Bernardo M. Villegas
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Protecting the Sacredness of Life (Part 1)

          The worst thing that can happen to us Filipinos, whatever our faith or creed, is to become callous to the wanton taking of lives that we have witnessed ever since President Rodrigo Duterte took over as President of the Philippine Republic.  At the beginning of the New Year, estimates of those killed in connection with the war against drugs being waged very aggressively by the Duterte Administration already reached 6,000.  That would mean an average of 33 unexplained deaths daily.  Whether or not there were more deaths—reported or unreported— during previous Administrations is irrelevant.  What worries me is that a good number of people among those who are supporters of the Duterte Administration are justifying these unexplained killings as an inevitable collateral damage of the drug war.  Some are even comparing the fight against the drug menace to a real military war in which “innocent people sometimes get killed in the cross fire between combatants.”

         Before we invent more creative rationalizations for what should really be called murder,  let us review just what exactly is the fifth commandment of God as explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the precious heritage left to us by St. John Paul II.  In Paragraph 2258 of the Catechism, we read “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involved the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end.  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.”  This commandment which is instilled in the conscience of every human being makes it clear that the deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule and to the holiness of the Creator.  The law forbidding it is universally valid:  it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere.

         No one can take the law into his own hands.  A good end does not justify the means.  One cannot kill a proven or alleged drug pusher under the pretext of protecting or defending society against the spread of narcopolitics if the offender does not pose an immediate threat to the life of the assailant.  As the Catechism also states (2263), “the legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing.  The act of self-defense can have a double effect:  the preservation of one’s own life, and the killing of the aggressor…The one is intended, the other is not.”  Police agents have to prove beyond the shadow of any doubt that they were forced to shoot to death the drug suspects because the latter posed an imminent danger to their lives and that it was not possible just to incapacitate without fatally hitting  the targets.  

         We do not question the advice given by the President to police agents to defend themselves against the aggression of the suspects they are pursuing.  Paragraph 2264 of the Catechism is quite clear about the legitimacy of self-defense:  “Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality.  Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life.  Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:  ‘If a man in self-defence uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful; whereas if he repel force with moderation, his defense will be lawful…Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defence to avoid killing the other man since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.’ “This last qualification may justify the killing of the suspect even if the probability of his hitting back is small.  What it does not justify is shooting the suspect when he is asleep or is clearly not armed and cannot fight back.  I have read of enough accounts by journalists of suspected or confessed drug pushers being shot when they posed no danger to the police agents.  These acts are unconscionable and should be condemned by the President and the other concerned authorities.  

         As regards the death penalty, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has the following relevant provision (par. 2266):  “Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm.  For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty  of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.  For analogous reasons those holding authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the community in their charge.”  It is clear from this statement that those who are in favor of reimposing the death penalty are not advocating something intrinsically evil.  In cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty can be imposed.  If I personally object to the reimposition of the death penalty, together with many others, it is based on my empirical observation that in countries that have the death penalty, heinous crimes have not been deterred.  This is a fundamentally empirical question.  If the death penalty will not prevent future heinous crimes, then it is more humane to give criminals the benefit of the doubt:  that they can still repent of their evil deeds and reform their lives.

         As the Catechism further adds:  “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”  This  qualification should be subjected to empirical observations whose conclusions will determine whether or not one would be in favor of  or against the reimposition of the death penalty.  In the coming debates on the death penalty we should respect one another’s opinions on the empirical findings, even if we all agree on the doctrinal principles clearly enunciated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  (To be continued.)