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The Catholic Moment: Sic semper tyrannis

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June 15, 2011

By Father Earl Fernandes

Sic semper tyrannis! Often mistranslated as “Death to tyrants,” this Latin phrase was shouted by John Wilkes Booth as he shot President Lincoln and serves as the motto for the Commonwealth of Virginia. It really means “Thus always to tyrants.”


Last month, in reflecting on the death of Osama Bin Laden, this column sought to inform readers of church teaching on terrorism and the serious responsibilities of Catholics to promote peace. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church acknowledged a right to self-defense, but also states that this right “cannot rightly be exercised in the absence of moral and legal norms.”


Osama Bin Laden was a terrorist, not a leader of a state. With the American Independence Day just around the corner, Catholics might reflect on another question of self-defense: Can someone legitimately kill a tyrant in self-defense? If King George III was a tyrant, could an American revolutionary have attempted to kill him without committing a sin?


St. Thomas Aquinas noted that people have a natural inclination toward self-preservation (Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 94). In his treatment of commutative justice (that justice which pertains to the relationship between persons), St. Thomas (ST II-II, q. 64, art. 7) explains that individuals, having an inclination to self-preservation, have a right to self-defense; that one cannot intend directly killing of another but should intend to save his own life; that one may use only that force necessary to ward off an unjust attacker; and that, if possible, loss of human life should be avoided.


But can the argument from self-defense be applied to a tyrant? Tyranny is that form of government in which a leader, rather than seeking the common good, governs for his own good at the expense of the community. Tyrants treat their subjects like slaves, often prohibiting legitimate assembly through which communal bonds and trust might be built. Some laws of tyrants are so corrupted that they cease to be binding and could be disobeyed. Tyranny threatens the dignity of the human person. If a person is attacked by a tyrant or his agents, one has a right to self-defense, meeting force with proportionate force. Within the context of the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, a person legitimately might defend another against the attack of a tyrant.


In his early writings, St. Thomas distinguished between tyrants who attempt to usurp legitimate authority and tyrants who, while acquiring power legitimately, abuse power in a brutal, unjust and oppressive way. In the latter case, (tyrannus in regimine), such as that of King George III, initially St. Thomas would have encouraged the people to suffer patiently, asking civil authorities to do what they could to rectify the situation. In the end, this may involve rising up against the tyrant. Nevertheless, in the case of such rebellion, one must be mindful that revolution, whether successful or unsuccessful, brings with it certain harms. A prudential judgment has to be made about prospects for success and whether the harms and disorder introduced would make the situation better or worse.


In his later writings, St. Thomas is of the firm opinion that a tyrant loses his authority through the injustices he commits, and rebellion might be a means of a people’s liberation. Seemingly, an act of tyrannicide would be an act of the last resort but could, under certain circumstances, be permitted.


The church does not have a definitive teaching about tyrannicide. While the tyranny of King George seems far-removed, more modern examples could be considered. Could Count von Stauffenberg have assassinated Hitler in Operation Valkyrie without sin? Could modern day thugs like Gadhafi or Mugabe be legitimately overthrown by force and even killed as tyrants? Or is the non-violence of India’s independence movement the proper path?


Well, what do you think: Can a person kill a tyrant without sinning? One of the beautiful things about our Catholic faith is that we have a tradition in which our predecessors have reflected upon such questions. There might be reasons for and against tyrannicide. How does your faith inform your reasoned opinion? While there is a unity in essential matters of faith and morals, in disputed questions, Catholics can debate as they seek the truth. One Catholic may cry out: “Sic semper tyrannis!” The other may say: “Sed contra…


Father Fernandes is an assistant professor of moral theology and dean of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary.

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