OUR DUTY IN REGARD TO THE LIFE OF OUR NEIGHBOR
A strict obligation is laid upon us to avoid everything that may destroy the health or life of our neighbor.
1. Accordingly it is sinful to wish ill to one’s neighbor, to injure his health, to challenge him or accept a duel, or to put him to death unjustly and willingly.
1. He who hates his neighbor, wishes him dead; hence hatred often leads to murder.
Hatred suggests revenge. Witness Esau, who sought to kill his brother Jacob (Gen. xxvii. 41); King Saul, who repeatedly endeavored to slay David (1 Kings xxiv.); Joseph’s brethren, who would actually have put Joseph to death, had not Ruben interfered (Gen. xxxvii.). There is little distinction to be made between hatred and murder; in God’s sight the will is the same as the deed. Hence St. John says: “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer” (1 John iii. 15). Our Lord declares that he who is angry with his brother is in danger of the judgment (Matt. v. 22). Real hatred is a mortal sin, whether the evil one wishes to one’s neighbor be great or small. However it is no proof of hatred to detest the evil qualities one sees in one’s neighbor, or to abhor his conduct, for this is not incompatible with affection for him personally.
2. Men often injure their neighbor’s health by quarrels and blows, by the adulteration of articles of food, by dangerous practical jokes, and culpable negligence.
By quarreling one excites one’s neighbor, and deprives him of interior peace and content, thus destroying his well-being. Contention and quarrels cause shedding of blood (Ecclus. xxviii. 13). Blows often cause severe pain or bodily injury. For assault, one may be arrested and imprisoned. The practice of adulterating articles of food is only too common nowadays; flour, milk, butter, wine, beer, etc., are mingled with foreign substances, often of a deleterious nature, or a manufactured imitation is sold for the genuine article. As these adulterated goods contain little nourishment, and much that is prejudicial to health, tradesmen who thus defraud the public deserve condign punishment. In the Middle Ages they were burned, together with their falsified wares. Practical jokes, such as tripping any one up, may cause fatal injuries. Culpable carelessness often occasions serious accidents; e.g., furious driving, heedlessness in the handling of fire-arms, neglecting to warn passers-by if anything is likely to fall, etc.
3. Duelling is nothing short of murder. The Church punishes it by excommunicating the combatants, and denying Christian burial to those who are killed (Council of Trent, 25, 19).
By the mere fact of challenging to single combat, or accepting a challenge, a man becomes excommunicated; the same holds good of those who take the part of seconds, or who sanction the duel by their presence. Let no one say, he has given his opponent permission to kill him; he cannot give another a right which he does not himself possess. A Catholic is bound to refuse to fight a duel, even if he thereby incurs the imputation of cowardice, or if he thereby lose the chance of promotion. The duellist is guilty of twofold murder; he intends to kill his antagonist, and at the same time he risks his own life. While he imagines he is repairing an insult to his honor, he loses the respect of all sensible persons, for he shows himself to be enslaved by pride, resentment, and cruelty. Skill in the use of weapons will not avenge an insult; the duellist should seek satisfaction in the law-courts. But let him who would acquire great merit in God’s sight, follow the teaching and example of Our Redeemer, and not seek to avenge himself, but bear injustice patiently, for this is the greatest heroism that can be imagined. It is noteworthy that many of the ablest generals and monarchs were strongly opposed to duelling, and prohibited it under severe penalties. It is related of Gustavus Adolphus, that he once yielded to the request of two officers of high rank, and permitted a duel; but at the appointed hour he appeared on the scene with a military escort, and said: “Now fight if you will, but woe betide you if one falls, for the other shall instantly be beheaded. “A reconciliation took place at once between the two officers. Frederick II of Prussia used to expel duellists from the army, saying: “I want brave soldiers, not executioners.”
4. Whoso kills his neighbor unjustly and intentionally, commits a heinous sin. Such a one is called a murderer.
Cain was a murderer; he slew his brother Abel. God Himself said that the voice of Abel’s blood cried to Him from the earth for vengeance (Gen. iv. 10). The murderer robs his victim of the highest earthly good, his life; he deprives him of the opportunity of gaining merits for eternity, and of preparing himself for death. But a man who kills unintentionally is not a murderer (Deut. xix. 4), yet he is seldom free from sin, as a fatal blow is generally the result of culpable inadvertence. The executioner appointed to carry out the sentence of the judge is not a murderer, since he does not act unjustly.
2. He commits a still greater sin who destroys the spiritual life of his neighbor, either by tempting him to evil or by giving scandal.
“If thou persuade thy neighbor to sin,” St. Augustine says, “thou art his murderer.” And he who gives scandal is guilty of murder. Nay, even of a greater sin than murder, because the life of tins soul is of far more value than the life of the body. If a thousand men were put to death, less harm would be done than if one soul were condemned to everlasting perdition. If the blood of Abel cried to heaven for vengeance on his brother, how much more will the blood of the lost soul cry for vengeance on its murderer. How cursed are they who are the cause of so great a calamity to another! Temptation and scandal are all the more fatal because the evil is handed on from one to another. He who has .been led into sin, leads another into it in his turn, as the bird that the fowler has entrapped serves as a decoy to bring others into the snare. Like an avalanche, small in the beginning, but increasing in its course, carrying vast masses of snow with it into the abyss, the tempter drags countless souls with him to perdition. Others corrupt their fellow-men by the scandal they give, as leaven pervades the whole of the flour in which it is placed.
