October 23, 2009

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Basic Catholicism: All human life is sacred

John F. Fink(Thirty-seventh in a series)

Catholics are—and must be—pro-life.

Unfortunately, there are people who identify themselves as Catholics and call themselves pro-choice when it comes to abortion, but they have to know that they are in opposition to the teachings of the Church.

We believe that all human life is sacred because, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can, under any circumstance, claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being” (#2258).

The label “pro-life” usually comes up over the issue of abortion, and the Church has condemned abortion ever since The Didache (The Teaching of the Apostles) was written in the first century. It included the commandment, “You shall not kill a child by abortion” (#2).

The admonition not to destroy an innocent human being doesn’t mean only abortion. At the other end of life, it means euthanasia, the killing of people who are sick, disabled or dying. Even if it might seem to be merciful to put someone out of his or her misery, it is always wrong to take direct action to cause someone’s death or to discontinue procedures that are keeping someone alive.

However, the catechism instructs us, “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of ‘over-zealous’ treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted” (#2278). It is also legitimate to give patients heavy doses of narcotics to relieve pain even if those narcotics have the risk of hastening death.

The Church condemns any research on the human embryo that causes its death. Biology, not religious doctrine, tells us that human life begins at conception—when a human sperm fertilizes a human egg. After that happens, religious belief tells us that we may not kill an embryo. No matter how much good scientists think they might be able to do by experimenting on embryos, the willful destruction of that embryo is the killing of human life. Every successful experiment has been done with adult stem cells anyway, which doesn’t involve the killing of embryos.

The Catholic Church also opposes capital punishment in most cases, although this prohibition is different from other acts of killing because it doesn’t involve the killing of an innocent human being. This teaching has developed because the Church hasn’t always opposed the death penalty as much as it does today.

The Church still teaches that governmental authority has the right and duty to assure the safety of society, including the imposition of the death penalty if there is no other way to protect society. However, nonlethal means are nearly always available to protect society from murderers.

The Catholic Church also opposes war, but it is not pacifist. It believes that there can be, and have been, just wars. From the time of St. Augustine in the fifth century, the Church has laid down specific conditions for a war to be moral or just. †

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