Catholic teaching on the dignity of all human life is clear and unequivocal. “Human life is sacredbecause from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], paragraph 2258).
In the pages of Sacred Scripture we read, “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13) and in the Sermon on the Mount Christ recalls this commandment (Mt 5:21), expounding on its meaning and revealing to us that even harboring anger towards our brother can constitute a violation of God’s law safeguarding the dignity of every human being.
The fifth commandment forbids direct and intentional killing as gravely sinful (CCC 2269). In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, we see that the murderer and those who cooperate voluntarily in murder commit a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance (Gen 4:10).
Still, no one — not even the murderer — is to count himself lost, as God’s Divine Mercy is his greatest attribute. “Tell the world…that I am Love and Mercy itself” (Diary of St. Faustina, 1074).
The Church teaches that human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception (CCC 2270). “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you,” says the Lord (Jer 1:5). No one of us is an accident, regardless of the circumstances through which we were conceived. “Each and every one of us was thought, willed and loved by God” (Homily of Pope Benedict XVI, March 19, 2009). As such, we are not our own, nor are we to regard others as expendable or disposable according to our needs.
Since the first century the Catholic Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable (CCC 2271). The Church’s unwavering stance on the inherent dignity of the unborn child is corroborated by science and reason. Despite claims to the contrary, medical science is quite clear on the question of when human life begins. “[The zygote], formed by the union of an oocyte and a sperm, is the beginning of a new human being.” (Keith L. Moore, Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology, 7th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2008)
Whereas fertilization marks the “beginning of a new human being,” and implicit in the notion of human rights is a respect for all of humanity, it follows necessarily that embryonic humans have an equal share in the basic rights of all human beings.
“The inviolability of the person which is a reflection of the absolute inviolability of God, finds its primary and fundamental expression in the inviolability of human life. Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights — for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture — is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.” (Pope John Paul II, Christifideles Laici)
Yet the Catholic Church, which on the one hand condemns absolutely and without hesitation the grave sin of abortion, nevertheless beckons softly and offers lovingly the consoling arms of Christ himself to embrace all men and women who may now be suffering from abortion. “Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). Those who feel the weight of guilt from abortion would do well to recall that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more and that Christ came not to “call the righteous…but sinners” (Luke 5:32).
Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped people should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible (CCC 2276). In euthanasia, the ill or elderly are killed, by action or omission, out of a misplaced sense of compassion, but true compassion cannot include intentionally doing something intrinsically evil to another person (Catholic Answers Voter’s Guide For Serious Catholics).
Putting another person to death — even should they request it — is never the Christian or loving response to suffering. It is perhaps worth noting here the documented studies which show that oftentimes the individual requesting assistance in their suicide is in a state of clinical depression, and that once their depression is treated they no longer have the desire to be killed.
But whether requested or involuntary, Catholic moral teaching maintains that the killing of another to eliminate suffering “constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator” (CCC 2277). Rather than eliminate suffering through the immoral means of taking innocent human life, man is called to offer true com-passion — “suffering-with” — the sick and the elderly, and to see in them the suffering face of Christ.
In this way, “Love also gives meaning to suffering and death; despite the mystery which surrounds them, they can become saving events. Respect for life requires that science and technology should always be at the service of man and his integral development. Society as a whole must respect, defend and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in every condition of that person’s life” (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 81).
Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. However, the use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable. Palliative care is a special form of charity and is to be encouraged (CCC 2279).
- The damage inflicted by the aggressor or the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain.
- All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective.
- There must be serious prospects of success.
- The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.
In addition to the traditional elements necessary for a war to be called just, the Church teaches that, “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties” (Gaudium et Spes, 79). Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely (CCC 2313).
The Catholic Church furthermore declares that, “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation” (Gaudium et Spes, 80).
As in the case of war, the Catholic Church acknowledges that the state has the right to use capital punishment in certain circumstances. Unlike the just-war doctrine outlined in the Catechism, the conditions for the imposition of the death penalty have not been articulated by the Church in comparable detail, precision, and force.
Paragraph 2267 of the Catechism addresses the question of capital punishment:
Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
Though the Church encourages mercy in the state’s application of justice, at the same time the Catechism does not forbid the use of the death penalty as an intrinsic evil. There may, in fact, be a “legitimate diversity of opinion” among Catholics with regard to its use. In a 2004 letter to the U.S. Bishops, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), wrote:
“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion.While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
The reason the Church permits a difference of opinion on the death penalty, according to Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin, is that paragraph 2267 of the Catechism appears to be unique in that it is a prudential judgement of Pope John Paul II. Catholics must always have a “willingness to submit loyally to the teaching of the magisterium” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian 24), but as the same document goes on to say, “when it comes to the question of interventions in the prudential order, it could happen that some magisterial documents might not be free from all deficiencies. Bishops and their advisers have not always taken into immediate consideration every aspect or the entire complexity of a question.”
With this in mind, concerning paragraph 2267, Jimmy Akin points out:
“The manner of phrasing in the two major statements is tentative. If one looks at the language used in regarding the death penalty and compares it to the words used regarding abortion, the difference is stark. On abortion the pontiff is thunderous…But on capital punishment the Holy Father appeals only to changes in societal attitudes and the penal system and concludes that cases where capital punishment is required ‘are very rare if not practically non-existent’ (Evangelium Vitae 56). His juxtaposition of two possibilities indicates a tentativeness regarding how frequent such cases are.
“…Most fundamentally, the matter we are dealing with is a prudential one involving ‘contingent and conjectural elements,’ such as the most effective way to deter crime and prompt the repentance of criminals. The Pope appeals to changes in the prison system, the severity and efficacy of which vary from country to country. Even then he acknowledges that there are cases where the death penalty can be warranted. Neither ‘very rare’ nor ‘practically non-existent’ means ‘non-existent,’ and the question of whether one is facing such a case is inescapably prudential.”
What this means for Catholics is that individuals may disagree with one another on the application of capital punishment, even beyond the limits set down in paragraph 2267 of the Catechism. A Catholic may favor the elimination of the death penalty. Or he may favor its broader use. But in neither case would he be considered a “bad” Catholic.