Jesus, the Adulterous Woman and the Death Penalty — Part III

I was preparing to put up this third installment when the news about Pope John Paul I broke, so this is coming later than I had planned.

[Part I] [Part II]

The point of the objection raised by Edward Feser and others is that the Church has always and everywhere taught the legitimacy of capital punishment. Many people now think that the death penalty has always been widely accepted in the Church as it has been in our time. Yet history does show that there was a time when it was in question, and we can see this in the life and writings of St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan from 374 to 397, who, along with Augustine and Jerome, was one of the three great early Fathers of the Western Church.


This mosaic in the cathedral of Milan may have been done in St. Ambrose’s lifetime, and could be an accurate portrait of him.

St. Ambrose’s Dilemma

A little background on Ambrose will help us understand his ideas on the death penalty. He was brought up in a very devout Christian family of Roman background. His father was a civic official and Ambrose followed his path, becoming a lawyer and then judge in the court of the praetorian prefect, and later consul and civil governor of Emilia-Liguria. His was universally admired for his virtue and integrity, as well as his devout faith, though at the age of 35 he still remained a catechumen.

Then, when the see of Milan, which had been occupied by an Arian bishop, fell vacant, a riot threatened to break out between Catholics and Arians over who would fill the see. Ambrose the governor came to where the people were gathered, and began speaking to calm the tumult. Suddenly a child in the crowd shouted, “Ambrose bishop!” and everyone took up the cry. Ambrose found himself suddenly elected bishop by acclamation. It is at this point that Ambrose’s biographer, Paulinus, brings in a bizarre anecdote – one that is not usually told in modern accounts of the election. Ambrose was a conscientious governor, and he did not put people to torture under his regime. But when he heard himself acclaimed bishop, he was determined to avoid the office, feeling himself unprepared and unworthy. He went into the tribunal, and ordered (in pretense, I hope) for people to be tortured, evidently hoping that this would put people off accepting him as bishop. But the people assured him that baptism would forgive this sin.[1] The strict historicity of this account might be questioned, but it is a good indication of the attitude of people at the time.

It was common in the fourth century for officials like Ambrose to put off baptism, because public office often led to bloodshed, including torture, political assassinations and the execution of criminals. The most famous example of this is the emperor Constantine, who, although he was converted to Christianity soon after winning control of the Empire, was only baptized on his deathbed. Waiting until retirement to accept baptism to wash away those sins – and some did see executions as a sin, as we will see — was thought preferable to doing severe penance for them if they were committed after you were baptized. This gives us a likely interpretation of why Ambrose had remained a catechumen during his time in office. All of his protests about his unsuitability were unavailing, however, and within a short time he was baptized, ordained a priest, then consecrated bishop of Milan.

It is clear then, that Ambrose had considerable first-hand experience with civil law and government, more so, perhaps, than any of the Fathers of the Church. Respect for human life was very important to him. He was later very severe with the Christian emperor Theodosius for staining his hands with civil blood in the massacre of 7,000 people in Thessalonica, and would not admit the emperor to Communion again until he had done many months of penance.

A Question and Answer

This attitude of Ambrose is also clear in the letters I am going to discuss. These are two letters written sometime between 385 and 387 to a man named Studius,[2] prompted by a letter from him that has not survived, but the contents of which can be surmised. Studius has evidently become a judge, and is worried about whether a Christian in this office can order an execution, and still remain in communion with the Church. In fact, this seems to have been a very controversial question at the time. We can trace it in the followers of the rigorist heretic Novatian, who condemned the bishops of the 250′s who were willing to admit to penance those who had committed apostasy during the Decian persecution. Even in the late fourth century, many of Novatian’s followers were still around; they would not admit to Communion any judge or official who had ordered someone put to death, even justly.[3] Even some who were not heretics agreed with them on this point.

Now to the point I have been building up to for so long. In the second of his letters, Ambrose speaks of the passage on the adulteress in John as arousing a great deal of controversy, not only historical and theological, but very concrete and practical, about the question of capital punishment itself:

Indeed there has always been repeated discussion of the question of the famous acquittal of that woman in the Gospel according to John who was brought to Christ accused of adultery. . . And the question has become more heated since the time that bishops have begun to accuse those guilty of the most heinous crimes before the public tribunals, and some even to urge them to use the sword and capital punishment, while others have begun to approve of these kinds of accusations and of the blood-stained triumphs of the priesthood. For those men say just the same as did the Jews, that the guilty ought to be punished by the public laws, and therefore that it is also fitting for priests to accuse before the public tribunals those who, they assert, ought to be punished according to the laws. The case is the same, though the number is less, that is to say, the question as to judgment is similar, the odious nature of the punishment is dissimilar. Christ would not permit one woman to be punished according to the Law; they assert that too small a number has been punished.[4]

Ambrose even said elsewhere that he did not hold communion with those bishops who sought for the death penalty to be applied to heretics, such as Bishops Idacius and Ithacius, who had induced the tyrant Maximus to put the heretic Priscillian and his followers to death.[5] So Ambrose did not come to the question with any love for the death penalty, and spurned its most fervent supporters in the Church. But he gives Studius’ question a finely nuanced answer.

I recognize [in your question] a pure intention of mind, zeal for the faith, and fear of our Lord Jesus Christ. And I too should fear to reply to it: [You would be] constrained on one side by the commission you have been given to keep the laws, and on the other by the claims of mercy and clemency, if you did not have in this matter the Apostle’s authority that “the one who judges does not bear the sword in vain, for he is the avenger of God upon evildoers” (Rom. 13:4).[6]

Although this is already known to you, you did not think it useless to ask the question. For there are those, though outside the Church, who do not call into communion of the heavenly mysteries those who consider it right to carry out capital sentence on some people. A great many [judges] voluntarily abstain [from the sacrament] and are lauded indeed, nor can we fail to praise them: for them we observe the authority of the Apostle [i.e. Paul above] to the extent that we do not dare refuse them communion.

You see, therefore what power authority confers on you, what mercy persuades you to. You will have excuse if you do it [impose death], praise if you do not do it. But if you are not able to do it, or to afflict someone by causing him to waste away in the squalor of prison, but set him free, as a priest I will commend you. For it may be when the case is heard, a criminal is received for sentencing who afterwards either asks for indulgence, or certainly without grave severity, as some say, is confined in prison. I know, however, a number of pagans who are accustomed to boast that they have brought the executioner’s ax back from their provincial administration unstained with blood. If the pagans do this, what should Christians do?[7]

This was an actual practice of the time; even an emperor, though he might have killed many in war in the provinces, would be proud of the Greek title of anaimaktos, or “unstained by blood,” meaning that he had not shed the blood of civilians.[8] Ambrose continues:

But in all these matters let our Savior’s answer suffice for you. The Jews apprehended an adulteress and brought her to the Savior, with the insidious intent that if He were to acquit her He might seem to destroy the law, though He had said, “I have not come to destroy, but to fulfil the law” (Mt 5:17), and on the other hand, were He to condemn her, He might seem to be acting against the purpose of His coming.

