About the importance of circumstances
By James W. Dolan, special to the BIR, November 30, 2012
As I see it, homicide is always evil; the degree, however, depends upon the context – circumstances and intent. Thus, we determine if the killing of another in self defense or the execution of one convicted of murder is justifiable.
In war, the killing of an enemy is an extension of the self-defense doctrine even when both sides believe they are acting in self defense or to preserve freedom and protect the homeland. One combatant killing another when neither played any role in the causes of the conflict, and when both are innocent victims, is considered justifiable.
The wholesale slaughter of innocent non-combatants – women and children innocent but for where they were born – is also justified. Cities are bombed to punish the innocent populace and to create such pain and suffering that those engaged in making war will relent. On a smaller scale, “collateral damage” (the killing of innocents) is justified as an unintended consequence in targeting an enemy
While condemning killing as a grievous sin, the Catholic Church teaches it is tolerable in a “just war” – one in which an aggressor threatens the populace, freedom, or territory of its enemy. However, the perception of which side is the aggressor differs from conflict to conflict. Usually both sides believe they are in the right.
Not all wars are just but when was the last time the church officially declared a war to be unjust and directed Catholics not to participate? Slavery was an evil act, but certainly not all slave-owners were condemned to hell. Catholic chaplains served in both armies.
In Vietnam, the United States intervened in a civil war on flimsy grounds based on perceived threats that never materialized even after we lost. Over a million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans died for what? History will likely view us as the aggressor nation. Those who fought and died were innocent victims of bad decisions.
The law takes into consideration the context in which an evil act such as homicide occurs. There are exceptions and degrees of guilt. One can commit an evil act and yet be found innocent or less culpable depending on the circumstances.
Many believe abortion is the taking of an innocent life, or at the very least, that the fetus is entitled to the benefit of any doubt as to when human life occurs. Others argue the fetus (particularly early on) is not a person. Some say they don’t know.
However, all must agree that a fetus is at least a person-in-waiting; in the course of its development, it will become a human being. Is “potential life” worth protecting? I say yes.
I am anti-abortion and anti-homicide. Although they may not be the same, I believe that life deserves the benefit of the doubt. But I also understand how many view abortion, particularly after rape, incest, or to protect the health of the mother, as justifiable.
Just as in homicide, the context is important. There are degrees of guilt. Persons who undergo an abortion for the above reasons may be innocent, or at least less culpable than those who choose to abort because a child is inconvenient or not the right sex.
I also understand the dilemma of a couple faced with caring for a profoundly disabled child. Hopefully, a merciful God will understand that few are capable of the self-sacrifice and heroism required in such circumstances. The greater good is to shoulder the burden but perhaps those who fail to do so are less culpable. Not every sin is mortal; much depends on the motivation.
The church recognizes extenuating circumstances in homicide and in divorce (by granting annulments) but fails to acknowledge the moral gray areas evident in abortion, contraception, and homosexuality.
It condemns child abuse but sadly tolerated this widespread evil, showing more concern for perpetrators than victims. To protect itself against scandal, it apparently found extenuating circumstances where none existed .
Its opposition to abortion is undermined by equating the prevention of conception with the termination of a fetus. Most Catholic couples see the difference and use artificial birth control to limit the number of children to those they can afford and responsibly raise.
I believe an understanding, compassionate and all-knowing God will measure our behavior against the context of our lives – our capacity to do good or evil. That “capacity” includes all those things that influence judgment such as belief, intelligence, education, health, development, family circumstances, and conscience.