Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Is Vengeance Forbidden?

In the discussion of the killing of Osama Bin Laden here (see below for various posts and comments), I have been struggling with the notion that the motivation/justification of vengeance seems to be categorically off the table -- an unequivocally forbidden reason for wanting to kill -- at least for Catholics, and perhaps for Christians generally.  Contemporary theories of punishment, to the extent that they are analogous (perhaps they are not), likewise generally disdain vengeance, preferring instead to rest on deontological or consequentialist bases.  It was not always so for theories of punishment -- and as some authors (e.g., Paul Robinson and John Darley) are finding out, popular ideas of retribution and vengeance are not so easy to disaggregate. 

But I've got a different question for MOJ readers.  For Catholics, is vengenace totally off limits?  I ask the question in all humility, as I genuinely don't know.  I anticipate that someone might cite Romans to me -- "'Vengeance is mine,' saith the Lord."  Fair enough -- but the admonition here seems to be not that vengeance is morally wicked (after all, it is God's) but that human beings should act with great caution when they are motivated by vengeance.  They ought to temper their vindictive instincts because they (unlike God) are not in an epistemic position to act purely from vindictive motives (cf. John 8:7).

Does that mean that human beings should repress totally the emotion of vengeance?  I have difficulty believing this. 

As Jeffrie Murphy points out in the book that I talked about below, vengeance is not inherently evil.  It is an emotion which is neither entirely good nor evil.  The vindictive passions are connected not only to self-respect but they also evince our commitment to and respect for the moral order: "Moral commitment is not merely a matter of intellectual allegiance; it requires emotional allegiance as well, for a moral person is not simply a person who holds the abstract belief that certain things are wrong.  The moral person is also motivated to do something about the wrong -- and the source of our motivation lies primarily in our passions or emotions."  (GE, 19).  Justice, after all, was in some way supposed to co-opt vengeance as a response to wrongdoing; but if justice did co-opt vengenace, does not vengeance, to some extent, continue to inform justice?

It is certainly true that permitting the vindictive emotions to dominate or control one's response to wrongdoing in whatever sphere would be dangerous.  But does that mean that allowing vengeance some place in that response is to be rejected outright?  And if so, why?  When news of bin Laden's death reaches Catholic ears, is it necessary to cast out of one's consciousness as utterly forbidden the notion that the passions of vengeance have been satisfied, and that it is proper that they be so satisfied?  

I am not remotely an Aquinas scholar, but St. Thomas says this (I've italicized the sections that might support some of my thoughts here, though I am deeply unsure and would welcome correction):

[V]engeance consists of the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned.  Accordingly, in the matter of vengence, we must consider the mind of the avenger.  For if his intention is directed chiefly to the evil of the person on whom he takes vengeance, and rests there, then his vengeance is altogether unlawful: because to take pleasure in another's evil belongs to hatred, which is contrary to the charity whereby we are bound to love all men . . . .

If, however, the avenger's intention be directed chiefly to some good, to be obtained by means of the punishment of the person who has sinned (for instance that the sinner may amend, or at least that he may be restrained and others be not disturbed, that justice may be upheld, and God honored), then vengeance may be lawful, provided other due circumstances be observed.

St. Thomas has further deeply interesting reflections on the place of vengeance at question 108 of the Secunda Secundae.  Thoughts on these issues from readers?    


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Nowadays my thinking on this is heavily influenced by Pieper. The relevant pages from Four Cardinal Virtues are 117-141 (on the nature of fortitude and the role wrath and attack play in it) and 193-197 (relating wrath to the virtue of temperance--what wrath does to the wrathful).

Vengeance is the raw material of justice--we might even call it "pre-rational justice." Like with any other action proceeding from a human passion, it must be in accord with right reason or the act is evil.

I think what you are looking for is some analysis of what makes an act of vengeance accord with right reason. I'm not sure I have a fast answer to that--at least not until after I finish teaching for the day. Off to class!

Posted by: A Catholic School Teacher | May 5, 2011 12:31:07 PM

I am not sure that much of the time we know our own feelings well enough to characterize them with such great precision as to say we are experiencing justifiable vengeance as opposed to unjustifiable revenge. I think such feelings come first, and our articulation of what we feel and why we feel it is heavily influenced by what is expected of us or what we believe we ought to feel.

