Killing and Catholic Social Teaching

I think it is safe to say that there are probably as many Catholics who are unaware of what their own church teaches on a whole range of issues as there are Protestants who are unaware of what their own Bible teaches. Christians in general are ignorant of much of their own faith and faith tradition.

This has become quite clear once again with the death of Osama bin Laden. Plenty of Christians of all stripes have come out saying some rather foolish things about this. Much of it has been unbiblical, illogical, and morally mushy. And many Catholics have gotten things wrong as well.

Please forgive me, but I am going to wade into a bit of Catholic social teaching here. Of course I am not even a Catholic, so some may think I have no right to even speak on this. But perhaps more charitable Catholics will at least allow me to take a cursory stab at this.

Indeed, let me say a few things in my defence. As a theologian and teacher, it is my job to be up on not just what Protestants teach and believe on a whole range of issues, but Catholics, and even the Orthodox, as well. Also, it seems that various Catholic Church teachings, such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church, are very public documents, available to anyone interested.

I may have read more of this one volume than many Catholics have. I certainly do not for one moment claim to be an expert in Catholic theology or teaching. But it seems that anyone interested in theology, church history, ethics, and historical theology should have at least some general knowledge about Catholic thought.

Thus I hope some Catholics will not condemn me here for ‘trespassing on their territory’ or some such thing. Just as Catholics are free to assess and evaluate Protestant thought, so too are Protestants to examine Catholic teaching. And in this case I actually want to defend traditional Catholic teaching against its detractors.

By this I mean some rather limited areas: the Catholic social teaching on the related issues of war and peace, the sanctity of life, and justifiable killing. Even more specifically, I simply wish to counter the claims of those (whether Catholic or not) who seek to argue that Catholics must be pacifists and/or oppose all killing.

Of course Protestants and Catholics differ markedly on many major issues, not least of which is the issue of religious authority. As an evangelical Protestant, at the end of the day, my loyalties must lie with Scripture first and foremost, not with other sources such as papal encyclicals.

Having said that, for Protestants there can be much of value in Catholic thinking in general, and these encyclicals in particular. Consider for example Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”) which appeared in 1968. Not only would most Protestants not know about this one, but neither would most Catholics. Indeed perhaps most Catholics don’t even agree with it. But I find it to be a very helpful document in many respects. Indeed, I probably agree with much of it, even more so than many Catholics perhaps.

Consider also Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”) which came out in 1995. It was produced to address the matter of the threat to the sanctity of life, especially in terms of abortion and euthanasia. Yet some Catholics are appealing to this to argue that killing Osama was wrong in particular, and all killing is wrong in general.

But a few things need to be pointed out. Most importantly, it does not take a wrong, unbiblical view. That is, it does not claim that all killing is murder, and it does not argue that there is never justified killing. For example, on the subject of capital punishment, it states that we “ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity” (no. 56). It does go on to say that these cases may be very rare indeed, but this document is clearly not taking an absolutist position here, ruling out all killing.

Indeed, earlier on it looks at the biblical texts on killing, and it devotes some attention to the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shall not kill” (no. 54). Unfortunately it does not present to us the nuance of the Hebrew, in which murder is in fact being prohibited here, not all forms of killing.

But it nonetheless acknowledges this in no. 55 when it says, “There are in fact situations in which values proposed by God’s Law seem to involve a genuine paradox. This happens for example in the case of legitimate defence, in which the right to protect one’s own life and the duty not to harm someone else’s life are difficult to reconcile in practice. Certainly, the intrinsic value of life and the duty to love oneself no less than others are the basis of a true right to self-defence.”

It even goes on to say, “Unfortunately it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life.” Thus self-defence – at least on some occasions – is permitted here, as is capital punishment, if only in rare instances.

Also, consider the broader issue of just war teaching. Catholic (indeed most all Christian) social teaching has long recognised and supported the principles of just war theory. Whether it is Augustine, Aquinas, de Vitoria, Suarez, or others there is a long tradition of recognising the legitimacy of just war.

