A Signing Statement for “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

During the Vietnam War, Catholics were presented with an odd moral dichotomy:  the teachings about sex were specific and detailed; the ones about war were vague and full of anomalies.


Killing in war might seem to contradict the Commandment that categorically and completely prohibited the taking of lives.  Various religions have found a (convenient) exception, a signing statement as it were, and that is the principle of self-defense permits an exception.  Then the principle of self defense was expanded to a nation wide exception to the rule, but it was always rather vague and open to interpretation. 


If you happened to attend a Jesuit University, where expert theological opinions were a bit more accessible, and if you persisted; eventually you would learn that the applicable doctrine was:  “A Catholic citizen can participate in a war being waged by his country as long as there is reasonable expectation of victory.”


That would explain why German Catholics could kill American Catholics after D-Day and both groups could have a clear conscience.  Obviously, when a war becomes unwinnable, continuing the futile effort would be immoral because of the additional, unnecessary deaths.   In April of 1945, even Hitler realized that Victory was impossible.  He committed suicide and left it to others to negotiate a surrender.


Since, during World War II, the Germans kept their use of torture very secret, the need for the Church to speak out against it was not known and they can not be criticized for ignoring that particular topic.


While debates raged about Vietnam, the Catholic Church’s teachings about sex were adamant and very specific.  Married Catholic couples were prohibited from using any birth control method, except the rhythm method.  When it came to the possibility of making love without a risk of pregnancy, the Catholic Church seemed to agree with a Hunter Thompson maxim:  “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”


If you wanted to make love to your wife, then you were obligated to forego the use artificial birth control methods and the only birth control option was “the rhythm” method.  It was time to play “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” and jump into a game of Russian Roulette with sperm and ovum.   


During the Vietnam War, the Catholic teaching about birth control was ubiquitous.


The United States fought a limited war in Vietnam and news reports at the time indicated that Victory was never the goal to be achieved.  Since the government did not advocate Victory and the Catholic Church acquiesced and sidestepped the issue completely, it was easier, instead, to focus on teaching birth control for married couples. 


The Vietnam War is over and there is no use in revisiting a question of the Church’s poor performance back then or agonizing over any possible lapses in their monitoring of a nation’s moral conduct.  Presumably, if some country were to make an unprovoked attack on another country, now, they would atone for their past poor performance by immediately addressing the new situation with increased vigor.


Until such a hypothetical situation arrives, they will be able to deliver many, many inspiring Sunday sermons admonishing married couples and insisting that they avoid the reprehensible practice of using forbidden birth control methods while expressing their love for each other.


When it comes to the old Sixties advice to make love not war, for Catholics, the former has more restrictions and disapproval than the latter.   Perhaps this Christmas the usual clichés about Peace on Earth should be dropped from the celebration of that particular holiday.


For a closing quote for this column a person could turn to any page in Dalton Trumbo’s “Johnny Got His Gun” and get a good one.  We’ll choose one from the end of the second section:  “You never really knew what the fight was all about.”  Others who read the book and will probably find a passage that they think would be a remarkably better selection, and that is a good enough reason to read this literary masterpiece. 


Now, the disk jockey will turn on the tune “Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack.  While you tune in, we’ll drop out.  Have a “killer” week.



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