The Fifth Commandment

It’s a simple-sounding proposition: “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). And some people, such as pacifists, are absolutists in understanding it to mean that all killing forbidden. But, in fact, that is not what the commandment means. In Hebrew, the Fifth Commandment forbids the taking of innocent human life. Both war and the death penalty have always been permissible (under certain circumstances) throughout Jewish and Christian history. So the command is more accurately rendered, “You shall not murder.”

That small clarification made, it may nonetheless be asked whether the proposition “Murder is bad” really required all the smoke and thunder of Sinai. Everybody knows murder is wrong. So why command something that everybody already knows and accepts?

Because we only know it sporadically, and the same faculty we use for making legitimate distinctions (as in the first paragraph above) can, under the influence of sin, also be used to make excuses for ignoring this basic principle of natural law. Situations arise in which we have to be reminded that what we know to be true and right in happy moments continues to be true and right even when the temptation to murder can be very strong indeed.

Our culture is chockablock with examples of this. We modern westerners wonder how it could be possible the Germans were capable of exterminating 11 million people in their mad zeal for racial hygiene. But the reality is that they gave exactly the same rationales we give for our extermination of four times as many people since 1973 in the US alone: by re-defining the victim so as to exempt ourselves from guilt for violating the commandment. Jews, Poles and Gypsies were re-classified as untermenschen or even “bacteria” (it was all very scientifically worded) and their deaths were treated like the death of cattle—“no innocent human beings were harmed in the making of this Holocaust”. We do the same trick: reclassifying babies as “fetal material” (another tidy scientific-sounding euphemism).

Why do we do labor to justify murder? For the same reason the Nazis did it: because we regard it as a matter of us vs. them self-preservation. They believed anything was justified to preserve the Volk from their own delusional fears of racial impurity. A culture of death is a culture of fear and the Germans whipped themselves into a frenzy of fearful hatred of six million innocent men, women, and children and killed them as enemies of the state and the Volk. We have whipped ourselves into a frenzy of fear of responsibility for our choices and believe anything is justified to preserve ourselves from the burden of raising a “parasite” (as the pro-choice rhetoric so delicately puts it). Ends justify means: the usual excuses.

Another trick we often use to justify the taking of innocent human life is the Minimum Daily Adult Requirement approach to Catholic moral teaching. This involves that notion that the Ten Commandments describe the uppermost limits of human achievement. So, for instance, when a nation is in the grip of war fever (as ours was in 2003), Just War requirements (which are intended to make it extremely difficult to go to war), get treated as a sort of imprimatur and blessing on war instead of that they are: a set of hard-to-satisfy requirements that aim to fill us with very grave doubts about the wisdom of ever taking this horrible step. Rather than seeing Just War requirement as a massive restraint intended to remind us of the gravity of war, we labor to jerry-rig arguments (often very specious ones) to show that Just War requirements are “satisfied” and then, once we have skated past these, we go to war with alacrity and eat popcorn while boasting about the cool “shock and awe” visual effects on the nightly news. Those who are eager to go war are fairly easy to spot: they tend to be itching to fudge the definitions, to claim that Special Circumstances make it okay to ignore this or that particular criterion, and to be quick to make much the same sort of appeals about the need to bring Just War doctrine “up to date” as abortionists do when they talk about “updating” our definitions of “innocent”, “human” and “life.”

In all this, we see a basic itch to find some way to minimize the Fifth Commandment, just this once, because our particular end is so good and noble, or so desperate and urgent, that surely we can cut a few corners and get on with pulling the trigger. The wheedling voice says, “Look. We’ve jumped through (or given serious thought to jumping through, or convinced ourselves that, in our special case we don’t need to jump through) all the hoops Just War doctrine requires. Now can we start killing?”

Put that baldly, we begin to see the truth about the Ten Commandments, and most especially this commandment: they are given in order to reinforce minimal moral requirements in the face of temporary assaults on reason. They show us, not the height of sanctity, but the bottom-most limits of morality and virtue: if you can’t love your neighbor, at least don’t beat his head in with a baseball bat. It’s important to remember that these bottom limits are merely the bottom, not the heights, of what we are called to in Christ. Merely not killing somebody is not exactly a glittering example of the splendor and holiness of Christ’s love, so boasting that we are “good enough” simply because we observe minimal morality is insufficient. We still need a Savior. Indeed, the Savior himself warns us that the commandment against murder is not satisfied merely because we haven’t actually shot the guy who cut us off on the freeway. As Jesus points out in the Sermon on the Mount, if you hate somebody from the heart, you are already guilty of murder, because the heart is where murder is born.

So God is, as George MacDonald says, easy to please, but hard to satisfy. On the one hand, we cannot pat ourselves on the back as saints merely because we keep a tight lid on our hatred and don’t actually throttle our neighbor to death when he has the loud party. On the other hand, under the power of grace, minimal morality is a starting place in those desperate moments when we are really tempted to murder that jerk at work who has abused us for years. And since God is pleased with our faltering efforts as much as with the great deeds of giants like St. Paul, he can turn the widow’s mite of our struggles with anger into a great spiritual fortune for his glory. The main thing for us to remember is that commandments like the one against murder give us a sure floor to stand on and a limit below which we must not go. But to fulfill our destiny in Christ, we must reach for the heavens and beatitude, through the imitation of Christ and not merely by living up to Minimum Daily Adult Requirement morality.

Mark Shea


Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog and regularly blogs for National Catholic Register. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.

