A lot of folks have commented on my previous post, Commemorating a Major U.S. War Crime. In the course of the discussion, a number of issues have been raised that I would like to address.
Foremost among them is a foundational principle of Christian morality that quite a number of commenters do not appear to fully appreciate. It is this: One can never do something that is intrinsically evil, period. No circumstances whatsoever can make it morally licit.
That, in fact, is the difference between things that are intrinsically evil and those that are only extrinsically evil. Intrinsically evil things are evil by their own nature, regardless of circumstance, and so they can never be done (per the fundamental axiom of all morals: Do good and avoid evil). Extrinsically evil things become evil because of their circumstances and/or intent, not because of the nature of the act itself. As a result, such acts can be done in some circumstances (those in which they are not immoral), while they cannot be done in others (when circumstances make them immoral to do).
The fact that some actions are intrinsically evil is reflected in St. Paul’s rejection of the proposal, “Why not do evil that good may come?” He says of those who propose this, “Their condemnation is just” (Rom. 3:8).
The principle is treated more elaborately in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states:
1755 A morally good act requires the goodness of the object, of the end, and of the circumstances together. An evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting “in order to be seen by men”). The object of the choice can by itself vitiate an act in its entirety. There are some concrete acts - such as fornication - that it is always wrong to choose, because choosing them entails a disorder of the will, that is, a moral evil.
1756 It is therefore an error to judge the morality of human acts by considering only the intention that inspires them or the circumstances (environment, social pressure, duress or emergency, etc.) which supply their context. There are acts which, in and of themselves, independently of circumstances and intentions, are always gravely illicit by reason of their object; such as blasphemy and perjury, murder and adultery. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.
In his subsequent encyclical on moral theology, Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II stressed:
Reason attests that there are objects of the human act which are by their nature “incapable of being ordered” to God, because they radically contradict the good of the person made in his image. These are the acts which, in the Church’s moral tradition, have been termed “intrinsically evil” (intrinsece malum): they are such always and per se, in other words, on account of their very object, and quite apart from the ulterior intentions of the one acting and the circumstances [VS 80].
He returned to the theme again in his encyclical on life, Evangelium Vitae:
No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church [EV 62].
So this point is quite firm in Catholic moral teaching: Some acts, by their very nature, are intrinsically evil and thus cannot be done by anyone at any time, no matter what the intention or circumstances.
One of these acts is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. In Evangelium Vitae John Paul II proclaimed:
y the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.
The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end. It is in fact a grave act of disobedience to the moral law, and indeed to God himself, the author and guarantor of that law; it contradicts the fundamental virtues of justice and charity. “Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care, nor can he or she consent to it, either explicitly or implicitly. Nor can any authority legitimately recommend or permit such an action”.
As far as the right to life is concerned, every innocent human being is absolutely equal to all others. This equality is the basis of all authentic social relationships which, to be truly such, can only be founded on truth and justice, recognizing and protecting every man and woman as a person and not as an object to be used. Before the moral norm which prohibits the direct taking of the life of an innocent human being “there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the ‘poorest of the poor’ on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal” [EV 57].
In this passage, John Paul II walks right up to the edge of invoking papal infallibility. He is using the most solemn form of papal teaching shy of invoking infallibility (had he said “I declare and define” instead of “I confirm,” he would have invoked infallibility), though in this case that is not necessary because the same teaching has already been infallibly proposed by the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Church.
Because the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is intrinsically evil, it is never morally legitimate to target innocent civilians, even in wartime. It does not matter what authority (civilian or military) has recommended or ordered the action—even if he be the American president or the master of the world. It does not matter whether innocent people on your side will die as a result. They are absolutely equal to the innocent on the other side and cannot be preferred.
Furthermore, to threaten to do something intrinsically evil is itself intrinsically evil, and to threaten—by words or deeds—to target civilians is intrinsically evil and cannot be done under any circumstances. You cannot hold innocents as hostages to another goal, however noble or lofty it may be.
These are exactly the same principles that underlie the intrinsic immorality of abortion, euthanasia, and other forms of murder. One cannot justify them, no matter the circumstances or the intention.
This does not deal with all the subjects that have been brought up in the combox. It does not, for example, go into cases where—by the law of double-effect—civilian casualties can be tolerated for a proportionate reason. But it does show the fundamental conflict between Catholic morality and the position of those trying to justify the targeting of civilians due the exigencies of wartime or as the “lesser evil” compared to what would otherwise happen.
Killing, attempting to kill, or threatening to kill the innocent can never be justified, even if it means you yourself—also an innocent—will die.