You shall not kill. (Ex 20:13)
You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment (Mt 5:21–22)
If you were to watch the nightly news on any TV network or browse through the local newspaper, there is a good chance you would come across the most recent story of murder. What a sad reality! Murder is horrific and of the greatest human tragedies. Perhaps, for that reason, it is also one of the most attention-grabbing headlines that can be reported.
Even in the Bible, one of the first stories we read is that of Cain killing Abel (Gn 4:8). Murder has been around since the beginning of time and will forever remain one of the most shocking and awful actions within our world.
But is murder the only thing the Fifth Commandment speaks to us about? Certainly not. Murder, which is the intentional taking of innocent life, is perhaps the most serious way that this Commandment is violated. But working down from this ultimate destruction are many other forms of hate, anger and a lack of respect for the sacredness of human life.
Let’s start with the bottom line ways that this Commandment is violated. From there, we’ll look at ways that killing may actually be legitimate and a duty. We will conclude by looking at the ways that this Commandment calls us to seek peace and respect the dignity of each person.
Bottom Line: Do Not Murder
The most direct violation of this Commandment is intentional murder. Within the umbrella of this offense are various factors and conditions to be explored. Additionally, there are sins and grave evils of omission and neglect that lead to the death or harm of others. These, too, are violations of this Commandment. Below is a summary of the primary ways that this Commandment is directly and indirectly violated.
Intentional Homicide: When one directly, willfully and intentionally takes the life of one who is innocent, this is the gravest of sins. It is spoken of as a sin that “cries out to Heaven for vengeance.” There is no justification for this and causes incredible harm. Among these grave sins, the gravest would be the killing of those within the family, because this also violates a natural bond that must be respected. But any form of murder is grave and seriously flawed.
Abortion: Human life begins at conception. This is a fundamental truth that we must accept. It makes sense on a purely rational level and also makes sense on a scientific level. At the moment of conception, the DNA of that new life is unique. This is human life. Therefore, we must accept the fact that, from the moment of conception, that new human life has the same dignity and rights as any human being.
One common distortion of the modern world is that the newly formed human being within the womb is somehow only part of the mother’s body. Sure, the child cannot live separately from the mother’s body. This is the way God designed the bringing forth of new life. But just because the new child cannot live on its own doesn’t mean that it is any less sacred and deserving of any less respect and protection. Every life must be protected and cared for to the same degree.
Sometimes we hear it said, especially by politicians, that they support abortion only in cases of rape and incest. There is no doubt that these are horrific acts, and the act of rape and incest must always and everywhere be condemned. Those who commit these acts must be held accountable, and society must be protected from them so that they do not do this again.
With that said, it doesn’t change the fact that new human life is new human life. Even if this new life came about through the tragic event of rape or incest, it is still human life. In this case, the extended family and all of society MUST strive to offer every bit of emotional, spiritual and even financial support necessary to help the mother bring that new life to birth. And after birth, everything must be done to help the mother make the right decision as to how this child will be raised either by her, her family or through adoption.
There is also the consideration of the mother’s health. In rare cases there are tubal pregnancies. These are pregnancies that, according to current medical science, have a zero percent chance of success. In this case, and in this case alone, there is a traditional principle applied called “the principle of double effect.” Double effect means that the doctor is permitted to remove the part of the fallopian tube that will soon rupture so as to save the mother’s life, even though he knows that this means the immediate death of the child. However, in this case the intention is not abortion, and therefore the death of the child is not intended. Rather, the death of the child is known, but there is no other option and therefore is permissible. Additionally, if there is any way for the doctor to help the child attached to the fallopian tube to, instead, become attached to the uterus, this must be done. If it’s not medically possible, then the removal of the part of the fallopian tube is the only option. Again, the death of the child is not intended directly in this case; it is only an unintended sad and unavoidable consequence.
There are also many other health concerns that can arise from pregnancy. In these cases, every care must be taken to help the mother and child, but it is always wrong to intentionally and directly take the life of the child to help safeguard the mother’s health. This is very difficult; so, again, every care must be taken to help both mother and child to live and be healthy.
