Taken from THE CATECHISM EXPLAINED
Written by Fr. Francis Spirago; Edited by Fr. Richard Clarke, SJ
with Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, New York, 1927
SECTION B: THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT OF GOD
In the Fifth Commandment almighty God forbids us to destroy our own life, or that of our neighbor, or to treat the lower animals with cruelty.
1. OUR DUTY IN RESPECT TO OUR OWN LIFE
Many of the ceremonies in the administration of the Sacraments, ceremonies full of meaning, are performed upon the body. By these the Church intends to inspire us with great respect for our bodies, and to teach us their high worth and dignity.
1. Our body was created by God as an abode for our immortal soul.
The condition of the soul is often dependent upon the condition of that abode.
When God made the human body out of lifeless earth, it was an uninhabited tenement; but it was destined to be inhabited, therefore God created the soul to be its occupant. St. Peter speaks of his body as a tabernacle which he would shortly have to quit (2 Pet. i. 14). It fares with the soul in the body as with the inmate of a house. If the house be unhealthy, the dweller in it falls sick. Our body is like the shell of an egg; if the shell be injured, the young bird within is hurt; so if our mortal frame sustains injury, the spirit, the noble inmate of that dwelling, suffers with it. The Romans had a proverb: A healthy mind in a healthy body. Our body is not our own, it belongs to God (1 Cor. vi. 13). It belongs to God, not only because He created it, but because Christ purchased it with a great price (1 Cor. vi. 20). We are bound to take care of what is the property of another. The tenant of a hired house has no right to damage or destroy that house, so we are not at liberty to injure or destroy our body, the abode of the soul, created by God and belonging to Him. We must not do with our body what we will, but what God wills. [Emphasis in bold added.]
Our body is an implement of the soul, entrusted by God to our keeping, to be made instrumental in amassing merits for eternity.
Like all other instruments, our bodies can be misused. Hence St. Paul warns Christian people not to yield their members as instruments of iniquity unto sin (Rom. vi. 13). As God will require us to give account of the manner in which we have employed the talents given us (Matt. xxv. 19), so we shall have to answer for the employment of the body, which the soul informs and makes instrumental in the performance of the duties of our calling. Our Lord told St. Gertrude that after the resurrection, on the members of the body employed in His service surpassing dignity and excellence would be conferred.
2. Since the life and health of the body are of great importance for the life of the soul and for our eternal salvation, we are bound to take precautions for the preservation of our health and of our life.
By means of cleanliness, temperance, regularity, industry, and the use of remedies in case of sickness.
Health is worth more to us than vast riches (Ecclus. xxx. 16). For the longer we keep our health and our life, the more treasures we can lay up for eternity, where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, where thieves do not break through, nor steal (Matt. vi. 20). If we thoughtlessly do anything to shorten our life, we defraud ourselves of a part of our seed-time. The eagle takes the utmost care of its egg, not for the sake of the shell, but of the young eagle enclosed in the egg; so we should take care of our body because of the soul that dwells within it. Cleanliness is to be observed in our person, our apparel, the rooms we inhabit; temperance in eating and drinking. Abstemiousness promotes health and prolongs life. (See what has been said on the advantages of fasting.) Many men of weak physique naturally, have so increased their strength by abstemiousness that they have been capable of immense activity. St. Paul in his epistles often mentions his bodily weakness. Regularity is to be observed in regard to meals, the time of going to rest and rising in the morning; in one's work and in the arrangement of one's time. Above all, let us never be unemployed. By work we may not only earn our daily bread. but do much towards keeping ourselves in health. Work circulates the blood, and gives an appetite for food. Stagnant water becomes foul, and the blood of the idler is apt to get into a bad state. Yet we must not overtax our strength with work; moderate labor invigorates, excessive toil ruins the powers of our body. Finally, it is our duty to have recourse to remedies in case of sickness. It is sinful, if anyone is dangerously ill, not to call in medical aid, and employ remedies. "Honor the physician for the need thou hast of him, for the Most High hath created him" (Ecclus. xxxviii. 1). "The Most High hath created medicines out of the earth, and a wise man will not abhor them" (v. 4). However, if the cure is too costly, or if it involves acute suffering, it may be forborne.
Our solicitude concerning the preservation of our health and of our life must not, however, be so great as to make us forgetful of our eternal salvation.
The good things of time, such as life and bodily well-being, are not intrinsically valuable and to be desired, but only in so far as they are conducive to our eternal welfare. "The Spirit of God does not remain in a man forever, because he is flesh" (Gen. vi. 3), i.e., fleshly-minded. "The wisdom of the flesh is death; it is an enemy to God" (Rom. viii. 6). The more the body is studied and pampered, the more the soul is neglected and ruined (St. Augustine). Hence Our Lord admonishes us: "Be not solicitous for meat and raiment. For your heavenly Father knoweth that you have need of all these things; He feeds the birds of the air, and clothes the lilies of the field, though they labor not: are not you of more value than they!" (Matt. vi. 25, 32).
3. Furthermore we are under a strict obligation to do nothing that tends to destroy health or life.
Consequently it is a sin to rashly hazard one's life, wantonly to injure one's health. or to take one's own life.
1. Those persons generally risk their life without a thought who perform hazardous feats, or who neglect due precautions.
