The cause for canonization of an assassin

This action by Bishops in Korea is imprudent. They are moving forward with the cause for canonization of Thomas An Jung-geun, a Korean Catholic who assassinated the Japanese resident general of Korea, in 1909, during the conflict between Korea and Japan.

This decision appears to be motivated by patriotic emotion, not by the holiness of the man. Although Catholic, the main focus of this man’s life was to battle against the subjugation of Korea to Japan. The reasons cited for his canonization are mainly the act of killing one man, and injuring three other persons.

One may make a case that his act was morally permissible, as the defense of a nation. One may also make the case that his act was not morally permissible, since he also shot a railway executive; it would be difficult to argue that this railway executive was an enemy combatant.

Another moral issue is the evaluation of the reasonably anticipated consequences of his action. It does not seem likely that killing this Japanese official would have any substantial good effect on the nation or the fight against the unjust Japanese domination of Korea. An action during war, even of killing an enemy combatant, is not moral if the bad consequences outweigh the good. The act of assassinating a leader can be anticipated to result in retribution by the nation of that leader; more harm might be done than good.

Still another moral issue is the intentions (the motivation) that accompany this act. Even if the act were objectively a defense of the nation, so that it was not intrinsically evil, and even if the good consequences would outweigh the bad, perhaps his motivation was merely patriotic, and not based on justice or holiness. Was he acting out of a desire to do the will of God? This seems unlikely, given that his main occupation was military and patriotic, not religious. His own explanation is as follows:

“I killed Ito because he was an obstacle to peace in Asia and was a hindrance to relations between Korea and Japan. As Lieutenant General of the Korean resistance army, it was my task to organise the assassination.” (Source)

Thomas An killed one man, and attempted to kill three other persons, as part of his role as a leader of the resistance army. He does not give a devout reason for his actions.

But even if his actions were morally permissible (which is highly doubtful), why should he be canonized? Many soldiers act justly to defend their nation. They are given military awards, not canonization, for their valor.

The main basis for canonizing this man seems to be his act of assassination, which might not have been moral. His character and life are being presented as saintly solely because of that act. If he had not done so, it seems there would be no cause for canonization.

Should we canonize Seal Team 6 for killing bin Laden? Should we canonize the CIA drone pilots who killed several other terrorists? Those actions are morally justified, as the defense of innocent lives. But an act of violence should not be the basis for a cause of canonization, even if the violence is morally permissible.

It has become too easy, in recent decades, for a person to be canonized. Formerly, there would be appointed a person to argue against a cause for canonization, so that no one would become a Saint too easily. Formerly, a devotion to a holy person would have to develop over many years, in order for a cause to be established. But now, with the mass media, a push for canonization can develop quickly and perhaps with little basis in wisdom and grace. The Church would be prudent to return to the practices of the past, wherein a person is appointed to look for reasons why a person might not be a Saint, and where a longer period of time needs to elapse in order for the cause to proceed further.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and Bible translator

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