Page 4, 12th March 1976

12th March 1976
Page 4
Page 4, 12th March 1976 — Thou shalt not kill

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Organisations: St Patrick's College
Locations: Dublin


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Thou shalt not kill

Our series on the right to take life continues this week with an article from Fr Denis O'Callaghan, professor of moral theology at St Patrick's College, Maynooth, Co Kildare. A CAPTAIN OATES walks into the icy wasteland so that his companions may have a better chance of making it back to base. A Fr Max Kolbe substitutes for a fellow prisoner to be walled up in the death cell of a concentration camp.

A Trooper Browne volunteers to remain behind to buy enough time for his patrol to make their escape. A Jan Palach burns himself to death in public protest at the Russian take-over of his fatherland. A Terence McSwiney dies on hunger strike in protest against imprisonment and in support of a patriotic cause.

How does the community react to these men? I think that almost universally and spontaneously it would reject the term "suicide" as a just description of any of these actions. Even those who might have some reservations about the cause for which a particular man died would still respect his bravery and generosity — even an enemy, if at all honourable. will recognise chivalry.

In the judgment of the community the note of self-sacrifice is awarded to the person who surrenders life to protect his friends or to further a worth-while cause, while the note of suicide attaches to someone who takes his life for private or more "material" reasons.

Suicide is withdrawal from existence. self-annihilation. capitulas lion before the demands of life. Self-sacrifice is the act of one who recognises and identifies himself with some value or duty judged higher or more sacred than life itself.

The above draws a rough and ready distinction which may not satisfy technical ethical criteria, but insofar as it is common sense, a moral system must take account of it if it is to carry conviction.

The description self-sacrifice implies that one grants the individual not alone his good intentions and high ideals but also the prima facie presumption that his action was morally right on objective terms.

The description "suicide" implies that one judges the action of the individual objectively wrong. although one may well accept that his conscience was clear before God on the understanding that he believed he was justified in doing what he did or that the balance of his mind was disturbed when he undertook to do it.

This elementary distinction between (objective) moral wrongness and (subjective) moral guilt means that we leave to God the judgment on the individual conscience.

If an ethic of self-killing is to merit its title it must concern itself with determining and establishing, insofar as they can be determined and established. criteria for assessing the objective morality of particular kinds of action.

The traditional Catholic ethic drawing a fundamental distinction between direct and indirect selfkilling provides two principles: One may never bring about one's death directly no matter what the purpose tone may directly kill oneself either by some positive lethal action or by omitting the ordinary means of supporting life); one may expose oneself even to certain death for good and proportionate reason (here one's death is the unavoidable and unfortunate side effect of some nes:vas:dry course of action).

The rationale behind the prohibition on direct self-killing is not that this t ion goes against the meaning of human life looked at in secular or humanist terms: it would be difficult to show that one who identifies himself with a positive ideal or purpose to the point of self-sacrifice is annihilating himself or denying the meaning of human existence.

The traditional reasoning is rather the conviction that God as Sovereign Lord gives and takes away life and that his human creature acts ultra vires if he should arrogate this power to himself.

"No man. no human authority. no science. no medical. eugenic, social, economic and moral indication can produce a valid juridical title for disposing directly and deli here eh, of innocent human life II is one of the fundamental mcipie% or natural and Christian morality that man is not the master and owner of his body and life; he is simply entitled to use them" (Pius XII. October 29, 1951. and February 24. 1957).

These words are very similar to those which Plato attributes to his master Socrates in the discussion on man's right to end his life in the Phaedo. Socrates proposes that as a human owner would he injured and rightly angry if one of his slaves or chattels should decide to end his life without his consent and leave, so the Creator is wronged if the human creature ends his life before the time set by divine decree. The prohibition on direct selfkilling has very respectable authority on its side and, on the whole, the distinction between direct and indirect self-killing is practicable enough. The problems arise when One sets out to apply the distinction to some concrete cases — for instance. the action of the hunger striker. or the use of artificial life support measures. The recent cases of Frank Stagg iind Karen Quinlan have brought these problems to the fore. Here we shall centre our interest on the hunger striker as his situation is the more relevant to our discussion.

What is the hunger striker doing morally? Is he setting out to die on hunger strike and precisely by dying in this manner rally support for his cause? This would qualify his action as direct self-killing.

Or is it more a passive resistance refusing to co-operate with a particular prison or political regime with a view to achieving certain objectives, even though this action may lead to his death? This would qualify his action as indirect selfkilling. In practice it must be hard to decide.

It is of interest to recall one point from the prolonged exchange on the morality of the hunger strike in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record of 1918 between Fr Patrick Cleary (then Professor of Moral Theology in Maynooth and later Columban Missionary Bishop of Nancheng) and Canon Waters (the chaplain to Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, in which the hunger strikers were).

