At first glance, the Fifth Commandment seems like the simplest commandment… don’t kill anybody or act as an accomplice to a murder. This article should be as simple as reading that “God alone is Lord over life and death. Except in the case of legitimate self defence of oneself or another, no one may kill another human being” (YouCat 378).
But even that definition raises its own questions.
First off, what constitutes legitimate self-defence?
“Legitimate defence against aggression is not only a right; for someone who bears the responsibility for the lives of others it can even become a duty. Nevertheless, legitimate defense must not employ wrong, inappropriately harsh methods” (YouCat 380).
Legitimate self defence is why we regard the actions of a police officer who must resort to lethal force differently than someone who has murdered randomly or out of rage. Similarly, soldiers who are sent into a military conflict do so out of a desire to protect the freedoms of others. But in these cases there is criteria to evaluate the legitimacy and appropriateness of the methods used by law enforcement and military personnel. For example, you may have heard of the concept of a “just war,” which is evaluates military conflicts by the following principles:
“The use of military force is possible only in an extreme emergency. There are several criteria for a ‘just war’: (1) Authorization by the competent authority; (2) a just cause; (3) a just purpose; (4) war must be the last resort; (5) the methods used must be proportionate; and (6) there must be a prospect of success.” -YouCat 399
Students often ask me how the Church views the death penalty (capital punishment). As a first principle, we should never we seek the death penalty as revenge for a heinous crime. Ultimately, we ought to leave judgment between each individual and God. As to whether the death penalty can be morally justified as a defense for others, until very recently the Church recognized there might be circumstances in which the safety of society can only be guaranteed by the execution of a dangerous criminal. This would be in cases where standard incarceration would be inadequate. These situations were always understood to be few and far between. However, in 2018, Pope Francis made a definitive change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this subject. So CCC paragraph 2267 now reads:
Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
In other words, in our age those few circumstances by which we could justify the death penalty no longer exist. Although it might be difficult, we are still meant to recognize the value of the life of even those who would face the death penalty. That even someone convicted of the most heinous crimes still has dignity raises a second question about YouCat’s definition for the Fifth Commandment: what makes a human being? And YouCat gives us an answer:
“God-given human life is God’s own property; it is sacred from the first moment of its existence and not under the control of any human being. ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you.’ (Jeremiah 1:5)”. -YouCat 383
Catholics believe that every human life is sacred from the moment of conception to natural death (see also CCC 2319). The life of any person who exists between these two moments is therefore to be vigorously defended. Ways in which we kill life can includes homicide, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, or any medical experimentation that includes the manipulation, harvesting, destruction of human embryos. Those we are expected not to kill includes friends, family, neighbors, strangers, the unborn, the sick, the weak, the elderly, and so on.
Simply put: This commandment is all about seeing the value in every human life, at each stage of development, and even in the state of sin. It means trying to see each life from God’s perspective and recognizing that we have received these lives from God as a precious gift – and so, we need to treat each life as such. Pope St. John Paul II explained that “the person is the kind of good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love,” but perhaps the words of Theodor Seuss Geisel (Dr. Seuss) which are even more fitting here: “A person is a person no matter how small.”
-This is part of a series on the Youth Catechism. Mike Landry is Catholic Youth Camp director for the Archdiocese of Edmonton. He is also chaplain for Evergreen Catholic Schools, serving 10 schools west of Edmonton. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Stony Plain with their five children.