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Chapter 8: The Modes of Responsibility Which Specify the First Principle

Question H: What is the eighth mode of responsibility?

1. The eighth mode is this: One should not be moved by a stronger desire for one instance of an intelligible good to act for it by choosing to destroy, damage, or impede some other instance of an intelligible good. This mode is violated by one who deliberately brings about something humanly bad, in order to prevent something else bad or to attain something humanly good. In such a case, one is moved to act according to the comparative strength of one’s various desires. Thus one subordinates some possible elements of human fulfillment to others, even though there is no reasonable basis for doing so. In placing a nonrational limit on fulfillment, one proceeds in a way not consistent with a will toward integral human fulfillment (see S.t., 1–2, q. 18, a. 4, ad 3; q. 20, a. 2; 3, q. 68, a. 11, ad 3).2

2. At times one is aware that acting in a certain way would bring about the bad, either for the sake of the good or to prevent something else bad. Practical reason provides the same sort of grounds for respecting the good one proposes to injure as for pursuing the good one proposes to pursue. Still, one is moved by the desire which is stronger at the emotional level, that is, the desire which draws one to this rather than that imagined outcome. (This experience—of being drawn—is the intuition which the proportionalist thinks justifies choosing what one feels to be the lesser evil or the greater good.) This situation is different from that in which a person chooses to act for a good while foreseeing that executing the choice will incidentally bring about unwanted human evils—which, however, can be accepted without violating any other mode of responsibility. Nor is it the same as the situation in which someone subordinates goods which are not basic human goods to the attainment of such goods.

3. This mode of responsibility is not violated by one who freely accepts death rather than leave an important duty unfulfilled. Nor is it violated by killing animals for food, since animals’ lives are not instances of a human good. Nor is there a violation in setting aside the letter of legal requirements for the sake of fairness, since law is simply a means to this human good. Violations are present in the following. To obtain a grant to continue his research, a scientist falsifies data to make the project’s initial results appear more promising than they are. To obtain information which will save many lives, a military commander tortures children. To bring about what he considers a necessary change in moral teaching, a theologian encourages people to do something they believe wrong.

4. The virtuous disposition corresponding to this mode is signified by “reverence.” For instance: “Out of reverence for life, she refused the abortion which her physician said was medically necessary”; or: “Out of reverence for the consciences of those who thought it wrong to eat idol-meat, St. Paul chose not to use the most efficient means of correcting their false view.” “Craftiness” is one name for the opposed vice. Those who deny this mode’s validity often appeal to what they call “prudence” or “common sense realism.” In public affairs, the vice is sometimes called “pragmatism” or, if criticism is intended, “machiavellianism” or “amoral expediency.”

5. As with the others, the eighth mode’s foundation is deepened by certain aspects of divine revelation even before Jesus. God’s revelation that humankind is made in his image tends to enhance reverence for the goods which fulfill human persons. Moreover, a deep awareness of human sinfulness makes one skeptical that feelings can be trusted to measure good and evil.

A few passages in the Old Testament condemn cunning or craftiness, but usually there is no clear indication that the reason for the condemnation is the violation of this mode of responsibility (see Gn 3.1; Jb 5.12; 15.5; Ps 83.4). Perhaps nearest to the point are a few passages in Sirach, for example:

  There is a shrewdness that is detestable,
while the simple man may be free from sin,
  There are those with little understanding who fear God,
and those of great intelligence who violate the law.
  There is a shrewdness keen but dishonest,
which by duplicity wins a judgment. (Sir 19.19–21; NAB)
Again, Sirach suggests: “A man may be shrewd and the teacher of many, and yet be unprofitable to himself” (Sir 37.19). These passages could refer to the craftiness of the person who uses bad means to good ends, but the point is not clear, because there is no context or application.

6. Before Christian revelation, however, there was a tendency, as a side effect of certain other aspects of divine revelation, for people to misunderstand this mode.3 God reveals himself by participating in human history; he participates in history through sinful human beings, precisely to save fallen humankind. Presupposing and working within the framework of their conventional morality, the people who received the revelation of the Old Testament assumed that it provided a divine sanction for their moral convictions. This assumption caused social norms to be taken as guides, not to human fulfillment as such, but to the fulfillment of Israel’s specific aspirations. In the pursuit of this fulfillment, whatever seemed necessary was considered justified, even if it involved violating the eighth mode of responsibility.

