Catechesis on the Fifth Commandment

27 Nov

This week we come to what at first blush seems to be the most straightforward of commandments:

You shall not kill.

As a child preparing for Confession I would routinely pass over the Fifth Commandment. After all, I hadn’t killed anybody that month! I was completely missing the spirit of the commandment, and in fact I was–and still am–frequently guilty of injuring others in thought, word, and deed. I failed to see that just as the positive antidote to sexual sins is chastity, the positive antidote to sins of anger, strife, and violence is kindness–loving others as myself.

In our sexually permissive society, it is critically important to reaffirm–clearly, firmly, and sensitively–the implications of the Sixth Commandment (“you shall not commit adultery”). Yet sometimes we may act as though Moses put an asterisk next to the Sixth Commandment, as though that’s the only commandment we really need to be concerned about. The truth is that we also live in an increasingly violent world. This has everything to do with the Fifth Commandment.

For most of us, the Fifth Commandment comes into play when we become angry or frustrated, or perhaps when we’re thinking too much of ourselves and not enough of our neighbor. Our Lord gives this beautiful application of this commandment in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:21-24).

To live this commandment, we should proactively practice acts of kindness (random or otherwise!), and reactively practice acts of reconciliation (sometimes a not-so-simple “I’m sorry” will work wonders!) when we cause friction with our neighbor.

But there are still the “big ticket” items that certainly must be avoided, including intentional homicide (i.e., murder), abortion, euthanasia, and suicide (for a fairly comprehensive list, see Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes, no 27). We must be crystal clear in our teaching and witness, given the jurisprudence of our country that says that a woman has the “right to choose” to kill her unborn child. Church teaching says that every child without exception (this would include children conceived because of rape or incest, or with significant medical problems diagnosed in utero) has the right to life. Intentionally terminating this innocent human life is a “criminal act” and the Church imposes the canonical penalty of excommunication for this crime against human life (see Catechism, nos. 2270-75, 2322).

I would like to mention a few other curious items or “wrinkles” that fall within the purview of the Fifth Commandment.

(1) Legitimate defense The section of the Catechism on the Fifth Commandment talks about the “right” and at times “duty” of legitimate defense (cf. Catechism, nos. 2263-65). This could be self-defense, defense of others, or defense of society from an “unjust aggressor.” Recourse to legitimate defense must be narrowly circumscribed. Even when dealing with unjust regimes, barbaric terrorists, and remorseless criminals, the use of deadly force is rarely justified.

At the same time, the Church does not consider capital punishment an “intrinsic evil” (like murder, abortion, and euthanasia) that can never be justified (cf. Catechism, nos. 2266-67). Further, she lays out principles for discerning when a war would be “just” even as she champions the cause of peace (cf. Catechism, nos. 2302-17). Too often, Catholics form their opinions on these subjects based on political allegiances rather than sound moral principles. We do well to take to heart the Church’s teaching, summarized in the Catechism, on these important subjects and allow it to transform our perspectives.

(2) Scandal Usually when we think of the Fifth Commandment, we think of physical death. However, Our Lord taught us, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” (Mt. 10:28).

Scandal is the sin in which we snuff out the life of another’s soul. Scandal is discussed in detail in Catechism, nos. 2284-87. Simply stated, it is an attitude or behavior that leads another to sin. It is especially grave when one leads young people astray (cf. Mt. 18:6, the “millstone” verse). Scandal not only arise from our own bad example, but can also come about through laws or institutions (e.g., so-called “gay marriage”), fashion, and public opinion (cf. Catechism, no. 2286).

(3) Care of the body The Catechism takes a balanced view of one’s physical health. We should be temperate in all things and take care of our health. At the same time, the Catechism opposes the so-called “cult of the body” and paying too much attention to one’s physical appearance. Catholics should avoid the use of recreational drugs as well as participating in activities that endanger their own or others’ safety (see Catechism, nos 2288-91).

Related to this, the Fifth Commandment calls us to respect one’s bodily integrity. This would rule out elective sterilizations as well as various forms of terrorism, torture, and bodily mutilation (cf. Catechism, no. 2297).

Even after a person dies, we are to treat the body with respect and charity, with hope in the Resurrection. We should recall that burying the dead and consoling those who mourn is a work of mercy perennially recommended by the Church (cf. Catechism, nos. 2299-2301).

Catechism, no. 2319 sums up well the basis for the Church’s body of teaching on the Fifth Commandment:

“Every human life, from the moment of conception until death, is sacred because the human person has been willed for its own sake in the image and likeness of the living and holy God.”

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