Debate over a Tyrant's End: Reaction to Execution of Saddam Hussein Marks a Milestone in Catholic Teaching

By Allen, John L., Jr. | National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2007 | Go to article overview

Debate over a Tyrant's End: Reaction to Execution of Saddam Hussein Marks a Milestone in Catholic Teaching


Allen, John L., Jr., National Catholic Reporter


In 1998, Pope John Paul II issued a document titled Ad Tuendam Fidem, which generated no small amount of discussion by underlining a second category of infallible teachings, that is, doctrines not formally revealed but regarded as necessary to safeguard and defend revelation. In an accompanying commentary, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger cited the ban on women priests and the invalidity of Anglican ordinations as examples.

Without entering into the details of that debate, suffice it to say that Ad Tuendam Fidem signaled an unambiguous stance from the Catholic church on certain matters previously regarded in some circles as in flux, or at least open to further review.

In analogous fashion, one could argue that the reaction from the Vatican and from senior Catholic officials around the world to the Dec. 30 execution of Saddam Hussein, and its broader opposition to the war in Iraq in the first place, collectively mark a milestone in the evolution of yet another category in Catholic teaching: positions that are not absolute in principle but that are increasingly absolute in practice. Opposition to war, unless undertaken in clear self-defense or with the warrant of the international community, and the use of capital punishment are the leading cases in point.

In effect, recent Vatican interventions on matters such as the execution of Saddam Hussein suggest the Catholic church now has two categories of moral teachings: what we might call "ontic" or "inherent" absolutes, such as abortion, euthanasia and the destruction of embryos in stem cell research, which are considered always and everywhere immoral because of the nature of the act, and "practical" absolutes, that is, acts that might be justified in theory, but that under present conditions cannot be accepted.

On Dec. 30, Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson, responded to Hussein's execution by noting that capital punishment is always tragic, even when a person is guilty of grave crimes. Fr. Lombardi reiterated the Catholic church's position against the death penalty and added: "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."

Other reactions from senior church officials confirmed this judgment.

L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, editorialized that "making a spectacle" of the execution turned capital punishment into "an expression of political hubris." Hussein's death, the paper claimed, "represented, for the ways in which it happened and for the media attention it received, another example of the violation of the most basic rights of man."

Church officials offered several motives for opposing the execution.

First, there's the principled argument that the right to life must always be upheld. This point was made in a Dec. 30 interview from Ansa, the Italian news agency, with Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who listed capital punishment on a par with key life issues long understood to admit of no exceptions.

Second, church officials suggested that motives other than application of an impartial judicial process were at work.

"Justice was obviously not the only factor in this story," said Archbishop Jean-Marie Sleiman, the Latin Rite archbishop of Baghdad. He and others hinted that tribal and political animosities were also part of the picture, an impression reinforced by images of Shiites in the execution party shouting the name of Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shiite cleric who commands the loyalty of the Mahdi Army in Baghdad.

Third, church officials warned that killing Hussein would make the process of pacification in Iraq more difficult.

Fourth, some officials hinted that the execution of Hussein could unleash new violence in Iraq that might fall in disproportionate fashion upon its small Christianity community, seen by some Islamic radicals as a beachhead of Western influence despite the fact that Christianity has more ancient roots in Iraq than Islam does. …

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