Thursday, May 05, 2011

Osama Bin Laden's Death: A Catholic Perspective

As everyone knows, Bin Laden was killed a few days ago in his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. My question is, as Catholics should we rejoice at this news or see it with sadness?

My first reaction to the death of Osama Bin Laden I guess was surprise. After 10 years, they had killed him. But I wasn't happy that he was dead. Not joyful. I am against the death penalty, and I always think it's best to capture someone rather than kill them.

Later, I heard that he was unarmed when killed, which seemed to make it even more morally problematic. This was countered by the reports that he in some way "resisted". The details of this are unclear. If he was unarmed, and the soldiers had deadly weaponry, it would seem unlikely that his "resistance" would merit a lethal shot. But I wasn't there so I cannot really comment.

In one article I read here, the author contrasts the opinion of the pope's spokesman with that of Mike Huckabee:

A Presbyterian blogger this week highlighted the contrast between the words of Pope Benedict XVI’s spokesman on Monday and those of Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and a Southern Baptist minister.

“Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event be an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace,’’ said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.

Huckabee said in a statement: “Welcome to hell, bin Laden.’’

He added: “It is unusual to celebrate a death, but today Americans and decent people the world over cheer the news that madman, murderer, and terrorist Osama bin Laden is dead.’’

I certainly agree that as Christians, we do not rejoice over the killing of any human being.

My overall opinion is that if possible, we should have captured Osama Bin Laden, rather than kill him. Usually in moral philosophy, a non-threatening person cannot be killed for any reason. However, a threat can be legitamitely neutralized, even if that may involve lethal force.

The catechism has something on this:

2266 The State's effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.[67]

2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.

"If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should 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.

"Today, in fact, given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender 'today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent.' [68]

I bolded a pertinent part of the quoted text. The Church affirms the right of the state to execute someone if no other means will suffice in containing their danger. So, the real question becomes, was the execution of Bin Laden strictly necessary in order to secure safety for people. This is a point which I believe can be legitimately argued either way.

But this caveat is very strict. Pope John Paul II was very much against the death penalty, stopping short of saying it is always immoral. His opinion was that we have a right to protect ourselves but our modern society provides the necessary infrastructure to do so without resorting to capital punishment.

But that's our "modern society". What about in a developing country like Afghanistan or Pakistan? Could Osama Bin Laden be effectively contained or was his execution necessary? I'm not sure the answer to this question.

Another complicating question is whether or not this extra-judicial execution was legitimate or moral. In the case of imminent danger, lethal force must sometimes be used, even in the absence of a judicial process, barring the possibility of other legitimate methods.

Obviously killing any person is a grave moral situation and can never be taken lightly. The end does not justify the means so strictly speaking, killing Bin Laden for some perceived benefit may not be sufficient reason.

I will refrain from making a final moral judgment on this situation. I will simply say that life is sacred and we must protect it.



  1. Sir,
    Once you say that you are against the death penalty, then you will be agonizing over the handling of Bin Laden. I am for the death penalty, and I am sure we can all agree that OBL is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Justice was done. Amen.

  2. I believe that the death of Obl was a successful thing for "Americans" i put quotes because i feel as the Christians we should pray and and thank God for him taking that man off our Earth, for that he saved countless lives, BUT with the killing of obl we Americans will just get retaliation. so ask yourself with the death of the Taliban's head leader for war, and their spiritual leader do you not believe they won't retaliate because even Obama said that we need to stay prepared and stay together as one nation. So my point is we need to pray for god's hand to protect all fellow Christian Americans for what happens next is up in the air.

    thank you
    from a spiritual 16 yr old