If one turns to the officially authoritative Catholic Catechism one can find there a very clear affirmation of just war – with all of the usual stipulations and restrictions of course. For example there is a section entitled “Legitimate defense” (no. 2263-2267). It says in part:

“Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty” (no. 2266).

Then there is another entire section called “Safeguarding Peace” which is broken down into two sections: “Peace” and “Avoiding war” (no. 2302-2317). In 2309 it discusses “Strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force”. It concludes this way: “These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the ‘just war’ doctrine.”

Thus it is quite clear that the three biblical allowances for just killing (self-defence, just war, and the death penalty) are all affirmed in official Catholic teaching, and have been so from the earliest days. Catholics are not absolutists here about killing, saying it is always wrong, and they are not ideological pacifists. Individual Catholics may well be, but long-standing Catholic teaching is not.

Of course, there would be plenty of other sources of teaching one would need to examine to get the full picture on this. Natural law theory, and the teachings flowing from the Second Vatican Council, for example, would have to be considered, along with plenty of other material.

So I am not claiming to be offering an exhaustive teaching on this matter, but just highlighting a few of the key texts. And as we have seen, if we simply rely on these texts alone, one cannot make the case for absolute pacifism, or that all killing is always morally wrong.

[1240 words]

26 Replies to “Killing and Catholic Social Teaching”

  1. Hi Bill,

    I’m glad this encyclical avoids the foolishness of ruling out all killing too.

    But in saying that we “ought not go to the extreme of executing an offender except in cases of absolute necessity” it falls a long way short of what God actually says about this:

    “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”
    Gen 9:6

    Mansel Rogerson

  2. Bill, I’m a Catholic and agree with all you’ve written. I find it amusing, though not unsurprising, that I frequently disagree with Catholics on this topic, but find myself in full agreement with your article.

    Damian Wyld

  3. I have recently read the volume from the Acton Institute on health care reform, which was based heavily on CST. I found it was a really helpful framework, and really good publication.

    Likewise, Just War Theory, which you’ve mentioned, is another helpful framework. As you’ve shown here, pacifism is not a tenable position for anyone, and obviously not for one using CST.

    Mansel, I think you’ve nailed it there. 🙂

    Simon Kennedy

  4. Thanks Simon

    Yes on a whole range of ethical issues, including bioethics and the like, there has been a long, deep and serious amount of thinking and reflection by Catholics which often puts Protestants to shame. Certainly on the life issues the Catholics have often been leading the way, although evangelicals are starting to catch on.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. I wonder why this is all so difficult. It is obvious to me that you can’t lump abortion and euthanasia into the same category as capital punishment and just war, as someone suggested on another post, because of one simple but significant thing. Cause and effect. Abortion and euthanasia are murder, as they take a life of someone who has not done anything to cause his life to be taken, they are innocent of a sin worthy of death. The three biblical reasons for killing as mentioned in your article are obviously always in response to a cause, attack, murder, genocide etc. The verse mentioned by Mansel also refers to this. Maybe this could be a help when trying to determine which is killing and which is murder.
    Many blessings
    Ursula Bennett

  6. Quit with the Catholic-bashing, Bill. It’s gotten boring.
    Jed O’Brien

  7. Hi Bill,

    “Yes on a whole range of ethical issues, including bioethics and the like, there has been a long, deep and serious amount of thinking and reflection by Catholics which often puts Protestants to shame. Certainly on the life issues the Catholics have often been leading the way, although evangelicals are starting to catch on.”

    I quite agree. And in my experience it is in practice too, and not just in theory where Catholics often lead the way here. Anyone involved in pro-life work in Melbourne will know what I mean.

    Mansel Rogerson

    PS. Sorry if this too sounds like ‘Catholic bashing’ to you Jed!

