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Vengeance is here understood as punishment inflicted upon a person in retribution for an evil act that is injurious in some way to others. It is not to be confused with the violence employed against an unjust aggressor, which always supposes that the one defending himself is under present attack, and when this has ceased, further violence becomes unjustifiable on grounds of self-defense. The social order, however, requires the punishment of wrongdoers even after they have desisted from their aggression. Ultimate and perfect vengeance is exclusively the prerogative of God (Rom 12.19); only He can know perfectly what recompense is due to a man. An imperfect vengeance, however, must sometimes be taken upon those whose behavior is a threat to the common welfare. In this matter public authority, which is derived from God's own authority, "is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him who does evil" (Rom 13.4). For those in a position of authority the infliction of penalties upon violators of the law is therefore a strict duty in justice. Under ordinary circumstances private individuals are not obliged to take a personal part in securing the punishment of the guilty. Indeed, where personal injuries are concerned the Christian is counseled to pardon wrongs without seeking vengeance (Rom 12.1820), although in some cases personal injuries are grievously dishonoring to God, or are damaging to the Church or to the civil community; in these circumstances an individual can be under strict obligation to take action against an offender.

Nevertheless, since the punishment of the wicked is a social good, the desire, even on the part of private individuals, that it should be effectively accomplished, whether in general or in particular, is reasonable and virtuous, provided that it stems from a concern for justice and not from malice, spite, an unwillingness to forgive, or the like. This desire, however, can easily get out of hand and become sinful by its excess or by the corruptness of its motives, and men are more familiar with its sinful exaggeration than its moderate exemplification, as is suggested by the unpleasant overtones conveyed by the terms "vengeance" and "revenge." Vindicative justice, or vengeance (understood as a virtue) controls this desire and keeps it within legitimate bounds.

To be licit vengeance must be exercised under certain conditions. (1) The punishment of wrongdoers must be done by those vested with the proper authority. (2) It should be kept within the limits of justice, and should not be allowed to degenerate into cruelty by an excess of severity or to endanger the general welfare by its softness. Since the purpose of punishment is to protect the social order, the forms it takes should be such as serve effectively to restore injured persons to the enjoyment of their rights, to correct the delinquent and to discourage others who might be inclined to similar offenses. (3) It should aim at the putting down of wickedness, not at the injury or ruin of the sinner, toward whom charity obliges the Christian to retain an attitude of sincere benevolence.

See Also: punishment; sanction; clemency.

Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 108. a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed., a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350) 15.2:261323.

[p. k. meagher]

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