One sad practice in recent years is selective abortion. This happens when parents seek to find out if their unborn child is healthy or has some form of genetic or other serious defect. Many times doctors will recommend abortion in the case of a child with clear physical “defects.” This is never justified. It may be OK to have reasonable tests of this sort if the intention is to prepare the parents for any health concerns. But intentional abortion of a child with defects of any sort is still abortion and, thus, the murder of a disabled child.
Indirect Homicide: Related to intentional homicide would be a sin which brings about the death of another as a result of negligence of one’s duty. Neglect, for example, by a parent toward a child which results in that child’s death should be considered the most grievous of sins in this category.
Neglect could also happen by those with civil authority who fail to care for the needs of the people with whom they are entrusted. For example, if there is great poverty and hunger in a given society and the civil authorities have the ability to help rectify this but fail to out of selfish motivation, this is serious neglect and is sinful.
To a lesser extent, we are all called to a certain degree to be considered our “brother’s keeper.” This means we are all called to be concerned for the good of others. If we neglect our duty to help the common good of others, we are partly responsible for the problems we could help solve. This may not only be neglect that results in the death of others, it may also include neglect that leaves others in poverty, despair, loneliness, and hurt. This could take on many forms, so for our purposes we will stick to the general principles and let those principles be applied more directly in each particular circumstance of your life. Think about what you may have a duty to do to assist with the care and well-being of others, especially those with the greatest of needs.
Suicide: Suicide is the intentional taking of your own life. This is a topic that needs to be addressed directly but also with a tremendous amount of nuance and care. First, suicide is always wrong. God is the author of life, and only He has the right to take our life. We do not have complete rights over whether we live or die.
With that said, we should also be very careful to identify the many other questions that surround the choice of a person to take their life. Very often, when someone commits suicide, the family is left in deep pain, confusion and loss. Many will wonder, “Is my child, spouse, friend, etc., in Hell now? Did they commit a mortal sin and, therefore, are they in Hell?” This is never a good question to even consider. The proper answer to that question is simply—don’t go there!
Here is the reasoning for avoiding even that question. Yes, it’s true, that the taking of our own life is grave matter. It is seriously wrong. However, it’s very honest to follow that up by saying that it would be highly unlikely, and perhaps impossible, for a person to commit the act of suicide with full knowledge and complete consent of the will. Why? Because it is almost certain that a person who commits suicide is suffering from some sort of serious hurt, depression, confusion or the like. There is almost always some seriously diminishing circumstance that leaves the person with much less than full guilt for this action.
Suicide leaves deep wounds and many questions. The loved ones left behind will most likely wonder if they did something wrong, if they could have done something more, or whether they should have seen this coming. These are the “would haves, should haves, could haves.” Family members should take great care to never fall into the deep regret that they “should have” done this or that.
Sure, over time the loss of a loved one may help you become more concerned and compassionate for others, especially other family members who are hurting. But dwelling on regrets and things that can no longer be changed will not bring your loved one back. Keep seeking to offer it to God and let God sort it out. God loves the one who committed suicide far more than anyone else, and this all-loving and all-merciful God will do the right thing.
Euthanasia: One form of suicide that merits special attention is Euthanasia. Euthanasia is considered by many as “mercy killing.” But, truth be told, there is nothing merciful about it. Sure, when someone is suffering gravely, there is a tendency to want to relieve their suffering. In some cases, people will conclude that the suffering is bad enough to take their life so that the suffering will end. But this is a false sense of compassion at work.
The ideal, when someone is suffering, is to offer compassion to the extent needed. The actual word “compassion” means to “suffer with.” It means that humans enter deeply into the lives of others and are there with them in their suffering. It means they love them in their suffering and help them to carry the heavy burden they are carrying.
True mercy is love for those who are in dire need of love in the way they need love. Taking their life may be the quickest and easiest way out of suffering, but it’s not the most compassionate way to treat them. True compassion means we do all we can to help them live a dignified life, even in the midst of the greatest of suffering. We must help them find meaning even in their suffering and learn to unite that suffering to the Cross of Christ. Jesus knows pain and suffering. He lived it, identifies with it and can transform it. True compassion seeks to help the person offer their sufferings to Christ so that it is Jesus who takes those sufferings to His own Cross and produces the necessary peace a person needs to continue a life of dignity and strength.
