Tuesday, January 02, 2007

The Church and the Execution of Saddam Hussein

Back in November, when the death penalty was imposed on Saddam Hussein, the Vatican opposed it. Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, declared that "... punishing a crime with another crime, which is what killing for vindication is, would mean that we are still at the point of demanding an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." In other words, vengeance should not guide policy. When Saddam was hanged, the director of Press Office of the Holy See, Fr. Federico Lombardi S.J., issued the following statement:
"Capital punishment is always tragic news, a motive of sadness, even when it’s a case of a person guilty of grave crimes. The position of the Catholic Church against the death penalty has been confirmed many times. The execution of the guilty party is not a path to reconstruct justice and to reconcile society. Indeed, there is the risk that, on the contrary, it may augment the spirit of revenge and sow seeds of new violence. In this dark time in the life of the Iraqi people, it can only be hoped that all the responsible parties truly will make every effort so that, in this dramatic situation, possibilities of reconciliation and peace may finally be opened."
Well spoken, indeed. The problem is, the right-wing chorus in the United States was reveling in the death of Saddam, and seemed disinclined to listen to the Vatican. No real surprise there. The continued vehement support for the death penalty in the United States in part reflects a bad Calvinist theology that holds that God divides the world into the saved and the damned, and that the latter can be disposed of without worry. But many on the Catholic right have joined the chorus. Without a trace of irony, a blogger with a site named The Cafeteria is Closed stated that "justice has been done" when the Vatican said something rather different. And Jimmy Akin, the guy who thinks that waterboarding may not be torture in a ticking bomb scenario, also claims that justice has been done, after having denounced Cardinal Martino for his earlier statement as the "sloppy language" of "European churchmen". Note the snide tone. Yes, indeed, when the Church takes a position that goes against the prevailing ethos and ideology of the United States right-wing (such as the love affair with the death penalty, or war as a solution to the world's problems), it is dismissed as the rantings of a bunch a effete euro weenies. Of course, the notion that Pope Benedict is not 100 percent behind a statement issued by his press secretary is ludicrous.

Getting back to basics, while the Church is an adamant opponent of the death penalty, it is not the case that the death penalty is always and everywhere wrong. And this is the loophole that many try to seize upon. But, upon careful reflection, this door just won't open. The Catechism (#2267) states the position:
"Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent."
The latter quote is taken from John Paul's 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, which elaborates:
"It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent."
In other words, the death penalty is only licit when there is no other way to protect society from the criminal. Think of a nomadic society, for example. Perhaps the closest modern case would be a country like Somalia with no functioning state and no state monopoly on the use of force. But in modern times, these conditions are indeed "very rare, if not practically non-existent" and certainly so in the western world. In a commentary on the Catechism, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna (a close friend of the pope, and one of the leading intellectuals in the Church) notes that:
"In practice, again and again, the Pope speaks out decisively against the application of the death penalty and asks pardon for the one sentenced to death. The Church knows that crimes will take place as long as the evil of responding violently to violence persists and love of neighbor, indeed, love of enemy is not fully realized. In the light of the Gospel the Church will continue in practice, with ever greater clarity and determination, to proclaim love for one's enemies, as Jesus did, and to say No to the death penalty"
The last quote is lifted shamelessly from a thoughtful post on the issue by a blogger (Michael Joseph) on a site called Evangelical Catholicism. This puts John Paul's teachings into perspective, and gives Cardinal Martino's statement, as well as Father Lombardi's press statement, greater resonance. For Martino's statement is not "sloppy", it is in full accord with Catholic teaching on the matter. For there is little doubt that the execution of Saddam will not solve any problems in Iraq. There is little doubt that it will merely fan further the flames of sectarian hatred. And the Iraqi people would have just as safe from Saddam in prison as Saddam dead. On the latter point, Stephen Bainbridge makes the only coherent Catholic argument in favor of the execution, that in the sorry mess that is Iraq, "the risk of a return by Saddam to power was non-negligible." But this is a stretch. Sure, a Saddam-like figure may well emerge, although the likelihood is that he will be Shia rather than Sunni. But that is another story...

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