Saddam is dead, but dispute over death penalty continues

Saddam is dead, but dispute over death penalty continues

Bill Cork muses on the official Vatican statement reacting to the execution of Saddam Hussein, and asks a question that for Catholics—whatever their view of whether the death penalty is ever permissible—should make them uncomfortable.

The Vatican appears to be firm in its position that the death penalty must now always be considered wrong and immoral—if it cannot be justly applied even in the case of such a heinous mass murderer as Saddam Hussein, when could it ever be applied?

Some might wonder about consistency through history of the Church’s position. Some might suggest that, in the name of justice, the Vatican should issue another statement, renouncing Pope Leo X’s Exsurge Domine, excommunicating Martin Luther for, among other things, holding that the burning of heretics was contrary to the will of God.

If capital punishment is the wrong that the Vatican now appears to hold it to be, then has it not always been wrong? What then of the fact that the Church was directly party to this evil through its support of the burning of heretics? In the Millennial year the pope was very careful not to apologize for actions of the Church, but only for actions of members. The Church is not and cannot be sinful, only its members can be. But the Church, in the authoritative declarations of popes and councils has, in the past, defended the execution of people—and not for mass murders, as in the case of Saddam, but merely for disagreeing with the Church’s teaching.

So some might suggest that to do justice today, the Vatican might do well to repudiate both Exsurge Domine, condemning Martin Luther for teaching what the Vatican now says we must believe, and the decrees of the Council of Constance, which turned John Hus over to the state for burning.

If there is an inconsistency in the Church’s teaching? Also troubling, how will this apparent or real inconsistency affect those inclined either to believe that the Church’s teaching are not infallible or that she is not guided by the Holy Spirit? Will this cause a scandal to the faithful?

In this particular case, I shed no tears for Saddam Hussein, but neither do I rejoice in his death. I pray for God’s mercy that Saddam might have repented before his death. But I do think that this is one of the rare instances where the prudential conditions for the application of capital punishment were fulfilled, and I say this as one who generally opposes the use of capital punishment in the US and elsewhere.

So, the bottom line: Is capital punishment evil, always and everywhere, or are there exceptions? The answer either way creates difficult complications.

Update: Comments from anti-Bush conspiracy theorists and apologists for Saddam will not be tolerated. Yes, that’s right, there is at least one person who tried to post a comment defending Saddam as a victim and not the evil, brutal dictator he was.

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Written by
Domenico Bettinelli