7. Thus, in Old Testament times the eighth mode was accepted with a condition: The end does not justify the means—unless God commands or authorizes otherwise. This can be illustrated in the case of human life. Israel’s law recognizes life as sacred and establishes protection for it, but its sacredness is qualified by the presumption that God authorizes killing in some cases. In the last analysis, even innocent human life is subordinated to the good of religion realized in the covenant relationship. Carried over into Christian thinking, this mentality justifies killing—in violation of the eighth mode of responsibility—in capital punishment and war.

In the perspective of the Old Testament, God is the absolute Lord of life. All blood (which is identified with animal and human life) belongs to God, for he is its source. All humans must treat it as sacred, but God may dispose of it according to his sovereign will. In consequence, certain crimes demand punishment by the shedding of blood, which can have the character of expiation, purification, or both. Moreover, the wars of Israel, although not holy wars fought for specifically religious objectives, are the wars of Yahweh, Israel’s king.4

This Old Testament perspective, while coherent in itself, should not be used to justify choices to kill within the more adequate perspective of Christian morality. The unacceptable implications of using the Old Testament in this way become apparent if one considers the whole range of killing considered justified, rather than looking only at selected texts; for instance, to defend capital punishment: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image” (Gn 9.6).

In the law of Israel the death penalty was mandatory for murder, for offenses having a specifically religious character, and for bearing false witness in a capital case (see Ex 21.12–14; 31.14; Nm 35.31–33; Lv 20.2–5; 24.14–16; Dt 13.2–10; 17.2–7; 19.11–13, 21). But also subject to the death penalty were kidnapping in certain cases (see Ex 21.16; Dt 24.7), bestiality (see Ex 22.18; Lv 20.15–16), male homosexual behavior (see Lv 20.13), various incestuous relationships (see Lv 20.11–19), and adultery involving a married woman (see Lv 20.10; Dt 22.22). Both parties involved in these sexual offenses, including the animal in cases of bestiality, were subject to the death penalty.

A man who raped a betrothed girl could be punished by death, and so could the victim of such a rape, if the rape occurred in the city and she was not heard to cry out for help (see Dt 22.23–27). A bride accused by her husband of not being a virgin, who could not provide evidence that she was a virgin, might be punished by death (see Dt 22.20–21). The death penalty also was prescribed for striking a parent (see Ex 21.15) or cursing a parent (see Ex 21.17; Lv 20.9). A stubborn and rebellious son, if incorrigible, could be denounced by his parents to the elders of the city and punished by being stoned to death by the populace (see Dt 21.18–21).

In war, enemies of Israel were regarded as enemies of God. Hence, killing in war was taken for granted as justified: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sm 18.7; cf. Dt 20.10–18). For certain religious crimes, a family or a city as a whole was to be destroyed utterly under the penalty of the ban (see Dt 13.13–18; Jos 7.10–26).

The absolute subordination of human life to religion is expressed in the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. Within the context of the covenant relationship, the killing of the child to fulfill what was taken to be a divine command is not seen as presenting any moral problem, although Isaac clearly is innocent. The difficulty is that Isaac is the medium of the fulfillment of the promise, and so Abraham must trust God sufficiently to hope against hope that the promise will be fulfilled despite the destruction of the necessary medium to fulfill it (see Gn 22.1–19; Heb 11.17–19).

8. At that stage of salvation history, the inadequacy of the mentality of God’s people was virtually inevitable. In the Old Testament, friendship with God was understood strictly in terms of human fulfillment rather than sharing in God’s own divine life. Compared with other goods, the covenant relationship appeared of overriding importance. By the terms of the covenant, God was Israel’s legal and political sovereign. Taking on the sanctity of God himself, the law came to be considered holy. In consequence, other human goods were accorded respect only insofar as the law embraced and protected them.

9. The people of Old Testament times, thinking of their acts simply in terms of obedience to God, did not violate human goods as they would have done had they engaged in the same deeds while focusing on human goods as the direct determinants of morality. Sharing in the fallen human condition and living in the early stages of the divine pedagogy which culminates with Jesus, the Israelite conscience was necessarily somewhat immature and cannot be criticized as if it had perfect access to moral truth.5 Their general error in conscience was sincere, and God’s people were not set against human goods in trying to do his will as they understood it. Eventually Israel was defeated in war, and this experience led to the prophets’ recognition of the ultimate significance of infidelity and the need for a new and more profound kind of covenant relationship. Thus, in God’s providence the defects of ancient morality prepared the way for Jesus.

