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Chapter 8: Life, Health, and Bodily Inviolability

Question B: Is It Always Gravely Wrong to Intend to Kill the Innocent?

People seldom desire that they themselves or those they love be killed, and so, with the Golden Rule in mind, everyone thinks killing human beings is generally wrong. But sometimes killing seems justified, for example, when it is the only way to resist a wrongful attack. Also, many people today think that one can be justified in killing oneself or someone else, either to end suffering or to prevent some other evil or achieve some good. Some also think circumstances can mitigate the gravity of killing, since not all who take life act with the same malice.

To resolve these issues, it is necessary first to understand what intend and innocent mean. Then one must see why it is always wrong to intend to kill the innocent, why this matter does not admit parvity, and how subjective factors can reduce the guilt of an act of killing.

In studying this question, it should be borne in mind that even those who do not intend to kill can wrongly bring about death, freely accepting it as a side effect of some action they should not do. That a killing is not intentional does not mean it is morally acceptable. It could be gravely evil. (That evil will be treated in the next question.)

1. To Will Death as an End or as a Means Is to Intend to Kill

Intend sometimes refers exclusively to the willing of an end, as distinct from the choice of a means, but sometimes it refers both to the willing of an end and the choice of a means, as distinct from accepting foreseen side effects. Here, intend is used in the latter, more inclusive sense. In this inclusive sense, intentional killing is synonymous with another expression sometimes found in the Church’s teaching: direct killing.

a) Death can be desired without being willed as an end or as a means. Desire can refer to either an emotion or a will act, and in both senses there can be a desire for death which has nothing to do with intending to kill.

At the level of imagination, death can be thought of as if it were sleep or rest, and so it can be emotionally attractive, especially as an escape from weariness and suffering. Such an emotional desire for death, whether one’s own or another’s, is a natural reaction which is good in itself. People often experience it without being tempted, much less willing, to kill.

At the level of reason and will, also, there can be a wish for death in the absence of an intention to kill. Such a wish can respond to a judgment that death, whether one’s own or another’s, would be good insofar as it would end misery—for exam~ple, the suffering of a terminal illness—and/or release the soul into the afterlife. If that judgment neither presupposes nor tends toward any choice to do anything which might bring about or hasten death, the wish which it specifies need not be a moral fault. Indeed, often it is virtuous, as when devout, elderly people pray that God will soon call them to their heavenly reward.

But not all desires for death are so benign. Temptation often begins with desire, and if someone becomes aware of a temptation to intend or wrongly accept death, deliberately entertaining the desire shares the moral character of the tempting proposal. Moreover, a wish for someone’s death can be a hypothetical will to kill the person: “I would kill him if I dared.” Such a wish is a sin of thought, as is considering killing or loss of life with satisfaction and approval: “I wish he would have a fatal heart attack,” “I am glad she murdered him,” or “That stroke got him out of my way; it was indeed a stroke of good luck.” Of course, like any other sin, such sins of thought cannot be mortal without sufficient reflection and full consent, either at the time or in some previous, unrepented mortal sin from which they flow.

b) One can knowingly cause something without intending it. Since God makes human beings in his own image, what he reveals about his own willing sheds light on human willing. Although it is not explicit in Scripture, revelation’s teaching concerning God’s goodness and providence points to a distinction between his doing something properly and per se and his doing it only permissively. This distinction is pivotal in one of the Council of Trent’s canons: “If anyone says that it is not in man’s power to make his ways evil, but that God performs the evil works just as he performs the good, not only by allowing them but also properly and per se [non permissive solum, sed etiam proprie et per se] . . .: let him be anathema” (translation amended).20 Corresponding to this distinction in God’s willing is the distinction between a human person’s doing something intentionally and causing something nonintentionally in bringing about a side effect. Unlike God, one causes things nonintentionally in bringing about unforeseen effects; but like God, one also causes something nonintentionally when, in doing something else, one foresees and permits it as a side effect, which one does not cause properly and directly.