  8. I have mixed feelings about this. My initial reaction to the news was somewhat hawkish. “Got him!,” I thought. Bin Laden was someone that Jesus died for, but subconsciously rejected him. We shouldn’t think that anyone is beyond the reach of God’s grace, but some people are so hardened in their hearts that they are irredeemably evil, and he was one of them. The apostle Peter reminds us that God is grieved whenever someone goes to eternity without Him. It was a horrible way to die, but I deeply empathise with the victims of September 11, who presumably now have some closure. Even though it was almost 10 years ago, I remember crying a lot that day.
    Ross McPhee

  9. Thanks Ross

    I of course have spoken to this quite a bit in some of the previous posts, so I won’t repeat myself here. For those interested, the three prior articles all deal with this in some detail.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. Sorry, I hadn’t read beyond the title. It looked on cursory glance that you were saying us Catholics are pro-death. My bad.
    Jed O’Brien

  11. Bill, if only more Catholics had as good an understanding of the teachings of the Catholic Church as you do! I was accused by a Catholic (who’s in the Navy of all places) of not being pro-life because I supported the killing of bin Laden. Sadly, this sort of poor information is widespread and a major problem in the Church. Thank you for your excellent writings that assess the Catholic Church fairly and recognise that the Church is represented by its teaching and not by heretical or apostate Catholics.
    Mishka Gora

  12. From Steve Kellmeyer:

    Because it has to fulfill the conditions laid out in the CCC.

    A) I have to be protecting an innocent whom it is my duty to protect,
    B) I have to have exhausted all other means available to me to prevent the evil, and
    C) the licit use of deadly force requires that it is the only way known and available to me to stop the evil from taking place,
    D) and my response has to be proportionate to the evil contemplated by the evil-doer.

    Only then am I permitted to use deadly force. If any of those conditions are missing, I am not permitted to proceed with deadly force. It’s just war rules.

    It is short, sweet and Catholic.
    Debra Franklin

  13. As a practicing Catholic I fully support your article Bill. Sad but true a great percentage of Catholics have not read Humane Vitae or Evangelium Vitae. I sometimes wonder how many Catholic homes actually have a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church! “YouCat ‘is a youth version of the CCC which will be distributed to all youth who attend WYD in Spain later this year. I hope and pray that the youth actually read it and use it for good.
    Madge Fahy

  14. Madge I grew up in a Godless home, and it’s taken me some 20 years to find that the Church I was called to (the Catholic) truly is the correct path.

    I don’t yet have a copy of the Catechism, but I’ll be ordering a copy of YouCat for my 9yo daughter in the next month.

    Too many people are unaware of their history, and I spent too many years in protestant churches never hearing of the Early Fathers. It seems that we went from the Apostles to Martin Luther with nothing in between, and that was something that always disconcerted me.

    As for the anti-catholic bigotry that Jed mentioned earlier, it’s sad but there is so much of it that it’s often unconscious. Once it’s pointed out, I find that protestants are happy to take your issues on board.

    There is hope for us all yet, and thank God we have Jesus!

    Debra Franklin

  15. Thanks Debra

    Without wishing to belabour these points here, it can also be truly said that plenty of Catholics also know little about the church fathers while some Protestants do. And anti-Protestant bigotry is equally just as alive and well. So a bit of balance here. But hopefully we can leave it at that. Regular viewers of this site will know that I urge those on either side who wish to bash one another to do so elsewhere.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  16. You won’t get any disagreement from me on that point either, Bill. 🙂 Not enough of us know our Faith properly, which makes us poorer witnesses for Christ than we should be.

    It doesn’t matter what denomination you are, there is no excuse not to learn what we need to know.

    Debra Franklin

  17. Dear Bill,

    An excellent treatise on Catholic teaching. At one of the St Thomas More Forums a couple of years ago, a couple of my pro-life friends in the audience were ‘accused’ of great fervour in the anti-abortion cause (shock! horror!), but ‘not following Church teaching on the war in Iraq!’

    In response, they retorted in unison ‘There is no Church teaching on the war in Iraq!’

    It is truly unfortunate that many who work in the Catholic Church bureaucracy are either not familiar with or disagree with actual Church teaching.

