An examination of the commandment —thou shalt not kill
By Christopher Hollis
WE are often told that "life is sacred." I think that the phrase is a just phrase. There is nothing more detestable than the mentality which carelessly talks of human beings as expendable. Those who do not respect the mystery of life will not respect anything. Yet it is important to analyse what the phrase means.
There have, of course, been those—both Christian and non-Christian—who have interpreted the command "Thou shalt not kill" with utter literalness. It is not, argue such men, for the individual to look to the consequences of his action. He is simply forbidden to take life, and there is an end of it.
If, as a result, in a particular case more lives are lost in the end, that is God's business. Such men are advocates of absolute nonresistance and even those who cannot go all the way with them respect them.
But theirs has not been the general Christian tradition. The general Christian tradition has been to apply to this, as to other matters, the principles of situation-ethics. "Thou shalt not kill" is indeed the general rule and quite overwhelming reasons are required to justify anyone in breaking it. But there are circumstances in which, according to that general teaching, it is no sin to kill.
It is no sin to kill an assailant who would kill you or those whom you are defending if there is no other way of preventing him. It is no sin for the executioner of a properly constituted State to perform his function. It is no sin for the soldier of a properly constituted State to obey orders and fight a war.
Obviously even these exceptions, can only he admitted with great caution. It is the general teaching of the Church that a State has the right to take life and the Catholic may advocate capital punishment if he is convinced that it is a uniquely effective deterrent and that without it there would, on the whole, be more killing. 1 doubt if he would be justified in advocating it if he thought it merely a cheaper or more convenient form of punishment, or if the old penal systems which inflicted the capital penalty for many crimes far short of
murder could be morally defended.
In the same way the Church has never since its early years insisted on a rule of absolute pacifism. If the barbarians are allowed to break in, it may be that they would ravage and pillage and in the end destroy many more lives than would be taken by resisting them at their first onslaught. But, if war is sometimes permissible, that does not of course mean that a Catholic can without scruple take part in any war that he finds going on.
THE Church has from St. Augustine's time onwards laid down very stringent conditions that must be satisfied before a war can be called a just war. The record of Christians in practice has, it must be confessed, not been very edifying. Over all those 1,500 years wars have been constantly going on. Of those wars some may have been necessary. A very large proportion of them were quite plainly for trivial reasons and in no way justifiable. Yet it would be difficult to think of a single instance in which the ecclesiastical authorities of any nation condemned a war in which their own nation was engaged.
One of the strongest, most incomprehensible and least defensible of all the pages of history is that which tells of the reluctance of ecclesiastical authorities to recognise the legitimacy of conscientious objection. Even when the war was over and Hitler defeated, his Austrian bishop found more admirable the conduct of those of his flock who had obediently fought in the armies of this least Christian and most wicked of men than the brave refusal of Jagcnstaetter who had died for his refusal to do so.
For 40 odd years after 1870 the Papacy took the line that the new Italian State was an organisation so evil that no Catholic could cooperate with
it either by being an elector or an elected. Any wars in which it engaged would be almost by definition unjust wars from the Catholic point of view.
Yet the Italian Catholic, forbidden to vote in its elections, was told that it was a mortal sin not to allow himself to be conscribed for its armies and to fight in its wars. It is one of the happiest consequences of the Vatican Council that the right of a Catholic to be a conscientious objector is now at the last fully recognised.
ATURALLY one has to ask oneself what bearing the principle of the sacredness of human life has on the controversial social questions of birth control, abortion and euthanasia. Until recently the Church's attitude towards birth control was peculiar—in one respect at any rate. On other matters the Catholic was allowed to invoke situation-ethics. He was told that the general rule was that he must not kill but that there were rare special circumstances when he might do so but, when it came to birth control, he was not allowed to say: "It is indeed the obligation of a married couple, to produce a reasonable family, unless ,special reasons forbid, but there are circumstances when for medical or economic
reasons, temporarily or permanently, it is not possible to have another baby, and under those circumstances birth control is permissible."
The rule there, and there alone, was absolute and admitted of no exceptions. The reasoning was not clear. If a man had only the potency to produce, say six children, it would be reasonable to say that he was misusing a natural gift if he used his potency for any other purpose than procreation. When he has the potency to repopulate all China it is not easy to say that the use of potency for any other purpose is unnatural. Rather the reverse would appear. However the matter, as we all know, is now under consideration. No one can know for certain what will be the outcome but no one can doubt that the full rigidity will be in some way modified.