Posted by: David Nickol | May 5, 2011 3:15:43 PM

I quite agree David--so do Pieper and Thomas, for what it's worth. If living in accord with reason meant a kind of constant spiritual awareness, or hyper-rationality, then we would be evil during the hours we sleep. Reductio, etc.

Posted by: A Catholic School Teacher | May 5, 2011 3:29:54 PM

Prevention and deterrence are the morality of punishment. Vengeance as auch is forbidden, as being the exclusive province of god.

Vengeance violates the command of Jesus to Jonah according to which he was to seek the good of the Assyrians. That good consisted of repentance. Refuseal to repent incurs his wrath, but it is always our duty to try to rescue and to heal.

We do not punish out of vengeance, but to preserve the innocent, which is to minimize harm.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | May 5, 2011 6:24:20 PM

But it is also certain that we cannot sacrifice the innocent to preserve the guilty.

Posted by: Joel Clarke Gibbons | May 5, 2011 9:25:29 PM

i think, it is not forbidden ('anathema sit' will not apply to it) but simply not meant to be
(and if it is, a person feels bad and wrong)
as for a man it does imply hatred
(and it is not a synonym to punishment)

Posted by: elena | May 5, 2011 10:27:24 PM

I think what happened to Osama was justice.

Posted by: Fr. J | May 6, 2011 12:10:09 AM

Here is a thought: can we build a large Christian cultural center, with a chapel in it, right next to the mansion where Osama was killed? If not, why not? If you think it would be provocative or insensitive then would you agree that building a mosque near ground zero is a bad idea?

Posted by: Fr. J | May 6, 2011 1:14:05 PM

is this a provocation, Fr. J?
we all remember that ashes can be the pillars
although i don't know a single person of any faith (unless that person is unaware of the fact) who does not regret the ashes of the library in Alexandria burnt by prophet Muhammad
we also remember the attempts of Blessed John Paul II to reach the Muslim world, his praise of the islamic devotion to prayer, his confusion during and after his algerian trip, and his respect

Posted by: elena | May 6, 2011 1:49:21 PM

elena, that doesn't answer the question I posed.

Posted by: Fr. J | May 6, 2011 1:57:43 PM

But doesn't St. Paul, several lines down, acknowledge that the state is the minister of vengeance?

Romans 13
1Let every soul be subject to higher powers: for there is no power but from God: and those that are, are ordained of God.

2Therefore he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. And they that resist, purchase to themselves damnation.

3For princes are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good: and thou shalt have praise from the same.

4For he is God's minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God's minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.

5Wherefore be subject of necessity, not only for wrath, but also for conscience' sake.

Romans 13:1-5 (Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition)

Posted by: W.Sulik | May 6, 2011 3:36:28 PM

I hold to the Texas doctrine of "he needed killing".

That is not a joke: there is a theory behind it. The injury to society that occurs when someone acts so far outside the law that the law lacks the ordinary means to deal with it, cannot be remedied by ordinary justice. A town whose citizens are cowed into terror, forced to raise a posse, and otherwise required to expend resources and effort far above the usual requirements of maintaining law and order, has a right to disposition the extraordinary threat with evident finality. It is intrinsically a "satisfaction" of justice, and only accidentally of the emotions. If that be vengeance, make what you will of it.

Posted by: craig | May 6, 2011 6:10:25 PM

Fr. J.: "that doesn't answer the question I posed"

sorry, if i wasn't clear
an obvious 'no' to your first question and a 'no' to your second (i think, there is nothing wrong in the mosque site except that in this case it would be a preferential tratment and thus unjust), with a note that the events - 9/11 and killing OBL and the two hypothetical buildings - are neither mathematically symmetrical nor politically reciprocal
(i just wanted to say more - part of the reason Christians give at times the benefit of the doubt to those who started off by burning books of the past lies in the fact that they themselves had a different start)

Posted by: elena | May 6, 2011 10:54:13 PM

elena, so you accept the double standard. You dismiss the pain of those who oppose the victory mosque in New York, but think it would be wrong to do the same near Osama's former home. I suspect many on the Left would agree with you. Most on the Left would also be blind to the obvious correlation.

I don't know where burning books comes into this. Christians started as a persecuted minority and in the Muslim world still are. Muslims have a long history of oppressing others based on their Medina experience. That is normative for them. I don't give the benefit of the doubt to Islam.

