“Thou shalt not kill,” enjoins the Lord God. This section of the Catechism spells out the implications of that short injunction. The rationale for it is found in Donum Vitae of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which speaks of the sacredness of human life in these terms: “God alone is the Master of life from its beginning until its end; no one under any circumstances can claim for himself the right to destroy directly an innocent human life.”
The complete presentation on the Fifth Commandment is suffused with this notion of respect for human life, created in the image and likeness of God, providing us with an absolute norm which is “universally valid; it obliges each and every person, always and everywhere” (2261). The commandment found in the Old Testament is fleshed out yet more in Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, where He counsels would-be disciples to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies.
But is the prohibition against killing truly an absolute? What about exceptions for legitimate self-defense? This is not an exception, notes the Catechism, citing Aquinas in this connection: “The action of self-defense can entail a double effect: One is the preservation of one’s own life, the other the death of the aggressor. . . . Only the one is willed; the other is not” (2263) – a subtle and important distinction. The text goes on to argue that self-defense “can be not only a right, but a serious obligation” for one responsible for the welfare of others or for the common good. While holding to the traditional statement of the right of the State to exact capital punishment in the original text,1 it also advises recourse to non-violent solutions and cautions against vengeance.
In discussing direct and willful homicide, the Catechism singles out “infanticide, fratricide and parricide” as especially worthy of condemnation, as well as eugenics programs – particularly when mandated by public authority. Not surprisingly, an extensive presentation is made on abortion, wherein we read that human life must be protected and guaranteed all rights “from the first moment of its existence,” that is, “from the moment of conception” (2270).
Careful to situate this teaching within history, it comments that this has been the Catholic position “from the first century” as found in the Didache and that “this teaching has not changed.” It goes on to explain the canonical penalty of excommunication leveled for this crime against God and man and observes that this offense is so heinous because “the inalienable right to life of every individual innocent human constitutes a constitutive element of civil society and of its legislation” (2273, emphasis in original). While acknowledging the liceity of prenatal diagnostic testing, it likewise warns that such diagnosis must be used to foster human life and never employed in such manner that it amounts to “a death sentence” (2274). Here we must consider the horrendous – and increasingly widespread practice – of prenatal testing, precisely to snuff out the lives of children diagnosed with Down Syndrome, in utero. Not a few countries proudly boast of eliminating Down Syndrome, while failing to go on to explain how that has occurred, namely, through the abortion of such infants.
Moving to the other end of the life continuum, the Catechism deals with euthanasia, condemning it with equal intensity as “morally unacceptable. Thus an action or omission which, of itself or in its intention, brings death to alleviate suffering, constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to respect for the living God, its Creator. Error in judgment into which one could have fallen in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, always to be proscribed and excluded” (2276-7). The usual distinction is made between ordinary and extraordinary means of medical care and on the need for the patient to be involved in such decisions, but special attention is given to the need to provide normal care which is the sufferer’s right as well as “a privileged form of disinterested charity” (2279).
Suicide is treated as an act against “the Sovereign Master,” since thereby human beings arrogate to themselves decisions about human existence. It is also seen as “contrary to a proper love of self. It equally offends against the love of neighbor” because it breaks down “the bonds of solidarity” within the various societies of man; finally it “is contrary to the love of the living God.” Cooperation in this activity “is contrary to the moral law.” With sensitivity, the authors remind that “grave psychological problems, anguish or grave fear of trial, of suffering or of torture can diminish the responsibility of the one who commits suicide.” Therefore, “one should not despair of the eternal salvation” of such persons; it even postulates the possibility that God gives people in these straits “the opportunity of a saving repentance” (2280-3).
The next major division is concerned with “respect for the dignity of persons.” Included for consideration is the sin of scandal and the need to care for one’s health. This latter topic must never devolve into “the cult of the body” but should lead to the cultivation of the virtue of temperance “to avoid all sorts of excess,” which can be abuses of food, alcohol, tobacco and medicine. Drunken driving and speeding are cited as culpable actions. Scientific research is praised when conducted with the good of the person in view and within proper parameters; a similar evaluation is made of organ transplants, with the added admonition that “it is morally inadmissible to provoke directly the incapacitating mutilation or death of a human being, even if it be to delay the death of other persons” (2296).