10. The Christian tradition has not firmly required socially authorized killing in violation of the eighth mode of responsibility. But Christians too often have overlooked the fact that the warrior God of the old covenant has become the crucified king of peace of the new. Now it appears that a true development of Christian understanding on this matter is possible and even is occurring. It is like the development by which Christians came to recognize slavery as always unjustifiable, even though for many centuries it was widely considered morally acceptable.6 True development does not involve contradicting anything the Church has firmly believed and handed on as essential to Christian faith and life. Its movement is not toward accepting something previously considered wrong, but toward seeing the unacceptability of something previously considered permissible.

Christian teaching has not insisted upon capital punishment, but has defended the licitness of such killing.7 This defense, I believe, does not constitute teaching infallibly proposed by the ordinary magisterium.8 As for war, although very restricted, it still can be justified if the war is defensive and the killing involved is incidental to just self-defense, not chosen for its utility as a means to an end.9

It seems that a development of Christian understanding concerning the morality of killing in capital punishment and in war is occurring, much like the development which Jesus carried out with respect to divorce and the development which the Church has carried out with respect to slavery. Divorce seems to be authorized in the Old Testament (see Dt 24.1), but Jesus corrects this view (see Mt 19.3–9; Mk 10.2–12). In many places, the New Testament seems to authorize slavery by taking it for granted and by regulating the moral relationships of masters and slaves (see Eph 6.5–9; Phlm; Ti 2.9–10; 1 Pt 2.18–25), but the Church’s teaching firmly excludes this view (see GS 27).

This latter teaching is based on human dignity, and is closely joined with the exclusion of what is opposed to human life itself (see GS 27). I think the full implications of this principle for all killing which violates the eighth mode of responsibility soon will be drawn by the Church, in a legitimate development of doctrine. True, Leo X condemned Martin Luther’s proposition that the burning of heretics is against the will of God (see DS 1483/773). But this condemnation was not proposed infallibly, and Vatican II clearly excludes the practice (see DH 6).

11. As St. Paul’s teaching concerning the law makes clear, there is an important discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New. The law did not justify; it only pointed out what is sinful (see Rom 3.20). Justification comes through faith in God revealing himself in Jesus, a faith by which one accepts God’s gift of his own transforming Spirit (see Rom 5.1–5). Because of this difference between the Old Testament and the New, the norms assumed in the Old Testament did not have to be completely correct or altogether rightly understood; for example, Moses permitted divorce (see Mt 19.8). But the fallen human condition really is transformed by Jesus, and the morality of the New Testament, the law of Jesus, follows from the gift of the Spirit (see Gal 5.22–6.2).

12. The divine life which Jesus enjoys and communicates by the gift of the Spirit is not just one human good among others. It is beyond all human goods. Hence there is no competition between the requirements of the new law and any human good. Nor can God’s covenant with humankind in Jesus be served by any act which destroys, damages, or impedes a human good. Hence, the limitation of the eighth mode of responsibility taken for granted in the Old Testament is removed in the New. Thus St. Paul explicitly excludes rationalizations which would seek to justify evildoing for the sake of religion (see Rom 3.7–8; 2 Cor 4.2; Eph 4.14–15).

It is worth noting that although the gospel contains a reaffirmation of the ancient protection of human life (see Mt 5.21–26; 19.18), the New Testament does not mention capital punishment. St. Paul’s teaching on the moral obligation to obey civil authority is not to be read as doing so (see Rom 13.4).10

Jesus undermines the traditional understanding of the subordination of other human goods to the good of religion. Of course, he does not deny that friendship with God is the supreme good, but he refuses to accept the reduction of friendship with God to the keeping of the law of Israel and the reduction of all other human goods to the fulfillment of Israel’s quite determinate, this-worldly hopes. This refusal is shown in his relationships both with the Pharisees and with the zealot inclinations among his own close followers.

Jesus declares himself as Son of Man to be Lord even of the Sabbath, and asserts the subordination of the Sabbath to human fulfillment (see Mt 12.1–8; Mk 2.23–28; Lk 6.1–5). The supposed absoluteness of the prescriptions of the law is undercut. A human good, such as saving life, takes priority and is wholly in accord with the forgiveness of sin and integral friendship with God (see Mt 12.9–13; Lk 6.6–10).

