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Should Christians Pray for Osama Bin Laden’s Soul?

The front page of the New York Times today bears a picture of Osama bin Laden with the headline: BIN LADEN KILLED BY US FORCES IN PAKISTAN, OBAMA SAYS, DECLARING JUSTICE HAS BEEN DONE.

The news touched off an extraordinary outpouring of emotion as crowds gathered outside the White House, in Times Square and at the Ground Zero site, waving American flags, cheering, shouting, laughing and chanting, “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” In New York City, crowds sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Throughout downtown Washington, drivers honked horns deep into the night.

I am always a little shocked by emotional displays of rejoicing at the demise or death of any human being, even an enemy. Leaving aside the question of whether or not bin Laden’s death was just, I want to briefly examine what reaction Christians ought to have to this news.

Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that we ought to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). As a model of such agapic love, Christ prays for his persecutors on the cross “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). We see the emulation of this agapic love especially when Stephen is martyred, praying as he is stoned “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). I always like to think of the “Oh my Jesus” prayer, often said at the end of each decade of the rosary, as the Church’s attempt to habituate her members to follow in Stephen’s example:

Oh my Jesus,
forgive us our sins,
save us from the fires of Hell,
and lead all souls to heaven,
especially those most in need of thy mercy.

Aquinas, in his treatise on prayer, is clear in his position that we ought to pray for our enemies:

To pray for another is an act of charity, as stated above (Article 7). Wherefore we are bound to pray for our enemies in the same manner as we are bound to love them. Now it was explained above in the treatise on charity (25, 8,9), how we are bound to love our enemies, namely, that we must love in them their nature, not their sin. and that to love our enemies in general is a matter of precept, while to love them in the individual is not a matter of precept, except in the preparedness of the mind, so that a man must be prepared to love his enemy even in the individual and to help him in a case of necessity, or if his enemy should beg his forgiveness. But to love one’s enemies absolutely in the individual, and to assist them, is an act of perfection (II-II, Q. 83, art.8).

He concludes then that we ought to pray generally for enemies, that is, we ought to include them in our general intercessions, but to pray for them specifically is a matter of Christian perfection “except in certain cases.”

In which cases one ought to pray specifically for one’s enemy goes unmentioned by Aquinas. Thus, the question remains: Is this an instance in which Christians ought to offer up specific intentions for the happy repose of the soul of Osama bin Laden?

I suggest that is. First of all, in the above-cited article on prayer, Aquinas tells us that loving our enemy specifically is a matter of precept for the “preparedness of the mind.” In like manner, praying for Osama bin Laden this week is a practice which will help prepare Christians to grow in charity and docility to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, thus making them more amenable to act as Christ demands us to act in the Sermon on the Mount. Praying for Osama bin Laden is a means to becoming more habituated to God’s agapic love, and becoming in turn more loving.

Second, praying for Osama bin Laden publicly and specifically is a way of witnessing to the faith, of being a martyr in the same sense Stephen was. In light of the concerns about a possible backlash in Afghanistan and Pakistan to bin Laden’s death, it is important that the Church provide an alternative to the sort of public display of joy and jubilant dancing in the streets that we see below the fold in the Times this morning and all over the news. The message the Church needs to send now is that our enemies abroad are still our brothers and sisters in Christ, and while we rejoice in God’s justice, we still mourn their sin and our own which has led to the senseless death of so many since that fateful September morning.

Another front-page Times headline reads “An Emblem of Evil in the US, and Icon to the Cause of Terror.” Let us hope that the Church in these days may be an emblem to good and an icon to peace in these coming days. And let us pray that God may have mercy on us and lead all souls to heaven, especially Osama bin Laden, who is most in need of God’s mercy.

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12 Comments

  1. Meghan Clark has posted similar sentiments on another post this morning:

    http://catholicmoraltheology.com/relief-or-rejoice-reflections-on-the-death-of-osama-bin-laden/

  2. Beth: Von Bathasar’s “Dare we hope that all men be saved? With a Short Discourse on Hell” and CS Lewis’s THE GREAT DIVORCE are helpful here….not only do we need to pray because of Mathew 5; but also, given that we are all sinners – we need to be wary of claiming to impose God’s judgment (which quickly also becomes an assertion of our own confidence in our salvation over and against THEIRS).

