When going over its discussion of the Fifth Commandment it is worth noting just how many different kinds of things the Catechism understands are related to God’s command to refrain from killing. The first set of topics is familiar and deals with intentional homicide, including abortion and euthanasia. It is always wrong to actively kill because it violates the irreducible dignity of the person and reduces her as a means to some other end. But then the discussion turns to other (and perhaps more surprising) implications this dignity. Here are some of the topics with a choice quote from each:
Respect for the Souls of Others
- “Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
Respect for Health
- This “requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance.”
Respect for the Person in the Context of Research
- “It is an illusion to claim moral neutrality in scientific research and its applications. On the other hand, guiding principles cannot be inferred from simple technical efficiency, or from the usefulness accruing to some at the expense of others or, even worse, from prevailing ideologies. Science and technology by their very nature require unconditional respect for fundamental moral criteria.”
Respect for Bodily Integrity
- “Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures…Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately…Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.”
Respect for the Dead
- “The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit.”
(NB: Our colleague John Berkman did a nice post on our current ‘burial’ practices which is available here.)
I’d like to put a bit of focus on another aspect of this section of the Catechism which might seem surprising. It builds on the fact that, according to the Church, what is being prohibited in this commandment are not only acts, but also omissions. Consider, for instance, that euthanasia is “an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death”. Thus we need to consider not only choices to actively end life, but also choices to refuse to aid someone with the intention that they die.
But wait: why does the discussion focus on this fairly narrow (and ‘conservative’) example? If the principle is that we can be morally responsible for refusal to save the life of another , then shouldn’t this have much broader (and ‘liberal’) implications? Answer: it does. The Catechism claims in this section that “refusing assistance to a person in danger” is also seriously wrong, and then quotes Ambrose to drive the point home:
The acceptance by human society of murderous famines, without efforts to remedy them, is a scandalous injustice and a grave offense. Those whose usurious and avaricious dealings lead to the hunger and death of their brethren in the human family indirectly commit homicide, which is imputable to them.
And then we are left with quite the discomforting thought: “one is not exonerated from grave offense if, without proportionate reasons, he has acted in a way that brings about someone’s death, even without the intention to do so.”
Far from applying only in extreme circumstances, it turns out that (especially in light of our modern-day ability to help those in life-threatening situations around the world) many dozens of choices we make each day (whether they are, say, consumptive actions or omissions of aid) could violate the Fifth Commandment.