In making a choice, one intends as one’s end the satisfaction or benefit desired for oneself and/or others in and/or through carrying out the choice. One chooses as a means something in one’s power—some performance or omission—thought more or less likely to bring about the intended end. But it also is more or less clearly foreseen that, either possibly or surely, the performance or omission will have various good or bad consequences distinct from its intended end, and in making the choice these good or bad consequences are accepted, gladly or reluctantly as the case may be, as side effects. For example, a gluttonous man who chooses to drink and eat excessively foresees and accepts hardening of his arteries, damage to his liver, and so on, without either intending or choosing these consequences. Again, a woman afflicted with stuttering who chooses to testify at a trial in order to serve justice clearly foresees that she will stutter but only accepts the stuttering as a side effect.

c) This distinction applies even in matters of life and death. Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover; in doing so, he freely accepted his own death, but he neither intended it as an end nor chose it as a means (see CMP, 22.F–G). Sometimes, too, the very same sort of performance or omission could belong to two acts that could cause another’s death, but which have very different moral significance, depending on what choice the performance or omission executes, that is, depending on whether the death is chosen as a means or only accepted as a side effect of choosing something else. For example, a father trapped on the thirtieth floor of a burning building who throws his child out a window with no expectation that the child will survive could either have chosen the child’s death as a means of being rid of unwanted responsibility or have accepted that death as a side effect of saving the child from the engulfing flames. Again, an overworked nurse at the scene of a disaster who does nothing to prevent the prompt death of some severely injured victims could choose their death to end their misery or accept it as a side effect of caring for others with better chances of survival.

d) Choosing to kill is not always explained in the same way. According to the analysis of action used in this work, choice is the adoption of a proposal. A person deliberates about doing something considered possible and interesting much as members of a deliberative body debate motions. Adopting a proposal to do something is making a choice, just as adopting a motion by voting is the group’s reaching a decision. The doing (whether performance or omission) carries out the choice, much as the executive carries out a legislative body’s enactments. Carrying out the proposal has foreseen consequences neither included in the proposal nor sought for their own sake: these are the side effects that an individual or a group accepts (see CMP, 9.F).

On this analysis, choosing to kill is adopting a proposal precisely to kill or to do something understood in such a way that its meaning includes bringing about death. For example, people who choose to shoot someone in the heart or to administer a lethal dose of opiates ordinarily understand what they choose as ways of ending life, and when a proposal is so understood, its very meaning includes bringing about death.

Some classical moralists, however, think of choice as if it were merely the releasing, the ‘positing,’ of the outward performance or omission.21 Then, considering the performance or omission in terms of objective causality in the world, they define what is chosen by its immediacy and perhaps also by its regularity as a result of that objective causality.

On this theory, choosing to kill (direct killing) is choosing to do or omit something that straightaway leads to death. For example, people who choose to shoot someone in the heart or knowingly to take a lethal dose of opiates posit a cause (the bullet entering the heart or the opiates affecting the nervous system) that straightaway leads to death. For these moralists, such performances or omissions seem to be plain instances of intentional (direct) killing, and the choices executed by such performances always are choices to kill.

e) The two approaches can differ in identifying intentional killings. The two approaches agree that the distinction between intentional (direct) and nonintentional (not direct) killing is morally significant. Moreover, in many cases they reach the same judgments. For example, on both approaches, a Mafia hit-man intentionally (directly) kills his victims to earn his fee; Jesus freely accepted death but did not intentionally (directly) kill himself; and a surgeon who removes a cancerous uterus gravid with a twelve-week fetus in order to prevent the cancer’s spread accepts but does not intend the certain consequence of the death of the unborn (does not directly kill the baby).

But the two approaches can lead to differences in applying the distinction between intending death (directly killing) as a means and accepting it as a side effect, and so in identifying certain deadly deeds as instances of intentional (direct) killing. For example, some classical moralists thought that using deadly force in defense against an unprovoked attacker constitutes intentional (direct) killing (which, however, they considered justifiable).22 No doubt, understanding choosing to kill as they did, they thought that a woman who puts a bullet through a would-be rapist’s head when that is the only way to stop his attack must intend the rapist’s death (directly kill him). However, according to the analysis of action used in this work, that woman could shoot the rapist in the head in carrying out a proposal to defend herself against rape, only accepting his foreseen death as a side effect rather than intending it (directly killing him).