So the Lord Jesus, foreseeing this, stooped down and wrote upon the earth . . . He raises [his head] again, as though about to give sentence, and says, “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone at her.” And again, he stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard this, they began to go out one by one beginning at the eldest, and this either because they who had lived longest had committed most sins, or because, as being most sagacious, they were the first to comprehend the force of His sentence, and though they had come as the accusers of another’s sins, began rather to lament their own.

When they had departed, then, Jesus was left alone, and lifting up his head to the woman, he said, “Where are those who were accusing you? Has no one stoned you?” She answered, “No one, Lord.” Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more.” Being the Redemption, He refuses to condemn her, being the Life He restores her, being the Fountain He washes her. And since Jesus, when He stoops down stoops that He may raise up the fallen, He says, as the absolver of sins, “Neither do I condemn you.”

Here is an example for you to follow, for it may be that there is hope of amendment for this guilty person; if he is still unbaptized, that he may receive remission, if baptized that he may do penance, and offer up his body for Christ. See how many roads there are to salvation!

This is why our ancestors thought it better to be more indulgent towards judges, so that while their sword was feared, the madness of crime would be repressed, and no encouragement given to it. For if Communion were denied to judges, it would seem like a retribution for their punishment of the wicked. Our ancestors preferred then that those who abstain [from Communion] should do it out of free will, rather than because the law requires it.[9]

So unlike Edward Feser and associates, the death penalty has not exactly had complete approval at all times in the history of the Church. I think that Ambrose would have been very happy with the position of Pope St. John Paul II and the Catechism: that the death penalty might not be an intrinsic evil but it should be avoided whenever possible. At the same time, he saw, along with many of his time, the fuller implications of the death penalty as a violation of the sacredness of human life, a question that is still with us.

Our Choice Today

In the end, what can we make of the question of “intrinsic evil” vs. “contrary to the Gospel”? If we begin with Old Testament Law, we can see its clearly articulated dividing lines between what is permissible and what is not. Sometimes there is a spectrum: The death penalty was on the permissible side of the line, but killing of the innocent is always wrong (“You shall not kill” is actually translated more correctly, “You shall not commit murder”). Using this spectrum, we can separate out the intrinsically evil acts.

I think what Pope Francis recognizes is that the Jesus in the Gospel calls us to something higher, just as he tells us “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). This doesn’t suggest being on one side or another of allowability, but choosing what is best. Jesus didn’t suggest that Moses was wrong when he allowed divorce, but that with him, there began a new and more perfect conception of marriage. The Gospel is not simply about avoiding intrinsic evils, but achieving a more perfect justice. And, as Pope Francis said, it is about respecting the inviolable dignity of human life.

Update, Nov 20: Since writing this I came across this excellent article by David Bentley Hart, with more detail of the controversy over the death penalty in the early Church:


[1] Paulinus of Milan, “Life of St. Ambrose,” 3:7, from Early Christian Biographies, trans. John A. Lacy (Washington, D.C., Catholic University of American Press, 1952), pp. 36-37.

[2] It is uncertain what his name actually was, since in the earliest texts of Ambrose’s works, the first letter is headed “To Studius” and the second “To Ireneaus,” though both are obviously to the same person. (Ireneaus should not be confused with the famous second-century Father of that name). I’ll call him Studius, just because I really love the name. For more on this question, see The Letters of S. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (Oxford: James Parker, 1881), p 182.

[3] Cf. Migne, PL 16, col. 1040, note g.

[4] Ambrose, Letter 68, 2-3. (This is the modern numbering. In the Oxford and other earlier editions it was Letter 26). I have translated from the Latin edition in Migne, Patrologia Latina, vol. 16, cols. 1042-43, with some help from the Oxford translation.

[5] Letter 24, 12, Oxford ed., p. 181.

[6] The words “the one who judges” don’t appear in the Latin or even the Greek text. They were evidently inserted because this is the actual office Studius holds.

[7] Letter 25 (50 in later editions), nos. 1-3. Oxford, ed., pp. 182-83.

[8] Migne, PL 16, col 1041, note a

[9] Letter 25 (50), nos. 4-9, Oxford ed., p. 183-85.

Cardinals and Bishops: A Unaminous “Yes” to the Heroic Virtue of Papa Luciani

1333CNS-JPIWEB2Once again, I was caught by surprise by the news, just as I was back in September. And it is glorious news, thanks be to God! I’ve literally been waiting almost 40 years for this. This is my reporting, which has already gone up on the Pope John Paul I Association website.

On November 7, 2017, the Cardinals and bishops of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints unanimously approved the heroic nature of the virtue of Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I. Pope Francis is expected to soon sign the decree declaring him Venerable. When a miracle is approved, it will open the way to his beatification.

There are two possible miracles already waiting in the wings: the diocesan process has concluded for one miracle in Buenos Aires, Argentina (Pope Francis’ home diocese), and the process for a second miracle, the location of which has not specified, is still ongoing. When a miracle is chosen, it will be presented to the Congregation by Cardinal Beniamino Stella, the Postulator of Pope John Paul I’s cause. A previous potential miracle, of a man healed from non-Hodgkins lymphona in Altamura, Italy, has not been approved by the Vatican.

Pope John Paul I’s cause for beatification was opened just 14 years ago in November 2003, 25 years after his death. The diocesan process concluded in November 2006. The Roman phase finished in 2008. The first part of the Positio on his virtues was submitted to the Vatican in October 2012, and the complete Positio in October 2016. On June 1, 2017, a panel of theologians at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints approved his heroic virtue, leaving the way open for the cardinals and bishops to vote.

Reporting from La Stampa and Corriere delle Alpi. Please keep coming back for updates!

Update. There is also more news. A new book published in Italy chronicles the Pope’s death. It was written by journalist and historian Stefania Falasca, the vice-postulator of his cause. It says that of course, he died of natural causes, and suggests a heart attack. It is based on documents originating with the Vatican, and his canonization process. There are sure to be questions about this as well. I have chronicled his death for a long time myself, and it is unquestionable that the Pope died of natural causes, but there is also question whether it was a heart attack. I will go into it in a later post.

Update, Nov 9: Yes! Pope Francis has wasted no time publishing the decree approving John Paul I’s heroic virtues, announced Nov. 9 and published in the Nov. 10 Osservatore Romano.

