The general struggle throughout Christian history has been to seek the proper balance between dominion and limits, intervention and nonintervention, givenness, and creativity. This struggle has worked itself out in six areas that touch human life. In this essay, I will revisit the Catholic tradition’s treatment of these in terms of dominion and limits to see whether we can discern developmental patterns that might suggest an approach to issues pertaining to the sources of life (reproductive ethics) as we move into the next century.
1. Abortion. The history of the treatment of abortion in the Catholic tradition is the history of an evaluation. This evaluation was somewhat muddied by [End Page 387] unclarity and inconsistency in the use of terms. Thus, some theologians distinguished three types of abortion: prevention of conception, abortion of an inanimate fetus, and abortion of an animated fetus. Others regarded all interventions into the life-giving process as homicides. Still others argued that termination of a nonanimated fetus was justified to save the life of the mother. And still others said such termination was anticipated homicide or the misuse of semen conceptum.
Such unclarities and qualifications eventually vanished and produced an evaluation of fetal life that yielded to very few competing interests, what John Noonan (1970) referred to as “an almost absolute value.” There was some dominion or control, but the limits became increasingly clear and powerful.
2. Individual and corporate self-defense. Augustine disallowed lethal individual or personal self-defense, but established the first elementary rules for war. Aquinas allowed both. Vitoria, Suarez, and others refined the criteria justifying war (jus ad bellum) and listed them as three: recovery of property, resistance to aggression, and vindication of injuries (injustices). Pius XII narrowed these to a single reason: national self-defense. The Challenge of Peace (NCCB 1983) moves away from the licitness of nuclear war and nuclear deterrence even for self-defense. Once again, the limits to the dominion over life in war grow stronger and more powerful even as the weapons of such dominion grow more powerful.
3. Capital punishment. Over the centuries, Christian thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas, permitted the use of capital punishment. Three justifications were proposed to found this right of the state: retribution, deterrence, and reform. In the past decades, however, these justifications have been seriously questioned. Both the American and Philippine bishops’ conferences have rejected all use of capital punishment. Most recently John Paul II (1995, n. 56, p. 709) adduces defense of society as the only possible justification for it and sees such cases as “very rare if not practically non-existent.”
4. The preservation of life. The theme of a balance between dominion and limits is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the Catholic approach to life preservation. Catholic tradition does not accept our culture’s rejection of death. Rather it asserts that the facts that we are pilgrims, that Christ has overcome death and lives, and that we also will live with him yield a general value judgment on the meaning and value of life as we now live it: Life is a basic good but not an absolute one. It is basic because, as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1980, p. 511) worded it, it is the “necessary source and condition of every human activity and of all society.” It is not absolute because there are higher goods for which life can be sacrificed—e.g., the glory of God, salvation of souls, service of one’s brethren, and the like. Thus in John (15:13): “There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John Paul II (1995, n. 47, p. 706) briefly summarizes this in Evangelium Vitae: “The life of the body in its earthly state is not an absolute good for the believer.” This value [End Page 388] judgment has immediate relevance for care of the ill and dying: Not all means must be used to preserve life.
Thus the Catholic tradition has moved between two extremes: medico-moral optimism or vitalism (which preserves life with all means, at any cost...