) 3.4. john of salisbury, Policraticus, 3.15 in Patrologia Latina, ed. j. p. migne (Paris 1878–90) 199:512. thomas aquinas, In 2 sent. 220.127.116.11; De reg. princ. 1.6. f. suÁrez, De charitate, disp. 13, sec. 8.2; Defensio fidei 6.4.7a. j. de mariana, The King and the Education of the King, tr. g. a. moore (Washington 1948) 142–161. alphonse liguori, Homo apostolicus 8.2.13. l. tapparelli d'azeglio, Saggio teoretico di Diritto naturale, 2 v. (3d ed. Rome 1900) v.2. g. m. manser, Angewandtes Naturrecht (Freiburg 1947) 163. c. j. von hefele, Histoire des conciles d'après les documents originaux, tr. and continued by h. leclercq (Paris 1907–38) 7.1:287–296. a. bride, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al. (Paris 1903—50) 15.2:1988–2016. c. giacon, La seconda scolastica, 3v. (Milan 1950) 3:249–274.
"Tyrannicide." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 24, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/tyrannicide
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