Barack Obama gave an interview to 60 Minutes this past Sunday to talk about the attack on Osama bin Laden. It made absolutely compelling television, and the president was particularly sterling. The most intriguing question, I thought, came at the end, when Steve Kroft asked the President, “Is this the first time that you’ve ever ordered someone killed?” 

Obama’s response pointed to the power and gravity of the presidential office: “Well, keep in mind that, you know, every time I make a decision about launching a missile, every time I make a decision about sending troops into battle, you know, I understand that this will result in people being killed. And that is a sobering fact. But it is one that comes with the job.”

Kroft did not let the question go: “This was one man. This is somebody who’s cast a shadow in this place, in the White House for almost a decade.”

Obama then said something that I found rather shocking: “As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn’t lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn’t deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.”

Perhaps I need to have my head examined, but does it not seem a little disturbing that our President feels it is within his competency to judge an individual worthy of death?  And that this individual happens to be someone whose actual death he played a central role in bringing about? 

Was bin Laden a mass murderer? Yes, absolutely. If he had been taken alive, would he have eventually been executed? There can be little doubt of that. Could one make the case that the operative(s) who killed him were acting out of self-defense? Sure, it seems very plausible. Yet despite all that, should Catholics rest easy with the president’s post facto pronouncement, made with unconditional confidence, that bin Laden deserved to die?

When a jury convicts a criminal of a capital offense in our country and that criminal is sentenced to death, a moral judgment has been made that this particular person deserves to die. The community is saying that it is just that this person be put to death on account of the gravity of their crime.

That sounds straightforward enough, except for the fact that Catholic social doctrine seems to reject this view of capital punishment. It leaves room for the execution of criminals under the paradigm of legitimate national defense, but does it leave room to say that the dangerous aggressor from whom the community cannot be kept safe deserves to die? Certainly, a criminal deserves punishment according to CSD, but under the particular circumstances which (according to CSD) allow for the legitimate exercise of the death “penalty,” can one still say that the criminal deserves to die? Is the criminal’s death in this instance the reflection of a moral judgment upon their crime, or is it simply the prudential determination of the requirements of national defense?

Beyond what Obama’s statement implies about the care taken to apprehend bin Laden alive, the claim that a president can (even in retrospect) pronounce that an individual deserves death should at least raise some probing questions about whether and under what conditions killing can be an authentic expression of justice. Catholic social doctrine maintains that killing can be a legitimate means of defense, but beyond that does not seem to offer much room for the public to judge the killing of any person as an act that in itself accomplishes justice.

Can deliberate killing be an instrument of justice?  While the question remains an open one in Catholic moral theology, it seems to be a settled matter for our president.