Therefore, the direct killing of life, even if the person wants to die, is always wrong. God is the author of life, and only God can take it. We never have a right to take our own life or to ask another to assist us with our own death, even if it appears to be the way out of some sort of suffering.
Lastly, it should be noted that when someone is at the end of their life, it may be of great benefit for them to receive pain medication. Sometimes pain medication will hasten the person’s death. Here the principle of double effect also applies. In this case, if pain medication is given to alleviate present suffering, it is permissible as long as the intention is simply to alleviate the pain. This is permissible, and perhaps good to do, even if the unintended consequence is that the person dies more quickly. But this can become a slippery slope and great care must be taken. The medical professionals must be certain that the amount of pain medication given is not given in excess so that death will occur more quickly. This happens all too often, and regular checks and balances must be in place so that pain medication is given only to a reasonable degree.
This is sufficient for our consideration of euthanasia. However, later in this chapter, more will be said of other related questions regarding “end of life” issues and considerations.
Other Considerations: Furthermore, harsh speech, slander, ridicule, gossip and the like violate this Commandment because they “kill” another’s character and good name. This violates their basic human dignity. Even thoughts of anger can be an interior violation of this Commandment. We are called to love and forgive, and when we withhold love and forgiveness, we break this Commandment.
Other violations would be the use of illegal drugs or abuse of prescription drugs, neglect of proper care of one’s body, eating too much, sleeping too much, drinking alcoholic beverages in excess, being too concerned about one’s health or appearance, racism, cruelty to animals and the like.
Human Dignity Must Be Respected
Respect for the salvation of others: We all have a duty to help foster the good of others. We must help them, by our words and example, to do good and avoid evil. When someone causes another to sin, this is scandal. Scandal is defined in the Catechism in this way: “Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter” (#2284).
On the flip side, we should see in this Commandment a call to build up others and to help encourage them on the path of holiness. The goal is to be a witness to the good in our words and actions.
Respect for health and body: Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and are to be cared for in that light. Therefore, abuse of our bodies through the excessive use of food or drink, alcohol or drugs is a violation of this Commandment. The goal is to take good care of our own health and to help foster the good health of others.
Science is a great blessing in that it unlocks the mysteries of the world as it was designed and created by God. But science has its moral limits. Specific examples of this are explained in the “Medical Ethics” section later in this chapter.
Torture can come under this heading in that it has to do with the direct harming of the body or mind for the purpose of eliciting information. This is contrary to the dignity of the human person and ought not be condoned even if it is judged that it will be effective in gaining important information. The dignity of the person, even those who are criminals, must always be respected.
Lastly, the direct mutilation of body parts is never permissible unless it is done for medicinal purposes, such as amputation for the reason of stopping an infection.
Respect for the dead: Those who pass from this world are no longer dwelling in their bodies. However, the body is still sacred in that it was created by God, and it will be raised up on the last day. Therefore, care should be taken to properly bury our loved one’s remains so as to profess our belief in the resurrection of the body.
When Killing is not Murder
Is there a distinction between killing and murdering? Yes, there is. And it’s an important one. The Fifth Commandment does not forbid us from killing; rather, it forbids us from murdering.
Murder is the taking of an innocent life without a just cause. Of course that definition makes it clear that, in some cases, there is a justifiable cause to take a life. That would be killing but not murder. Let’s look at the difference and some examples.
Legitimate self-defense: Self-defense is a right, and even a duty, that we all have. Jesus’ Second Commandment summing up the entire moral law states: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Loving oneself certainly means we must defend ourselves and protect ourselves against the unjust aggression of others. Therefore, if someone is trying to do us grave harm, the right of self-defense is absolute.
