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Part Three:  The Will of God

Fifth Commandment

Table of Contents    

Moses The wording of the Fifth Commandment is identical in the two biblical texts of the Decalogue, “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 20:5-17).

Already in the Old Testament the prohibition was understood to mean “You shall not murder.” Always understood was that it was forbidden to kill an innocent person.

The first recorded crime in the moral degradation after the Fall was the murder of Abel by his envious brother Cain (Genesis 4:1-16). Cain’s punishment by God reveals the gravity of the sin of murder. Several times, the prophets mention murder among the crimes for which Israel would be punished by Yahweh (Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 7:9).

Yet, as we read the history of the Old Covenant, we are struck by the moral development introduced into the world by the coming of Christ. We are told, for example, that “If a man beats his slave, male or female, and the slave dies at his hands, he must pay the penalty. But should the slave survive for one or two days, he shall pay no penalty because the slave is his by right of purchase” (Exodus 21:20-21).

The Sermon on the Mount reveals how deeply Christ’s teaching elevated the tenor of the Fifth Commandment. Jesus repeated the prohibition of the Decalogue forbidding murder. But He went on to explain that not only external acts of violence were sinful, but also internal anger or sharp and angry words. He did still more. He bound His followers to the practice of charity.

The Catholic church has built on Christ’s teaching a whole edifice of moral doctrine that touches every aspect of personal and social morality. Certain areas of this teaching have crucial importance today.


No aspect of the Fifth Commandment is more crucial in the modern world than the morality of abortion. One reason is that the followers of Christ are now facing the same organized amorality as the Church struggled to Christianize in the first century. Historians of the Roman Empire in apostolic times say that infanticide was persistent, legal, and widely accepted; abortion was lawful for anyone who could obtain the means, and was very common not only among the well-to-do but among all classes.

It was in this atmosphere that Christ’s teaching began to penetrate a pagan world. About the year 80 A.D. appeared The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, the earliest Christian writing now known, outside of the canonical books of the New Testament, “There are two ways,” the Teaching declared, “one of Life and one of Death.”

Now, the way of Life is this: first, love the God who made you; secondly, your neighbor as yourself; do not do to another what you do not wish to be done to yourself….
A further commandment of the Teaching: Do not murder…Do not kill a fetus by abortion, or commit infanticide.

Those who believed in Christ and accepted the Church’s authority accepted the children whom God was sending them.

As Christianity pervaded human society, abortion became not only morally sinful but legally criminal according to civil law. There the matter stood until the twentieth century, when under pressure from the forces of secularism, one country after another legalized abortion. In many parts of the world, abortion has become a social custom, where it is the external manifestation of a people’s decadence.

The Church’s condemnation of abortion became part of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council.

God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to man the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes (Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, 51).

After the Council, Pope Paul VI ordered a detailed document to be published on procured abortion (Declaration on Procured Abortion, November 18, 1974). It is the longest and most detailed declaration on the subject in the Church’s two-thousand years of moral history. It explains the evil of abortion in the light of faith, and in the additional light of reason; it replies to some of the widely circulated objections; it clarifies the relationship of morality, which comes from God, and civil law favoring abortion, which comes from men; and concludes that a Christian understanding of abortion cannot be limited to the horizon of this world. Only in the light of the world to come can sound moral judgments and rational human laws be made.

First the Roman document goes back over the Church’s long and unanimous history in condemning abortion. Her tradition “has always held that human life must be protected and favored from the beginning, just as at the various stages of its development.” Opposing the morals of the Greco-Roman world, the Church of the first centuries made a clear distinction between divine law and the world’s law. From the beginning, the Church considered “as murderers, those women who took medicines to procure an abortion.” She condemned “the killers of children, including those still living in their mother’s womb, where they are already the object of the care of divine Providence” (6).

Catholic moral doctrine on this matter “has not changed and is not changeable.” Those who arbitrarily discriminate on which innocent persons have a right to live are rationalizing murder.

