National Catholic Register


Tragic and Sad

We who are both American and Catholic had decidedly mixed feelings about the execution of Saddam Hussein.

BY the Editors

January 14-20, 2007 Issue | Posted 1/10/07 at 11:00 AM


We who are both American and Catholic had decidedly mixed feelings about the execution of Saddam Hussein.

Saddam Hussein was not sentenced to death by Americans, and Americans weren’t the ones who carried the sentence out. But this man was a tyrant and our enemy.

An Associated Press obituary about Saddam’s death described the kind of man Saddam was.

“Within days of taking power, Saddam Hussein summoned about 400 top officials and announced he had uncovered a plot against the ruling party. The conspirators, he said, were in that very room.

“As the 42-year-old Saddam coolly puffed on a cigar, names of the plotters were read out. As each name was called, secret police led them away,” said the report. Though the charges were false, “22 of them were executed. To make sure Iraqis got the word, Saddam videotaped the entire proceeding and distributed copies across the country.”

We are Americans. One of our earliest flags is emblazoned with the motto Sic Semper Tyrannis (Thus Always to Tyrants) and depicting a thug king, with chain and whip, being trampled. And Saddam Hussein was the tyrant who drew us into a war that has lasted years and cost thousands of American lives. Americans understandably saw his end as the just deserts of a wicked man.

But Pope Benedict’s spokesman made no doubt what our Church thought of the hanging.

“The position of the Catholic Church — against the death penalty — has been reiterated many times,” said Father Federico Lombardi.

“An execution is always tragic news,” he said, “reason for sadness, even in the case of a person who is guilty of grave crimes.”

This can seem to some Americans to be a soft, ineffectual way to talk about the death of a tyrant. And some Catholics who took to the airwaves and blogosphere to argue against the Vatican were quick to point out that they weren’t required, as Catholics, to agree.

Technically, that’s true. The Church does not require a belief in the rightness or wrongness of a particular use of the death penalty.

If there was any doubt about the status of the teaching on the death penalty vis à vis other Fifth Commandment teachings, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger removed it, succinctly, in a letter he wrote shortly before becoming Pope.

 “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty,” he wrote to American Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

At the same time, the Pope has strongly reiterated what the Catechism teaches, that the death penalty should only be used when there is no other way of  “rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm” (No. 2267).

After all, it was Cardinal Ratzinger who, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, put those words into the Catechism in 1997, and explained: “It seems to me it would be very difficult to meet the conditions today.”

Were those conditions met in Saddam Hussein’s death?

Some say it was necessary to kill Saddam to keep him from rendering harm, because the only logic terrorists understand is the logic of force — and the hanging of Saddam Hussein was the most powerful argument available that Saddam’s day is over.

But it doesn’t seem to us that this need be the case.

The sight of Saddam, weak and pathetic in prison, was just as great an argument about his fall from power. The images of the tyrant cornered and captured, spoke a thousand words about the folly of violence. But the images of the defiant Saddam, refusing a death mask and calmly rebuking the hysterical mob that killed him, have made him once again a powerful figure, a kind of martyr.

Saddam’s prison cell was his shame. His gravesite will be his shrine.

The great harm that Saddam inflicted in his cruel reign is summed up in that story of the videotaped executions he ordered on his first day in power. Now, when we want Iraq to repudiate such scenes, we find it hard to celebrate when we see them replay such scenes instead.

We find it hard as Catholics, yes, but also as Americans.

The weeks that have passed since Saddam’s execution have only served to show the truth of what the Pope’s spokesman said that day. 

“Killing the guilty one is not the way to rebuild justice and reconcile society,” said Father Lombardi. “On the contrary, there is the risk that the spirit of revenge is fueled and that the seeds of new violence are sown.”