However, we must make an important nuance in the right to self-defense and self-preservation. Say someone is angry with you and punches you but in no way intends to seriously hurt you. Do you have a right to shoot them then and there? No, that would be doing more than was necessary to protect yourself. The right of self-defense permits you to do only that which is necessary to protect yourself. However, there are many rare but conceivable circumstances when your personal safety and defense ends with the need to deal your aggressor a lethal blow. In this case, it’s important that your intention be that of self-defense as opposed to the intention of killing. There is a difference. Having only the intention of self-defense means you will do only that which is necessary to stop your aggressor. If the only good and reasonable option is something that may bring about the death of that person, it is permissible as long as they are coming at you with intent to kill you or do you serious harm. In this case, you intend self-defense but are aware of the secondary unintended possible effect of taking that person’s life.
It’s also important to note that some are called to protect the rights and the lives of others. For example, a parent has a duty to protect his/her child. If there is an unjust aggressor doing harm to one’s child, the parent must intervene and, if the reasonable intervention results in unintended killing of the aggressor (meaning the intent was defense of the child), then that is permissible. The same is true of those entrusted with the protection of society, such as police officers and the military. More will be said on this below.
Of course, in these examples we are talking about very serious needs for self-defense. Very few people will ever experience such a need for this level of self-defense in their lives. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand this in principle even if the practical need is never made present.
Protection of society: There are those who have been entrusted with the protection of society. Domestically, police officers are on the front lines of the defense and safety of the community. Nationally, the military is entrusted with our defense. In both of these groups, the principles above apply, and killing is permitted when it is the only appropriate means of the protection of others.
For police officers (and the like), they have their responsibility given them by the just authority within a community. The local, State or Federal government will commission them to follow certain practices and procedures to keep the community safe. Sometimes those practices will involve the stopping of an unjust aggressor with lethal force. Good checks and balances should always be in place to make sure that excessive force is not exercised. But as long as the officer acts within his/her legitimate authority, it is at times not only their right but even their duty to use lethal force to protect the citizens whose care they are entrusted with.
The military is to follow the same principles of self-defense. It is just to go to war when the legitimate authority (the president, for example) declares war so as to stop the unjust aggression of a group or another country. There are two things to note here. First, the commander-in-chief must make the prudent judgment as to whether or not this is a just war. Second, those in the military must act with lethal force only when necessary and only to stop those who are the aggressors when the legitimate authority (the commander-in-chief) has given permission. With that said, here are the basics of the morality behind the “Just War Theory.”
Just War Theory: The following are the conditions set down by the Catechism (#2309) supporting a war as just:
—the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
—all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
—there must be serious prospects of success;
—the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
Basically, going to war is only permitted when it is necessary to protect the nation from serious and continuous harm from an unjust aggressor, everything else has been tried to bring peace, war appears to be a legitimate way of ending the unjust aggression, and the end result is judged to be better than the current situation. These conditions must all be met before the commander-in-chief of any nation declares war.
What if these conditions are not met? Are those in the military still obliged to go to war? This enters into a grey area but, as a general rule, unless the dictates of the commander-in-chief are obviously immoral, those serving in the military should be comfortable following orders. The reason is that very often the details of war decisions are not known by the general population. There are many factors that are “top-secret” and available to the country’s leaders alone. Therefore, when a commander-in-chief states that the war is just, it should be presumed just unless there is clear knowledge that it is not. And if it is clearly known that the war is unjust, those serving in the military must not follow the directions of the commander-in-chief. However, if this were to happen, those serving in the military should first turn to the Church and seek advice from the bishops on the morality of war in particular situations.
Capital Punishment: In some cases, it is legitimate for the State to put people to death. But in our day and age this is rare. There is only one case in which capital punishment is acceptable. It is acceptable only when the State has judged that the criminal, guilty of a capital crime, is a grave threat to society and that the only means of safeguarding society is to put this person to death. However, be careful in this consideration. The fact is that, in our day and age, most countries are perfectly capable of having reasonable certainty that a dangerous criminal can be incarcerated for the rest of his life and, thus, society can be kept safe without the need for putting this person to death.
The key here is that the State need not have absolute certainty the person will never escape—that level of certainty would be impossible. The principle at work here is the reasonable protection of society while at the same time recognizing the dignity of the person who committed a heinous crime. The hope is his conversion and repentance.
With that said, it is conceivable that there are some cultures in which the permanent incarceration of a criminal is not all that possible. In that case, if it is an honest and reasonable judgment of the State that the death penalty is the only way to protect society from this criminal, it could be permissible.