AS for abortion, I do not want to get involved in arguments about the details of the present Bill. What is being debated in Parliament is what actions shall be held as criminal in a pluralistic society. Catholics cannot, and do not, demand that in such a society they should impose by law their principles on others. Nor indeed can even the legislator solely concern himself with what conduct he thinks desirable.
There is the grave problem of the dangerous and illegal abortion. Whatever the correct solution of that problem, one cannot dismiss as obviously dishonourable the argument of a legislator who might say: "I agree that it would be much better if these women did not get abortions. But we have to face the fact that they do get them, and, if they are going to get them anyway and we cannot stop them, then it is much better that they should get them from properly qualified persons in properly qualified places rather than illegitimately in the back streets from who knows who,"
I am not here concerned with such debates. I am only concerned here with the general principle. On that there is surely a great difference between therapeutic and social abortion. There are women— Catholics sometimes and sometimes non-Catholics — who would in case of danger sooner sacrifice themselves than sacrifice their baby. Such heroism should be highly honoured. But in a pluralistic society such conduct could not fairly be 'imposed by penal sanctions.
We could not treat as criminal the act of a mother who sacrificed a child when the alternative was to sacrifice her own life, or the husband or the doctor who co-operated in such conduct. Happily medical progress is making such awful dilemmas increasingly less frequent, but they still occur, and on the principle of the sacredness of life a man might argue:
"Granted the principle, but in this case one life or the other has to be lost. Whatever the argument about the rights of the foetus, it is at least less completely alive than its mother. If a choice has to be made, is it not reasonable to prefer the mother to the child?"
That is quite coherent, but of course the principle, whatever its merits, is quite different from the principle which would allow abortion for social reasons — simply because the family cannot conveniently absorb another child. The solution, where that is really the case, is surely not abortion but adoption, and the real reform that is needed a reform of the adoption laws.
As for abortion because the child is going to be deformed, it would be intolerable that the child should be deprived of life because of some minor handicap. The handicap is often a spur to achievement and also the cause of an increased parental love. But the subhuman monster—the creature incapable of any moral action —is more difficult. One shudders at the very thought of such a creature in one's own family. It would be dishonest to deny it.
But it is not easy to see how abortion could prevent such monstrous births save at the expense of killing many healthy babies. All that we can say at the embryo stage at which the abortion would have to be undertaken is that for certain hereditary reasons the baby might be a moron. But equally it might be a Beethoven.
Abortion, reform is advocated by moderate men of moderate opinions. Whether we agree or not with what they say, we have a duty to treat them with respect and it is wrong to denounce these moderates as if they were calling for abortion on demand. But there are other and more extreme supporters df abortion who deny the whole principle of the sanctity of human life.
The world, they say, is overpopulated. Left to themselves, birth rates would be too high. How can it be so great an evil to prevent the birth of an unwanted child? One can see a certain logic in such arguments. It is strange that those who use them do not also see their danger—with the memory of Hitler and his gas-chambers so recent in our minds. Once we start calling people expendable, where are we going to stop? How soon is it going to be before people start suggesting that we are expendable?
IT is much the same with euthanasia. We can easily think of the extreme case when a patient is in agony and comatose, when there is no hope of recovery or that he will live for any length of time or that he will ever again be capable of a worthy or a moral action. I do not doubt that on such occasions doctors have at times appealed to the principle of double effect—have administered some drug that will relieve pain even though they know that it will also shorten life. It is not for me to pass judgment on such actions in such circumstances.
When we say that human life is sacred, what do we mean? Is it our duty to prolong merely physical life to its final second? Or is 'what is sacred the capacity of man to make moral judgments? And is a man who can no longer make such judgments and will never be able to make them again fully a man?
Yet the danger of such speculations is obvious. Can the doctor be absolutely certain that recovery is impossible? In any event the difference between a man incapable of a moral action and a man merely tired, or alleged to be tired, of life is enormous. The awful consequence of tolerated and legalised euthanasia with an old invalid lying in -bed and wondering whether his relatives are not longing for him to sign the euthanasia papers is not attractive.