On the Prohibition Against Killing Innocent Human Life

Reflection by Alfonso Carrasco Rouco of Madrid

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MADRID, Spain, FEB. 27, 2003 (Zenit.org).- The protection of innocent human life was a theme that arose during a recent videoconference of theologians, organized by the Vatican Congregation for Clergy. Here, ZENIT publishes a slightly adapted version of one such address.

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The Meaning of “Nunquam licitum est directe occidere innocentem”
Professor Alfonso Carrasco Rouco, Madrid

The meaning of this moral formula can be briefly described using the words of the encyclical letter “Evangelium Vitae”: “The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end” (see EV 57).

It is in fact a negative moral precept, that obliges “semper et pro semper” (“Veritatis Splendor,” 52) and qualifies a certain behavior as intrinsically evil; hence, in virtue of its objective intrinsic meaning, it contradicts goodness and truth, the dignity of the person and cannot be ordered to God or to mercy (VS 78, 80). Regardless of the circumstances and the intentions, due to its very own moral object, the deliberate decision (“deliberatum consilium”) to kill an innocent, always and in all cases is a bad act; nor can the evaluation of positive elements or consequences that may follow this act ensure its moral goodness.

In this sense it is possible to understand the specification: “neither as an end nor as a means for a good reason” which explains in another sense what is indicated by the adverb “directe”; one directly looks for the death of an innocent in fact, when it is considered as a means for achieving an objective. It would be a different matter if the objective of this human act was another, but never the death of an innocent, and this death should result indirectly without having been attempted in any manner (such as for example in the classical case of a “spontaneous miscarriage” studied by moral theology).

The object of the moral act is defined as “killing an innocent.” This last definition must not be understood as indicating someone who is “immaculate,” with no moral blemish, but rather as someone who does not attack the life of another person.

With this the meaning of the Fifth Commandment that affirms the absolute and inviolable value of human life is not reduced; therefore defending oneself from an unjust aggressor is not an exception for this commandment but rather a moral action that is essentially distinct.

Every negative moral precept is needed for the defense of the fundamental weal and rights of the person. Here it is the case of the fundamental good of human life, which is considered absolute and sacred. “Absolute” does not mean “infinite” (which belongs only to God and would make the gift of physical life itself incomprehensible), but rather incommensurable, not possible to put into proportion or exchangeable with others in a conflict situation, because destined at its end to God Himself. In fact, human life is “sacred” because of its special relationship with God, who creates it to his likeness and for this reason constitutes its origin and its end in a particular manner (EV 53).

Killing an innocent deprives him of his fundamental good and will never be right for a person; hence an injustice would be committed regards to the innocent and to God. One forgets, in particular, that mankind is not the absolute master of life, but rather its “manager, a manager who must exercise this moral duty with wisdom and with love” (see EV 52, 54).

The mastership and power that God has entrusted to mankind have limitations, in particular those concerning the life of the innocent — alongside the fundamental rights of the person — which are not owned or available for anyone to be used to achieve an objective; on the contrary, this life inevitably questions each and every person demanding to be acknowledged and respected, protected and promoted, especially when weak and undefended.

In this manner the person will authentically give his acts to God, justice and mercy, “recognizing and protecting every man and woman as a person and not as an object to be used” (see EV 57), without privileges or exceptions according to any possible type of social criteria (VS 96).

Briefly, “Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action.”

This doctrine concerning the value of human life is engraved in the hearts of men and can be acknowledged by the reason of all those who are open to truth and to goodness (EV 29).

The Church’s recent teachings wish to remind us of the definitive affirmation based on the Gospel itself, always safeguarded in the history of Tradition, and once again confirming with the greatest solemnity the truth of its moral teachings (EV 57, 62, 65); precisely because of different forms that negation assumes in our societies, the expressions of an authentic “culture of death.” Hence the physical destruction of an innocent life always involves a lie and consequent ruin for mankind and for society, which, accepting this or even legally approving it, finds itself facing the serious risk of moral relativism.

Encouraged by the truth of this moral precept, the Church accomplishes its ineluctable mission in favor of the redemption of mankind and of the world, defending the Gospel of life, which is today a priority. Announcing and proclaiming the absolute and sacred value of human life, created by God with a particular dignity and for the redemption of which he gave is Only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, Our Lord, who became a man for us, died on the Cross and resurrected so that we should receive life and receive it in abundance: eternal life.

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