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.