Those who hold the classical moralists’ view will object that it makes no sense to say someone could choose to shoot someone else in the head without intending to kill (directly killing) that person. The objection begs the question, because it presupposes the classical moralists’ concept of intention (directness). The analysis employed here has a different concept of intention (directness): people intend only what they choose as a means or seek as an end (people directly do only what carries out or is shaped by an intention). The rapist’s death is not what is chosen as a means or sought as an end when the woman shoots him in the head to stop his attack (the shooting is not direct killing). Her end is to avoid being raped; her means is to prevent the would-be rapist from carrying out the behavior which would constitute rape. The nonhomicidal character of her intention (that this shooting was not a case of direct killing) would be manifested if the shot resulted in an incapacitating wound rather than death, and the woman, rather than shooting the wounded man again, promptly summoned an ambulance and, while awaiting it, did everything she could to save his life.

f) The word direct in this context has misleading connotations. The connotations of the word direct partly explain why the theory rejected here has seemed plausible to many people. However, as was noted above, the magisterium uses direct to mean intended as an end or chosen as a means.23 In reading Church teaching which uses direct in this sense, therefore, one must take care not to import any notion of behavioral or physical directness, such as that expressed by straightaway, or any other notion of temporal immediacy or spatial proximity. Moreover, to avoid confusion, it would be best not to use direct to mean intended as an end or chosen as a means. From now on in this book, direct will not be used in that sense except in translations of Church teaching and, in quotation marks, when referring to the theory rejected here.

g) Omissions can be a means of intentional killing. Someone can intentionally kill another by an omission. If a person can do something necessary to sustain life, but deliberately omits to do it in order that death will ensue, that omission, morally speaking, is a means of intentional killing. For example, if Mark, a diabetic who is disappointed in love, decides to end his life by omitting the insulin injections he needs for survival, that omission is a means of intentional killing and constitutes suicide. If the Joneses, deciding they do not want their handicapped newborn child, direct the nursery to withhold food in order to make sure the baby dies, that omission is a means of intentional killing and morally constitutes murder, regardless of how the law and its officers view the act.24

2. Innocent Here Is Used as a Technical Term

Innocent often refers to those who are free of personal moral guilt: “as innocent as a baby.” Since all adults are sinners, none is innocent in this sense. In the present context, though, innocent is used in a technical sense to refer to everyone but those who either have been found guilty of a capital crime or are carrying on an unjust war. Thus understood, innocent may seem to name a mere construct without any intelligibility of its own; but this concept of innocence has significance which is clarified by considering how it developed in Scripture and tradition.

a) Innocent first refers to those not guilty of capital crimes. The sacred writers of the Old Testament propose as a divine command, “You shall not kill” (Ex 20.13, Dt 5.17),25 and as a norm for judicial processes, “Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right” (Ex 23.7). From this narrow context, the Old Testament extends the use of innocent to refer to every member of the community who might be a victim of wrongful killing, and forbids the shedding of “innocent blood” (see Dt 19.10, 19.13, 21.8–9, 27.25; Jer 7.6, 19.3–5, 22.3; and so on).

b) Innocent also refers to noncombatants in an enemy population. In the Old Testament, Israel seems to be enjoined to kill its enemies in war. Indeed, the command to kill appears to embrace the whole populations of the nations Israel displaces (see Dt 7.1–2, 13.12–18, 20.16–18; Jos 6.18–21, 10.40, 11.14; 1 Sm 15.2–32; and so on).26 In the New Testament, however, killing in war is nowhere treated. Moreover, the gospel recognizes no unalterable human enemies, for it calls all humankind into Jesus’ kingdom. Hence, some Christians believed that killing in war is never justifiable (see 11.E.3.e). However, as Christians exercised political authority, they developed the theory of justifiable war. Its key idea is that when just social order is gravely challenged by those ready to use unjust force, war can be justified, somewhat as capital punishment is, but only within strict moral limits (see 11.E.3.b–c).

Perhaps the most important of these limits is that in war it is necessary to distinguish between those involved in using unjust force (enemy combatants) and the rest of the enemy’s community (noncombatants among an enemy’s population). In articulating this distinction, innocent was extended to refer to noncombatants.27 Thus, according to the Christian view of humankind as called to be the one People of God, noncombatant members of an enemy society are innocent in much the same sense as members of a society’s own population who have been found guilty of no capital crime.

c) Only criminals and enemy combatants are not innocent. It is clear from the preceding that, in the Christian tradition on the morality of killing, the original core of the idea of innocence is immunity from capital punishment, not moral innocence. The behavior of enemy combatants threatens just social order, and they are easily assimilated to criminals: although they may be neither morally nor legally guilty, they pose a threat similar to that posed by criminals. Hence, killing them is considered justified, and they are not called “innocent.” Apart from these two specific groups—criminals found guilty of capital crimes and enemy combatants in a justifiable war—all others are juridically innocent. Their activities are not gravely harmful to just social order, and so all who uphold that order must treat their lives as inviolable.