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  • It’s good to point out that the Beatitudes of Christ complete the moral law begun by the revelation of the Ten Commandments. We’ll never get anywhere in our spiritual lives until, as Mark says, we accept the Commandments as a bare minimum and begin to live the Beatitudes. I think that’s as true of nations as it is of individuals. And so, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Humble people–and nations that quietly seek to spread the gifts that God has given them, gifts of virtue, self-restraint, democracy–do not murder or go to war unnecessarily. If we seek to live the Beatitude, the Commandment takes care of itself.

  • sarah

    Mr. Shea, I overwhelmingly agree with and/or am inspired by your columns. However, you are an utter ostrich regarding the US led invasion of Iraq. Consider this from Richard Perle of The Telegraph: “The immediate benefit was the destruction of Saddam’s regime. Responsible for two wars with more than a million dead, involved for decades with terrorist groups, rewarding suicide bombers with cash payments, unwilling to document chemical and biological weapons (some of which he had used), Saddam forced the question: should we risk leaving him in place and hope for the best, or destroy his regime and end the risk that he might collaborate in an attack even more devastating than 9/11?
    I believe the right decision was made. Baghdad fell in 21 days with few casualties on either side. Twenty-five million Iraqis had been liberated and Saddam’s menace eliminated. There would be no weapons of mass murder to be shared with terrorists.
    And while the expected stockpiles of such weapons turned out not to exist – the world’s intelligence agencies having got it wrong – the potential for resuming their production had been destroyed. The unearthing of the mass graves that held some of Saddam’s 300,000 victims gave the war a further moral justification.”

  • mrteachersir


    The problem with the quote you give is that one of the requirements of Just War is that we are absolutely sure that the situation after the war will be better than the situation before the war. Since the overthrow of Saddam (who was an evil man, one who really tortured people for the fun of it) the Middle East has become increasingly unstable. The presence of the insane dictator of Iraq mellowed the Iranians…who began earnestly seeking nuclear weapons after Saddam’s deposing. Such developments have increased the probability that Israel and Iran will begin a major conflict…one which didn’t exist prior to the invasion of Iraq.

    While all the possible consequences of a military action cannot possibly be foreseen, the least that we could have done was contemplate what would have happened within Iraq (where Saddam’s strong-arm upheld order within the country) and in the Middle East (where Saddam’s unstable presence kept Iran and other potential threats at bay). More thought needed to go into the post-war planning than indeed went into it. There is a reason why Bush 41 decided against deposing Saddam, and why Clinton refused to carry out his own official foreign policy: the removal of Saddam Hussein. Both of those presidents (Bush more so than Clinton) could not effectively plan a solution for the post-Saddam world.

  • sarah


    When one CAN do good and does not, one is wrong. Consider the Munich Agreement. Consider the killing fields. Consider East Germany. Hell, consider the Samaritan, the good one…that’s 1) do nothing 2)leave and throw a ‘sorry’ over your shoulder 3)sacrifice others as long as you get what you want, and 4)do something even if one doesn’t know all the possible consequences of one’s actions, respectively.

    The ends can never justify the means, and hypothetical ends to means is even flimsier. I was there. I saw the moats, the graves, the poorly patched cement in the torn up roads, the monuments made from the helmets of their conquered. Do you honestly believe that Iran was not then and only after the fall of Baghdad began pursing “in earnest” nuclear capability, or that military conflict between ISRAEL and IRAN DIDN’T EXIST before the invasion of IRAQ? Fie, Mr. Teacher, sir!

    I completely agree that the post-op was not carried out well. When Shinseki left after GWI he left specific instructions for how to carry out part two, which Rumsfeld completely ignored. And with all due respect, many DID contemplate what would happen after the fall of Baghdad. I am honored to be among those who can say ‘at least we tried.’

  • guitarmom

    Thank you. You have eloquently stated arguments that I have, in the past, ineffectively attempted. We cannot stand by idly while a murderous dictator sadistically tortures and kills.

    To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, if war is sometimes necessary, then peace can be sinful.

    Were you in Iraq on military duty? If so, I applaud you, nay, I cheer you. Thank you for your service.

  • duncan04

    This was a very good article, and I agree with what you say.
    The question is how to vote. The last presidential election is a good example. Do you vote for the pro-life and pro-war candidate or the pro-choice and anti-war candidate? Is it more likely that the elected officials will have control over going to war or overturning Roe? Perhaps I am dense, but I’d like to have some guidance on such situations.

  • Mrteachersir, it is not true that we have to have “absolute certainty” regarding the outcome to engage in just war. What we have to have is “moral certainty” and that is very different. There is also the question of WHO has to have the moral certainty and Catholic teaching says that the determination regarding the application of just war principles belongs to the competent civil authority responsible for making the decision and given by reason of the office the graces to make the decision. That does not include every citizen, btw.

    Having said all that: I think the jury is still out regarding the outcome and our knowledge not only is very limited, but is likely to remain so, perhaps into the indefinite future. We do not have the luxury of an alternative reality into which we can plug different decisions to test different outcomes.

    I think the decision to invade was a morally correct one IF (and it is a big IF) it was made for the publicly stated reasons and not for some ulterior and hidden venal motive. I am given the most pause however, in this assessment, by the subsequent plight of the Iraqi Christians, who have not benefitted by the downfall of Saddam, but apparently suffered quite grieviously and I recall that their welfare seemed uppermost in the mind of the pope when he spoke against the war.

    This is an area I don’t often see or hear explored. Would it have been better to leave a murderous thug in place who restrained public sentiments against the Christians, instead of freeing his people from his oppression only to have them nearly wipe out the native Christian population? Now there’s a very complex moral calculus for you.

    Have at it.