Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 22, 2007
Killing Saddam violated God's law
The antidote to violence is not more violence
A Shepherd Speaks
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
While every possible means must be taken to avoid war, there are times when a use of force by competent authority may be justified to correct a manifest injustice, especially to defend against a threat to one's homeland.
In Catholic theology, the just war tradition begins with a strong presumption against the use of force and then establishes the conditions when this presumption may be overridden for the sake of preserving the kind of peace that protects human dignity and human rights.
Whether lethal force may be used is governed by the following criteria: just cause, comparative justice, legitimate authority, right intention, probability of success, proportionality and, finally, last resort.
Such criteria set a high hurdle for justifying war. In 2003, the Holy See was convinced that such a hurdle was never cleared and unambiguously opposed the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Three years ago, Saddam Hussein was captured by American troops. He was humiliated, shown bearded and bedraggled in photographs as he was pulled out of his underground hiding place. The images sparked a debate over his dictatorship as many pointed out his horrendous and murderous crimes while in power, his current pathetic state and overall weakness.
After his capture, Hussein faded in relevance. His petulant outbursts during his trial became tiresome. Although some questioned different aspects of the conduct of the judges and lawyers involved in the trial, a guilty verdict for killing 148 people in northern Iraq in 1982 seemed to be a foregone conclusion, almost bordering on being self-evident.
Iraq's former president was convicted in November, his appeal was denied by Iraq's high court on Dec. 26, and Saddam was hanged Dec. 30.
However, his clumsy execution took place without observing the 30-day waiting period prior to the use of capital punishment prescribed in Iraqi law.
The graphic footage of the unruly scene at the gallows, which was smuggled out of the execution room, reveal his Shiite executioners taunting and cursing him, while the former leader retorts, "Is this manly?" The video shocked the sensibilities of even those who normally are not troubled by the media's disclaimer, "viewer discretion is advised."
In both the Arab and non-Arab world, the outrage was extensive. The execution and the way it was handled sparked a wave of support for Hussein among many Arabs, and clearly ran the risk of turning a criminal into a hero, even conferring a martyr status upon him.
U.S. officials said that they pressed the Iraqi government to delay the execution and criticized the way it was carried out, but they handed Saddam over for execution at the insistence of the Iraqi government.
Vatican officials and other Catholic leaders around the world condemned Hussein's execution.
Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, prayed that Saddam's execution would "not contribute to aggravating the already critical situation in Iraq, a country already so harshly tried by divisions and fratricidal struggles."
Not a natural death
"One does not compensate for one crime with another . . . the death penalty is not a natural death."
This position is in accord with Pope John Paul II's The Gospel of Life.
The Catechism teaches that government authority has the right and duty to assure the safety of society, and to punish criminals by means of suitable penalties. This includes imposition of the death penalty if there is no other way to protect society (no. 2267).
However, this principle has a very restrictive application. If 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 offence 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 Gospel of Life, no. 56).
When dwelling on legal and moral arguments concerning the death penalty, we should do so not with vengeance and anger in our hearts, but with the compassion and mercy of our Lord in mind.
It is also important to remember that penalties imposed on criminals always need to allow for the possibility of the criminal to show regret for the evil committed and to change his or her life for the better.
We do not teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill others. The antidote to violence is not more violence.
Letter to the Editor - 02/19/07