The morality of tyrannicide is not much discussed in today’s kinder, gentler Catholic Church. Yet that difficult subject once engaged some of Catholicism’s finest minds, including Thomas Aquinas and Francisco Suárez, and it was passionately debated during the Second World War by German officers—many of them devout Christians—who were pondering the assassination of Adolf Hitler. (Their efforts were known and tacitly approved by Pius XII, but that’s another story.)
What about today? Were I back in the classroom, I’d ask my students to construct a morally defensible argument for killing a tyrant. If the student followed Aquinas’s reasoning, the case for tyrannicide would involve a leader who was doing grave evil, who could not be removed from power except by being killed, and whose assassination would not make matters worse. Were those conditions met, Aquinas argued in his Commentary on Peter Lombard, a citizen might even be “praised and rewarded” for being the “one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant.”
With the 30th anniversary of the Revolution of 1989 coming this fall, we’ll all be reminded that there are alternatives to killing tyrants or surrendering to evil: Awakened consciences can discover nonviolent tools of resistance to tyranny, tools preferable to assassination. And consciences are awakened when men and women hear a summons to moral heroism—to living in the truth, which is the greatest of liberators. That is why the current stance of the Holy See toward Latin American tyrannies is so disconcerting. For rather than calling the people of hard-pressed countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to effective, nonviolent resistance against tyrants on the model of Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, the Vatican is constantly bleating about “dialogue” with murderous thugs who’ve demonstrated for decades that they’re only interested in maintaining their power, masking their gross personal ambition and greed with a foggy cloud of gibberish about “the revolution.”
Now, however, 20 former Latin American heads of state and government have said, politely but firmly, that enough is enough. In a January 6 letter to their fellow Latin American Pope Francis, the signatories, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, acknowledged the “good faith” and “pastoral spirit” of Francis’s Christmas blessing Urbi et Orbi (to the city and the world). But they also reminded the pope that Venezuelans “are victims of oppression by a militarized narco-dictatorship which has no qualms about systematically violating the rights to life, liberty, and personal integrity,” a corrupt regime that has also “subjected [Venezuelans] to widespread famine and lack of medicine.” As for Nicaragua, President Arias and his colleagues noted that the Ortega regime has recently killed 300 Nicaraguans and wounded 2,500 others in a “wave of repression” against nonviolent protesters.
In these contexts, the former leaders concluded, the papal “call for harmony....can be understood by the victimized nations [as an instruction] that they should come to agreement with their victimizers.” Which is why the majority in Nicaragua and Venezuela received the pope’s Christmas message “in a very negative way.”
In 2013, the Church’s moral influence in world affairs was at its modern apogee. John Paul II was widely recognized as a pivotal figure in the nonviolent collapse of European communism and a significant player in the democratization of Latin America and East Asia. Drawing on John Paul’s social doctrine and his own penetrating insights into political modernity, Benedict XVI had made powerful statements about the moral foundations of the 21st-century free society in lectures at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, London’s Westminster Hall, and the Bundestag in Berlin.
What has the world seen since then?
It has seen a papal initiative in Syria that, however well-intended, provided cover for the Obama administration to back off its “red line” about Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. It has seen a Vatican that refuses to use the words “invasion,” “war,” and “occupation” to describe Vladimir Putin’s Anschluss in Crimea and his war in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 10,000 and displaced more than a million Ukrainians, many of them Ukrainian Greek Catholics. It has seen a Vatican deal with China that is widely regarded as a kowtow to ruthless, aggressive authoritarians.
Where is the moral challenge to tyranny? Where is the summons to heroic resistance? Great moral capital is being squandered, in a world that desperately needs a moral compass.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.