3. It Is Always Wrong to Intend to Kill the Innocent

The preceding points clarify both the precise meaning of intending to kill and the very inclusive reference of the word innocent. It now remains to explain the specific moral norm that excludes acts of killing shaped by an intention to kill an innocent person, and to show why this norm admits of no exceptions whatsoever.

a) Divine revelation teaches that killing the innocent is wrong. The prohibition against killing the innocent is central to the Noachic covenant: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind” (Gn 9.6). The sacred writer considers this covenant binding on all humankind, so it clearly is not meant to articulate a mere cultural convention. Thus, as St. Paul points out, by the law written in their hearts, even those ignorant of the law of Moses know the wrongfulness of murder (see Rom 1.29–32, 2.14–15). “You shall not kill” also is one of the stipulations of the second table of the Sinai covenant (see Ex 20.13, Dt 5.17). Jesus teaches that people must keep these commandments to enter eternal life (see Mt 19.16–18, Mk 10.17–19, Lk 18.18–20).

Developing Jesus’ teaching concerning the primacy of love, the New Testament explains why these commandments remain valid: love of one’s neighbor sums them up and fulfills them (see Rom 13.8–10; cf. Mt 22.40). Hence, murderers even now do not have eternal life abiding in them (see 1 Jn 3.15); unless they repent, they will end “in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death” (Rv 21.8).

Thus, the serious wrongness of killing the innocent follows not only from the inherent goodness of human life but from the order of creation (humans made in the image of God) and the purpose of redemption (the covenant communion, which will be perfected in heavenly communion, to which humankind is called). The order of creation and the purpose of redemption are central to divine revelation. Hence, Scripture makes it clear that divine revelation teaches that killing the innocent is wrong.28

b) Catholic tradition and the magisterium exclude all exceptions. While admitting that divine revelation generally excludes killing people, some will argue that nothing in Scripture shows the norm to be exceptionless. However, Scripture should be read in the light of the Church’s tradition and under the guidance of the magisterium.29

The Catechism of the Council of Trent provides a neat summary of the tradition. The commandment forbidding killing “was the first prohibition issued by the Almighty” after the deluge; “amongst the precepts of the Old Law first expounded by our Lord, this is the first” which he mentioned, and in explaining it, “our Lord points out its twofold obligation”: prohibitory and mandatory. The Catechism’s exposition of the prohibitory part begins by listing kinds of killing not forbidden by the commandment: killing of animals, execution of criminals, killing an enemy in a just war, killing by accident rather than by intent or design (though such killing also can be wrong), and killing in self-defense. Setting aside these kinds of killing, “the prohibition embraces all others, with regard to the person who kills, the person killed, and the means used to kill.”30

In the recent magisterium, Pius XII precisely restates the traditional teaching:

As long as a man is not guilty, his life is untouchable, and therefore any act directly tending to destroy it is illicit, whether such destruction is intended as an end in itself or only as a means to an end, whether it is a question of life in the embryonic stage or in a stage of full development or already in its final stages.31
Hence, if sacred Scripture is read as it should be, in the light of tradition and the magisterium, intending to kill the innocent is clearly seen to be always wrong.

Although this moral norm has not been solemnly defined, it is certainly a divinely revealed truth infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium (see CMP, 35.E). So, every Catholic should assent to it with faith.

c) Even if not unjust, suicide always is objectively wrong. Suicide, that is, a person’s intentional killing of himself or herself, often is unjust, inasmuch as it unfairly leaves unfulfilled the individual’s duties toward other individuals, communities, or society at large, or imposes unreasonable burdens on them. Even apart from its possible injustice, however, suicide is wrong insofar as it involves the intention to kill an innocent person. For this reason, the Catholic moral tradition treated suicide as a species of wrongful killing (see S.t., 2–2, q. 64, a. 5).32 Vatican II makes the same point by listing “voluntary suicide” among the “infamies” that are “opposed to life itself” (GS 27). Moreover, since each created person is responsible to God to use the gift of life in his service, suicide “is to be considered as a rejection of God’s sovereignty and loving plan.”33

