Respect for Life

One of the earliest post-NT documents, written by an unknown author around ad 110 and attributed to St Barnabas, develops its moral teaching by contrasting 'the way of light' with 'the way of death'. It includes the following among the precepts for the way of light:

Love your neighbour more than your own life. Never do away with an unborn child, or destroy it after its birth. Do not withhold your hand from your son or your daughter, but bring them up in the fear of God from their childhood. Do not cast covetous eyes on a neighbour's possessions. Do not be greedy for gain. Do not set your heart on being intimate with the great, but look for the company of people who are humble and virtuous. Whatever experience comes your way, accept it as a blessing, in the certainty that nothing can happen without God. Never equivocate either in thought or speech. A double tongue is a fatal snare. (Epistle of Barnabas, 19. 5-7; italics ours)

Much of this and further moral instruction on the two ways (ibid. 19-20) parallels what we read on 'the way of life' and 'the way of death' in a roughly contemporary document (Didache, 1-6). Like the Didache, the Epistle draws on a rich OT background: for instance, from Sirach and earlier books of wisdom. Some items directly echo the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20: 1-17): for example, 'do not cast covetous eyes on a neighbour's possessions' recalls the tenth commandment ('do not covet your neighbour's goods') and 'never equivocate in speech' recalls the eighth commandment ('do not bear false witness').

The opening precepts, however, take matters beyond OT morality. Loving 'your neighbour more than your own life' sets an even higher standard than 'you shall love your neighbour as yourself' (Lev. 19: 18). The Epistle of Barnabas brings to mind here St Paul's exalted guidelines for the practice of love (1 Cor. 12: 31-13: 13) and Jesus' words: 'No one has greater love than that he lay down his life for his friends' (John 15: 13). What interests us here, however, is the respect for life that is shown by the rejection of abortion and infanticide, and which draws particular conclusions from the general tenor of the fifth (also often listed as the sixth) commandment, You shall not kill.' The OT (and the NT) scriptures persistently express respect for innocent human beings and regard them at all stages as made in the image of God.224 One text condemns violence that

224 We prefer to express matters this way, rather than speak of 'the sacredness of human life', which is not a specifically biblical or Christian idea.

produces a miscarriage (Exod. 21: 22—5), but no biblical passage addresses itself explicitly to abortion, something practised along with infanticide in Roman society at the time of the birth of Christianity (see Ch. 1). The Didache (5. 2) joined the Epistle of Barnabas in condemning abortion, which we can describe as the intentional destruction of an unborn child either in its mother's womb or by removing it from its mother's womb.225

Later Christian authors such as Basil the Great (d. 379) treated abortion as murder. The Synod of Elvira (306) had excommunicated women obtaining abortions, allowing those who repented to receive communion only at the time of death (canon 63), whereas the Synod of Ancyra (314) readmitted them to communion after some years of penance (canon 21). The Quinisext Synod (691/2) called those who procured abortions 'murderers' (canon 91). Reference is sometimes made to an alleged late sixteenth-century change in the Catholic Church's position on abortion (1588—91). In fact there was no such change in the doctrine itself but only a change in the discipline regarding the imposition of a penalty for abortion. In the twentieth century, when it described infanticide and abortion as 'abominable crimes' (Gaudium etSpes, 51), Vatican II did so in a section devoted to promoting married love and respect for human life. Such concern for positive teaching, while often absent in what came from earlier Christian authors and synods, has also characterized the teaching of John Paul II. His authoritative 1995 rejection of 'direct abortion' as 'a grave moral disorder' and a decision 'against the weakest and most defenceless of human beings' is set in the context of a coherent ethic of concern for life (Evangelium Vitae, 28, 62, 70). That same encyclical also added these words for women who have undergone an abortion:

The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. You will come to understand that nothing is definitely lost and you will be able to ask forgiveness from your child, who is now living in the Lord. (ibid. 99)

225 An unborn child's unintended death during surgery to save its mother's life is 'indirect' abortion: the child's death is a tragic yet inevitable side-effect of surgery that is good in itself (e.g. the removal of a cancerous uterus). The child's death as such is not the means that produces the mother's restored health. Any such distinction between 'direct' or 'indirect' abortion was unknown in the Roman world, which, sadly, was familiar only with the first.

This encyclical repudiated the 'culture of death', which is also expressed both in the direct, 'gravely immoral' killing of the innocent and in euthanasia, 'a grave violation of the law of God' (ibid. 57, 64—6). The condemnation of the killing of the innocent was also directed against the practice of killing or deliberately shortening the life of handicapped infants, which is recommended by some modern authors and practised in some countries. Parents can be put under economic and other forms of pressure if they do not agree to the destruction of their genetically disabled children, particularly when they refused an abortion when abnormalities were detected before birth.