At the same time, while Jesus consigns to human authority the keys to God’s kingdom, he refuses to accept his followers’ tendency to reduce this kingdom to earthly fulfillment (see Mt 16.13–23; Mk 8.27–33). Having come not to destroy human lives but save them, he will not destroy enemies (see Lk 9.52–56). Swords are not to be used even in his defense (see Lk 22.38, 49–51). Who lives by the sword will perish by it (see Mt 26.51–54). The kingdom of Jesus is not of this world (see Jn 18.36). His closest followers could not understand this point, and even after his resurrection looked to him to restore Israel’s political autonomy (see Acts 1.6).

In place of the legal perspective of the Old Testament, Jesus puts himself. In him divine life is present and available to humankind. By this life, men and women really do share in a new and everlasting covenant. This good is not a limited set of human goods, such as Israel hoped for. Hence, the relationship with God no longer demands the constrictions upon human fulfillment which were taken for granted as acceptable both by the Pharisees and the zealots. For Jesus, the criterion for entry into or exclusion from the kingdom is how one treats one’s human brothers and sisters, for the Son of Man is in solidarity with them (see Mt 25.31–46).

What is at stake here is Christian humanism. Once this Christian perspective is fully unfolded and accepted, it becomes clear that God cannot will that human persons choose to destroy, damage, or impede any of their other proper goods, even for the ulterior good of religion itself. The love of God is not itself the medium of the fulfillment of a promise of some limited set of human goods, and the love of God requires not the negation but rather the fulfillment of all the basic human goods (see GS 22–39). (This point will be treated in 24‑E.)

Jesus is both the image of the invisible God and the perfect man (see Col 1.15; 2 Cor 4.4). “Since human nature as he assumed it was not annulled, by that very fact it has been raised up to a divine dignity in our respect too” (GS 22). From the moment of the Incarnation, it became impossible to fulfill the law of God except by the fulfillment of human persons. The divinization of human persons—their sharing in the Spirit—demands reverence for the basic goods of persons.

The mentality which was common in Old Testament times finds its ultimate expression in the very drama of the killing of Jesus. His activities threaten the safety of Israel and the temple. To protect the nation, Caiphas urges and justifies the killing of Jesus: “You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (Jn 11.49–50). Caiphas, of course, was correct. The death of Jesus was the salvation of his people (see Jn 11.51). However, though human evildoing cannot frustrate—and in the end even promotes—the divine plan (see Rom 11.25–36), this fact does not justify the craftiness of a Caiphas.

Subsequently, the eighth mode of responsibility is found in the teaching of St. Paul. Paul applies it only in contexts where it serves to exclude rationalizations of evildoing for the sake of religion.

In the primary text, the question is why there is anything wrong in falsehood if it is useful to promote God’s glory. Paul states that some accuse him of teaching that we may do evil that good might come of it. He firmly rejects this accusation (see Rom 3.8). The clear implication of this text is that the suggested justification of doing evil to promote good, even the supreme good of God’s glory, must be rejected. Not merely the end, but also the means, must be good.

This holds true of missionary practice. One might be tempted by discouragement to cut corners. But Paul rejects this temptation: “We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God” (2 Cor 4.2). Heresy springs from the desire to accommodate, to make the Christian message more acceptable. Such a technique is excluded. Christians instead should stick to the truth and propose it with charity (see Eph 4.14–15). Worldly wisdom is wholly unprofitable with God. He catches the wise in their own craftiness.

2. In my early treatments of modes of responsibility, I formulated this mode by saying one should not “act directly against any of the basic human goods” or one should “never act against them with direct intent”: Contraception and the Natural Law (Milwaukee: Bruce, 1964), 83; Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments (New York: Corpus Books, 1970), 319. Richard A. McCormick, S.J., in Doing Evil to Achieve Good: Moral Choice in Conflict Situations, ed. Richard A. McCormick, S.J., and Paul Ramsey (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1978), 213–14, confuses this with Paul Ramsey’s “turning directly against” and foists upon me a confusion not mine. “To act directly against” and “to act against with direct intent” are equivalent to “to choose to destroy, damage, or impede,” as the analysis of choice (in 9‑C) will help to clarify. It is important to notice that as in the present work, so in earlier treatments, I never propose this mode of responsibility as an argument against proportionalism or any other theory, and so there is no question-begging, as McCormick erroneously claims (213). Rather, having disposed of proportionalism on the grounds of its incoherence (in 6‑F) and proposed a coherent formulation of the first principle of morality commended by the light it throws on the Church’s teaching and common conceptions of morality (in 7‑F), I now derive the modes of responsibility from that moral principle and theologically commend them by the sense they make of received Christian moral teaching, including what appears to be its potential for legitimate development—for example, in the matters of capital punishment and war.