I have bought and downloaded a digital copy of Falasca’s book Papa Luciani: Cronaca della sua Morte and have started reading it. It has a really fantastic level of detail and documentation not only about John Paul’s death but also his pontificate. I will write a lengthy treatment of it as soon as I can.

EWTN’s Nightly News has a good story with some more details about book: (when you hit play, it should start from the beginning of the story; it runs from 10:00-12:35).

Jesus, the Adulterous Woman and the Death Penalty — Part II

When I first began researching this subject in the Fathers, I didn’t quite know what I would find. I wanted to gather quotes to show their interpretation of Jesus writing on the ground. But I found a great deal more when I discovered two letters of St. Ambrose that do treat the question of the death penalty at some length in the context of this passage from John. Amazingly, though I have read a number of articles and dissertations on the woman taken in adultery, the question of whether the Fathers discussed this Scripture passage in relation to the death penalty is almost never brought up in them. The letters of Ambrose were eye-opening in this regard. I am still researching this and working on an exact translation of the letters. So I will limit myself here to a brief second installment. You can read Part I here.


Since I began writing, Edward Feser has stepped up his rhetoric against Pope Francis’s take on the death penalty, and he has been answered in this very interesting article by E. Christian Brugger.

One thing that hasn’t been discussed in these articles or the others I’ve seen is the whole question of the difference between saying something is “intrinsically wrong” or “intrinsically evil” and what Pope Francis has said, which is that putting criminals to death is “in itself contrary to the Gospel.” The Gospel, after all, contains a great many things other than lists of intrinsically evil actions, and Francis appears to be talking more about the positive teaching of the Gospel on life. Can “contrary to the Gospel” in this sense be more clearly defined? I would love to see a definition of terms in this argument. I hope to add something to this debate before the end of my discussion, so hang on.

Since this part will deal more closely with the question of the death penalty, I should add here something I neglected to put in the first part: there was a question among the Jews at the time of Jesus of whether death was the suitable penalty for adultery and whether the death penalty itself was proper.[1] And Rome did not practice or recognize the death penalty for adultery.[2] This means that the scribes and Pharisees were most likely putting a real question to Jesus, though with improper motives, that really had to do with the legality of the death penalty. So let’s go a little deeper into this story.

Writing with the Finger of God

“And Jesus stooped and wrote on the ground.” (Jn 8:6).

This is the only time in Scripture where Jesus is said to have written anything – and we are not even told what he wrote! Curiosity has given rise to all sorts of imaginative suggestions. Some believe that he was writing the names and the sins of the woman’s accusers, or a particular passage of Scripture – for instance, St. Ambrose suggested, “Earth, earth, write these men deposed (Jeremiah 22, 29, 30).”[3]

Perhaps the most plausible solution is that Jesus was following Roman practice: in Roman law, the judge first wrote down his sentence, then delivered it orally.[4] And indeed we see Jesus stooping to write, then standing up or looking up and speaking each time after he writes. Could be he have been writing down each of the two “sentences” he gives? This strikes me as very credible and likely.

Most of the better-informed Jews of the time, certainly including the scribes and Pharisees, would have been quite familiar with the legal practices of the Roman governorship of Judea. It is also likely that most of the large crowd standing in the Temple courtyard that day wouldn’t have been close enough to read what Jesus wrote. In fact, it’s clear that they didn’t: they only started going away when they heard him speak. But it would have been easy to understand his gesture of writing and what it meant when it was followed by his speaking: he was signaling to them that he was handing down a sentence.

The first sentence, in front of the accusers, suggests that they could carry out the death penalty on the condition of their sinlessness; the second takes place when he is alone with the woman; here he doesn’t so much acquit her as dismiss the case, because there are no longer any accusers and therefore no charges.[5]

But the real importance of the writing may not be in what was written, but how and by who it was written. We are told that Jesus wrote with his finger, recalling the Old Testament giving of the law to Moses:

When the Lord had finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, the stone tablets written with the finger of God. (Exodus 31:18).

And another detail, that the first time Jesus writes, the Greek text expresses “he wrote” using the verb katagrapho and the second time the simpler form of the verb grapho.[6]

The first time:

Jesus bent down and wrote (katagrapho) with his finger on the ground (v. 6)

The second time:

And once more he bent down and wrote (grapho) with his finger on the ground. (v. 8)

This is an example of the Hebrew style of parallelism – the repetition of something that is the same, but different. This makes it a good sign that the author, whoever he was, was a Jew. But he undoubtedly had another reason for writing as he did, for in the text of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament the evangelists used, the exact same words also occur shortly after the above passage in Exodus, and in the same order:

Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written (katagrapho) on both sides, written (grapho) on the front and on the back. (Exodus 32:15). [7]

To Jews who had Exodus almost by heart and who had this rhythm of Scripture always in their ears, the reference would have been clear: not only is Jesus above the Roman lawgivers, he is superior even to Moses. He is not just the just and sinless Judge, but the Divine Lawgiver himself. Thus he answers the challenge in the terms he was given: “the law of Moses says this – what do you say?” The answer is not only a judgment but the law written by God. It is similar to Jesus’ judgment on divorce (Mt. 19:8-9), where his word supersedes the law given by Moses. The Fathers of the Church recognized this clearly. St. Augustine wrote:

. . . you have heard, O teachers of the law, the guardian of the law, but have not yet understood Him as the Lawgiver. What else does He signify to you when He writes with His finger on the ground? For the [Old Testament] law was written with the finger of God; but written on stone because of the hard-hearted. The Lord now wrote on the ground, because He was seeking fruit.[8]

Sinless Judges

But what does this judgment say? What does Jesus really mean by saying, “Let the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her”? How does it apply to the death penalty?

St. Augustine sums up the dilemma created by Jesus’ words:

. . . This is the voice of Justice: Let her, the sinner, be punished, but not by sinners: let the law be fulfilled, but not by the transgressors of the law.[9]

Some death penalty opponents believe that in this story, Jesus did away with the death penalty. It can be argued that his judgment, which is the very judgment of God, means that only the sinless can carry out the penalty of death against sinners. Since no human beings except Jesus and Mary have ever been sinless, no human being can put someone to death.

Augustine doesn’t actually draw the conclusion implicit in his words, though others have.[10] But others reject this interpretation. One Evangelical writer, Stephen James, puts it this way: “the logical consequence [of this argument] is that there can be no criminal judgment and punishment on earth because all men are sinners. This would obstruct the express purpose of civil government, which is a ‘minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil” (Rom 13:4).[11]

Many Catholics would say the same. But this argument ignores the fact that the question is about the death penalty, not the whole of the law. It can be argued that the power over life and death, which actually belongs to God alone, cannot be delegated to or exercised by sinful human beings. This does not necessarily touch the rest of the law.