Posted by: Fr. J | May 7, 2011 12:08:38 PM

I don't understand the point of discussing the idea of a Christian complex near the bin Laden hideout. It's a total fantasy. The government of Pakistan is not going to turn the site into a bin Laden memorial. It's my understanding that they intend to tear down the building lest it become a shrine. It is a deep embarrassment to Pakistan. To build a Christian complex there would make no sense and would be a kind of strange memorial to bin Laden. I don't see any analogy at all to the mosque that was proposed near the World Trade Center site.

Posted by: David Nickol | May 7, 2011 4:14:38 PM

David, I am sure you don't see the analogy. But I bet most others do. A victory church would be a constant reminder of their embarrassment and defeat. Do you think they would be open to the idea? Of course not. Neither should we allow them to build a victory mosque at ground zero. Ask your more conservative friends what they think.

Posted by: Fr. J | May 8, 2011 12:29:21 PM

Fr. J,

You say: "A victory church would be a constant reminder of their embarrassment and defeat." Who is the "they" to whom "their" refers? I think you are looking at this as the Christians versus the Muslims. Osama bin Laden did not represent the Muslims, and the Navy Seals did not represent the Christians. I think you believe that all Muslims supported Osama bin Laden either openly or secretly, but that just isn't true. In any case, the whole thing is a fantasy. (And the proposed mosque near Ground Zero was not a "victory mosque.")

Posted by: David Nickol | May 8, 2011 6:43:22 PM

David, it is Christians vs. Muslims. That is the unspoken truth. It has been since they burst out of Arabia and invaded their neighbors. If Osama did not represent the Muslims, and was their enemy, then why didn't they celebrate his death? The celebrated 911.

If their mosque is not a victory mosque then they certainly won't mind a Christian center next to Osama's old house. Why in the world would they object. It would have nothing to do with being near Osama's house, of course not. They would surely welcome it, right?

Posted by: Fr. J | May 10, 2011 2:10:21 PM

How are we to understand Rev 6...seems to vindicate the celebration of victories by Christian warriors in just war......"When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters,[e] were killed just as they had been."

Posted by: Dennis Ebersole | May 12, 2011 1:26:11 PM

I am glad you are discussing this. I think the word vengeance could be given different meanings and I would like to know what exactly is meant here.

I do not think Rev 6 has anything to do with a just war. Nowhere in Revelation is the idea of taking up arms even considered. The souls of those who have have been slain are waiting for justice from God for the sufferings they have endured....but the justice of God has nothing to do with what I understand as human "vengeance". The word vengeance to me has to do with paying back evil for evil....in the stories of the saints we hear that St. Rita offered the lives of both her sons to God rather than see them avenge their father...and apparently God took her up on it.

Posted by: Elisabeth | May 15, 2011 2:44:33 PM

"David, it is Christians vs. Muslims. That is the unspoken truth. It has been since they burst out of Arabia and invaded their neighbors. If Osama did not represent the Muslims, and was their enemy, then why didn't they celebrate his death? The celebrated 911."

There is not a single cogent thought in your entire rant on this subject. Even assuming that every person in the entire country of Pakistan celebrated the Sept 11 attacks on the U.S. and mourned the loss of Osama bin Laden - a hypothetical so incredibly counterfactual that it betrays your complete ignorance of the situation, but which I'm willing to run with to show how weak your claim is - it still doesn't follow that it's "Christians vs. Muslims."

For one thing, Pakistan has a relatively sizable Christian population, millions of people, and Christians make up a significantly larger proportion of Pakistan's population than Muslims do of the U.S. population.

For another, the U.S. isn't a very logical choice as a target if the 9/11 attacks were about "Christians vs. Muslims." Wouldn't Rome be a better choice than New York City? Or the island of Malta a better choice than the island of Manhattan?

Additionally, Abbottabad already has a Christian church of some size in the city, and a relatively small Christian population. Is there any demonstrated need for another one? If not, then there is no legitimate reason for the construction: it WOULD be a "victory church," quite disanalogous from a large and growing congregation in a major metropolitan area.

As usually, you have argued from ignorance or disregard for the truth and in bad faith. Don't you know that this is un-Christian of you?

Posted by: Loquitur Veritatem | Jul 19, 2011 1:05:05 AM