The wording of the Fifth Commandment is identical in the two
biblical texts of the Decalogue, You shall not kill (Exodus 20:13;
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).
Cains 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 Christs 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
The Catholic church has built on Christs 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 Christs 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
Those who believed in Christ and accepted the Churchs
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 peoples decadence.
The Churchs 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
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 Churchs 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 Churchs 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 worlds 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
mothers womb, where they are already the object of the care of divine
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 mens 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 Gods plan of
salvation. It is nothing less than a share in Christs 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 Churchs 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 persons continued life
is extraordinarily necessary, even such means as are out of the ordinary are to
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 Churchs moral doctrine is the fact that God, and He alone,
is the final Master of human life and death.
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 ones
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 Churchs 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 Churchs history.
Their teaching may be briefly stated in a series of moral
- Although war is not of its very nature
morally evil, nuclear war is very difficult to justify in practice.
- War that tends indiscriminately to destroy entire cities or wide
areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man.
- Those conscripted into military service may
assume that their nation is right and engage in conflict.
- Volunteers should seriously inquire whether their countrys
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
Copyright © 2002 Inter Mirifica
Pocket Catholic Catechism