But there is more in the Fathers about this subject. As I mentioned in the first installment, some have suggested that the passage was originally in John 8:1-11, but was removed from the Gospel by some people. Most commentary by later writers has assumed that those who removed the passage were concerned about too lenient penances in the Church for adultery. For instance, they draw on the words of St. Augustine:

Certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord’s remission of the penalty (indulgentia) in regard to the adulterous woman, as if he who had said, ‘Sin no more,’ had granted permission to sin.”[12]

St. Augustine was writing here in the context of Church penance for adultery. Some translations have “forgiveness” here, probably intending “forgiveness of sin,” but this is incorrect. Indulgentia in Roman times meant remission of a legal penalty, in the Church it was also applied to the remission of a penance imposed on a sinner by the bishop. It is the legal penalty that is at issue in the original story. St. Augustine, in the context, meant it to apply to the question of penance. But he is not denying the original meaning. So it is possible that he is also speaking of those who thought adultery should be punished by law.

But there is even more in the Fathers that confirms this as a possible interpretation. In the next installment I will take up the works of St. Ambrose, Augustine’s contemporary (indeed, the bishop who baptized him and who was his mentor). He has a great many surprising things to say about the role of the passage in John in the debate – and yes, there was a debate — in the early Church over the death penalty.


[1] Markus Maienpaa, “The Pericope Adulterae and the Historical Jesus – Interpretation and Significance.” Iesus Aboensis: Abo Akedemi Journal for Historical Jesus Research 2 (2017): 79.

[2] Craig Keener, John: A Commentary, p. 736.

[3] Ambrose, Letter 25 (50 in later eds), 4.

[4] See Manson, T. W. “The Pericope de Adultera (Joh 753–811).” ZNW 43 (1952 /53) 255–256.

[5] St. Ambrose, who had a legal career before becoming a bishop, gives a great legal analysis of this last point in his Letter 68 (about which more later).

[6] Here I am using throughout the first-person singular of both verbs, which is the way a general reference to a verb is given in Greek, because the actual tenses used are less easy to recognize to those who don’t know Greek

[7] For this see the excellent treatment in Chris Keith, “Jesus Began to Write: Literacy, the Pericope Adulterae, and the Gospel of John.” Chris Keith Ph.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh. 2008, pp. 167-92.

[8] Augustine Commentary on John’s Gospel, 33, 5 (transation mine). A number of commentators have pointed out that, contrary to what most readers suppose, Jesus did not actually forgive the woman’s sin, but lets her go and invites her to repent (“sin no more”).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Works by some of the advocates of this position, including John Howard Yoder and Charles Milligan,  are listed by Stephen A. James, “The Adulteress and the Death Penalty.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 22:1 (March 1979):

[11] James, “”The Adulteress and the Death Penalty,” p. 48.

[12] Augustine, On Adulterous Marriages, 2: 6, 7.


Jesus, the Adulterous Woman and the Death Penalty (Part I)

Read Part II here
Read Part III here

The Problem

POPE ANNIVERSARY CATECHISMA statement by Pope Francis has once again attracted controversy in the past few days – and this time it actually is a question of substance, based on a carefully composed statement of the Pope, not on some wild misunderstanding of a papal plane interview. This time Francis is raising a serious question of “the development of doctrine.” On October 11, speaking to a roomful of people gathered to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, he said:

Along these same lines, I would like now to bring up a subject that ought to find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a more adequate and coherent treatment in the light of these expressed aims. I am speaking of the death penalty. This issue cannot be reduced to a mere résumé of traditional teaching without taking into account not only the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent Popes, but also the change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity. It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor. No man, “not even a murderer, loses his personal dignity” (Letter to the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, 20 March 2015), because God is a Father who always awaits the return of his children who, knowing that they have made mistakes, ask for forgiveness and begin a new life. No one ought to be deprived not only of life, but also of the chance for a moral and existential redemption that in turn can benefit the community. (Source)

This goes a good way beyond the statements of John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism, which say that the death penalty is theoretically legitimate, but almost never advisable or necessary in practice. (source). Pope Francis believes, instead, that it is “contrary to the Gospel.” It should be pointed out that he is not yet making any substantive change, but is asking that the question be examined for future editions of the Catechism. He has immediately been attacked by Catholic death penalty supporters. For instance, philosopher Ed Feser writes that because of the unanimous testimony of the Fathers, the popes, and other Catholic teaching “the legitimacy of capital punishment is irreformable Catholic teaching. And if that is so, then it follows that a pope who taught that capital punishment was always and intrinsically wrong would be as manifestly guilty of doctrinal error as he would be if he denied the Trinity.” He admits that the Pope says some things that point in the opposite direction, but that they aren’t much help:

Indeed, Pope Francis goes so far as to assert that in saying what he does about capital punishment, he is “not in any way contradicting past teaching” and that the view he is advocating “in no way represents a change in doctrine” (emphasis added). Now, as already noted, the past, unbroken doctrine of the Church is that capital punishment can under certain circumstances be a legitimate form of punishment. But if that is the case, then capital punishment is not after all “per se contrary to the Gospel” and it is not of its very nature “inadmissibleno matter how serious the crime.” (Source)

So Feser believes that there is a real contradiction between Pope Francis’ words and Church teaching and doesn’t apparently see much room for the “development of doctrine.”

A Significant Story and its History

What should we say? The Church does accept that there is doctrinal development; we can cite a number of past examples. It took many centuries for the Church to understand how St. Paul’s words that in Christ, there is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free” (Gal 3:28) applied to slavery – even though Paul himself at least partly understood the implications (Philemon 1:16). There were similar difficulties the question of usury. And then there is the matter of religious liberty – the Church did make a turnabout here at Vatican II. Could the death penalty be another such case?


Rembrandt, Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery

Neither the Pope or his accuser said anything about how Jesus himself weighed in on this question. And there is a famous episode in the Gospels where he was asked to directly address the question – in fact, to actually serve as judge in a death penalty case. I’m talking, of course, about the story of the woman taken in adultery in John 8:1-11. I believe this text could be helpful on the question of the development of doctrine by a deeper understanding of the Gospel. Here is the text:

But early in the morning [Jesus] arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.”