Temptation is the endeavor, by subtle means, to incite a man to sin.
The tempter is like the devil, who by his wiles, led our first parents in paradise to disobey God. He goes to work craftily, like the fisher man who catches fish with a baited hook, or the fowler, who lays traps and spreads bird-lime to ensnare birds. In the case of almost all the holy martyrs before their execution, attempts were made to induce them, either by blandishments and promises, or by threats and torture, to abjure their faith and transgress the commandment of God. What trouble the Proconsul took with the aged Bishop Polycarp; what efforts the King of Bohemia made to force St. John Nepomucene to violate the seal of confession! He offered him a bishopric, he
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put him to torture, and finally cast him into the Moldau. Those who dissuade others from what is good also deserve the name of tempter. Temptation is the devil’s own work. He does not appear in person to seduce mankind, for then every one would recoil from him; he leaves men to do his business for him, and thus attains his end more certainly.
Scandal is given when by some sinful word, deed, or omission, we shock our neighbor, and perhaps cause him to sin.
For instance, a man gives scandal if he is seen in public in a state of inebriation, if he talks indecent talk, makes use of oaths in the presence of children, eats meat openly on Friday, does servile work on Sunday, behaves indecorously in church, publishes ungodly books, decries religion and the ministers of religion in the papers and periodicals, etc. What he does instigates another to do the same; this is true most of all in regard to children, who are sure to imitate anything wrong which they see done by their parents or elders. He who gives scandal is like a man who digs a pit, into which another is likely to fall and break his neck. Scandal is an offense against the love of one’s neighbor. That it is a mortal sin we gather from Our Lord’s words concerning him who scandalizes others: “It were better for him that a mill-stone should be hanged about his neck and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. xviii. 6). Again, Our Lord says that at the end of the world His angels shall gather out of His kingdom all who have given scandal, and cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. xiii. 41). But if the scandal given is slight, or unintentional, it is not a great sin, or is no sin at all.
We ought, in as far as possible, to avoid giving scandal, and for this end we must observe the following rules:
1. We ought to abstain from actions which are not only lawful, but good in themselves, which are of counsel but not of precept, if they may possibly give scandal.
If any one is dispensed from the Friday abstinence on account of bad health, he should refrain from eating meat before others, if he knows that they will take scandal at it. And if this is impossible, he should explain to those who are at table with him why he eats it; if they take scandal then, he is not to blame. St. Paul declares: “If meat scandalize my brother, I will never eat flesh” (1 Cor. viii. 13). And the aged Eleazar preferred death to even appearing to eat swine’s flesh, lest young persons might be scandalized, and be deceived into thinking he was gone over to the life of the heathen (2 Mach. vi. 24).
2. We must, however, in no case omit any act which is commanded by God, even if others will take scandal at it; yet we should in as far as possible prevent the scandal by some words of explanation or instruction.
By doing what the law of God enjoins on us, we do not give scandal, but on the contrary, a good example. The fault lies with the one who takes scandal at a good action; no one in fact will do so unless he be corrupted with vice. The obligations imposed by the laws of the Church, such as hearing Mass on Sundays, approaching the sacraments at Easter, may be set aside occasionally, if others will take offense by their observance; yet one should endeavor to obviate this, by explaining the duty to be fulfilled. Purely human laws do not bind as a rule, if great harm may be done by keeping them; for Christ says: “My yoke is sweet and My burden is light” (Matt. xi. 30). Yet it is best to explain matters, and then act boldly; this often prevents difficulties being raised. It is, however, impossible always to avoid scandal, for evil-minded persons take offense at what is well meant. Our Lord bade His apostles not to heed such people: “Let them alone; they are blind and leaders of the blind” (Matt. xv. 14).
3. It is, however, lawful to wound or even to kill our fellow-man, if he threatens to take our life by violence, or anything that is absolutely indispensable to our life, and we have no other means of defence. This is called the right of self-defence.
Self-defence is not wrong, because our object is not to take another man’s life, but simply to preserve our own; and the moral worth of an action is determined by that which is, not by that which is not its object. We are permitted to defend, but by no means to avenge ourselves; hence if we can save ourselves by flight, we ought to do so. If it is enough to wound our adversary we must stop short there. Above all, a woman is justified in defending herself against any one who attempts to violate her chastity. We are also permitted to kill any one in order to save the life of a third party; this Moses did when he slew the Egyptian who was striking one of the He brews (Exod. ii. 12). It is only lawful to put to death one who unjustly seizes our property, if he lays hands on what is absolutely necessary to our existence, for then it is our life that we are defending. It is not right to shoot a robber who carries off something of no great value; nor can we plead the right of self-defence if it is only our honor that is wrongfully attacked.
