The Fifth Commandment: You shall not kill

Dec 5, 2002

The Bottom Line A look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church's explanation of the Fifth Commandment.

There are two ways to interpret what is said within the Bible: either literally or contextually. When one is to interpret the Bible and the messages of God in a literal way, the interpreter leaves no room for further explanation to a truth that God is trying to get across to his audience. However, when looked at in a contextual sense, the Bible becomes more of a guidebook to living and learning and the ramifications and implications of the messages of God are teased out more and given more legitimacy and validity.

In the Fifth Commandment, God tells to Moses, “You shall not kill.” When looked at in a literal sense, the message that God is trying to get across is rather plain to see, that being God’s desire not to kill fellow man. However, as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there are far more modern and complex messages that God entailed to fall under the Fifth Commandment of “You shall not kill.”

God enacted this commandment first and foremost to prove that human life is not something that should be taken lightly. “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of Life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.” (Catechism 2258) It is from this basic theological truth that much of the rest of the argument surrounding the Fifth Commandment comes from.

The first issue to be looked at is the surface violation of the Fifth Commandment: murder. “The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator.” (Catechism 2261) Through this statement, the Catechism outlines the fact that the taking of life is not merely a religious violation, but also a violation against the dignity of human beings.

Politics seems to play into effect in the Catechism, whether they are issues dealing with political decisions of leaders of nations or hot button political issues that are common discussion in political spheres. The first such issue is regarding defense and social stability issues. “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. (Catechism 2267) Here, the Catechism teaches that it would be God’s desire to see nations work out issues in bloodless means because in so doing, the common good is kept more readily in mind and the violation of the Fifth Commandment is far less severe.

The next issue that the Catechism deals with is the “-icide” that has plagued modern man for centuries. “Infanticide, fratricide, parricide, and the murder of a spouse are especially grave crimes by reason of the natural bonds which they break.” (Catechism 2268) Here, the Catechism shows that the desire to break the Fifth Commandment is not merely a decision that affects only two individuals: the aggressor and the victim. Rather, through the breaking of the Fifth Commandment in such ways as infanticide, fratricide, and parricide the scope of severity of pain inflicted stretches far wider than merely those who were involved in the violation, but rather, the bonds of family and friendship are ruptured and hence the damage done is much worse than initially thought.

Time and time again, both liberals and conservatives in America like to talk about abortion and give their belief on what is the morally just when dealing with the abortion issue. The Catechism provides the Catholic explanation of when abortion conflicts with the Fifth Commandment. “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception.” (Catechism 2270) Here it seems the Christian Conservatives draw the crux of their argument when dealing with the abortion issue.

Dr. Jack Kevorkian made huge headlines in the 1990’s for assisting terminally ill individuals in expediting the death process through euthanizing them and terminating life for the patient. Other forms of euthanasia have been around since the dawn of modern medicine, however, the Catholic Church sees them as being morally unjust. “Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.” (Catechism 2277) The likes of Jack Kevorkian, in the explanation given by the Catechism clearly states that it is morally unacceptable for him and others to play the role of God and take someone’s life from them, even if that person so chooses.

The Catechism even goes so far as addressing the motives of the people who would seek to be euthanized. “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of. (Catechism 2280) Clearly, through the reading of the Catechism, it can be seen that God would consider the desire and action of being euthanized completely against the Fifth Commandment and morally unacceptable.

The Catechism decides to first touch upon assisted suicide and then moves on to suicide in and of itself. “Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self. It likewise offends love of neighbor because it unjustly breaks the ties of solidarity with family, nation, and other human societies to which we continue to have obligations. Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.” (Catechism 2281) Similar to infanticide and patricide, the Catechism sees suicide as leading to the destabilization of the bonds of family, friends, and other organizations. Suicide, by further implication, also goes against the belief that we are merely stewards of our body and we are not granted the right to dispose of our body or life at any time.

The next step of the Catechism moves more towards “more gray” areas of the Fifth Commandment. This is where the Catechism outlines the most distant implications that the Fifth Commandment has upon human beings.

“Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good.” (Catechism 2288) Here, the move to respect life is brought to a closer personal interaction as the Catechism states that it is our duty to take care of our bodies while we are earth, because they are a gift from God. Like a new Christmas toy, it is our objective to not merely take care of the toy for a brief period of time, but for the duration of the toy’s existence.

The issue of abuse to the body also comes up in the Catechism’s discussion of the Fifth Commandment. “The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine.” (Catechism 2290) It is here that the Catechism plays upon the deadly sin of gluttony as the Catechism is warning us to refrain from excesses. Drug abuse also ties into this point. “The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life.” (Catechism 2291) Just as the Catechism warns to utilize temperance and avoid the dangers of too much food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine, the same temperance should be used to avoid any chance of drug abuse.

Sort of timely, the Catechism also addresses the issue of terrorism and how it is fundamentally in disagreement with the Fifth Commandment. “Terrorism which threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately is gravely against justice and charity.” (Catechism 2297) Terrorism, in the Catechism’s explanation, is deeply rooted against the virtues that the Catholic Church teaches and hence, the notion of terrorism flies directly in the face of the Fifth Commandment.

The Catechism concludes by stating some social truths that should be interpreted and exercised by all of mankind. “The dying should be given attention and care to help them live their last moments in dignity and peace,” the Catechism says. (Catechism 2299)

An international interpretation of the Catechism’s explanation on the Fifth Commandment can be found at the conclusion of the work. “Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust, and pride raging among men and nations constantly threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome those disorders contributes to the building up peace and avoiding war.” (Catechism 2317) The Catechism concludes its explanation of the Fifth Commandment through a plea asking for the international community to cooperate in an effort to promote peace and minimize war.

While the Fifth Commandment might simply say, “You shall not kill,” as can be seen in the explanations given in the Catechism, the reach of such a statement is much broader than the literal definition. And that is a good thing because it ensures that the interpretation of what is morally right and morally wrong cannot be distorted by biased onlookers, rather, any explanation can be found right in the Catechism.

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