This is one of the most famous stories in the Gospel, and one of the most commented on.[1] It is certainly one of my favorites. But it is relatively seldom used in discussions of the Church’s view of capital punishment, at least I don’t recall it being used in any of the discussions I’ve heard. Of course, the argument might be difficult in ecumenical terms. Many Protestants don’t recognize this passage from John as Scripture because it is widely regarded as not written by the evangelist, and therefore not canonical.[2] In fact, the story has a long and rather strange textual history. It is missing from the earliest Greek manuscripts of John and not commented on in the early Fathers. Yet there are evidences of its circulation as part of the Gospel of John as early as the second century.[3] Many textual scholars, based on the style and vocabulary, have questioned whether the passage is actually by the author of the Fourth Gospel.


Papyrus P66 of John (2nd century). It does not have the story of the adulterous woman, but the dot near the end of the second line signifies where it would have been — a sign that it was already circulating in other copies, but this scribe had doubts about its authenticity.

Yet almost all scholars agree that it is a very early tradition, which may go back to the early Hebrew Gospel of Matthew, which is regarded as being by the apostle, but separate from the later Greek text.[4] Some have suggested that it may have been inserted later into John on this basis or because it was judged ancient. Others think it might have been actually omitted from many copies for a reason I will go into later on. Whatever the case, the passage was included in the many manuscripts of the second-century Old Latin translation of the New Testament, and St. Jerome accepted it into the Vulgate, which in time became the definitive edition for the Western Church. There were three great champions of the passage in the fourth century: Jerome, Augustine and Ambrose. The Greek manuscripts from the fifth century on include it. In this way, the story gained a place in the Catholic canon of inspired Scripture, a place that was confirmed by the Council of Trent.[5]

Recently, skeptical biblical scholar Bart Ehrman has succeeded in misleading a number of people as to the history involved.[6] But in spite of the controversy, this is a solid Biblical text for Catholics. And I think I can say that is been largely ignored lately in discussion about the death penalty. But let’s look at what it does have to say.

Accounts of Stoning in Scripture and Jewish Law on the Death Penalty

My exegesis of the passage begins with an examination of what it implies about the law on the death penalty and stoning at the time. A few of the questions it immediately raises are: is this an actual trial or something more like a lynching? Wasn’t a formal trial by the Sanhedrin or some other court required? Didn’t executions have to take place outside the city walls? What about the law that the Jews could not execute a person without consent of the Roman authorities? There are no Romans in sight in this story.

In Jewish law, a person could only be given the death sentence on the testimony of two witnesses (Deut 17:16), and the witnesses had to agree – as illustrated by Daniel’s inspired cross-examination of the elders who plotted against Susanna (Daniel 13:50-61). Trials could be carried out by the Levitical priests or lay judges (2 Chr 19:8). Executions had to be done outside the city walls (Lev 24:14; Acts 7:58). Stoning was carried out by throwing or pushing a person from a high place, followed by dropping heavy rocks on him. In addition, the witnesses themselves where to be required to throw the first stones, followed by the rest of the people (Dt 17:7). Also, if the witnesses were found to have lied in their testimony, the death penalty would have been inflicted on them. (Dt 17:7, Dan 13:61).

This in and of itself should give pause to anyone, not just those arguing for or against the death penalty, but for anyone taking part in a criminal proceeding where capital punishment is imposed. If we were asked to testify against someone in court and knew that we would be asked to carry out the execution personally, if the defendant is found guilty, would we agree to testify? And if we knew that we would be condemned to death if it were found that we gave false eyewitness testimony, would we agree to give this testimony? This gives us an idea of how seriously Old Testament law looked upon trials and the judicial taking of life.

But there is another side to the question. There are examples in the New Testament of cases where, in spite of all the cautions, anger and a mob mentality prevailed. For instance, as Jesus was preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, the townspeople, enraged at his statements, formed a mob, drove him out of town and attempted to throw him off a cliff (the preliminary to stoning), though they were unable to hold him (Lk 4:29-30). And when Paul was in the Temple in Jerusalem, (Acts 21:30-31), his enemies, who considered him a blasphemer and enemy of the law, caught sight of him, dragged out of the Temple and tried to kill him – perhaps by stoning? The trial and stoning of St. Stephen before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem (Acts 6-7) seems to have followed something more like the usual procedure: it was carried out in front of the high priest, with witnesses, but at his proclamation of Jesus, “they cried out in a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him together. They threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.” (7:58). In neither case, is anything like a formal sentence pronounced. The trial ended in a sort of mob mentality taking over. The trial of Jesus himself before the Sanhedrin is instructive in showing how an innocent person can be condemned even by a carefully set up judicial system.

What about the need for Roman confirmation? We learn this from the trial of Jesus, where the Jewish authorities expressly evoke it: “We are not permitted to put anyone to death” (John 18:31). But it is probable few people took notice of it in smaller communities away from direct access to the authorities; it is certainly absent from Nazareth incident. Even in Jerusalem, the Jewish authorities were not always anxious to evoke this rule. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus describes how the high priest Ananus took advantage of the period between the departure of one Roman governor and arrival of the new one to execute James, the brother of the Lord and some other disciples, obviously so the new governor would be unable to stop him (Antiquities of the Jews 20:9:1).

The Story and Jesus’ Reaction

Whatever the history of the text, I will deal with it as it stands now in the canonical Gospel. Let’s begin with the setting of the scene. It doesn’t appear that the scribes and Pharisees coming to Jesus is an impromptu thing, though it does not seem that a trial has yet taken place. It is evidently a carefully laid plot. The Gospel says that the scribes and Pharisees wanted to entrap Jesus and have something to charge him with. What might t have been? Jesus was widely criticized by the Jewish authorities for rejecting some of the ritual aspects of the Mosaic law, and had even claimed to abrogate Jewish law on divorce. Many commentators have suggested that since Jesus was known to be merciful to sinners, this was a way to trap him between the requirements of justice and his well-known mercy. Most commentators don’t suggest this openly, but they were probably expecting him to reject the death penalty in Mosaic law, so they could hold this against him. Or was it the Mosaic law vs. the Roman law? As T. W. Manson puts it, ” If Jesus sanctions the execution of the woman, he thereby usurps the power of the Roman authorities; if he forbids it, he goes against the plain teaching of the Law of Moses.”[7]

Jesus understands the law, and has shown that he can debate on it at length. Yet he doesn’t engage in any debate here. He speaks one short sentence and disperses the crowd, saving the woman’s life. Pretty impressive, especially since it was a situation, as we can see, fraught with the possibility of sudden violence, especially with a crowd involved, as Jesus knew by personal experience. His words were effective for several reasons. First, getting the focus off the woman and onto her accusers defused the situation, and lessened the probability of it leading to violence. It also worked as an appeal to his accusers’ instinct for self-preservation. If they really were lying about being an eyewitness to this sin, or have evil motives, then they would really have to answer for it with their lives. It would also be effective in the appeal not only to conscience but to shame, for no one could stand in front of their fellows and by such an action claim to be without sin. Jewish law was clear on this — and shame was an important aspect of Jewish culture at the time.