Other “Medical Ethics” Considerations
One major area of modern moral decisions is that of medical ethics. At the time of Jesus, medicine was obviously not what it is today. For that reason, modern science has raised many new questions for consideration. Below are various issues that deserve special attention. However, this listing is by no means comprehensive. Therefore, understanding the general moral principles are key to being able to make good moral decisions in all specific questions that arise in modern medicine.
In vitro Fertilization: In vitro fertilization (IVF) is the scientific process of removing eggs from a woman and artificially fertilizing them with the sperm of a man. Once fertilization takes place in a lab setting, the fertilized eggs are then inserted into the womb of the woman in the hopes that at least one of them will implant on the uterine wall and pregnancy will occur. This process is immoral for two basic reasons.
First, even though conception is possible in this artificial environment, it is contrary to the laws of nature that God established for the begetting of children. There are many couples who deeply desire to have children and are not able to do so. This can cause a deep sorrow and lead couples to look into other options. In this case, it’s important to note that just because a scientific procedure may work, it is not, therefore, automatically morally permissible to use. IVF is akin to taking the act of creation into our own hands. God is the author of life and offered a natural way for that to happen. If this natural way does not produce pregnancy, there are morally licit ways of assisting pregnancy, such as fertility medication and Natural Family Planning. IVF separates the natural design of the begetting of children from pregnancy. It separates pregnancy from the sexual act of husband and wife and for this reason the Church has discerned it is a practice that is contrary to the natural plan of God and ought not be used.
Secondly, IVF brings with it the grave danger of the loss of human life. Most often, several eggs are fertilized and implanted with the knowledge that some or most of these new beginnings of human life will not live. Therefore, using this method disregards the sacredness of every human life at the moment of conception by bringing forth human life that has a poor chance of survival. This goes at the heart of the question of when life begins. Since life begins at conception, as the Church teaches and science affirms, it is irresponsible and gravely illicit to create human life in a seriously hazardous condition in the hopes that at least one of those new embryos will live.
With that said, if a child is conceived and implanted using this method, and this child grows to maturity and is born, it’s important to know that this child is no less sacred and has no less dignity given the way it was conceived. Life is life and is all sacred and precious. The end does not justify the means, but, nonetheless, when the “end” is a child, he/she is sacred and is to be treated with the greatest dignity.
Cloning: The attempt to clone a human being is always immoral. The reason is very similar to the first point mentioned above in IVF. Cloning undermines the natural design of God for bringing forth new life and, therefore, is contrary to nature and is contrary to human dignity. Again, just because science may have the ability to do something doesn’t mean it is right in doing it. In this case, experiments with human cloning are gravely immoral and should never be attempted.
Organ transplant: Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). This high calling can be realized in many ways. One way is to allow for the legitimate donation of organs for the life and health of another.
Certainly, if donating an organ would bring about the direct death of a person, this is immoral since it is the taking of an innocent life. But, when someone has died, or has been declared “brain dead,” it is permissible to use their organs for the good of others.
With that said, it’s important to have medical certainty of brain death prior to the harvesting of organs. This would be a medical decision based on a reasonable and certain conclusion that if a person were taken off of life support, they would immediately die. And that’s the key. This can get into a certain grey area, and great care must be taken since most organs must be “harvested” while the heart is still pumping while on artificial life-support. Only when a determination of brain death is made is it morally licit to move forward while the person is still on life support. In this case, it is understood that only the body is living, but the person is actually dead.
Other “End of Life” Decisions
The end of life will come to us all. And most will enter into certain moral decisions regarding the end of their loved one’s life. In order to make good moral decisions regarding end of life decisions and what sort of care and treatment is to be given or can be avoided, it’s important to know the basic language.
Care vs. Treatment: First, it’s important to note a difference between “care” and “treatment.” Care must always be given. This is a requirement of basic human dignity. What is care? Care includes all the basic human needs, such as food, water, love, comfort, and basic medicines. Treatment would encompass all forms of medical procedures or medications that are more invasive.