Classified together as “morally illegitimate” are kidnapping, hostage-taking, terrorism, and torture, as well as amputations, mutilations or sterilizations which are not “of a strictly therapeutic order” (2298). Respect for the dying is highlighted, especially by permitting them to die “in dignity and peace” and providing them with access to the sacraments. Burying the dead is, of course, a corporal work of mercy. Autopsies are permissible when performed for legal or scientific motives. “The free gift of organs after death is legitimate and can be meritorious.” Finally, it is recalled that “the Church permits cremation if this does not show itself as a means of calling into question faith in the resurrection of the body” (2301).
Peace and just war theory
Safeguarding peace is the concern of the last section (2302-2317). With Gaudium et Spes, the Catechism notes that peace should not be construed as “the mere absence of war”; with St. Augustine, it teaches that peace is “the tranquillity of order.” “Earthly peace,” we read, “is the image and fruit of the peace of Christ, ‘the Prince of peace’,” who achieved this peace by the blood of His Cross, thus reconciling God and man and making of His Church “the sacrament of the unity of the human race and of its union with God.” He who is, as St. Paul taught, “our peace” likewise “declares ‘blessed the peacemakers.’” Hence, at a personal level, that anger which is “a desire for vengeance” and deliberate hatred are obstacles to peace; such attitudes then lead to communal manifestations, endangering peace on a grander scale.
The Catechism teaches that “every citizen and government is required to work for the avoidance of wars.” That said, it goes on to speak of “the right of legitimate defense” and reasserts the “just war theory,” outlining the conditions necessary for its deployment. Similarly, it declares that public authorities have the right to “impose on citizens the necessary obligations for the national defense.” At the same time, for reasons of conscience, people can refuse to bear arms, but still have a duty “to serve the human community in another form.” In classical style, we are reminded of the necessity “to respect and treat with humanity non-combatants, wounded soldiers and prisoners.” Although certainly expecting cooperation with military superiors, the Catechism condemns “a blind obedience” which would be complicit in crimes against moral norms for waging war. The arms build-up is denounced, and a strong cautionary word is sounded for this approach to be used as a deterrent to war.
For those who operate from political categories without reference to the perennial truths of natural law and Catholic theology, there should be at least one thing to irk or prick the conscience of just about everyone so disposed. For the sons and daughters of the Church, who understand and accept the meaning of the sacredness of human life, all will reflect a marvelous consistency and a happy reconciliation of conflicting claims.
The situation today
Permit me to highlight some issues of particular relevance to Catholics in the United States.
Devout Catholics know the critical importance of the abortion issue (which the science of fetology makes more clear every day); they realize the need to translate their concern into real and positive programs of political action – something within the grasp of every voter, especially in election years – and more especially now as we have a “Catholic” President who is committed to enshrining in law and practice the most radical dimensions of abortion. It is likewise important for the lay faithful to make known to hesitant or weak priests and bishops how serious is their obligation to deny access to Holy Communion for would-be Catholic politicians who continue to promote the killing of innocent children in their mothers’ wombs.
Decades ago, Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa warned us that a nation that permitted the murder of the pre-born could logically expect attacks on life at the other end of the spectrum. At present, numerous states have permissive legislation in this regard. Euthanasia, however, is closely tied to suicide – physician-assisted suicide, for example. We need to look closely at countries like Holland and Belgium, where “assisted” suicide has gone into full-blown murder of the elderly, mentally challenged or otherwise unwanted persons. Here the sad examples of Belgium and Holland stand out.
Sterilization, as we have already seen, is condemned by the Church. However, a sterilization performed to safeguard the total health of a person by removing diseased organs is morally acceptable. Procedures done to prevent conception, on the other hand, are immoral as is sterilization as a legal penalty for certain crimes or as a government program to “keep in check” the population of the poor, the handicapped or other societal outcasts.
Organ transplants are a fine way of saving life and of sacrificial giving, as noted by Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, wherein he praised “the donation of organs, performed in an ethically acceptable manner, with a view to offering a chance of health and even of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope” (n. 86), but he cautioned against procedures which caused the premature death of a donor or trafficking in organs.