A movement is now under way on behalf of suicide and assisted suicide, and their legalization, for the terminally ill and others suffering protracted and severe pain. Killing in such circumstances, its proponents argue, is necessary to eliminate suffering—that is, as euthanasia—and for the sake of death with dignity. However, even in these circumstances, intentional killing remains wrong, and the good purposes it is meant to serve should instead be pursued by providing better and more appropriate care, including adequate pain relief.34 Christians, moreover, should remember that their dignity is God-given and unaffected by suffering, debility, and death, and that these evils, insofar as they are unavoidable, should be meekly accepted, courageously borne, and devoutly offered to God along with Jesus’ suffering and death, with the confident hope of sharing in his resurrection.35

People who think their lives are not worth living sometimes choose to end them by a calculated omission. For example, precisely in order to end a psychologically repugnant life, someone paralyzed from the neck down may refuse to eat or demand that a life-sustaining respirator be removed. Again, someone grieving over the loss of a spouse may reject medical care, not burdensome in itself and necessary to sustain life, in order to “rejoin” his or her beloved. Since the choice in such cases is to bring about death, the act is suicide.

Sometimes, hoping to make a political point, people bring about their own deaths by fasting or by other self-destructive acts, such as setting themselves afire. The end may be important and the act selfless, but if such a person chooses to kill himself or herself, the act is suicide: a bad means to the good end.

d) Apparent exceptions in the Old Testament can be explained. As already mentioned, the Old Testament’s rules for war appear to require the killing of whole populations, including the noncombatant members of the nations Israel displaces. Also, Abraham apparently rightly chose to kill an innocent in following God’s command to sacrifice Isaac as a burnt offering (see Gn 22.2–18). Such passages can be used to argue that Scripture admits exceptions to the norm excluding the killing of the innocent.

However, the Old Testament’s rules for war need not be read as assertions by the relevant human authors that the killing of innocents is morally required. Read as they should be, in the wider context of the Bible as a whole, these rules only show what the Israelites of early times believed to be God’s will, and so were bound in conscience to do, but they do not reflect the moral truth. The New Testament, read in accord with Christian tradition and the magisterium’s interpretation, makes it clear that God never willed the killing of the innocent (see CMP, 8.H.7–9). The story of Abraham’s test might be explained along the same lines: though his obedience to what he took to be God’s will was exemplary, his conscience was blamelessly in error, for in reality God never ordered him to sacrifice Isaac.

St. Thomas proposes a different account of those Old Testament passages that appear to make exceptions to the norm excluding the killing of the innocent, as well as to other precepts of the Decalogue. He holds that to obey specific divine commands, as Abraham and other Old Testament saints did, is to do a moral act different in kind from choosing to carry out a similar performance for some other reason, so that Abraham, for example, did not consent to homicide (see S.t., 1–2, q. 94, a. 5, ad 2; q. 100, a. 8, ad 3).36

e) Moral reflection clarifies the reason why the norm is exceptionless. Rather than being a merely instrumental good, life is a basic human good, one of the intrinsic aspects of a person’s reality and fulfillment (see CMP, 5.D and, above, A.2.c). Anyone moved by anger or hatred to regard someone’s life as if it were an evil and so to will as an end that person’s death, violates the seventh mode of responsibility (see CMP, 8.G); and anyone moved by desire for some ulterior end to choose to destroy someone’s life as a means to that end violates the eighth mode of responsibility (see CMP, 8.H). A will that violates either of these modes of responsibility cannot be consistent with a will to integral human fulfillment: to will that someone be deprived of life is inconsistent with willing that he or she share in integral fulfillment (and this remains true even for killers who think their victims eventually will be raised from the dead to enjoy everlasting life in heaven). The same point can be expressed in terms of love: to will that someone be deprived of life is inconsistent with love of neighbor toward him or her.37 So, one may never will as an end (contrary to the seventh mode) or choose as a means (contrary to the eighth mode) to kill anyone.

Some argue that while the death of the innocent always is bad, killing an innocent person sometimes is morally justified, since the alternative is to accept something even worse in its impact on the genuine human well-being of the individual killed and/or other persons. For instance, starving a grossly defective baby to death (while administering drugs to prevent suffering) saves the child a miserable life and relieves others of the great and prolonged burden of caring for it. Again, if a group of people adrift at sea are starving, killing and eating the weakest (who would die soon in any case) can preserve the lives of the rest until rescuers arrive. Spies who kill themselves can both avoid torture and prevent the enemy from acquiring secret information which would cost many lives. The dying who have fulfilled their moral and spiritual obligations sometimes could avoid great pain and forestall temptations to rebel against God’s will by choosing a speedy and easy death.

