In the comments on my posts on the murder of late-term abortionist George Tiller, two readers have attempted to justify the murder on the grounds that Tiller, who reportedly performed over 60,000 abortions, will not kill again. Don't bother searching for these comments; I have deleted them and will do the same for any future ones that violate the About.com User Agreement prohibition on posting anything that "encourages conduct that would constitute a criminal offense."
I have also received much more thoughtful questions by e-mail from readers who are trying, not to justify murder, but to understand if lethal force is ever morally justified. If the Catholic Church really believes what She teaches—that human life begins at conception—then abortion is murder. Why, then, would it not be morally justified to kill someone in order to prevent murder?
Several readers have pointed me toward two articles: one by Ramesh Ponnuru over at The Corner on National Review Online; the other by Richard Spencer at Taki's Magazine. (Full disclosure: I used to write for Taki's Magazine but have not done so for over a year; you can still find my articles in the archives there, however.)
Ponnuru is responding to a supporter of abortion who argues that the pro-life position "should logically lead its adherents to favor the killing of abortionists"; and Richard Spencer, who describes himself as "effectively 'pro-choice,'" is essentially making that very argument. But both Spencer's argument and Ponnuru's response to a similar argument make fundamental errors—the same fundamental errors that those who (like the commenters whose remarks I deleted) wish to justify murder in the cause of life make.
From the Christian standpoint, there are two well-known and well-developed justifications for killing: self-defense, and just-war theory. The two are related but different: Just-war theory arises by analogy from the Christian understanding of personal self-defense, but it takes on a life of its own, and its conclusions cannot be imposed back onto the Christian understanding of self-defense.
Spencer falls into that trap, invoking just war in his discussion of Tiller's murder. It is quite right that "there are no injunctions in the Bible for universal, unconditional pacifism." It is also entirely irrelevant to this discussion.
Just-war theory is concerned with determining whether a civil authority is morally justified in making war against an external enemy (and, secondarily, with determining whether the way in which a just war is waged is itself just). George Tiller was not an external enemy; his murderer was not the civil authority charged with protection of those who were being killed.
But that brings up an interesting question: What happens when the civil authority neglects its duty or even turns hostile to it? In the light of two millennia of Christian teaching on abortion, we can certainly say that the government of the United States today falls into that category. Does the government's neglect of its duty justify Tiller's murderer taking the government's responsibilities into his own hands?
Of course not. On this point, we get into a third, much more rarified area in which killing has been justified by Christian theologians: that of regicide. Literally, regicide is the killing of a king, but we can use the term more broadly to speak of the deposing of the duly constituted civil authority. Late medieval and early modern Catholic theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, believed that, under very strict and rare circumstances, regicide could be justified.
Essentially, those civil authorities that not only refuse to carry out the duties of their office but act in opposition to those duties lose their legitimacy. Spencer mentions the case of Adolf Hitler and points out that some pro-life advocates praise the Catholic aristocrats who attempted to assassinate Hitler.
This would be an apt comparison—if Spencer were discussing regicide. He isn't; George Tiller and Adolf Hitler may have shared certain moral sensibilities, but Tiller was not the ruler of a country.
On the other hand, Ramesh Ponnuru's conclusion—that Tiller's murder was not justified—is correct, but he uses the wrong logic to arrive there, setting up four conditions that could justify such an act:
to even begin to construct a bridge from the humanity of unborn life to the justifiability of shooting Tiller he would have to be in the act of committing an abortion, the shooter would have to know to a moral certainty that no one else would perform the abortion, the goal would have to be to disable rather than kill him, and it would have to be possible for a pro-life regime to survive without the rule of law.
Ponnuru calls these "impossible conditions," and he is correct. Yet Ponnuru's conditions start from the wrong premises.
The problem with defending the innocent from abortion by the use of lethal force is that one of the proper defenders of that particular innocent is on the table, and the other is often the one paying for the procedure. That's where the discussion has to start. That points us in the direction of the only legitimate hypothetical moral question: If a woman is getting an abortion over the objection of the father of the child, would it be licit for the father to use lethal force to stop the abortion? That is a question that could be addressed under the Christian understanding of self-defense, since the father's duty to his child has historically been viewed as the same as his duty to himself.
But that isn't the question posited most of the time, and it's not the question posed by the Tiller murder or addressed by either Spencer or Ponnuru. The question normally asked is whether one can use lethal force against an abortionist who is killing someone else's baby, and being paid to do so by that person or persons. And the answer is clearly no.
Contra Spencer, that is not proof that Christians do not really believe their own claim that abortion is murder. Rather, it is proof that Christians take seriously both Romans 3:8, in which Saint Paul says of those who claim that we can do evil that good may come of it that their "damnation is just"; and Romans 13, in which Saint Paul declares that the civil authority, not individuals, rightly wields the sword.
If you have a question that you would like to have featured in our "Reader Questions" series, send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure to put "QUESTION" in the subject line, and please note whether you'd like me to address it privately or on the Catholicism blog.