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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  • I make no apology for believing that anyone who wilfully and gleefully murders an innocent person should be executed after a fair trial.

    We do not show that we believe that it is wrong to take innocent life if we do not hold up the penalty of the forfeiture of the guilty person’s life in return.

    I think the excessive concern for the sensibilities of sociopaths reflects our unwillingness to act manly when appropriate.  We will allow soldiers to kill the enemy soldiers, when they be unwilling but dangerous conscripts, and have no concern about their immortal souls being risked.  Why shouldn’t we execute cold-blooded killers?  If Saddam and other mass-murderers suffer in Hell, fine.  What else is hell for anyway?  Missing Mass on Sunday?

  • I don’t see why everyone has got their panties in a twist.  Every society has a right, and a need, to defend itself.  This has been done in Iraq.  I am not gleeful about his death, but he has been given time to repent (and for all we know he did, as the noose tightened, and is now in purgatory) and now his life is over as all our lives will be over.  You don’t save your soul by whining about “social justice” or whatever it’s called.  It is everyone’s job to pray, fast and obey the precepts of the Church.  How do we profit spiritually by infighting about the death penalty? 

    Ask not for whom the bell tolls…

  • I think that there’s an experience from Africa that is relevant here.  Unfortunately, I’m not positive I have the country right but…  I think in Sierra Leone in the ‘90s a murderous tyrant was overthrown and captured.  The West went into this same spasm over the death penalty so the Sierra Leonians put the guy in prison whence he escaped and resumed his murderous ways.  I’m talking about one of those guys who chopped off arms.  In retrospect he should have been executed. 

    Are we remembering that one judge on Saddam’s case was in fact, murdered?

  • It’s not that the death penalty is immoral everywhere and for any reason.  When we must kill someone to protect others, it is our moral duty to do so.  When we can show mercy without endangering anyone, we should do so.  The death penalty is immoral when we can reasonably expect that a killer will not be able to escape and kill again.  I feel confident that we have prisons in the US that can safely hold our most dangerous murderers.  For this reason, we should not execute them.  By showing them mercy, we give them more time in which to repent.

    In Iraq, there may not be a prison that can safely hold him, and execution may have been the only reasonable option.  I have no problem with the decision of the Iraqi courts, and I don’t believe the execution violated any teachings of our Church.

  • I haven’t really read the “Statements from the Vatican,” though it seems that these “statements from the Vatican” on death penalty or war issues often come from particular cardinals, expressing second-hand the Holy Father’s opinions.

    I have many feelings about this.  i feel we don’t do enough to pray for the souls of men like Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Ladin.  Given Saddam’s final words, I doubt a conversion was on the table.

    However, I also wonder if we over-emphasize the desire to reform and convert hardened sinners.  Jesus, of course, makes reference to certain crimes that He deems unforgiveable, or for which the person should “tie a millstone around his neck.”

    Yes, there have been many miraculous conversions of hardened sinners in history, but those people at least had a grain there, something that inspired the conversion, something they held on to even during their darkest times.

    There are plenty of people who are just plain *evil*.  There are many people out there who are just like Flannery O’Connor’s characters: they are fully aware of God, Jesus and the Church. They know what’s up, and they openly choose to follow Satan.  And they have no interest whatsoever in conversion.  Fr. Amorth refers to a “patient” whose mother brought him in, and they young man said, basically, “I don’t want an exorcism.  I know I’m possessed.  I invited the Devil in, and this is how I want to be.”

    Holding out hope that, if we don’t execute such people, they may someday convert, is rather dangerous.  EspTha ecially since the prospect of imminent execution may spur them to even a brief conversion of heart that natural death would not (consider St. Therese & Pranzini).

    And, like Dom, I agree that the execution of someone like Saddam Hussein falls well within the criteria set by JPII for just use of capital punishment.

    That said, I worry about the personal conscience of the hangman. I think firing squad should be the preferred means of execution, since it is designed to detach the executor from his act.

  • I have already prayed for the soul of Sadaam Hussein prior to and after his much, much deserved act of justice by the Iraq people whom he tortured for decades. And I advise his many mourners among the psychobabble crowd (notably suspicious Vatican spokesmen, Jesse Jackson and the NYT) to do the same.  And also to pray to the Lord that He grant each of them an increased dose of common sense, and a substantial increase in the ability to mourn for deserving innocent victims not just the fashionable monsters of this world.

    This seems to be a long season for extending God’s mercy inappropriately as we continue to avoid God’s justice.  The larger Euro-Americanized Church in its own bumbling informal way put aside the need for a deep sense of sin (not flaws, failures, wrongs, errors), but sins.  And substituted the unholy crap of Haugen-Haas-Joncas general “reconciliation” ceremonies for Confession.  With a resultant undermining of the morality of much of Western civilization where pigs mow seem nobler and holier than much of our culture.