This argument is an example of proportionalism or consequentialism (criticized in CMP, 6). Its central defect is that it assumes what cannot be known: that the repugnant alternative to killing is worse than the killing itself. To the extent examples lend plausibility to the argument, that is because they highlight factors which strongly impact on one’s feelings. In such cases, then, admitting exceptions to the norm excluding killing the innocent means subordinating rational judgment to emotion. That is simply to abandon morality.38

4. Intentionally Killing the Innocent Always Is Grave Matter

Although it is always wrong to intend to kill the innocent, not all acts of killing have the same malice. For example, a hit-man’s cold-blooded murders plainly are far worse than the act of a wife who reluctantly gives a lethal dose of drugs to her terminally ill husband after he has begged her repeatedly to do so. Also, people tempted to kill sometimes use means which may not be deadly or decide to kill only under some condition they hope will never be fulfilled. Such cases raise the question whether there might not sometimes be parvity of matter in the intentional killing of the innocent.

a) Intentional killing always is incompatible with love. Many harms to others—for example, taking property—admit of more and less; they can be so slight as to be insignificant. But killing entirely deprives a person of bodily life. It does not admit of more and less, and so there can be no insignificant degree of it. Most acts of intentional killing obviously are incompatible with love, for they are done either out of emotional hatred or for some ulterior end, for whose sake the person to be killed is treated as a disposable thing. But even intentional mercy killing or suicide motivated by feelings of sympathy or sadness is incompatible with volitional love, since willing that someone be deprived of the intrinsic good of life is incompatible with willing his or her complete good.39

The cold-blooded hit-man and the sympathetic wife will the same thing in one respect: both choose to kill. In this respect, the gravity of what they do is the same. However, they also will different things insofar as they choose for the sake of entirely different ends. In this respect, the gravity of what they do is not the same, for his selfish motivation adds to the gravity of what he chooses, while her misguided affection limits the badness of her willing to her choice of killing as a means.

b) Killing remains grave even if one’s intention is conditional. Sometimes people intend to kill only if a certain condition, not in their own power, is fulfilled. For example, a man gambles everything he owns, intending to kill himself if he loses; a woman, holding up a bank, says: “Give me the money or I’ll kill you,” and means it. Both hope the condition will not be fulfilled; they would rather not kill. But both do intend to kill if the condition happens to be fulfilled. Since what is willed is the same as it would be if the intention were unconditional, the matter of the sin remains grave. For gravity is determined by what the agent wills (the object of the moral act), not by conditions and limits on the carrying out of a choice.40

c) Killing remains grave even if one uses means that may not work. Sometimes, intending to kill yet emotionally ambivalent or afraid to do a patently deadly deed, people use means that may or may not be effective. For example, a woman decides to commit suicide and takes several sleeping pills, not knowing whether the dose will be lethal; a man deliberately delays summoning help when his wife suffers a sudden seizure, hoping she will die but fearing she may recover. Assuming that what is willed in such cases is the same as what would be willed if more certain and straightforward means were used, the matter of the sin remains the same. For the gravity of the matter is determined by the harm the agent wills, not by the harm he or she is likely to effect.

d) Other factors can mitigate the guilt of intentional killing. The gravity of the matter is only one factor in determining a person’s guilt in committing a sin. Subjective factors can limit responsibility, and circumstances can mitigate the sin’s seriousness. Since killing is so manifest an evil and is naturally highly repugnant to normal people, many who purposely take life no doubt act with limited responsibility. Someone who commits suicide in a desperate attempt to escape the anguish of profound depression perhaps has no more moral responsibility for his or her own death than someone who suffers a fatal heart attack.41

People can do deadly deeds without any free choice whatsoever, their behavior motivated exclusively by feelings. For example, without hesitation, deliberation, or choice, a jealous lover might kill in anger or a depressed person jump out a window. Since these deadly deeds occur without choice, they are not in themselves morally significant. If those who do them bear any moral responsibility, it is for previous acts and/or omissions that somehow set the stage.

