If today’s Catholic bishops lived during the Nuremberg trials, they would have condemned the execution of nine of the defendants – including Ernst Kaltenbrunner and Hans Frank. Kaltenbrunner was responsible for mass executions of civilians and prisoners of war as Heinrich Himmler’s chief SS lieutenant; Frank oversaw the Nazis’ numerous atrocities as the governor of occupied Poland.
Such a presumptuous proposition seems plausible given two Vatican officials’ opposition to Saddam Hussein’s death sentence – and the Catholic Church’s moral revisionism concerning capital punishment.
Iraq’s High Tribunal convicted Saddam of committing crimes against humanity and sentenced him to death on Nov. 5. Reaction from the Vatican was swift.
“For me, punishing a crime with another crime – which is what killing for vindication is – would mean that we are still at the point of demanding an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice, told the Italian news agency ANSA.
“God has given us life and only God can take it away,” Martino continued. “Life is a gift that the Lord has given us, and we must protect it from conception until natural death. The death sentence is not a natural death.”
Martino is the same man who expressed public sympathy for Saddam upon his capture and whom veteran Vatican journalist Sandro Magister called “a cardinal out of control.” Yet Martino is not alone in his sentiments.
“Certainly, the situation in Iraq will not be resolved by this death sentence. Many Catholics, myself included, are against the death penalty as a matter of principle,” Father Michele Simone, deputy director of the Vatican magazine Civilita Cattolica, told Vatican radio.
“Even in a situation like Iraq, where there are hundreds of de facto death sentences every day, adding another death to this toll will not serve anything,” Simone added. “But saving a life – which does not mean accepting everything that Saddam Hussein has done – is always something positive.”
Perhaps Simone and Martino need to be reminded of what the phrase “crimes against humanity” means in Saddam’s case.
From 1977 to 1987, Saddam destroyed between 4,000 and 5,000 Kurdish villages and killed nearly 50,000 Kurds. During the following two years, Saddam murdered almost 100,000 Kurds – many of them through chemical weapons.
Perhaps the single most devastating attack took place in March 1988, when Iraq’s air force bombed the Kurdish town of Halabja for three days with various chemical weapons, including mustard gas and sarin. At least 5,000 of Halabja’s 80,000 residents died within hours. Those who survived the initial attack would die later or would experience, as the United States State Department reported in 2002, “staggering rates of aggressive cancer, genetic mutation, neurological damage and psychiatric disorders.”
Saddam did not confine his brutality to Kurds. After invading Kuwait in 1990, Saddam established at least two dozen torture centers in Kuwait City alone. As the State Department reported, “photographic evidence confirms reports of electric shocks, acid baths, summary execution and the use of electric drills to penetrate a victim’s body.”
Other forms of torture used in Iraq included crucifixion, rape in front of the victim’s spouse and mutilation by gouging out eyes, nailing tongues to wooden boards and amputating penises and female breasts with electric carving knives.
No wonder the United Nations Commission on Human Rights condemned Iraq in 2001 for “widespread, systematic torture and the maintaining of decrees prescribing cruel and inhuman punishment as a penalty for offenses.”
No wonder Jimmy Akin, a popular Catholic apologist and blogger, reacted with disgust to Martino’s and Simone’s views:
“This is the kind of sloppy language on social topics that regularly comes from some European churchmen….If someone is himself a murderer, then killing him would seem to amount not to a crime but to justice – i.e., rendering unto the person according to his merits….If you've got someone dead to rights, like Saddam, who clearly committed crimes against humanity then the act of putting him to death is intrinsically an act of justice…This is something that the head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace ought to understand….In any event, these are statements unworthy of responsible churchmen.”
Yet Kevin Miller, professor of theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, begged to differ.
“I see that the Vatican has protested the sentence, and rightly so,” Miller wrote Nov. 8 in commenting on another blog. “Would it be just to hang Saddam for his crimes? Absolutely. But the Church teaches that this criterion, while necessary, isn’t sufficient.”
Such confusion is the logical consequence of Pope John Paul II’s arbitrary attempt to reverse centuries of Catholic teaching about capital punishment.
In his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium vitae (The Gospel of Life) – which focused on abortion, birth control and euthanasia – John Paul declared capital punishment to be fundamentally unnecessary:
“Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime…In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated.
“It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment … ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith during John Paul’s tenure – and the current Pope Benedict XVI – changed the catechism to reflect the late pope’s view:
"If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”
Though his written opinion allowed for capital punishment in limited circumstances, John Paul used the encyclical as intellectual cover for his personal campaign to abolish the death penalty worldwide.
During his 1999 trip to the United States, the late pope successfully convinced Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to commute the death sentence issued to Darrell Mease, who was convicted of murdering three people – including a disabled 19-year old.
In 2000, John Paul asked Rome’s city officials to let the Colisseum’s lights shine continuously in memory of those who received death sentences. In 2001, the late pope wrote a personal request to President George W. Bush for clemency for Timothy McVeigh, who murdered 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
John Paul revealed his true opinion about capital punishment at a large Mass in St. Louis on January 29, 1999, two days after Carnahan commuted Mease’s sentence:
“The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”
Martino, speaking as the Holy See’s permanent observer at the United Nations, admitted that the Catholic Church seeks to abolish capital punishment worldwide in an address that November:
“Abolition of the death penalty … is only one step towards creating a deeper respect for human life. If millions of budding lives are eliminated at their very roots, and if the family of nations can take for granted such crimes without a disturbed conscience, the argument for the abolition of capital punishment will become less credible. Will the international community be prepared to condemn such a culture of death and advocate a culture of life?”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops followed Martino’s lead in March 2005 by announcing its own comprehensive abolitionist campaign, complete with political lobbying, judicial intervention and educational efforts in every parish.
John Paul’s opinion not only reflected the growing consensus among European intellectuals against the death penalty. It also reflected his 40 years of living under Nazi and Communist tyrannies that arbitrarily misused capital punishment. Nevertheless, the late pope’s view directly contradicts centuries of Catholic teaching.
That teaching starts with the Old Testament, which all Christians consider divinely inspired. Genesis 9:5-6 describes God as ordering Noah and his descendents to execute murderers:
“Murder is forbidden….Any person who murders must be killed. Yes, you must execute anyone who murders another person, for to kill a person is to kill a living being made in God’s image (New Living Translation).”
That command, according to Genesis, came after a flood that destroyed a morally chaotic world – and is repeated in the every book of the Torah, the first five books that form the Bible’s foundation.
The command implies three theological principles. First, if God is the author of life, then God retains the prerogative to define the circumstances under which life can be taken. Second, God demands that humanity create just societies to protect the innocent. Third, murder is such a heinous violation of the divine image in humanity that execution is the only appropriate punishment.
Exodus 20-23 elaborates on these principles in what scholars call the lex talonis, which advocates punishment proportional to the offense – the original meaning of “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” Instead of encouraging vengeance, as Martino maintains, the lex talonis discourages ad hoc vigilantism – the ultimate form of vindictiveness – in favor of due process.
In the New Testament, St. Paul reinforces the idea in his letter to the Romans. In Chapter 12, he discourages his readers from avenging themselves by quoting Deuteronomy 32:35 (“Vengeance is mine, says the Lord. I will repay!”). In the next chapter, St. Paul encourages them to rely on due process through legitimate authorities “because they do not bear the sword in vain (verse 4).”
Centuries of Catholic thought further reinforces those principles. In The City of God, St. Augustine states:
"The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ for the representative of the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to the Law or the rule of rational justice.”
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his masterpiece Summa Theologica, argues against the idea that incarceration alone is enough to protect the community:
“If a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended. Only the public authority, not private persons, may licitly execute malefactors by public judgment. Men shall be sentenced to death for crimes of irreparable harm or which are particularly perverted.”
In Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas even argues that impending execution can stimulate repentance:
“The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgment that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers.”
The papacy mirrored this philosophy as recently as 1952, when Pope Pius XII said:
“When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.”
Not even Sister Helen Prejean, one of the most popular opponents of capital punishment, contends that the abolitionist position has biblical roots, as she admitted in her book, Dead Man Walking:
“It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical ‘proof text’ in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this. Even Jesus’ admonition ‘Let him without sin cast the first stone,’ when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7) – the Mosaic Law prescribed death – should be read in its proper context.
This passage is an ‘entrapment’ story, which sought to show Jesus’ wisdom in besting His adversaries. It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment.”
So how does Prejean justify her abolitionist stance? As she told Progressive magazine in 1996, “I couldn’t worship a god who is less compassionate than I am.”
That sentiment pervades America’s Catholic bishops, along with a willful ignorance of previous teaching and an intellectually fashionable sense of moral equivalence. Bishop Samuel Aquila of Fargo, N.D. demonstrated all three when he publicly opposed the execution of Alfonso Rodriguez, who was convicted of murdering Dru Sjodin, a 22-year-old university student.
“Responding to this senseless act of violence with another act of violence through imposition of the death penalty … reinforces the false perspective of vengeance as justice,” Aquila told Catholic News Agency on Sept. 25. “In doing so, it diminishes respect for all human life, both the lives of the guilty and the innocent.”
In 2001, Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles and Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore issued a joint statement in which they said that McVeigh’s execution “will not bring back to life those who died.” Their facile pomposity is self-evident.
But the most idiotic opinion came from Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, a favorite of conservative Catholics. In response to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s thoughtful disagreement with the church’s revisionist stance, published in First Things in 2002, Chaput stated:
“When Catholic Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia publicly disputes church teaching on the death penalty, the message he sends is not all that different from Frances Kissling disputing what the church teaches about abortion,... the impulse to pick and choose what we're going to accept is exactly the same kind of 'cafeteria Catholicism' in both cases.”
Frances Kissling is a former nun who leads Catholics for a Free Choice, which advocates legalized abortion.
Ratzinger exposed Chaput’s irresponsible ignorance less than two years before becoming pope. In July 2004, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued the following as part of a letter to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. concerning the American bishops’ stance toward Catholic political candidates:
“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion….There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about … applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
A far worse consequence of the Catholic Establishment’s revisionism, however, is its growing indifference – if not outright contempt – toward those who must cope with the murder of their loved ones. When she heard the news about John Paul’s intervention on McVeigh’s behalf, Kathleen Treanor – who lost her daughter and two in-laws in the bombing – told Associated Press:
“Let me ask the pope, ‘Where’s my clemency? When do I get any clemency? When does my family get some clemency?’ When the pope can answer that, we can talk.”
In 1997, John Paul and Mother Teresa were among those advocating clemency for Joseph O’Dell, a Virginia man convicted of raping and murdering Helen Schartner in 1985. O’Dell’s fiancée manipulated public opinion in Italy to such a point that Gail Lee, Schartner’s sister, told Associated Press:
“We’re all very fragile at this point. It’s just like the Italians hate us. They in essence have said to my family, ‘You are worthless. Helen’s life doesn’t matter.’ ”
McCarrick displayed his own self-righteous indifference when he talked to the Washington Post about McVeigh’s execution, which only victims’ relatives could see via closed-circuit television:
“It is like going back to the Roman Colosseum. I think that we're watching, in my mind, an act of vengeance, and vengeance is never justified.”
The good cardinal thus equated the grieving, vulnerable relatives of murder victims with the hardened, barbaric masses of ancient Rome who found the bloody agony of gladiators and religious martyrs entertaining.
When considering sympathy for Saddam Hussein and other murderers, the Catholic Establishment would do well to heed this prophetic advice from the Hebrew Talmud:
Those who would be merciful when they should be cruel will be cruel when they should be merciful.