Both accepted with very slight modifications the agreed formulae for direct and indirect self-killing, but they differed quite sharply on what the hunger strikers were doing.

Canon Waters claimed that their action Has direct self-killing because it 'sea precisely by dying on hunger strike (or by fasting to the death) that they intended to achieve their objectives, whereas Fr Cleary claimed that it was by their constant refusal to co-operate that they gain• ed their purpose.

Anyone familiar with what is technically known as the Act of Two Effects (Act with Direct and Indirect Effects) will appreciate the problems it can raise in deciding whether ri given action (eg, refusal of food by the hunger striker, refusal of a blood transfusion by the Jehovah Witness) is direct or indirect self-killing.

In a particular item of behaviour, host to distinguish "act" from "effects"? Is the particular "bad effect" (one's death) "direct" (willed as means or end) or "indirect" (permitted as a side-effect)? The answer is clear enough in many situations, such as where one kills oneself in order that one's wife may benefit from an insurance policy.

But what if one jumps out of a window ten stories up to avoid death by fire? True, one does not choose to kill oneself one jumps out of the window because this is a means or getting away from the fire. not hecause it is ten stories up!

But in such a case, to avoid death by fire and by impact with the ground. could one take a gun and shoot oneself'? It may he noted that strict application of the Act of Two Effects operates to justify the action of Blessed Max Kolbe and to rule out that of Jan Palach.

The basic presupposition in the Act of Two Effects is that a particular item of behaviour (eg, direct self-killing) is wrong in itself and that no end will justify an immoral means: one may not do evil that good may come. But Is direct self-killing always an immoral means, an intrinsically evil action? We have seen that the traditional doctrine said yes, and applied the verdict suicide to all direct self-killing. But is it at all possible to qualify this position and so avoid some of the casuistry of the Act of Two Effects?

This question had relevance in World War II, The Kamikaze pilots were not much of a problem For the traditional moralist, but what of the resistance fighters who were supplied with cachets of poison to he used in the event of capture as a means of avoiding betrayal of their comrades when subjected to interrogation and torture?

"Greater love has no man than this. that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13)? The matter was discussed on and off for it decade by French moralists in L'Ami du Clergi. The consensus was that this was direct self-killing and that it could not be justified. In other words, it was agreed that the equation suicide-direct self-killing was correct.

It is of interest to recall that some years earlier Canon Jacques Leclercq of Louvain, who pioneered moral reflection in a number of areas still relevant today, queried this equation in another context. St Augustine had claimed that some Old Testament heroes and early Christian martyrs had committed "suicide" with God's express permission. and this opinion came to be inscribed in Christian tradition.

Canon Leclercq refused to accept it. God is not a Deus ex machine. ilis will is already adequately embodied in the moral order which He has established. If an act of self-killing is to be justified morally then it must he justified without invoking special divine intervention.

To solve the problem Leclercq introduced the concept that man exercises under God some responsible measure of stewardship over his life and that some cases of direct self-killing should qualify as just ifiable self-sacrifice rather than as auricle

It is evident that this questioned the traditional doctrine of human life as an inviolable trust from God. His words merit quotation: "I think that the word sacrifice describes most accurately the state of mind of one who undertakes to die in order to achieve a purpose which he regards as more worthy than the preservation of life. And it provides one with a means of escape. from the equivocation of indirect suicide,

"In general one should admit the legitimacy of sacrificing one's life when this secures a greater value or at least a value equal to that of the life one sacrifices. What values are equal or superior to life?

"First of all the service of God, but neither the natural nor the Christian ethic provides occasion for the sacrifice of life in this context. God demands that we live, not die. in His service.

"Then there is the advantage of others whether as a community or as individuals. But one may not admit any and every consideration here: the only value which can be placed in the balance with life is life.

"One may sacrifice his life to save the life of another, One may not sacrifice one's life for a 'lesser value. But sometimes to preserve the life of a community one may be duly bound to sacrifice one's own life: cases i

apiltiiemsepoaf wrticaurtaf rt riy in certain as One may query the position "The only value which can be placed in the balance with life is life," but the whole statement could certainly form an introduction to the contemporary discussion on the legitimacy of direct self-sacrifice.

But on any statement of the principles. situations in which distinctions and sub-distinctions crisscross will always he debatable, seeing that we operate within the limitations of human knowledge. The hunger strike is one of these situations.

It seems to me that the major moral interest should centre not on the technical matter of the rights and wrongs of surrendering life in a particular case, but on the purposes which a particular death promotes, on the violent consequences which it may occasion for the community, and on the• responsibility of those who engineer and use this death for their own objectives.

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