Acrobats, equestrian performers, lion-tamers, and the like commit sin unless they take all necessary precautions to avoid fatal accidents; the professions they follow are objectionable on moral grounds, and even unlawful. Performers of this character are too often dissolute in their manners, and their hazardous feats frequently cost them their lives. The same may be said of those who are foolhardy, and willfully risk their lives in athletic sports, or public games, such as the bullfights which are the national amusement in Spain. Want of ordinary prudence is also highly reprehensible, as for instance, to cross the line when a train is approaching, by which many have lost their lives, or to stand under a tree, or otherwise expose one's self during a thunderstorm. Again, in the case of infectious disease great precaution is necessary; only the priest, the doctor, and the nurse, should be allowed access to the sick-room. There are other ways whereby one may place one's life in jeopardy: by drinking cold water or taking a cold bath when violently heated; playing with loaded fire-arms; jumping into or out of a train while it is in motion; touching the electric wires with the bare hand, or hanging on behind a carriage as children are wont to do, with the chance of getting their limbs crushed by the wheels. Therefore be prudent and never risk your life rashly.
2. Some persons are in the habit of injuring their health by indulging to an excess in amusements, by vanity in dress, and partaking too freely of unwholesome food.
By excess in amusement is meant frequent playing and dancing all night, smoking and drinking immoderately, etc. "By surfeiting many have perished" (Ecclus. xxxvii. 34). By vanity in dress is meant tight lacing, which by undue pressure upon the vital organs, deranges their action, and has even caused sudden death. The fashion of squeezing the feet into pointed shoes is also injurious. Spirits, if taken in large quantities. or even strong concoctions of tea or coffee. are decidedly prejudicial to the digestion and the nerves.
3. Suicides are generally men who are devoid of religious beliefs, who have got into trouble or committed some great sin, and who despair of God's mercy and assistance; they are sometimes not accountable for their actions, and consequently not to be blamed for them.
King Saul lost all hope when he was grievously wounded and surrounded by his enemies; he then cast himself on his sword (1 Kings xxxi.). The keeper of the prison at Philippi, greatly alarmed at seeing the doors of the prison open, wherein St. Paul was confined, was about to kill himself (Acts xvi. 27). Judas, in despair at the enormity of his crime. went and hanged himself (Matt. xxvii. 5). How often we read of people destroying themselves because they have lost their all at the gambling-table. or because they have ruined their character by embezzling money, or because they cannot obtain the object of their illicit passion. But often madness. or overtaxed nerves, cause men to take their own lives without knowing what they do. Let us beware, therefore, how we hastily judge and condemn them. The prevalence of suicide is however principally and generally to be ascribed to the lack of religion, of a firm belief in a future life, of confidence in God's willingness to aid the unfortunate and to pardon the repentant sinner. Experience teaches that as religion decreases in a land, the number of suicides increases. The ancients considered self-destruction to be dishonorable and blameworthy; they cut off the right hand of the self-murderer. and buried it apart from the body. The Church denies Christian burial to one who has died by his own hand, unless insanity had rendered him irresponsible. The refusal of the burial rites is not intended as a condemnation of the individual, but to express horror of the crime, and to act as a deterrent to others. A man's life is not his own. it belongs to God Who takes it away at His will (Deut. xxxii. 39). Thus self-destruction is a presumptuous encroachment upon the Divine rights, and shows contempt for God, by flinging back at Him His greatest gift to man, which is life. The suicide also defrauds society, whereof he is a member; he wrongs his family, by bringing sorrow and shame upon it; he cruelly injures himself and gives scandal to others. It is even worse to take one's own life than that of another. because in the former case one escapes the punishment of the law. Far from being an heroic deed, it is a most cowardly act; real heroism is shown by bearing bravely the miseries of life. Besides, instead of obtaining relief from suffering, the suicide only falls into what is far worse. [Ibid.] The godless press of the day will excuse the self-murderer, saying: He expiated his crime with his life. Instead of expiating a crime, he adds another to it.
4. On the other hand it is not merely right, but even meritorious, to sacrifice one's bodily health or life in order to gain everlasting life, or to rescue one's fellow-man from physical or spiritual death. [Ibid.]
All the holy Martyrs preferred to sacrifice their life rather than commit sin. By so doing they merited life eternal, for Our Lord says: "He that shall lose his life for My sake shall find it" (Matt. x. 39). Witness Eleazar, the Machabees, St. Lawrence, Missionaries in heathen lands are in constant danger of death, and many of them ruin their health by the hardship and exertions they undergo. St. Francis Xavier, the apostle of the Indies, was, at the close of the day, so exhausted with preaching and administering Baptism, that he could scarcely speak or move his arm. Yet this is not wrong, but most praiseworthy. The same may be said of priests, doctors, and nurses who attend those who have an infectious disease. St. Aloysius and St. Charles Borromeo died of the plague, caught while nursing the sick in the hospItal. It is also permissible to risk one's life to rescue anyone who has, for instance, fallen into the fire or the water, or to expose one's self in battle for the defense of one's country. And a human soul is of such great value, that all earthly goods, nay life itself, should be sacrificed to save it. Christ gave us an example by dying upon the cross for the salvation of mankind. Of course in performing an heroic act of this nature, we ought not to seek death - that would be sinful - but only to think of the deed itself, of which death may be an accidental accompaniment.