The officers of justice are warranted in punishing evil-doers with death; and soldiers act lawfully in wounding and killing the enemy in time of warfare.
The officers of justice, in as far as they stand in the place of God, have the right to sentence evil-doers to capital punishment. St. Paul says the higher powers bear not the sword in vain, but as avengers to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil (Rom. xiii. 4). The authority of the magistrate is God’s authority; when he condemns a criminal, it is not he who condemns him, but God, just as the sword is not answerable for the blow it strikes, but the hand is that wields the sword. Yet the judge must not act arbitrarily; he must only sentence the criminal to death when the welfare of society demands it. Human society is a body of which each individual is a member; and as a diseased limb has to be amputated in order to save the body, so criminals must be executed to save society. As a matter of course the culprit’s guilt must be proved; better let the guilty go free than condemn the innocent. It is an error to suppose that the Church advocates capital punishment on the principle of retaliation; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This is a principle of Judaism, not of Christianity. The Church does not like to see blood shed, she desires that every sinner should have time to amend. She permits, but does not approve capital punishment. The military profession is not un lawful; we are not told in the Gospels that soldiers were exhorted to leave the army, but only that they were admonished to be content with their pay, and to do violence to no man. God, by the lips of Melchisedech, blessed Abraham after he had made war upon the kings who had robbed Lot (Gen. xiv.). The soldier must not, how ever, allow himself to treat cruelly those who are disabled in battle. The Church forbids her ministers to use deadly weapons, as this is incompatible with their sacred calling.
4. He who has wrongfully injured his neighbor, either physically or spiritually, is bound to repair the harm done to the utmost of his power.
If any one has been the means of inflicting bodily harm upon his neighbor, he must pay the doctor and all the expenses of his illness, make good the loss of his earnings, etc. If he has killed him he must provide for his family. If he has given scandal to his neighbor, or led him into sin, he must strive to counteract the evil consequences by a good example, prayer, instruction, etc. Unless he does this he will not obtain pardon from God, and the priest’s absolution will be invalid.
What are the Reasons which ought to Deter us from Taking our own Life or that of our Neighbor?
1. He who needlessly imperils or seeks to put an end to his own life, is often punished by God with acute bodily suffering here and sometimes by eternal damnation hereafter.
We constantly read of fatalities and sad accidents resulting from foolhardiness in risking one’s life. The indulgence of the passions also often brings on some painful malady. On the other hand some saints permanently injured themselves by excessive and unwise austerities and regretted it afterwards.
2. He who takes the life of another is tortured by terrible pangs of conscience, often dies a violent death, and is everlastingly damned.
Cain was a fugitive on the earth after the murder of his brother Abel (Gen. iv. 16). Murderers like him find no rest. As a rule, they die a violent death; either they are sentenced to death by the law, or they destroy themselves, or they fall by the hand of another. Whosoever shall shed man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed (Gen. ix. 6). All that take the sword shall perish by the sword (Matt. xxvi. 52). Divine justice frequently punishes the sinner in the way that he has sinned. The Hebrews in Egypt were commanded to throw their infants into the Nile; the king and all his army were swallowed up in the Red Sea. Retribution speedily overtook those who had condemned Our Lord to death: Judas and Pilate put an end to themselves, and in the year 70, no less than a million of the Jewish people were slain. The persecutors of the Christians in many cases died a violent death: Nero by his own hand, Julian the Apostate on the battle-field. Murderers shall not obtain the kingdom of God (Gal. v. 21); they shall have their portion in the pool burning with fire and brimstone (Apoc. xxi. 8). A similar fate has frequently been known to overtake heresiarchs, and those who by word or writings have undermined the faith of others, and thus incurred the guilt of spiritual murder.
3. He who hates his neighbor loses his peace of mind, and becomes displeasing to God; his prayers are not heard, and his lot is eternal perdition.
One who cherishes feelings of animosity and meditates vengeance is a stranger to peace; he is continually in a ferment; the thoughts of his heart are a perpetual scourge to him. That man can have no concord with Christ, who lives in discord with Christians. If peace makers are called the children of God, those who stir up strife and dissension are children of Satan. As long as the thorn rankles in the wound, no remedies will heal it, nor will prayer avail the Christian while deadly hatred holds a place in his heart. Our Lord says: “If thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath anything against thee, leave there thy offering before the altar and go first to be reconciled to thy brother, and then coming thou shalt offer thy gift” (Matt. v. 23, 24). Feelings of hatred ought to be suppressed at once. Let not the sun go down upon your anger (Eph. iv. 26). A dislocated limb can easily be got back into its place, if this be done promptly, but if some time be allowed to elapse, it becomes a difficult matter to set it right. So it is with hatred; if a reconciliation takes place immediately, the former friendly feelings are restored without trouble; but if it is delayed, anger gets the mastery of us, and we think it beneath us to seek a reconciliation. “If,” says St. Augustine, “thy dwelling were infested with snakes, thou wouldst hasten to rid thyself of them; now hatred and enmity are venomous serpents; wilt thou not banish them from thy heart, which is the temple of the Holy Ghost?”