In Defense of Human Life

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We are commanded to protect and promote the gift of human life at all of its stages

by Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori

Bishop William E. Lori

Bishop William E. Lori

We are commanded to protect and promote the gift of human life at all of its stages

The 32nd installment of Supreme Chaplain Bishop William E. Lori’s faith formation program addresses questions 466-486 of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The Fifth Commandment is at the heart of the Church's teaching on the sanctity of human life. It is at the core of the Gospel of Life, which the Church constantly proclaims in fidelity to her Lord who came to give us abundant life (cf. Jn 10:10). The lives that Jesus came to redeem are sacred by their very nature. Each person was created in God's image and likeness and created to enjoy God's friendship.

The starkly negative prohibition, "You shall not kill," is meant to protect God's great gift of human life, which should always be treated with respect and love (Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 466). As Pope John Paul II wrote, "The gift becomes a commandment and the commandment itself is a gift" (Evangelium Vitae, 52).


The Church teaches that there is a legitimate right of self-defense, but it must never be out of rage or use any more force than is necessary. Pope John Paul II reminds us of the beautiful witness of those who, while grateful for the gift of life, have laid down their lives for others (EV, 55). Those responsible for the lives of others have not only the right, but also the grave duty to defend themselves and those entrusted to their care (Compendium, 467).

Moreover, public authorities may legitimately punish those who break the law so as to protect public safety and to correct offenders (468). Such punishment must be proportionate to the crime. Today, because there are means other than capital punishment to protect society from dangerous criminals, both the Church and many segments of society have reached the conclusion that, as a practical matter, capital punishment should no longer be administered (469).

The Fifth Commandment unequivocally forbids the taking of innocent human life, from conception to natural death. The Church is clear that no one is permitted to ask for, or even consent to, the killing of an innocent human being — whether at the beginning, middle or end of life. "Nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action" (470; CDF, Declaration on Euthanasia, 3).

Pro-life initiatives — such as those undertaken by the Knights of Columbus — are inspired by the conviction that the Creator, not the state, endows each person with the inalienable right to life. Laws that permit abortion are inherently unjust and weaken "the very foundations of a state based on law" (472).

As health care becomes more and more complex, questions arise about appropriate levels of care. Experimental treatments and organ transplants are morally acceptable so long as the risks are not disproportionate and the patient or donor, when fully informed, gives consent. Organ donation after death is "a noble act," but before organs are removed, the death of the donor must be verified (475-6).

For those near death, ordinary medical care should not be interrupted. It is legitimate to administer drugs to manage pain, but not to hasten death. There is no moral obligation to employ drugs and medical procedures without reasonable expectation that they will benefit the patient (471). "Right to die" legislation that seeks to legalize euthanasia must be strongly resisted.

The dying should always be given loving care and supported by prayer and the sacraments so that they might be prepared to meet God (477). Believing in the resurrection of the body, we are to treat the bodies of the deceased with love and respect. Cremation is permitted so long as it is not a way of denying belief in the resurrection of the body (479).


The Fifth Commandment also bids us to be peacemakers. This requires that each of us renounce hatred and seek to build bonds of understanding and friendship in a fractured world (480). More than the absence of war, peace calls for a society that is both just and charitable (401-14).

Yet, we also face the question of when it is legitimate to use military force. The conditions for a just war remain: 1) The suffering inflicted by the aggressor must be lasting, grave and certain; 2) all other peaceful means must be shown to be ineffective; 3) there are well-founded prospects of success; and 4) the use of arms, especially weapons of mass destruction, must not produce evils greater than the evil to be eliminated (483). Governments have an obligation to adhere strictly to these standards, even as they have the right to ask citizens to defend their homeland.

Governments also have the duty to respect conscientious objectors; those who do not engage in national defense in time of war should perform some other community service (484). We should be grateful to those who bravely defend their country and remember those who have paid the ultimate price to defend human freedom and dignity.

In time of war, every effort must be made to treat innocent civilians, wounded soldiers and prisoners of war humanely. The provisions of international law must be respected. All acts of mass destruction and the extermination of minorities or religious groups are utterly grievous evils. Orders to engage in such acts should not be obeyed (485).

In view of the crimes and atrocities that occur in wartime, we must do everything possible to avoid war. Our commitment to charity, fraternity and unity should prompt us to root out "all forms of economic and social injustice; ethnic and religious discrimination; envy, mistrust, pride, and the spirit of revenge" (486). In all these ways, we are to live the Gospel the Life and propose it convincingly to the world.