Ordinary vs. Extraordinary Means: One very important key distinction to understand when making moral decisions of a medical nature is that of ordinary and extraordinary. Ordinary care is always required and includes all the basic needs we must meet as a result of our human dignity. Nutrition and hydration, for example, most always fall under this heading (more on that to follow). Ordinary care would also include basic hygiene, emotional and spiritual support, comfort care and any medical procedures or medications that are not too burdensome.
Extraordinary care and treatment would include most medical procedures that in some way impose a burden on the person. The key is that the treatment itself is a burden. In many cases, it would be morally necessary to provide extraordinary care, but in some cases extraordinary care can be denied. A few examples will help explain.
Say a person is in stage four cancer and will certainly die. There is an option of using heavy doses of chemotherapy to slow the progress down, but that will most likely cause the person to be quite sick and will, therefore, impose a heavy burden on the person. Say that this person is 95 years old and is mentally and spiritually ready to meet Jesus. In this case, it is understandable if the person rejects the invasive and burdensome extraordinary treatment of chemotherapy so as to allow nature to take its course.
On the other hand, say there is a 35-year-old person who has several small children. They discover cancer early, and the chemotherapy recommended may have a decent chance of working. The doctors explain that the treatments will be very burdensome and cause serious illness, but it’s the best option. In this case, the extraordinary care should be chosen.
The main determining factor is to decide whether or not the actual treatment itself imposes too much of a burden on the person. By burden we may mean a physical, psychological or even financial burden. In other words, is the treatment simply too much to ask? If the best prudential judgment is that the treatment is too much and imposes too much of a burden, then it can be declined.
Another factor to consider is that of medical success. If the treatment given has little to no chance of success and is judged futile by the doctor, this should be seriously considered in making a final judgment. A futile treatment that imposes a serious burden can be declined.
On the other hand, extraordinary means do not necessarily need to be declined. If a person is up to it and is desirous of the treatment and believes the benefit outweighs the burden, then it is OK to seek it out.
In determining whether or not something is too burdensome, there is an important distinction that must be made. Sometimes, the erroneous judgment is made that my life itself is too burdensome and, therefore, various treatments are denied so as to expedite death. This is a problem because we should never make what we call “quality of life decisions.” In other words, it is not proper to say that my “quality of life” is so poor that I will deny even ordinary treatments so as to alleviate my suffering or the possible “imposition” my life may be on my loved ones.
The distinction to make is whether or not the treatment proposed is too burdensome. This is different than saying my life is too burdensome. For example, say a person has a serious illness that causes much pain. There is a medical treatment (such as a medicine) that can be given, and that treatment imposes little to no burden. Is it permissible to deny the treatment because the person wants to die and alleviate their suffering? No, this would not be proper. In this case the goal is to give the non-burdensome treatment AND to do all that is possible to help the person with their suffering. Emotional, psychological, spiritual and physical care must be given to help the person who is suffering. But denying basic treatment that imposes little to no burden is a form of euthanasia by neglect. The only time that ordinary treatments of this sort may be denied are when they are judged futile (ineffective).
Nutrition and Hydration: One area that requires special attention is that of nutrition and hydration. Ordinary means of nutrition and hydration should always be given. This means that as long as the person is able to eat and drink, food and water should be given. It would be wrong to starve someone. The most common decision regarding food and nutrition that people struggle with involves artificial nutrition and hydration. This would be most often the insertion of a feeding tube.
Feeding tubes provide a way for a person to continue with the basic care they need when they are not able to eat or drink on their own. This is especially the case of someone in a permanent vegetative state. The clear teaching of the Church on this is that a feeding tube should be considered ordinary care unless one of two conditions is met.
The first condition in which a feeding tube could be denied is that of futility. Futility means, for example, that the person is not able to receive nourishment from the food. This could happen if they have a serious form of stomach cancer which does not allow the food to be absorbed into the body. In this case, using a feeding tube will not help and, therefore, it is not necessary. In fact, it may even be harmful.
The second case in which a feeding tube could be denied is when the person is so weak or elderly that even the medical procedure of inserting a feeding tube is too burdensome. In this case, it is determined that the procedure is too much and, therefore, is permissible to decline. If, however, a feeding tube is already in place and the person does physically benefit from its nutrition, then the food should be given.