The first right of a human person is his life. He has other goods and some are more precious, but this one is fundamental – the condition of all others. It does not belong to society, nor does it belong to public authority in any form to recognize this right for some and not for others. All discrimination is evil, whether it be founded on race, sex, color, or religion. It is not recognition by another that constitutes this right. This right is antecedent to its recognition; it demands recognition and it is strictly unjust to refuse it (11).

So much for the general principle which has been tragically ignored in the massive genocide of the twentieth century. Millions have already been murdered because of discrimination on “race, sex, color, or religion.”

Now a new form of genocide has become legal in what still claim to be civilized countries. It is based on a discrimination of age or physical or psychological condition. This, too, is contrary to the divine laws.

Any discrimination in the various stages of life is no more justified than any other discrimination. The right to life remains complete in an old person, even one greatly weakened; it is not lost by one who is incurably sick.
The right to life is no less to be respected in the small infant just born than in the mature person.
In reality, respect for human life is called for from the time that the process of generation begins. From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother. It is, rather, the life of a new human being with its own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already (12).

Given the widespread legalization of direct abortion, with the intention to kill an unborn child, followers of Christ are placed in an agonizing dilemma. May they obey the civil law? No. “Man can never obey a law which is in itself immoral, and such is the case of a law which would admit, in principle, the licitness of abortion.” May they argue from pluralism, that in a country with different religions, a Catholic should not impose his views on others, even if he is a legislator, judge, or holder of a political office? No. It is not imposition of Catholic views to oppose abortion: It is “obedience to the law of God.” This law is based on “the natural law engraved in men’s hearts by the Creator, as a norm which reason clarifies and strives to formulate properly, and which one must always struggle to understand better, but which it is always wrong to contradict” (21, 22, 24).


It is not surprising that the foregoing declaration of Rome on abortion should soon after be followed by one on euthanasia.

The word euthanasia (Greek = easy death) is itself misleading. It has come to mean everything from murder of the unwanted to suicide by those who want to take their own lives – always with the approval and even coercion of the civil law.

As the Church understands the term, euthanasia is an action or an omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death. The motive for intending to kill an innocent person is not important. It may be to spare a person continued bodily suffering or to remove a disabled person from being a burden to himself or others, or to spare a mentally ill or incurably sick person from perhaps years of misery. No matter. These and other reasons for killing oneself or another innocent person do not justify what has been renamed “mercy killing” or “dying with dignity.”

Certainly, physical and psychological suffering can be intense. It can be so severe as to arouse the desire to remove it at any cost. But Christianity teaches that suffering has a special place in God’s plan of salvation. It is nothing less than a share in Christ’s Passion and a union with His own redeeming sacrifice on Calvary.

Yet, there is nothing morally wrong in wanting to lessen the intensity of the pain and make it more tolerable. What may not be done, however, is to remove further suffering by directly intending to kill oneself or another person. God is Master of human life and its duration, not we.

The marvelous progress in medicine has extended the length of human life beyond anything in previous history. Life expectancy has been doubled in many countries in less than one century. The question now arises of what means may or must be used to prolong human life. The Church’s answer has not changed, even as the developments of medical science have advanced phenomenally. We must use “ordinary” means to remain and keep others alive. Other terms are “normal” or “adequate” or “proportionate” means. Always it is understood that there is a sincere intention to stay alive or keep another person alive. There is no desire to kill in order to remove the suffering or the burden of continued living.

There are persons or situations where extraordinary means should be employed if they are available. Thus, when a person’s continued life is extraordinarily necessary, even such means as are out of the ordinary are to be used.

The norms which the Church gives the faithful are based on reason and revelation. These norms were ordered by Pope John Paul II:

Life is a gift of God, and on the other hand death is inevitable. It is necessary, therefore, that we, without in any way hastening the hour of death, should be able to accept it with full responsibility and dignity. It is true that death marks the end of our earthly existence, but at the same time it opens the door to eternal life (Declaration on Euthanasia, May 5, 1980).

As with abortion, so with euthanasia, the key to understanding the Church’s moral doctrine is the fact that God, and He alone, is the final Master of human life and death.

Capital Punishment

The biblical warrant for capital punishment is given by St. Paul. “The State is there,” he says, “to serve God for your benefit. If you break the law, however, you may well have fear; the bearing of the sword has its significance” (Romans 3:4).

