My heart sank when I read the headline: “Abortion Provider Is Shot Dead.” It sank still further as I read the story.

Dr. George Tiller of Wichita, Kansas was one of the few doctors willing to perform late-term abortion, even some, the newspaper reported, in the ninth month. Kansas records show that Tiller aborted-killed hundreds of fetuses old enough to live outside the womb. Regardless of one’s views on the beginning of life, the thought of all those fully formed infant bodies cut and crushed is surely heartbreaking. Now we must add the image of a man rushing into a church on a Sunday morning and gunning Tiller down. Sigh.

Tiller’s murder was immediately and widely denounced by the various leaders of the pro-life movement. Speaking on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia went a bit overboard. “Our bishops’ conference and all its members have repeatedly and publicly denounced all forms of violence in our society,” he wrote, “including abortion as well as the misguided resort to violence by anyone opposed to abortion.” The blanket condemnation of “violence” seems unhelpfully expansive. But you get what he means. What the killer did was wrong. Very wrong.

But why? On this point we need to be reminded, because the reasons are not as simple as they seem.

There are a number of ways in which killing can be wrong. At the most basic level, as the Christian tradition and natural reason clearly teach, it is always wrong to directly and intentionally kill an innocent person. It does not matter who does the killing. A policeman cannot knowingly target an innocent person. If judge and jailor connive to smooth the way for the execution of an innocent person, then no sanctity of office or claim of legal responsibility can cover the fundamental wrongness, the intrinsic evil, of the killing.

In addition to the principle of innocence, there is a broad, general presumption in favor of life that restricts the use of lethal force in society. Killing of any sort is wrong if it is not necessary for the protection of life. Sometimes the principle of necessity is easy to apply. If the criminal throws down his gun, then the policeman should not shoot. He can be apprehended and his crime stymied without lethal force. But we all know that it is easy to argue about what is deemed necessary. There is a strong element of “could have” or “might have” in the application of this principle. The problem is magnified when we begin to think about larger social situations. Was the use of lethal force necessary to prevent a riot? The question can be hard to answer.

To the principles of innocence and necessity we need to add a third principle, what the Catholic tradition calls “legitimate authority.” The main body of the Christian tradition allows that we have a right to self-defense, and even insists that we have a duty to defend others. However, when it comes to calculated, premeditated, and methodical use of force the tradition is very clear: No individual can take justice into his or her own hands.

A number of pro-life groups zeroed in on this aspect of Tiller’s murder. From Operation Rescue: “We denounce vigilantism and the cowardly act that took place this morning.” The National Right to Life Committee condemned “any such acts regardless of motivation. The pro-life movement works to protect the right to life and increase respect for human life. The unlawful use of violence is directly contrary to that goal.” The Family Research Council: “We strongly condemn the actions taken today by this vigilante killer.”

The emphasis on “unlawful use of violence,” the evocation of “vigilantism,” and the description of Tiller’s killer as a “vigilante killer” are all exactly right. We are all sinners, but it is painfully obvious that Dr. George Tiller acted in wanton disregard for the sanctity of life. Killing him did not violate the principle of innocence. Moreover, he gave no evidence of stopping. As a result, perhaps something like the principle of necessity can be satisfied. But it is certainly obvious that his killer was acting as the law unto himself. He arrogated to himself the roles of jury, judge, and executioner. He violated the principle of legitimate authority.

We live in an age that makes revolutionaries into celebrities and unrepentant terrorists into community leaders. By and large, our progressively minded elites pride themselves on questioning legitimate authority, and antiglobalization zealots can be counted on to riot at WTO meetings. Not surprisingly, therefore, the principle of legitimate authority leaves us cold. Isn’t the very notion of legitimate authority part of a complacent, Establishmentarian mentality? Who really cares about narrow, technical questions of legality when fundamental questions of justice are at stake?

The Bible, however, recognizes the signal importance of legitimate authority. Jesus teaches us to render unto God that which is God’s-but also to Caesar that which is Caesar’s. Thus 1 Peter 1:13: “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution.” St. Paul’s letter to the Romans is especially emphatic: “Let every person be subject to governing authorities,” and not just now and then, but in every respect, “for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 13:1).

Paul is not suggesting that the Roman emperor of his day is a trustworthy divine deputy with a pipeline to God. He is not going down a moral checklist and giving Roman justice thumbs up. Instead, Paul is making a basic point about God’s providence. The fundamental good of government flows from its ability to impose law and order. Legitimate authority, however stained by injustice and blind to its own moral corruption, restrains our tendency to fall into endless conflict, vendetta, and fearful scramble for survival.

Our legal regime clearly suffers from the corruption of human sinfulness. Abortion is legal. As St. Thomas taught, unjust laws have “not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence.” So there we have it, a painful fact. In America, abortion is a legalized illegality, a socially permitted injustice.

Eric Rudolph bombed several abortion clinics in the late 1990s. He wrote the following to justify his actions: “The fact of the matter is that if you recognize that abortion is murder but do not recognize the right to use force to prevent this murder, then the only logical conclusion is that you do not consider that the unborn have a legitimate claim to life.”

The syllogism seems so pure, so morally heroic, so rigorous-and yet it represents a far greater threat to the culture of life than the shameful fact that abortion is legal in America. To take a gun into your hand and presume to become the instrument of a greater, supra-legal justice represents a fundamental assault on the very idea of legitimate authority.

It is a moral luxury for modern men and women to discount the tremendous importance of the principle of legitimate authority. Go to a collapsed African country where warlords rule and the raw lust for power dominates. There you will see that that the rule of law is not a narrowly technical or complacently legalistic social good. A legitimate, functioning government is the precondition for civilization. It is the very basis for any successful collective effort to respect life.

I have always loathed revolutionary vanguards, terrorists, and assassins. I have never felt any attraction to John Brown. On the contrary, he strikes me as a dangerous man who was capable of horrible crimes. The same holds for Che Guevara and others. They have imagined that the noble truth of their cause justifies their disregard for the laws of society. But law transcended is law destroyed, and law destroyed invites barbarism, as the history of the twentieth century so sadly illustrates.

Pro-life leaders rightly condemn vigilante violence. It is a principled stand, not a public relations maneuver. Legitimate authority restrains the grossest forms of evil. The existence of a civil society allows us to exercise our consciences on behalf of the unborn rather than being absorbed by the cruel need to fight for our own survival. The rule of law provides the fundamental condition for any right-to-life movement that seeks to protect real lives rather than to congratulate itself on its moral purity.

R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University.

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