As described above, all “quality of life” decisions should be avoided. A person should not be denied food and hydration, even if given artificially, as a way of starving them so that death will come.
With all of the decisions above, it is essential that a doctor be carefully consulted so that the medical facts are determined. Is it a futile treatment? How burdensome is the treatment? What are the chances of success? After these facts are known, it is then left to the best judgment of loved ones to make a good decision based on the moral principles of medical ethics described above.
The Upper Limit
Respect: The ultimate goal we are called to in this Commandment is that of respect for the human person. We must respect all life from the moment of conception until the moment of natural death. Respect for life means we see the innate dignity of everyone. We care for the unborn, the marginalized, the poor, the hungry, the elderly and the sick. We respect and love our family, neighbor and all people as images of God.
Seeking peace: The upper limit for a community or nation is to seek peace. This means first and foremost freedom from armed conflict and oppression of people. But it also means creating an environment and society which fosters opportunities for the mutual well-being of all its citizens. Charitable organizations must be encouraged and supported nationwide and even across national lines so as to bring about not only an end to conflict but also a culture of love and unity.
Let’s now look at the three conditions of mortal sin as it applies to the Fifth Commandment:
Grave Matter: As outlined above, there are numerous ways that this Commandment is broken in a grave way. Any direct and intentional killing of the innocent is grave. Furthermore, serious acts of violence, anger, or neglect are grave actions or omissions.
Full Knowledge: Murder, serious violence or serious neglect are known by most everyone to be gravely wrong. We just know that we ought not do damage to another. One example of how one may not have full knowledge was explained in Chapter One under the heading of “Erroneous Conscience.” Rather than repeat this example here, you may want to go back to that section for a reminder.
Complete Consent of the Will: This factor of a mortal sin is, perhaps, most easily understood as a more likely diminishing factor of guilt. Very often when violence is enacted, it is done in a moment of rage and extreme emotion. This is no justification since we have a duty to have our emotions and passions under control. However, one can conceive of a sudden shocking situation in which a person acted in a seriously harmful way without really thinking about it.
Say, for example, that someone comes home to find a spouse in the act of adultery. This is shocking and evokes extreme emotion. Say that the shocked spouse reacts with sudden anger without any premeditation. In that sudden act of anger, the adulterer is killed.
Obviously this is a very sad situation, and killing in this case is not justified. However, that intense emotion may mean that the person’s sin does not rise to the level of being mortal sin. Even the civil laws of most countries recognize a difference between premeditated murder and “temporary insanity.”
Furthermore, any grave factors, especially of an emotional form, can have the effect of lessening the personal guilt of one who gravely violates this Commandment. As always, that does not make the action good or even neutral, it only lessens the personal guilt.
Venial Sins: The Fifth Commandment can be violated in numerous venial ways. Words, for example, when harsh, belittling, condescending or sarcastic, can “kill” another’s spirit. Verbal abuse does much damage to others, especially when done within the family.
All forms of anger, passive aggression, or mean-spirited actions violate this Commandment. We must strive to love and respect the whole person, body, mind and spirit. When one is harmed mentally, spiritually or physically, this Commandment is broken. Of course, verbal, emotional and spiritual abuse can also rise to the level of grave matter, but very often it remains as a less serious venial sin.
Envy is also a violation of this Commandment. Envy is distinguished from jealousy in that jealousy is more of a covetousness and unhealthy desire to have what others have. This could be jealousy of their possessions, personal qualities, social status or the like. Envy often begins with a certain jealousy but adds to it some form of harmful acting out toward the other. Envy is a deep sorrow over the good of others and leads one to try to damage them as a result. Anger is always involved in envy but is often internal, causing the aggression to be more passive and subtle.
Finally, this Commandment is broken even when we act in a negligent way and fail to properly build up others. We have a duty to love and support others. When we fail to do so, we are partly responsible for the ill effects this has on them. Thus, it is possible to damage another by neglecting them and neglecting the love we owe them.
Next Chapter: Chapter 6 – Chastity, Purity, Affection and Marital Love
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