Those who intentionally kill an innocent person also may lack sufficient reflection when they choose to kill (see CMP, 17.A). In some cases, even in a matter as elemental as killing, a person’s conscience could be in blameless error. For example, bad advice could persuade the parents of a severely handicapped newborn that depriving the baby of food and water in order to end his or her life would be a legitimate decision to limit care.42 In other cases, unusual pressures could distract someone from the grave moral wrongness of killing, so that in choosing to kill he or she does not violate conscience but sets aside only nonmoral considerations, such as fear of bad consequences; perhaps that sometimes happens when depressed people kill themselves. Lack of sufficient reflection lessens or eliminates a person’s guilt for a choice to kill, except insofar as the defect in conscience is his or her own fault.

Even if someone freely chooses, contrary to conscience, to commit the grave sin of killing an innocent person, moral immaturity, emotional instability, and other subjective factors can affect his or her understanding of the wrongness of what is done (by limiting insight into the evil of killing) and/or his or her strength of will (by limiting the alternatives considered and the intensity of each option’s appeal). Also, as noted above, the end which a person has in view can limit or add to the gravity of the act, and other circumstances can have a similar effect. Hence, the guilt of diverse, mortally sinful acts of intentional killing varies greatly, both according to the extent to which the killer’s will embraces the evil and according to the gravity (understood by the killer) of the evil willed.

20. DS 1556/816. Even God foresees and permits evils that he does not directly will (see S.t., 1, q. 49, a. 2; 1–2, q. 79, aa. 2–4; S.c.g., 1.96, 3.71). To deny this would be to deny at least one of three propositions, all of which pertain to faith: that God’s will is perfectly holy, that his providence is all-embracing, and that some creatures have sinned with the result that evil is real.

21. Careful discrimination between what is chosen as a means and what is accepted as a side effect is essential for using the principle of double effect. For clear indications that mediation in the order of physical causality was pivotal for some authors, see John Connery, S.J., Abortion: The Development of the Roman Catholic Perspective (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1977), 131–32 (Vasquez) and 188 (Lugo). For a historical summary of double effect, see Joseph T. Mangan, S.J., “An Historical Analysis of the Principle of Double Effect,” Theological Studies 10 (1949): 41–61; J. Ghoos, “L’Acte à double effet: Étude de théologie positive,” Ephemerides theologiae Lovaniensis 27 (1951): 30–52. In support of the view adopted in the present work: Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., “Praeter Intentionem in Aquinas,” Thomist 42 (1978): 649–65; idem, “Toward Understanding the Principle of Double Effect,” Ethics 90 (1980): 527–38; John Finnis, Moral Absolutes: Tradition, Revision, and Truth (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1991), 37–40, 67–77.

22. See I. Aertnys, C. Damen, and I. Visser, C.Ss.R., Theologia moralis, ed. 18, 4 vols. (Turin: Marietti, 1967–69), 2:143, for references to some who held this view (n. 1), which, however, some classical moralists also opposed (n. 2). St. Thomas, S.t., 2–2, q. 64, a. 7, provided the original treatment of double effect in explaining how a person defending himself or herself could justly bring about an attacker’s death.

23. See Pius XII, Address to the Italian St. Luke Guild of Physicians, Discorsi e radio~messaggi 6 (1944–45): 191; quoted in Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion, n. 15, AAS 66 (1974) 735, Flannery, 2:452.

24. Because the killing is intentional—the Joneses want food withheld precisely as a means of ensuring the child’s death—its wrongness does not depend on the child’s condition: whether he or she would survive and flourish with care or is certain to die in a few minutes regardless of what is done. This point about intentional killing must be kept in mind when considering other examples in this question.

25. The text of the New Revised Standard Version uses murder but kill is offered in a note as an acceptable variant.

26. Norbert Lohfink, “ ‘Holy War’ and the ‘Ban’ in the Bible,” Theology Digest 38 (1991): 109–14, explains that the Old Testament shows that Israel gradually extricated itself from supposedly sacred violence.

27. See, for example, Hermann Busembaum, in St. Alphonsus Liguori, Theologia moralis, ed. L. Gaudé, 4 vols. (Rome: Ex Typographia Vaticana, 1905–12), 1:663, who teaches that it is licit to kill enemies in a just war precisely insofar as necessary for the purpose of the war, but that one may not directly take the lives of innocents. He clarifies the concept of innocents in this context by means of a list: “children who cannot bear arms, women, old men, religious, clerics, foreigners, merchants, and rustics.”