As regards euthanasia in the active or strict sense of the term, one must distinguish it from decisions to withhold futile or disproportionately burdensome means for prolonging life or to provide relief for gravely ill patients with the intention of reducing pain, even if the coincidental effect may also be to shorten life. Members of the medical profession cross, however, a major line into morally unacceptable killing when they claim the right, even in conjunction with patients and their relatives, to decide which lives are worth living, deliberately cause patients to die, or withhold treatment with the deliberate intention of bringing about death. The old and the incurably ill can feel that they are a burden on their families and that their earlier death would benefit others financially. Judged by productivity, they are an economic liability. It may take little to persuade them to accept a physician-assisted suicide. Stroke patients and the senile often have no choice in the matter; their death can result from others deciding to terminate their life directly.

Evangelium Vitae ('the Gospel of Life') also pleaded for life in two further ways. It called 'the use of human embryos or foetuses' for experiments 'a crime against their dignity as human beings who have a right to the same respect owed to a child once born' (ibid. 63).226 It excluded the death penalty, 'except in the case of absolute necessity', or 'when it would

226 Since Evangelium Vitae appeared in 1995, issues about stem-cell research and human cloning have continued to hit the headlines. InJuly2001 the news broke that the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine in Norfolk, Virginia, was creating human embryos for the sole purpose of dismembering them for their stem-cells. Immediately after that news it was learned that a laboratory in Worcester, Massachusetts, was aiming to grow cloned human embryos to produce stem-cells. The same laboratory three years earlier had produced a hybrid human—cow embryo. The news inevitably brought to mind the criminal use of human beings as guinea pigs practised by twentieth-century totalitarian regimes. For some bibliography see T. A. Shannon, 'Human Embryonic Stem Cell Therapy', Theological Studies , 62 (2001), 811—24.

not be possible otherwise to defend society'. The Pope added: 'today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent (ibid. 56).

The traditional teaching of the Catholic Church accepted the death penalty, provided that it was inflicted on those whose guilt for murder and other serious offences had been judicially established. Christians encouraged the Emperor Constantine to abolish crucifixion, a slow and atrocious form of execution, as a legal punishment. But for centuries most Catholics and other Christians accepted that a number of crimes could and should be punished by death. Gradually reflection on the fifth commandment ('You shall not kill') and other forces reduced in many countries capital offences to murder and treason or betrayal of one's country in time of war. Teachers of Catholic morality continued to accept that in these cases the death penalty was a justified punishment and the only possible way of effectively defending innocent lives against unjust aggressors. However, notorious miscarriages of justice that led to the execution of the innocent, the possibility of imprisonment bringing murderers to true repentance and conversion, the fact that secure gaols defend the public from dangerous criminals, and other considerations (e.g. that the threat of capital punishment is not an effective deterrent against murder) have convinced many Christians and others to support the abolition of the death penalty. In the Catholic Church John Paul II led the way with his almost unqualified opposition to capital punishment.

At the Second Vatican Council he had shared in the making of the Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, which devoted a whole chapter to the fostering of peace and establishing an effective community of nations (Gaudium etSpes, 77—90). The Council, in the face of modern weapons that 'can inflict immense and indiscriminate havoc', called for 'a completely fresh appraisal of war', and endorsed condemnations of 'total war' (which had already come from Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI) and of 'the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities and vast areas'. The Council also condemned as 'frightful crimes' the 'extermination' of entire races, nations, or ethnic minorities (ibid. 79—80). In particular, it had in mind here the six million Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide, an unspeakable crime against God and humanity that John Paul II made a constant theme of speeches and sermons from the start of his pontificate.

The conciliar document, along with radical concern to 'curb the savagery of war', nevertheless, acknowledged that, 'as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defence, once all peace efforts have failed (ibid. 79; italics ours). This is tantamount to accepting the possibility of a just defence (to be distinguished from a holy war or a crusade), provided certain stringent conditions are met.227 But in some tragic, recent examples we wonder whether war has been declared before 'all peace efforts' have been tried and failed. Vatican II's concern over the savagery of war sprang from its desire to prevent further slaughter of innocent civilians and to uphold in every way respect for human life. That respect characterizes the Catholic tradition, or at least the best features of the Catholic tradition, from the end of the first century and the teaching in support of life that came from the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas. One can track a trajectory that supports naming respect for life a distinctive (but not unique) characteristic of Catholic morality. A right sexual ordering forms a second such characteristic.

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