Monday, May 2, 2011

Catholic Response to the Death of a Terrorist

A friend emailed this morning. She was overjoyed by the announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed. But, there was a question, too -- a skip in the heart beating with jubilation. "How are Christians supposed to respond to this?" she asked.

That's a very good question.

Ending evil is certainly a lofty goal. And, a big step was taken in killing bin Laden, but how are we to react in a Christian manner to such news?

Catholics are governed by canon law as an external means of weighing our actions against what the Church teaches, and civil law to test what we do against what society allows. We also have an internal means to do the same: natural and Divine law -- these govern the formation of our conscience so that we will remain in God's will and seek to do what is good.

It wasn't surprising to me that my friend had that tug from her conscience about rejoicing over the death of another human being. I did, too, as I watched the parties in the streets broadcast on the news. While every part of me rationally knows that justice was served by ending  Osama bin Laden's reign of terror, somehow having a party upon the news of his death seemed unsettling.

Picture courtesy of

Is it appropriate for any of us to rejoice at the death of another?

No -- it's a sin against 5th Commandment. On the other hand, we are typically not dealing with someone responsible for the senseless murder of thousands of people. (The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly states that those in legitimate authority can respond as they did in the apprehension and subsequent killing of someone deemed an unjust aggressor. -- Cf. CCC 2265)

So, how does a Catholic Christian reconcile their jubilation with their uncomfortable inner sense that it is wrong to be joyful over the death of a human being?

There is nothing wrong with delighting in the end of evil, but for the soul who committed that evil WE MUST PRAY.  The Lord calls us to pray for our enemies. (Mt 5:44)

Evil is the result of a human act, and evil acts can be driven by many different forces: poorly formed conscience, coercion, demonic possession, mental illness, etc. Many times, that can be adequately determined by other human beings who are qualified to assess a person's actions and their culpability. However, no one but God is able to assess the state of a person's soul. And, that is why, however jubilant we may feel over the death of  the man responsible for the devastation committed on 9/11, we must pray for God to be just and merciful in His judgment. We hope and pray for this same justice and mercy in our own judgment.

This is what tugs at the Christian heart. We would never want to be in Osama bin Laden's position -- responsible and answerable for atrocities that are too hideous to even consider "righteous" and in the name of God the way he claimed -- manipulating religion to attain his goals. But, rejoicing over the killing of another human life will never be comfortable or acceptable, it will always be regrettable to the Christian because we know that life is a sacred gift from God.

In the end, we can be glad that Osama bin Laden is no longer able to perpetrate evil. His death has certainly charged a sense of national pride amongst Americans, and for that we can also be grateful. But, from here, perhaps the seeds of peace can bloom and an end to terrorism and oppression can be the outcome. 

Christ Jesus Crucified, have mercy on us.

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