28. For an additional theological reflection on relevant texts of Scripture, see Augustine Regan, C.Ss.R., “The Worth of Human Life,” Studia Moralia 6 (1968): 215–25.

29. See DV 10 and 12. Vatican II, by referring in DV 10 to Pius XII, Humani generis, AAS 42 (1950) 568–69 (DS 3886/2314), PE, 240.21, indicates the proper exegesis of its very compact statement on the role of the magisterium in interpreting the word of God. DV 10, interpreted as it should be in the light of Pius XII’s more ample exposition, has very important implications for moral theological method: see CMP, 1.C. Some today ignore these implications and treat Scripture in isolation from the magisterium; see, for example, Josef Fuchs, S.J., “Christian Faith and the Disposing of Human Life,” Theological Studies 46 (1985): 672–77. A critique of this way of using Scripture: Germain Grisez, “Moral Absolutes: A Critique of the View of Josef Fuchs, S.J.,” Anthropos (now Anthropotes) 1 (Oct. 1985): 186–92.

30. Catechismus ex decreto Ss. Concilii Tridentini ad parochos (The Catechism by Decree of the Holy Council of Trent), Latin text with trans. by J. Donovan, 2 vols. (Rome: 1839), 3.6.1–8 (2:125–31). This catechism is not cited as if it were by itself especially authoritative, but for its clear and brief formulation, which exemplifies the Catholic tradition.

31. Pius XII, Address to the Italian St. Luke Guild of Physicians, Discorsi e radiomessaggi 6 (1944–45): 191; quoted in Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Procured Abortion, n. 15, AAS 66 (1974) 735, Flannery, 2:452.

32. An excellent exposition and defense of the traditional teaching: Augustine Regan, C.Ss.R., “Moral Argument on Self-killing,” Studia Moralia 18 (1980): 299–332.

33. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Euthanasia, 3, AAS 72 (1980) 545, Flannery, 2:512.

34. See Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Euthanasia, AAS 72 (1980) 545–51, Flannery, 2:512–16; Germain Grisez and Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., Life and Death With Liberty and Justice: A Contribution to the Euthanasia Debate (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), 139–49, 171–83, 412–14. Also see Euthanasia and Clinical Practice: Trends, Principles and Alternatives, The Report of a Working Party (London: The Linacre Centre, 1982).

35. See John Paul II, Salvifici doloris, AAS 76 (1984) 201–50, OR, 20 Feb. 1984, 1–9, for a splendid clarification of the Christian meaning of human suffering; also see 4.F.1, above.

36. Whether one agrees that someone could will to carry out a divine command to kill without intending to kill, it is clear that Thomas meant to allow no exceptions to the norm excluding killing the innocent. For a critique of arguments for the opposite view, see Patrick Lee, “Permanence of the Ten Commandments: St. Thomas and His Modern Commentators,” Theological Studies 42 (1981): 422–43.

37. Since the salvation of baptized infants is certain, if choosing to kill them were not inconsistent with loving them, it would be loving to kill them. However, since killing destroys a bodily person, loving the baptized infant is inconsistent with intending his or her death, and since proportionalism is erroneous (see CMP, 6), even the goodness of eternal salvation cannot “outweigh” the evil of killing the child.

38. For recent defenses of moral absolutes, see Finnis, Moral Absolutes; William E. May, Moral Absolutes: Catholic Tradition, Current Trends, and the Truth, The Père Marquette Lecture in Theology, 1989 (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1989).

39. CIC, c. 1397, lists homicide among the few offenses against persons which remain canonical crimes.

40. On conditional intention, see John Finnis, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., and Germain Grisez, Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 81–86.

41. CIC, c. 1184, which specifies those to whom funeral rites are denied, significantly omits those who have committed suicide, no doubt because psychological insight into the mental processes leading people to commit suicide indicates that such persons should not be considered manifest sinners. Of course, no one who contemplates suicide should suppose that a free choice to kill oneself could fail to be a mortal sin.

42. John Paul II, Address to the Eleventh European Congress of Perinatal Medicine, 4, AAS 80 (1988) 1426, OR, 2 May 1988, 11, teaches: “It must clearly be reaffirmed that every life is sacred and that a possible deformity can never justify a death sentence, not even when it is the parents themselves, in the throes of emotion and disappointed in their expectations, who request euthanasia by means of suspension of treatment and nourishment.”