WASHINGTON — No one doubts Saddam Hussein is guilty of gruesome crimes, but Catholic scholars are mixed about whether his death sentence is justified by Church teaching.

Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, said the verdict against Saddam was wrong.

“For me, to punish a crime with another crime, such as killing out of vengeance, means that we are still at the stage of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’” Cardinal Martino told ANSA, the Italian News Agency.

“God has given us life, and only God can take it away. … The death sentence is not a natural death,” said the cardinal, the former Vatican representative at the United Nations. “Unfortunately, Iraq is among the few countries that has not yet made the choice of civility by abolishing the death penalty.”

But Michael Novak, a theologian who argued the United States’ case at the Vatican for going to war in Iraq, said that there are circumstances where Church teaching would allow for capital punishment.

“And if there ever were an exception, this would be it,” said Novak.

Paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “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.”

But the Catechism also makes clear that if non-lethal means can protect society from the aggressor, “authority will limit itself to such means.”

“The cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent,’” states the Catechism, quoting Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae.

Novak thinks that the civil unrest in Iraq could make a sentence of death necessary.

“Consider the burden of Iraq in a very troubled situation,” said Novak. “There’s all kind of people that would have a reason to liberate him from prison.”

Novak also said that Hussein’s atrocities play a factor.

“He is responsible for hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths. He gave it full consideration over many years, soaking people in acid, chopping up people little by little,” said Novak. “If there were ten exceptions in a century, he would be one of them.”

Chance of Escape?

Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things magazine. He’s been an outspoken critic of capital punishment in the United States. But he also thinks circumstances in Hussein’s case are very different from murder trials in the West.

 “If there was a significant chance of his kidnapping to get his release, then this is an example of the death penalty necessary for the health of the society,” said Bottum. “But I don’t know if that is true. How many of the terrorists are (Saddam-supporting) Baathists?” said Bottum, referring to Hussein’s political party.

But he noted that even if it were permissible under Catholic teaching to execute Hussein, it would be the exception that proved the rule.

“The fact that Saddam Hussein is one of the first test cases—maybe that’s telling,” said Bottum.

Mercy Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it’s important to remember the dignity of the human person when debating the death penalty in so-called “tough cases.”

“On a human level, he might ‘deserve it,’” said Sister Mary Ann. “But all life is sacred, even in Saddam’s case.”

She said she couldn’t imagine a scenario where the civil unrest would warrant executing Hussein.

“You would have to do a hard analysis,” she said. 

Princeton University Professor Robert George thinks that Catholic teaching now leaves almost no ability to justly execute Hussein.

“If you can put him in jail and prevent him from issuing orders to kill people, then the death penalty is not justified,” said George.

He also thinks the risk of Hussein’s getting out of jail or coming back to power is very slim.

“The fact that they got him through a trial on television shows that they can control him,” said George.

The decision to execute a criminal cannot be swayed by how heinous the crime is, said George. “You can’t say the act is so bad, the sheer wickedness justifies the death penalty. Not under Evangelium Vitae. It just can’t be. It’s not purely retributive, no matter how grave the offense,” said George.

Steven Long, a professor of theology at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla., disagreed with George and agreed with Novak that the extent of Hussein’s brutality could be factored into the decision.

“The number of deaths has to be taken into consideration, as it was in Nuremberg,” said Long. “The Church does not teach this as an evil in itself. A lot of folks want to see more in Evangelium Vitae than is there.”

He added: “Evangelium Vitae didn’t set out to undo the tradition of the Church, it set out to apply it to the circumstances of the culture of death.”

George said that it’s possible that Evangelium Vitae was simply prudential teaching and not a binding teaching of the Church. He noted that Cardinal Avery Dulles maintains this view.

“I can’t say that’s not a reasonable argument,” said George. “But I believe this qualifies, under the norms established by Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Council, as a teaching that demands full assent of the intellect and will.”

Joshua Mercer writes

from Petoskey, Michigan.