Yet there is even more going on in the story. There are some very important points brought out the text by the Church Fathers, and along with them, some surprising relevance to our modern debate on the death penalty, which I will explore in the next installment.

Go to Part II


[1] In fact, it even has its own website: I have to confess that I was barely able to tear myself away from this fascinating site to get back to working on this post. The author, who goes by the charming name of Nazaroo, is a pretty vocal advocate of the passage being an original part of John’s Gospel, and his comments are rather biased, but it has a ton of excellent discussion and good references.

[2] Protestants, of course, don’t accept the authority of the Catholic Church to say what is Scripture, but many Protestants are willing to accept the story on basis of its historicity, or the weight of tradition. For a Protestant-based discussion, see Armin Baum, “Does the PA have Canonical Authority? An Interconfessional Approach.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 24: 2 (2014): 163-178.

[3] For instance, our earliest (almost) complete MS of John, P66, from ca. 150-200 A.D. does not include the passage, but a mark in the text indicates that it is found in some copies (see in the illustration above, the dot near the end of the second line), but is omitted as of doubtful authenticity in this one. It also seems to have been included, except for one or two MSS, in the Diatesseron, or Gospel harmony, of Tatian, from the late second century (see The history of the text and commentary on the story is dizzyingly complex. Two good sources for a more complete account (in addition to the website mentioned in note 1) are Chris Keith, “Jesus Began to Write: Literacy, the Pericope Adulterae, and the Gospel of John.” Ph.D. thesis, University of Edinburgh. 2008. ( and John David, “The Pericope Adulterae: Theories of Insertion & Omission.” Ph.D Thesis, Radboud University, Nijmegen, 2010.( Both works are more comprehensive in their treatment than their titles suggest.

[4] The earliest source for this is Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis in the early second century: “Papias also put forth another history concerning a woman accused of many sins before the Lord; and this history is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews.” (Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History 3: 39).

[5] The Council decreed canonical all the books of the New Testament “in their entirety and with all their parts, as they have been accustomed to be read in the Catholic Church and as they are contained in the old Latin Vulgate edition” (Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, trans. H. J. Schroeder; Rockford: Tan, 1978, p. 18). The emphasized words were intended to include passages such as John 7:53-8:11 and the last 16 verses of Mark. See George Reid, “Canon of the Old Testament” and “Canon of the New Testament.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. and

[6] Ehrman actually claimed in several interviews in popular media promoting his book Misquoting Jesus, that the story of the adulteress only entered Greek manuscripts around the twelfth century as the result of a scribal error. In the book itself, he only claims ” Most scholars think that it was probably a well-known story circulating in the oral tradition about Jesus, which at some point was added in the margin of a manuscript. From there some scribe or other thought that the marginal note was meant to be part of the text and so inserted it. . .” Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus, New York: HarperCollins, 2005, (e-book ed.), p. 82. For the interviews, see For someone renowned as the major textual scholar of the New Testament in our day, this leaves out a great deal, to say the least! Not to mention that if it the result of a scribal addition, it was probably in the second century rather than the twelfth.

[7] T. W. Manson, “The Pericope de Adultera (Joh 753–811).” Zeitschrift fuer die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 43 (1952 /53) 255–256

Franciscan Saints: Jutta of Sangerhausen — Part II

Here is my second and last installment on the life of Bl. Jutta of Sangerhausen. We pick up the story after Jutta, a noblewoman who had given everything she had to the poor and had been tending the sick in Thuringia and other parts of Germany, decided to travel as a pilgrim to live in Kulmsee in Prussia, then on the frontiers of the Christian world. (Part I is here).

Jutta-lgAt first sight, Prussia was an odd choice to live a life of contemplation. It was a land full of violence and turmoil. At this time, Kulmsee (modern Chelmza) was part of the Teutonic Order State. This military order had ruled the territory along Europe’s northern frontiers since defeating the pagan Old Prussians beginning in 1230. The territory consisted of parts of modern-day Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Russia.

As Fryderyk Szembek, Jutta’s seventeenth-century biographer, wrote about the extreme violence:

Prussia . . . was ravaged by sword and fire; within the fortified castles and strongholds, the Teutonic Knights with difficulty guarded life and liberty against the barbarians, who . . . numbered up to three thousand: and even the Pruthenians [Prussians] who had not long ago been baptized, going back to paganism, carried out no small massacre of the priests and Christian men living among them.[1]

Large waves of auxiliary troops had recently been sent for pacification and the situation seemed to have stabilized somewhat when Jutta arrived in Kulmsee (in Polish Chelmza) sometime in the summer of 1256.[2] This city was the center of the newly founded diocese, which had been set up in the old town of Loza in 1243. The cathedral was just beginning to be built when Jutta arrived.

Here she took up residence in a small deserted hut in the woods on the shore of a lake near the little settlement of Bielczyny, about half a mile from Kulmsee. She was not only unprotected from the elements but from the potentially violent pagans. Here she spent most of her time in contemplation. She prayed to God for the people, “out of wonderful love for the salvation of their souls, for the propagation of the holy faith, and for the confirmation in the faith of the Prussian proselytes and for the conversion of those who remained in paganism in Prussia.”[3] Those who saw her reported that she could often be found praying elevated in the air.


Jutta crossing the lake, from her sanctuary in Bielczyny near Chelmza Poland

Jutta would go to Holy Trinity cathedral in Kulmsee for Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. A tradition among the townspeople reflected in an early document says that in order to get there quickly out of devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, she would actually walk across the surface of the lake. When she had crossed and was walking on the ordinary footpath, about halfway there was a tree, evidently a small roadside shrine, with an image of the crucified Christi attached to it, where she would kneel and pray.[4]

When she was in town and talking with people, “she would kindle them to the good; she would speak about divine things and those pertaining to salvation and especially about the greatness and omnipotence of the most holy Trinity, strengthening Christians recently reconciled to the faith in the same faith; and urging those [converted] long ago and a short time before to fear and love the same Lord.”[5] The Informatio makes several references to her extraordinary knowledge of Scripture.