    May the same Vatican spokesman who so sniffily carped about the loss of the Butcher of Baghdad speak with equal fervor about the millions of murdered unborn children under the auspices of social-democratic governments (and self-defined Catholic politicians) each year.  Yes, I know the Church speaks out officially against abortion…but it does not trumpet this horror as justice requires…therefore, shall it considered neither not nor cold?

    This is what Cardinal Martino, et al, need to do with their excess time and excessive emotion.

  • Another take on the subject that’s worth a read:

    “Tears” for Saddam and relativism that threatens peace
    by Bernardo Cervellera

    . . . we cannot fail to denounce the hypocrisy of the many champions against the death penalty that the former Iraqi dictator managed to gather around him before and after his hanging. How is it that these “professionals” about the scandal of a death sentence handed down to a man who admired – and followed – Hitler, should complain so little about other death sentences and violence? Did any Chinese bishop who vanished and was killed in a lager ever find so much solidarity? Have Hindus, Christians and Muslims imprisoned in Saudi or Iranian prisons ever benefited from so much international disdain and personal and public support?

    . . .  relativism and schizophrenia will lead us only to euthanasia and dictatorship, to war and a culture of death.

  • Lilo, Thank You.  It’s worth much more than a read, Cervellera’s worth a long meditation as we enter yet another year of a seeming madness that is approaching pandemonium on earth. 

    May God grant each of us the wisdom to see more clearly just how desperate the situation is and just how desperate we are for His grace to rectify our sinfulness.  Any socio-political solutions must rest firmly on the foundation of Christ or they will blow away in the coming storms—and that includes the existence of the United States of America as we know it.

  • I haven’t really worked this out completely, but I suspect the reason the Church appears to be coming out against the death penalty more now than in the past may have something to do with the fact that Rome no longer governs temporal states.

    Clearly, states have a right to defend themselves, even if that means putting someone to death. In the past in Europe, a heretic (such as Luther) was not just a theological threat, but a social/societal threat. The idea of separation between church and state is relatively new in human history. Thus, in the past, the Church had a civil obligation to protect temporal societies by administering the death penalty. For instance, Luther’s heresy caused many civil and nationaly wars. I dare say a christian heretic today would be hard pressed to cause this kind of civil strife in Europe. (please note, I am not talking about Saddam’s case here or making apoligies for him)

    Now that Rome is out of the governing civil states business, the pastors of the Church have turned thier attention to how other states use the death penalty in specific circumstances. It seems to me that the Church still recognizes that states must make the decision about when and how to apply the death penalty. But it also seems to me that they are saying men possess means to subdue dangerous individuals today that did not exist in the past. Again, I have not completely thought this through yet. I am just trying to tie up the loose ends that seem to appear that the Church has reversed it’s position.

  • One of the things that ran through my mind was… if Saddam is in hel what hell is like for him? At the time when the media reported his death, they spoke about all the atrocities he commited against his own people.

    The only way peace activists can argue that we can not fight evil without miliatry action, is by having the military protect them from such evils as Saddam. In America we can call the President or anyone else for that matter any vulgar expletives such as “Buck Fush” without any reprocussion except for their value of the opinion being judged.

    I can only hope reiteration of all the crimes against humanity that Saddam commited against his people and other will be get through the heads of these peace activists. Let them know they don’t have it so bad and they should appreciate and give credit to those who protect them.

  • Michael,
    Yes, the Vatican’s argument is that we have better means of subduing criminals, yet those medieval prisons on island cliffs, where prisoners were locked up for life with no hope of parole, seem far more secure than most of what we have today.


    Exactly—back in the late 90s, the liberals used to send out e-mail petitions begging for the US to “do something” about the Taliban.  Then when we did, they were in an uproar.  It’s like they want us to say to human rights-violators, “Nyah, nyah!  We don’t like you,” and they think that will be sufficient.

  • One thing that I have yet to see come up (at least, not much) is the consideration that Iraqis, because of their culture, have a totally different understanding of what constitutes justice than we do.

    When my husband was in Iraq, the Iraqis would sometimes turn in “bad guys.” Without any real evidence as to their “badness,” even if we believed that they almost certainly were “bad guys,” the US would usually release them after a bit. The Iraqis simply could not understand this. As far as they were concerned, it didn’t matter whether there was evidence or not, we all know he’s a bad guy, why didn’t you just dump him in the Tigris?

    That’s not to say that this is the way things should be, but to point out that when you have somebody like Sadaam, who has been convicted of numerous horrible crimes after an actual trial(!!!), to then say that he should simply serve out his remaining years in a maximum security prison (if that was even feasible) just doesn’t even begin to make sense to them. And from the standpoint of societal stability, that’s important.