Catholics might easily feel a bit conflicted about celebrating the death of Osama bin Laden. That’s as it should be. 

On the one hand, it is right to feel relief at the killing of the man who is responsible for thousands of deaths of innocent people and who spearheaded a drive in the past decade that has made the world in no small way a more violent, fearful, hateful and costly place. 

It is largely because of him, and the terrible loss of life on 9/11 (foreshadowed nearly a year earlier by the deadly attack on the USS Cole in a Yemeni port), that America and its allies are mired in two overseas wars; that airline passengers now are subjected to lengthy and even humiliating security searches; that trillions of dollars that could otherwise have been spent on development and economic growth have gone to the war and security apparatus. 

A New York City celebration at the news of the death of Osama bin Laden
A crowd gathers in New York City after the announcement of Osama bin Laden's death

More insidious is bin Laden’s effective sowing of division in the human family: inflaming of Islamic sentiment against non-Muslims, inspiring many young Arabs and other Muslims to join his global cultural conflict, which in turn has generated fear and prejudice against Muslims among the wider population. 

Unhappily his death does not also mean the death of his legacy, and the seeds he has sown are likely to bear bitter fruit for many years ahead. But insofar as he was a symbol of division and murderous hatred directed at innocents, including Muslims, we celebrate what we hope and pray is the beginning of the end of an era. 

As God’s providence would have it, bin Laden was killed by U.S. special operations forces on May 1, the feast of Divine Mercy. At the precise moment his soul left his body, there likely were many thousands of Catholics around the world praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy specifically for those who were then at the hour of their death, especially those in most need of mercy. Little did they know that included perhaps the world’s most notorious terrorist. 

That irony won’t be lost on Christians, to whom Jesus left the almost impossible admonition to love their enemies and do good to those who hate them. “Then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as (also) your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:34). Or there’s this apt instruction from Proverbs: “Rejoice not when your enemy falls, and when he stumbles, let not your heart exult” (24:17). 

For some, that’s a very tall order, especially if they’re among the estimated 20 percent of Americans with a tie to someone injured or killed on 9/11, or in the military on anti-terrorism missions. For them, it’s personal and the wounds run deep. 

Yet pray we must, even for al-Qaida’s former leader. 

The Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said in a statement the day after the U.S. operation that bin Laden’s death should prompt more reflection than celebration. 

“Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions to this end,” he said. 

“In the face of a man’s death,” Father Lombardi continued, “a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.” 

It is only through love that we will dismantle bin Laden’s legacy of hate.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; John Norton, editor; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor.