Thirty-Seventh in a Series on Catholic Morality
Fr. John H. Stapleton
To kill is to take life, human or animal. It was once thought by a sect of crazy fanatics that the Fifth Commandment applied to the killing of animals as well as of men. When a man slays a man, he slays an equal; when he kills an animal, he kills a creature made to serve him and to be his food; and raw meat is not always palatable, and to cook is to kill. "Everything that moves and lives," says Holy Writ, "shall be unto you as food."
The killing, therefore, here in question is the taking of human life, or homicide. There can be no doubt but that life is man's best and most precious possession, and that he has an inborn right to live as long as nature's laws operate in his favor. But man is not master of that gift of life, either in himself or in others. God, who alone can give, alone may take it away. Sole master of life, He deals it out to His creatures as it pleases Him; and whoever tampers with human life intrudes upon the domain of the Divinity, violating at the same time the first right of his fellow man.
We have an instinctive horror of blood, especially human blood. For the ordinary individual, the Mosaic enactment that forbids murder is almost superfluous, so deeply has nature graven on our hearts the letter of that law. Murder is abominable, for the very reason that life is precious; and no reasonable being, civilized or savage, dealing death unjustly unto a fellow man, can have any other conviction in his soul than that he is committing a crime and incurring the almighty wrath of the Deity. If such killing is done by a responsible agent, and against the right of the victim, the crime committed is murder or unjustifiable homicide.
Which supposes that there is a kind of homicide that is justifiable, in seeming contradiction of the general law of God and nature, which specifies no exception. But there is a question here less of exception than of distinction. The law is a general one, of vast comprehension. Is all killing prohibited? Evidently not. It is limited to human beings, in the first place; to responsible agents, in the next; and thirdly, it involves a question of injustice. What is forbidden is the voluntary and unjust killing of a human being. Having thus specified according to the rules of right reasoning, we find we have a considerable margin left for the taking of life that is justifiable. And the records of Divine revelation will approve the findings of right reason.
We find God in the Old Law, while upholding His fifth precept, commanding capital punishment and sanctioning the slaughter of war; He not only approved the slaying of certain persons, but there are instances of His giving authority to kill. By so doing, He delegated His supreme right over life to His creatures. "Whoever sheds human blood, let his blood be shed." In the New Testament, the officer of the law is called the minister of God and is said - not without cause - to carry the sword; and the sword is the symbol of the power to inflict death.
The presence of such laws as that of capital punishment, of war and of self-defense, in all the written codes of civilized peoples, as well as in the unwritten codes of savage tribes, can be accounted for only by a direct or indirect commission from the Deity. A legal tradition so universal and so constant is a natural law, and consequently a divine law. In a matter of such importance, all mankind could not have erred; if it has, it is perfectly safe to be with it in its error.
These exceptions, if we may call them exceptions, suppose the victim to have forfeited his right to live, to have placed himself in a position of unjust aggression, which aggression gives to the party attacked the right to repel it, to protect his own life even at the cost of the life of the unjust aggressor. This is an individual privilege in only one instance, that of self-defense; in all others, it is invested in the body politic or society which alone can declare war and inflict death on a capital offender.
Of course, it may be said that in moral matters, like does not cure like, that to permit killing is a strange manner of discouraging the same. But this measure acts as a deterrent; it is not a cure for the offender, or rather it is, and a radical one; it is intended to instill a salutary dread into the hearts of those who may be inclined to play too freely with human life. This is the only argument assassins understand; it is therefore the only one we can use against them.