    Carolyn Mongan, A Cradle Catholic

  18. Hi Bill,
    Once again a great blog.

    As a Catholic that does know my faith very well, i must say that I agree with you 100%.

    Thanks for being informative as usual and showing that not all Protestants are ignorant to Catholic Teaching.

    God Bless.
    Robert Brewer

  19. Hi Bill, great article.

    I am a practicing Catholic who is familiar with the parts of the CCC you have outlined in your article. Basically, the whole teaching on the death penalty is that it should be avoided at all costs, except in the most desperate situations when the safety of others is at stake. I think you have captured this quite well in your article.

    Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae are both fantastic writings, I encourage ALL Christians to have a look. Another good one is Gaudium et spes, which delves into social and political life.

    Oh how true it is that many (if not most) Catholics don’t know their faith…
    Catholicism instructs us to read the Bible, to meditate on the word of God, to pray daily, to attend Mass every Sunday.. how many ‘Catholics’ do this?
    Catholicism teaches that abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, contraception – are all wrong, and for very deep reasons which go to the heart of human life and our relationship with God. How many Catholics hold the same belief?

    I sincerely ask my Protestant brothers and sisters to never think of Catholics as being sterotypical ‘wishy-washy’ in their faith.
    The TRUE Catholics are those who live TRUE to their faith, or at least strive to with all their heart.

    God Bless.
    Vince Stefano

  20. Thanks for the great article. As a committed Catholic, at the end of the day, my loyalties must lie with Scripture first and foremost, not with other sources such as papal encyclicals. But I do wish to highlight that these encyclicals are the product of the Magesterium – the teaching church – the result of two millenia of long, deep and serious thinking based on scripture.
    I’d encourage you to write an article explaining Humanae Vitae to your readership. Therein lies a gem of harmonious thinking.
    Luke McLindon

  21. All very interesting and encouraging. I’m certain that faithful Christians of all denominations are, by God’s grace, closer than we fully realise. Our lives are founded on, formed and nurtured by Sacred Scripture. The teaching of my sacramental denomination [Catholic] is totally based on scripture according to Scott Hahn who is a very considerable scholar in the field. AndJed, if you were more familiar with this site you would be aware that, whilst Bill may be fiery and forceful in some of his articles, he is also well informed, accurate and truthful. That’s not bias Jed it’s just the fairly typical characteristics of people called by God to be prophets – a prophet being one who speaks the mind of God to the people.
    Anna Cook

  22. Luke McLindon: As a Catholic, your view is in error. Scripture although viewed in very high esteem by the Church, does not take priority over Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium (the teaching body of the Church) for Catholics. They are all viewed on equal ground, as far as I recall. Tradition and the Magisterium preceded the formation of the Biblical Canon.

    “It is antecedently unreasonable to suppose that a book so complex, so unsystematic, in parts so obscure, the outcome of so many minds, times, and places, should be given from above without the safeguard of some authority; as if it could possibly, from the nature of the case, interpret itself….” – John Henry Newman

    Bill has the right idea, go to the source. You want to know what Catholicism teaches, go to the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the Magisterium. An individual priest, or laymen can be quite ignorant of the teachings of the Church. In fact, its almost likely that you will find wrong information, wishful thinking, pick and choose beliefs, and all other sorts of amalgams of beliefs. As a Catholic, I know how ignorant many Catholics are, they are the worst enemies of the Church, in a way. “The Catholic Church does not forget that many among her members cause God’s plan to be discernible only with difficulty.” (Ut Unum Sint, John Paul II). Like Chesterton said, the best argument against Christianity is Christians, and this applies especially well to Catholics. I think this is a combination of general societal apathy regarding religious matters, as well as the difficulty of following Catholic teaching, that causes individuals to rebel against the Church. I have known many Catholics who left Catholicism, but not ONE who actually knows anything of depth about their beliefs. Not one who seeks religion because it is true.

    Julian Desouza

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