The Church defends the death penalty imposed for the punishment of grave crimes. She bases her defense on the grounds of the common good. The State is like a body composed of many members. No less than a surgeon may cut off one diseased limb to save the others, so the civil authority may lawfully put a criminal to death and thus provide for the common good.

What bears emphasis is that capital punishment is lawful not only because it will deter others from committing the same crime. Capital punishment is also a punishment: Wrong has been done to society by a criminal. The State is divinely authorized to penalize the one who had been tried and found guilty of a serious crime.

However, the State itself is under the judgment of God. Totalitarian states that put to death political dissenters or, worse still, religious believers, are themselves guilty of crime before the Almighty.

War and Peace

Armed conflict between nations has been going on since the beginning of recorded history. In the Old Testament, the Israelites were often at war with their neighbors. And in one sweeping statement Job exclaimed that, “the life of man upon earth is a warfare” (Job 7:1).

One of the most appealing promises of the prophets was to predict that the Messiah would bring peace. On Christmas morning the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will” (Luke 2:14).

During His public ministry, Christ said some surprising things about peace. He did not promise to end wars, nor assure His followers they would not experience conflict. He came to bring peace, indeed, but not as the world gives peace. His peace was to be bought through victory over self, the world, and the devil. His peace was to be the reward of submitting one’s will to the will of God.

In the early Church there were some who held that no follower of Christ may engage in military service. But pacifism, or the claim that war is always sinful, has never been the mind of the Church’s universal teaching authority. Catholic doctrine says that war is certainly undesirable and sinful passions give rise to war, but not all armed conflict is morally wrong, and Christians may engage in a just war.

Conditions for a Just War.  St. Augustine was the first early Christian writer to give extensive attention to the conditions that would justify war. He said war may be undertaken for the good of society. His basic reason was that armed force is permitted when the purpose is to attain peace.

Since the sixteenth century, Catholic thinking, approved by Church authority, has come to identify the following reasons for a just war.

  • It must be on the authority of the sovereign, that is, of the one (or ones) having supreme jurisdiction in the State.

  • There must be a just cause: For example, the independence or vital possessions of the State are gravely threatened.

  • Other means short of war have been sincerely tried but have failed.

  • The belligerents must have a valid purpose, namely the advancement of some moral good or the avoidance of some evil.

  • The war must be waged by proper means, since even a morally good end may not be sought by using means that are morally bad.

  • There must be due proportion between the foreseeable benefits and the known evils that accompany war.

The rise of modern warfare with its massive destruction and the availability of nuclear weapons have made the Church speak out very plainly on the morality of war.

Popes Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII wrote extensively and urgently before and during the First and Second World Wars. Then the Second Vatican Council made the longest declaration on the subject of any ecumenical council in the Church’s history.

Their teaching may be briefly stated in a series of moral principles:

  1. Although war is not of its very nature morally evil, nuclear war is very difficult to justify in practice.

  2. War that tends indiscriminately to destroy entire cities or wide areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man.

  3. Those conscripted into military service may assume that their nation is right and engage in conflict.

  4. Volunteers should seriously inquire whether their country’s cause is a just one before they enter military service.

No single issue of modern life has been more urgently pleaded for than peace among nations. But peace between people depends on peace within people. Peace within persons is possible only if their wills are conformed to the will of God. Each individual contributes to world peace to the extent that he or she cooperates with divine grace in the depths of his own soul.

The Seven-Branched Candlestick

Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
Pocket Catholic Catechism

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The picture of “Moses” was obtained from The Learning Company's ClickArt Christian Graphics Deluxe product, © 1999 The Learning Company, Inc. and its subsidiaries, 88 Rowland Way, Novato, CA  94945 USA. All Rights Reserved. The image may not be saved or downloaded and is to be used for viewing purposes only.

The picture “The Seven-Branched Candlestick” at the bottom of the page is from the book Christian Symbols, drawn by Rudolf Koch (1876 – 1934) with the collaboration of Fritz Kredel (1900 – 1973) (trans. Kevin Ahern; San Francisco: Arion Press, 1996) courtesy of Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.

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