Her confessor was the Franciscan Bl. John of Lobdow. He is a neglected saint, and indeed has only a local cult, but he is representative of the best of the Franciscans of the time. He had been born in the small town of Lobdow, and had entered the Franciscan convent in Torun very shortly after its founding around 1239. Around 1257 or 1258, he transferred to the Franciscan convent at the newly built Church of St. James the Greater and St. Nicholas in Kulm (about 15 miles from Kulmsee), where he taught theology to the friars. He was renowned not only for his learning but known for his mystical life:

Once, brothers passing the door of his cell heard a woman’s voice coming from inside. As this was certainly against the rule, and knowing his holiness, they were astonished, and knocked, but they received no answer. They also heard a child crying. They forced the door open and entered, and found John alone. When they demanded to know what had happened, he confessed that he had a vision of the Blessed Virgin and her divine Child. He said that the baby Jesus was crying because “the Catholic faith and devotion, so clearly flourishing in Prussia, was going to be destroyed by the enemies of his Church, to the great detriment of souls.”[6] This may have referred to the pagans of the time presenting a danger to the faith. Or it may have been a prediction of the results of the future Protestant movement in Prussia.

With his learning and great spiritual sensitivity, John seems to have been the idea confessor for Jutta. There does not seem to have been any Franciscan church in Kulmsee that time; he may have made trips there to celebrate Mass for those who wanted the friars’ services. Or Jutta may have gone to Kulm, a relatively long distance, to confess to him. If so, she must have had a real devotion to the Franciscans to want to undertake the trip.

Jutta did not entirely give up her hospital work for the poor; we can find in the Informatio a fleeting reference to “the chapel of the poor, to whom she ministered”; it was in this same chapel that her body was prepared for burial.[7] Many scholars have identified this chapel as the little church of St. George, outside of the city wall of Kulmsee, and to the north, along the road to Grudziadz.[8] It seems to have been founded for the spiritual support of lepers, most likely with a leper hospital nearby.[9] The religious affiliation of the church and hospital is an important question, because this might give a clue to the religious order, if any, to which Jutta and her sisters belonged, but there is no certain information about it. Westphal writes: “It is certain that in Jutta’s time in Kulmsee a sisterhood of women who cared for the sick existed, which called Jutta “mater et soror,” thus was probably founded by her. Whether they were Beguines or Franciscan tertiaries, or whether they followed the popular rule of St. Augustine, we don’t know.”[10] This is a question that arises with many of the women who followed St. Elizabeth in the thirteenth century.

The location of Jutta's hut at her sanctuary in Bielczyny, Poland

The location of Jutta’s hut at her sanctuary in Bielczyny, Poland

The Informatio also mentions Jutta’s “faithful companions in ministry to the poor.”[11] We don’t know of any of these companions had accompanied her from Germany, but it seems very likely, since many of the details in the Informatio about her earlier life must have come from someone who knew her at that time. Jutta herself, who was so humble, certainly would not have spoken much about her own virtues and miracles. It’s also likely that Jutta inspired a number of local women to follow her in this service to the poor.

Jutta predicted the time of her death, and she indeed fell ill with a high fever, and was assisted in her last moments by Bishop Heidenreich. On her deathbed, she discoursed about the Last Words of Christ from the close, demonstrating her amazing knowledge of Scripture. The bishop then read to her from the Gospel of John, up to the point where Jesus said, “Rise, let us go from here.” She died lying on the bare floor of the hut, nothing but earth and stone, like St. Francis.

With all the vague dates and details in Jutta’s life, it is good that we can be almost certain about the date of her death: early in the morning of the vigil of the Ascension, that is, Wednesday, May 12, 1260.[12] She had lived for just four years in Kulmsee, but she was already renowned for her holiness there.

Her faithful sisters prepared her body for burial in the small “chapel of the poor.” Thirteen priests led the funeral procession – a large number for that time of place — and though news of her death hadn’t been made known, so great was the renown that Jutta gained for her humble life, prayer and ministry to the poor that the people came in enormous crowds, as great as had ever been seen at the time. She was buried in a new chapel made for the purpose at the still unfinished cathedral, even though Jutta had asked for a poor funeral.

It’s unfortunate that we don’t learn more about her interactions with the pagans and the recent converts from their ranks. As for why Jutta chose to come to this place, we have only this statement she made on her deathbed: “O what great happiness and what a unique means for imploring God it is to have, along with joy, these three things: serious illness, insults among strangers far from your homeland and poverty in voluntary want for God’s sake.”[13]

Her words “insults among strangers far from your homeland” say a great deal. Was it that the pagans insulted her? Or was it the knights of the military, who didn’t know what she was doing there? Whatever the case might be, her witness for peace and willingness to endure everything illustrates the extent of Jutta’s radical love of God and her care for those “on the peripheries” of faith and culture.


Chapel at Bl. Jutta’s sanctuary at Bielczyny

Jutta’s chapel can still be seen at the cathedral, though the former sanctuary enclosing the site of the little stone building where Jutta lived by the lake was destroyed during World War II. Today there is a modest chapel there, still surrounded by the peace of the woods that Jutta knew.

Jutta’s Thirteenth Century Vita and St. Elizabeth

The last question I want to address is the possible identity of the author of the thirteenth-century life based on the testimonies (see above). The major passage of the Informatio detailing how Jutta wanted to imitate St. Elizabeth in serving God in voluntary poverty, describes Elizabeth as “the Landgrafin of Thuringia, patroness of our Poland.”[14] Westphal believed it was an addition by Szembek; but as Nemes points out, the Jesuit biographer did not show a particular Polish patriotism in his work.[15] It might be added that he spoke about Prussia more than he did Poland, and regarded Elizabeth, along with John of Lobdow and Dorothy of Montau as patronesses of Prussia. In fact, Elizabeth was not considered patroness of Poland in his time. Nor were such words really suitable for a writer of the Teutonic Order, who may have drawn up the Informatio. Such a person would have described Elizabeth as the patroness of his Order and perhaps also of the Teutonic State, but would hardly have described her as Patroness of Poland. Nemes believes that these words are not actually part of the original Informatio, but of a thirteenth-century Vita based on the testimonies contained in it.[16]

If so, who wrote this life? Was it on behalf of a religious order? Nemes hypothesizes that it was written in a Cistercian or Dominican monastery, because both orders were present in the diocese of Kulmsee, rather than the Teutonic Order, which did not have a literary tradition in the thirteenth century.[17] This could explain why the manuscript of the Vita that Szembek found came from a Cistercian monastery. But this certainly doesn’t solve the question of why Elizabeth was called “patroness of our Poland.”

We know, to begin with, that the Informatio was drawn up about 15 years after Jutta’s death, as Szembek’s text tells us, this, is, about 1275. The Vita based on it would have been written after that. But when and by who?