  3. The most touching response to a prayer for Osama bin Laden which I wrote on my blog was this: “Our family prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet for him at the request of one of our children…”

  4. Wonderful post, Beth. Yes, we should pray for bin Laden’s soul, and not simply as a “display” of how we can and do pray for our enemies. The gravity of his sin is that he had a hand in destroying so many bearers of God’s image. Yet that does not mean he loses his own dignity as a bearer of God’s image (as warped and obscured as that image may be). President Obama said many evocative words last night about “empty places at the dinner table” and “lost embraces of children,” but surely the basis of the universal precept against murder is the recognition of murder’s affront to inviolable personal dignity. God made us all. We are all irreplaceable, incommunicable. “We are all some mother’s child.” To be able to recognize that fact in your enemy and respond to it with prayer certainly is an act of perfection, and one we should at least TRY to perform. The ending of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” comes to mind in this vein; I think she captures the idea quite well there. Anyway, great post!

  5. I agree with you very much, Beth. Thanks for this, and for giving us a new way to think about usual prayers.

  6. When praying for the soul of Osama bin Laden, what *exactly* would we be praying for?

    Would we be praying for bin Laden to repent? As I understand Catholic teaching, the ability to choose salvation ends at the time of death. So it would seem prayers cannot alter the mind of bin Laden after he is dead. Would we be praying for God to have mercy on bin Laden’s soul? Isn’t God already all merciful? And also, in recent discussion on Hell, people have claimed that God doesn’t SENDa person to Hell. The person CHOOSES to go to Hell. God has no choice, having given human beings freedom, but to permit the person his choice of hell.

    To put it another way, what possible effect can our prayers for the dead have, at least when it comes to salvation versus damnation?

    • David, could you say more about what you mean by “all merciful”? You mean that God is merciful to anyone and everyone regardless of circumstance?

  7. Charles, if I were going to come up with my own definition rather than refer back the the Baltimore Catechism, I would say that God wants the best for all his creatures and is prepared to give it on his own, and this includes the maximum mercy consistent with justice. Prodding him in the form of prayers beseeching him to be more merciful than he might otherwise be to, say, bin Laden, would seem pointless to me, because I would think God stands ready to be as merciful as he can be without any prodding. When it comes to salvation or damnation, as defined in a number of recent blog discussions on the nature of Hell, damnation is argued to be the CHOICE of a person rejecting God, not God rejecting the person. What is an all-merciful God to do, even if he *can* be urged to show more mercy, if the person to be saved or damned CHOOSES damnation?

    • OK, I see better now, David. But if you’re question is in light of the fact that ‘God wants the best for all God’s creatures’…then your question is really just one kind of a more general question: why pray at all, right? I mean, if I pray for my friend to get healthy, isn’t that pointless if God already wants what’s best for my friend?

  8. Charles, I would love to have an answer to the question why pray at all, or more specifically, why say prayers of petition. Feel free to answer that one if you like! But it seems to me praying for someone who is dead who you fear may be damned is a special and more difficult case. As I said, there have been many discussions lately of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins, and a constantly repeated theme in the Catholic discussions is that God doesn’t reject people, but rather they freely reject him. If it is person’s choice to reject God, and if what we have chosen is fixed at the moment of death, it seems to me that the dead person can’t do anything, because his choice is already made, and God can’t do anything, because he (according to Catholic though) is simply honoring the free choice already made by the dead person.

    So given that, supposing one does want to pray for the soul of bin Laden, what precisely can one say if bin Laden’s choice is to reject God? Of course, we can’t know what his choice was, and maybe it makes sense to pray for those who have chosen God but are not already perfect at death. But I don’t see that it makes any sense to pray that someone who has already died be spared damnation.

  9. Listen as Catherine of Siena, John Paul II, and Josemaria Escriva weigh in on this as well, at http://PaulineFaithways.blogspot.com. “…As We Forgive…”

  10. It is one thing not to rejoice over the death of Osama bin Laden. It is another thing to pray for his “soul.” And it is yet another thing to forgive him. My understanding is that God stands ready to forgive anyone who repents, but God does not forgive those who don’t repent. Anyone who is genuinely repentant deserves forgiveness by his or her fellow human beings. But to forgive Osama bin Laden without any shred of evidence that he regretted his actions is to be more pious than God. I think the best one can do is hope that bin Laden had some chance to make himself worthy of forgiveness. But it makes no sense to me for anyone to say, “I forgive bin Laden.”

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