3. For a very helpful, brief explanation of the limitations of Old Testament morality, see L. Johnston, “Old Testament Morality,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 20 (1958), 19–25.

4. See Josef Scharbert, “Blood,” Encyclopedia of Biblical Theology, 75–79; M. Greenbert, “Crimes and Punishments,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible 1:733–44; Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, vol. 1, Social Institutions (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), 10–12, 158–63, and 247–65.

5. On the progressive character of the divine pedagogy with special reference to morality in the Old Testament, see the brief but clear remarks of Pierre Grelot, The Bible Word of God: A Theological Introduction to the Study of Scripture (New York: Desclee, 1968), 124–26.

6. For further discussion of capital punishment and killing in war, see Germain Grisez and Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., Life and Death with Liberty and Justice: A Contribution to the Euthanasia Debate (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), 191–99 and 396–401, with accompanying notes.

7. See, for example, St. Augustine, City of God, i, 21; xix, 6; St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2–2, q. 64, a. 2; Summa contra gentiles, 3, 146; Collegii Salmanticensis, Cursus theologiae moralis, vol. 3 (Venice: 1728), tr. 3, cap. 2, 157–58. Augustine thinks the judge would show greater refinement if he shrank from involvement in capital punishment (xix, 6). Thomas obviously has in view real, heretical opponents who argue from New Testament texts. The Salamancans mention one doctor who holds an unusual position: Scotus (I, d. 15, q. 3, sec. 2); he treats all Old Testament legislation on the death penalty as divine positive law, and so limits the use of the death penalty to crimes specifically mentioned in Scripture. Thomas (S.t., 2–2, q. 64, a. 4) holds that clerics should not serve as executioners, since they are ordained to serve in the commemoration of the passion of Christ, who did not strike back, and since their assigned work serves the new covenant which prescribes no penalty of mutilation or death. It seems to me that some intuition of the wrongness of such killing probably underlies this restriction.

8. In 1210 Innocent III prescribed a declaration of faith for some who had accepted the Waldensian heresy, which included: “We assert concerning the secular power that it can carry out the death penalty without mortal sin, so long as it proceeds in imposing the death penalty not from hatred but from judgment, not carelessly but prudently” (DS 795/425). This statement seems to be the most formal teaching in defense of the death penalty, and it might be argued that it is definitive. If so, one must note that it concerns the subjective morality of the act. No doubt, at that time a Christian ruler of the best sort—a King Saint Louis, for instance—could carry out the death penalty with a good conscience. And this is all the statement required those who accepted the declaration to assert.

9. On early Christian attitudes toward war, see Jean-Michel Hornus, It Is Not Lawful for Me to Fight (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1980), esp. 158–99. It is noteworthy that the statements of recent pontiffs have sounded an increasingly negative note concerning war, and that Vatican II allows for justifiable war only when it is a defensive last resort (see GS 79). I can accept certain forms of self-defense, including communal self-defense, which do not involve direct killing. Vatican II forcefully condemns the direct killing involved in terror bombing: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” (GS 80). Building on the Council’s teaching, the American bishops—National Conference of Catholic Bishops, To Live in Christ Jesus: A Pastoral Reflection on the Moral Life (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1976), 34—have taught: “As possessors of a vast nuclear arsenal, we must also be aware that not only is it wrong to attack civilian populations but it is also wrong to threaten to attack them as part of a strategy of deterrence.”

10. Pius XII, while insisting on the legitimacy of vindicative punishment imposed by public authority, states: “. . . the words of the sources and of the living teaching power do not refer to the specific content of the individual juridical prescriptions or rules of action (see particularly, Rom 13.4), but rather to the essential foundation itself of penal power and of its immanent finality” (47 AAS [1955] 81). Thus the New Testament text usually cited in defense of the death penalty is mentioned by Pius XII precisely to exclude specific reference to it. This statement is understandable, perhaps, if one notes that the address was to Italian jurists; Italy renounced the death penalty in 1889, reintroduced it in 1928, and abolished it in 1944.