From simple justice to genuine charity
Most of our considerations here would differ in no significant way from a Jewish reflection on the Fifth Commandment. In the New Testament, however, Our Lord invited His disciples to go beyond the demands of the Mosaic Law; thus we read of His six antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said. . . but I say to you. . . .”
Jesus takes the ancient norm of “an eye for an eye” and calls for “turning the other cheek” (see Mt 5:38). The Christian must recall that “an eye for an eye” was not an immoral code of behavior; in reality, it was a considerable improvement over that of other nations of the time, requiring a sense of proportion and moderation in the punishment of one’s enemies.
Christ was asking His followers to move from the realm of simple justice into the realm of genuine charity. He likewise warned against anger; resisting anger would be “preventive medicine” for the avoidance of murder (see Mt 5:21f).2 The law of love reaches its final and highest statement in the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John as Our Lord indicates that the very essence of love is revealed not merely in refraining from taking the life of another but in a willingness to lay down one’s life for the sake of another. Here we think of the noble example of someone like St. Maximilian Kolbe springs to mind.
Contemporary American society abounds in violence in its toys, films, and games. If human life is to be seen as sacred again, the number of these enticements must be reduced and eventually eliminated. Entertainment has always had an element of the violent about it, even in ancient times, but in those cultures certain actions were deemed unsuitable for audience consumption; they were to be performed “off stage,” giving us from both the Greek and Latin our English word “obscene.”
The Judaeo-Christian Tradition demands an absolute respect for the sacredness of human life at every stage along the continuum. This respect is rooted in a love for the creative work of God and the presence of His image in every human being. Such a theology implies an active concern and involvement to care for our own life and health, as well as for that of our neighbor – all based on the conviction that the life of even one person is “of more value than many sparrows” (Mt 10:31).
2318 “In [God’s] hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind” (⇒ Job 12:10).
2319 Every human life, from the moment of conception until death, is sacred because the human person has been willed for its own sake in the image and likeness of the living and holy God.
2320 The murder of a human being is gravely contrary to the dignity of the person and the holiness of the Creator.
2321 The prohibition of murder does not abrogate the right to render an unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. Legitimate defense is a grave duty for whoever is responsible for the lives of others or the common good.
2322 From its conception, the child has the right to life. Direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, is a “criminal” practice (GS 27 # 3), gravely contrary to the moral law. the Church imposes the canonical penalty of excommunication for this crime against human life.
2323 Because it should be treated as a person from conception, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed like every other human being.
2324 Intentional euthanasia, whatever its forms or motives, is murder. It is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator.
2325 Suicide is seriously contrary to justice, hope, and charity. It is forbidden by the fifth commandment.
2326 Scandal is a grave offense when by deed or omission it deliberately leads others to sin.
2327 Because of the evils and injustices that all war brings with it, we must do everything reasonably possible to avoid it. the Church prays: “From famine, pestilence, and war, O Lord, deliver us.”
2328 The Church and human reason assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflicts. Practices deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes.
2329 “The arms race is one of the greatest curses on the human race and the harm it inflicts on the poor is more than can be endured” (GS 81 # 3).
2330 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (⇒ Mt 5:9).
Related at CWR:
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 1)” (Feb 23, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 2)” (Mar 2, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
• “God’s Law of Love: A Spirituality of the Ten Commandments (Part 3)” (March 10, 2021) by Fr. Peter M.J. Stravinskas
1 Readers will recall that Pope Francis made a change to paragraph 2267 of the Catechism, indicating that capital punishment is “inadmissable.” That adjective is a source of confusion since it is not a term in classical moral theology. Surely, it cannot mean that capital punishment is absolutely forbidden since Sacred Scripture clearly admits of that possibility. Pope John Paul II went as far as he thought theologically possible by declaring, in Evangelium Vitae:
56. This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence.” Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
2 Our Lord’s methodology with these six “antitheses” is standard rabbinic mode of teaching, known as “building a wall around Torah,” that is, avoiding a lesser sin, so as to obviate the greater. Hence, don’t even get angry, lest that lead to murder. Don’t harbor improper sexual thoughts, lest that lead to adultery. And so forth.
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