Two former heads of state were laid to rest last week; one, a former President of the United States, and the other, the former dictator of Iraq. Their deaths were more distant from one another than could be measured by mere miles.
President Ford was remembered as a healer of his country and a man with many admirable qualities, who died of old age surrounded by love and crowned with respect. For the former Butcher of Baghdad, death came at the end of a hangman's noose. Iraqis, remembering his lifelong plunder and oppression of his countrymen, expressed joy and relief at his demise. And this brings capital punishment into sharp focus.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines the teaching of the Church on the subject of the death penalty: "Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, 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" (#2267). The right of the state to defend itself is not abridged, and the state has the duty to defend itself. This is ancient Christian doctrine, most famously spelled out by St. Augustine in his famous treatise, City of God.
After establishing this right, however, the Catechism continues: "Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which 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 non-existent.'"
There it is: In the eyes of the Church, the state should exercise its right to defend itself through the death penalty very rarely; the Catechism uses the words "practically non-existent" to underline what "rare" means.
The United States of America, alone among Western nations, still puts men to death for crimes against the state. According to Amnesty International, we are in a fairly ignominious group of nations who still allow capital punishment. This group includes Iran, China, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Notwithstanding that surely there are many good people living in those countries, they are hardly bastions of liberty and Christian principles. Our inclusion on the list is a sad commentary on how entrenched the culture of death is in our society.
In the case of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi government probably had few options to defend itself from a tyrant who had supporters engaged in an insurgency against the elected government and who was still a source of fear to many. As long as he lived and fueled the idea that he might return to power, he would continue to be the cause of deadly violence. His was a hard case, but a rare one, probably the very example of the "last resort" kind of situation the Catechism refers to. But whether or not it was, it's done and there's no going back. The sheer finality of that act should give one pause.
Whichever side you take on the Saddam case, it certainly casts a shadow over any other execution, both here and abroad. It should cause us to reflect: if we should consider sparing the life of the man who murdered thousands of his own countrymen, who continued to fuel murderous acts even from behind bars, how much more should we consider sparing the life of someone guilty of a lesser crime than genocide?