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Death Penalty Clarification Needed

The trial and punishment of Saddam might well be a clarifying moment for Catholic teaching.
by Father Raymond J. de Souza | Source:
The worldwide coverage given to Cardinal Renato Martino’s remarks on Saddam Hussein and the death penalty has revealed the need for a clarification of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty.

Cardinal Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, has a reputation for rhetorical extravagance that sometimes exceeds the bounds of theological precision.

Nevertheless, at a press conference a few days after the capture of Saddam, he gave the impression that Catholic teaching would oppose the execution of the Iraqi dictator. Many international news outlets reported that Pope John Paul II himself was opposed to Saddam’s possible execution.

Is it the case that the Catholic Church is against all recourse to capital punishment, even for cases such as Saddam’s? Cardinal Martino at least implied as much. The Holy Father’s many statements and requests for clemency for death-row inmates seem to confirm that implication.

Yet the matter remains ambiguous.

As all knowledgeable commentators recognize, the Church teaches that the state has the right to administer capital punishment — an ancient teaching embraced by the full breadth of Catholic tradition. Yet John Paul and, following him, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, have indicated that the death penalty should not be used. The bishops of Canada and the United States have also made this teaching their own.

The ambiguity in need of clarification lies in the arguments the Holy Father proposed in No. 56 of the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), which were later inserted into the definitive edition of the Catechism, in Nos. 2266 and 2267.

“Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense,” the Catechism says in No. 2266 on penalties in general. “Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense.”

Traditionally, the death penalty has been justified on those grounds — namely, that some crimes are so heinous that the only proportionate punishment that would redress the injustice suffered would be execution.

A secondary argument in favor of the death penalty was that it would ensure public safety by preventing the criminal from committing further crimes.

“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,” the Catechism says in No. 2267. “If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means. … Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities that the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitely 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 nonexistent.”

It is the Church’s clear teaching that if it is possible to keep society safe without the death penalty, then the death penalty should not be used.

Yet nothing is said in the Catechism about the first reason for the death penalty — the proportionate penalty aimed at redressing the disorder. Observing the Holy Father’s repeated statements and requests for clemency, it seems he does not think the first reason justifies the death penalty. But he has never said as much, and saying so would be difficult to square with the Catholic tradition. So the matter has been left deliberately ambiguous, with the Church appearing to be against all executions for stated reasons that do not address all the reasons for which executions are done.

Saddam’s notoriety will make this ambiguity harder to maintain. If the primary reason for capital punishment is still valid — proportionate punishment — it is clear that his crimes merit the death penalty. If the Church judges otherwise, she will have, in effect, resolved the current ambiguity in her teaching by stating, in effect, that no crime merits the death penalty as proportionate punishment.

Saddam also puts the Catechism’s teaching to the test on the secondary reason — public safety. The Catechism explicitly teaches that public safety is a permissible reason for execution if no other means would ensure public safety. In effect, the current Catholic teaching is that the death penalty would be more permissible in the Congo, for example, where public security measures are not as sophisticated as, for example, in Belgium.

An imprisoned Saddam in an Iraq still under reconstruction would likely pose a threat to public safety. His loyalists might attempt to raid the prison to free him in the first months of shaky Iraqi sovereignty. Allowed visitors for humanitarian reasons, Saddam might use them to direct further violence, as Mafia bosses continue to run their families from prison. In short, the public-safety considerations in the Catechism would allow for Saddam’s execution.

If the Church nevertheless opposes Saddam’s execution on public-safety grounds, too, then it would appear the criteria in the Catechism do not apply in practice and that states should never have recourse to the death penalty. “Practically nonexistent” would then have to be read as simply “nonexistent.”

The trial and punishment of Saddam might well be a clarifying moment for Catholic teaching.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is a chaplain at Queens College in Kingstown, Ontario.

Reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register, Jan. 4-10, 2004. All rights reserved.

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