The real clue may lie in the fact that two rulers of Poland in the thirteenth century were nieces of St. Elizabeth, daughters of her brother, King Bela IV of Hungary. St. Kinga or Kunegunde (1224-1292), was married to Boleslaw the Chaste, the Grand Duke of Krakow. Her sister, Bl. Jolenta (1235-1298), was married to Boleslaw the Pious, the High Duke of Greater Poland. Both would certainly have been devoted to the memory of their saintly aunt, as their father was. Both were also devoted to the Franciscans and both founded and entered Poor Clare monasteries after their husbands’ deaths. It certainly would have been very natural for them to have considered Elizabeth, so closely tied to them by blood, a patron saint of the land they ruled.

This is hinted at in Szembek’s text, which notes that at the time Jutta arrived in Kulmsee, “Boleslaus the Chaste was reigning in Poland with his wife Kunigunde [Kinga], the Master of the Teutonic Order in Prussia being vacant by the death of Poppo von Osterna, sixth in the order of the Grand Masters.” Westphal considered the first of these phrases used to date Jutta’s arrival in Prussia as an addition to the original Informatio and removed it from his reconstructed text, while keeping the second. Yet both statements could easily have gone back to the original text.

We also know that both Kinga and Jolenta, along with Bl. Salomea (1212 – 1268), a Polish princess, who was married to Kalman, another brother of St. Elizabeth, and who also became a Poor Clare, were prominently mentioned in the Anonymous Franciscan life of Elizabeth, which was written between 1279 and1301.[18] In fact, there seems to have been a circle of Franciscans around the royal family of Hungary who were devoted to Elizabeth’s family, and also extolled the Polish monarchy into which they married. Sometime around 1290, the life of Bl. Salomea was written by a Franciscan named Stanislaus who had been her confessor.[19] The life of St. Kinga was also written by a Franciscan around 1329.[20]

It is at possible that, if members of this circle regarded Jutta as part of the Franciscan sisterhood of St. Elizabeth, they could have produced a biography of her as well around this same time. This in itself doesn’t prove that Elizabeth was a Franciscan, and in fact, if this were true, we would expect something about her devotion to St. Francis or more about her attachment to the Franciscans. Even so, it would put both her life and veneration of her in a new light.


[1] Fryderyk Szembek, S. J., Przyklad Dziwny Doskonalosci Chrzescianskiey. . . S. Jutti Niemkinie (Torun, 1638), translated into Latin in the Acta Sanctorum, Mai VII, p. 597.

[2] We can deduce the date from the statement in the Informatio that Jutta lived in Prussia for almost four years before her death, and that she arrived there during the interregnum between the terms in office of the Grand Masters of the Teutonic Order, Poppo of Osterna and Otto of Sangerhausen, that is, in the summer or fall of 1256 (see Westphal, “Untersuchungen,” p. 589).

[3] Informatio, no. 39,

[4] The source was probably an old document from the cathedral in Kulmsee; Westphal, “Untersuchungen,” p. 590, note 1.

[5] Informatio, no. 41; Westphal, “Untersuchungen,” p. 591.

[6] From Szembek’s life of Bl. John, Pomoc z nieba na uspokojenie Prus, translated in Acta Sanctorum, Octobris IV, p. 1098.

[7] Informatio, no. 45; Westphal, “Untersuchungen,” p. 592.

[8] See Westphal, “Untersuchungen, Ch. 2, no. 5. Some recent research into the history and location of this church can be found at (in Polish).

[9] We learn this from a document of the bishop of Kulmsee, from 1348. At the time the document was written, just two lepers were left there, and in order to maintain them, and provide for a chaplain, the diocese took the church back under the control of the cathedral chapter, as it had been at an unspecified time in the past; Carl Peter Woelky, Urkundenbuch des Bisthums Culm. Theil I: Das Bisthum Culm unter dem Deutschen Orden, 1243-1466 (Danzig: Commissionsverlag von Theodor Bertling, 1884), pp. 218-19. The age of the church is uncertain; it may have existed while the town was still called Loza, since it was used by trade ships along the Browin river as a navigational mark, and the Hanseatic trade was active before Loza became a cathedral town. (see website in note 8)

[10] (Westphal, “Untersuchungen,” p. 557-58). Westphal notes that a seventeenth-century Polish author named Loniewski, who was himself an Augustinian, suggested that Jutta and her sisters were Augustinian canonesses; this was probably based on the fact that the canons of the cathedral chapter during Jutta’s time were Augustinians, and the church at some point was a dependency of the cathedral. It is true that the garb Jutta wears in some later art works seems to resemble the Augustinian nuns’ habits. But while it is true that the church at some point before 1348 was a dependency of the cathedral, we don’t know if it was in the 1250′s, and even if it were, it would not have proven that the sisters who served the sick there were Augustinians.

[11]Informatio,” no. 47, Westphal, “Untersuchungen,” pp. 593-94.

[12] The Informatio says “at daybreak on the vigil of the Ascension.” (Informatio, no. 46, Westphal, “Untersuchungen,”p. 593). Both Szembek and Wadding thought that Jutta died in 1264, based on their belief that this was the date inscribed on her tomb, though the tomb inscription had actually disappeared long before their time, and might have referred to the date the stone was erected rather than to that of her death. Her death in 1264, however, is impossible in the light of the fact that the bishop of Kulmsee, Heidenreich, who heard her Jutta’s last confession, died in 1263. The fixing of the date of the interregnum in 1256, and the statement in the same source that she died four years after her arrival in Kulmsee, as well as other evidence, point to her death in 1260.

[13] Informatio, no. 45; Westphal, “Untersuchungen,” p. 592.

[14] Informatio, no. 6, Westphal, “Untersuchungen,” p. 580; Nemes seems to correct Westphal, who quoted the text only as “patroness of Poland.” (Nemes, “Jutta von Sangerhausen,” p. 71).

[15] Nemes, “Jutta von Sangerhausen,” p. 72.

[16] Nemes, “Jutta von Sangerhausen,” pp. 69-70.

[17] Nemes, “Jutta von Sangerhausen,” p. 72.

[18] See Lori Pieper, The Voice of a Medieval Woman: St. Elizabeth of Hungary as a Franciscan Penitent in the Early Sources for Her Life (New York: Tau Cross Books and Media, 2016), pp. 77-78.

[19] Wojciech Ketrzynski, introduction to the “Vita sanctae Solomeae.” Monumenta historiae Poloniae ed. A. Bielowski, (Lwów,1884), p. 773-74. For more discussion of this life, see Karol Hollý, “Princess Salomea and Hungarian – Polish Relations in the Period 1214-1241,” Historiky Casopis, Historical Journal of the Institute of History of the SAS, 55 Supplement (2007): 7-8.

[20] Wojciech Ketrzynski, introduction to the “Vita e miracula S. Kyngae, ducissae Cracoviae.” Monumenta historiae Poloniae ed. A. Bielowski, (Lwów,1884), pp. 676-81.