On the Morality of Dueling

Author: Pope Leo XIII

PASTORALIS OFFICII (On the Morality of Dueling)

Pope Leo XIII

Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII promulgated on 12 September 1891.

To the Archbishops and Bishops of the German Empire and Austria-Hungary.

Mindful of your pastoral duty and moved by your love of neighbor, you wroteto me last year concerning the frequent practice among your people of aprivate, individual contest called dueling. You indicate, not withoutgrief, that even Catholics customarily engage in this type of combat. Atthe same time your request that We, too, attempt to dissuade men from thismanner of error. It is indeed a deadly error and not restricted to yourcountry, but has spread so far that practically no people can be found freefrom the contagion of the evil. Hence, We praise your zeal. It is clearlyknown what Christian philosophy, certainly in agreement with naturalreason, prescribes in this matter; nevertheless, because the vicious customof dueling is being encouraged with greatest forgetfulness of Christianprecepts, it will be expedient to briefly review these rules.

2. Clearly, divine law, both that which is known by the light of reason andthat which is revealed in Sacred Scripture, strictly forbids anyone,outside of public cause, to kill or wound a man unless compelled to do soin self-defense. Those, moreover, who provoke a private combat or acceptone when challenged, deliberately and unnecessarily intend to take a lifeor at least wound an adversary. Furthermore, divine law prohibits anyone from risking his life rashly, exposing himself to grave and evident dangerwhen not constrained by duty or generous charity. In the very nature of theduel, there is plainly blind temerity and contempt for life. There can be,therefore, no obscurity or doubt in anyone's mind that those who engage inbattle privately and singly take upon themselves a double guilt, that ofanother's destruction and the deliberate risk of their own lives. Finally,there is hardly any pestilence more deadly to the discipline of civilsociety and perversive to the just order of the state than that license begiven to citizens to defend their own rights privately and singly andavenge their honor which they believe has been violated.

3. The Church is the protectress and guardian not only of truth, but alsoof justice and honor, in the union of which public peace and order are heldtogether; therefore it has vehemently condemned and taken pains to punishwith the gravest penalties possible those guilty of private combat. Theconstitutions of Our predecessor Alexander III, inserted in the books ofcanon law, condemn and solemnly denounce these private disputes. TheCouncil of Trent punishes with singular and severe penalties those whoengage in these contests or in any way participate in them. Indeed, aboveall other punishments it brands these persons with disgrace; expelled fromthe bosom of the Church, they are judged unworthy of the honor ofecclesiastical burial if they die in the struggle. Our predecessor BenedictXIV in his constitution of November 10, 1752, "Detestabilem," explained infuller detail the Tridentine sanctions. In most recent times, Pius IX inhis apostolic letter, which opens with "Apostolicae Sedis "and reduces thenumber of "latae sententiae" censures, clearly declares that not only thosewho contend in the duel incur ecclesiastical penalties, but also those whoa called "patrinos," seconds, and likewise witnesses and accomplices.

4. The wisdom of these regulations is more evident as one examines theabsurd justification or excuses for the inhuman custom of dueling. Thegenerally held argument that this sort of struggle washes away, as it were,the stains that calumny or insult has brought upon the honor of citizenssurely can deceive no one but a madman. Even if the challenger of a duel isthe victor, all reasonable persons will admit that the outcome simplyproves he is the better man in strength or in handling a weapon, not thebetter man in honor. But if he falls in the combat, does he not prove bythe same token how absurd is this way of protecting his honor? Few thereare, we believe, who commit this crime deceived by erroneous opinion. Itis, to be sure, the desire of revenge that impels passionate and arrogantmen to seek satisfaction. God commands all men to love each other inbrotherly love and forbids them to ever violate anyone; he condemns revengeas a deadly sin and reserves to himself the right of expiation. If peoplecould restrain their passion and submit to God, they would easily abandonthe monstrous custom of dueling.

5. Fear is not a just excuse for those who accept the challenge of a duel.They are afraid that they will be publicly disgraced as cowards if theyrefuse. Now if the duties of mankind are measured by the false opinions ofthe multitude, not by the eternal norms of rectitude and justice, therewould be no natural distinction between honorable actions and disgracefuldeeds. The pagan philosophers themselves both knew and taught that thefallacious judgments of the masses must be spurned by a courageous andsteadfast man. It is rather a just and holy fear which prevents a man fromcommitting murder and makes him solicitous of his own safety and that ofhis brothers. Truly, he who disdains the worthless judgments of the mob,who prefers to undergo the scourging of insults rather than abandon duty inany matter, proves himself to be of a far greater and exalted spirit thanhe who rushes to arms when provoked by an affront. Yes, indeed, if he wantsto be judged rightly, he is the one in whom solid virtue shines forth. Thefortitude is truly called virtue, and its companion is a glory, that isneither counterfeit nor deceptive. Virtue in a good man exists inaccordance with reason, and unless virtue rests on the judgment of God'sapproval, all glory is vain.

6. Lastly, the baseness of dueling is so evident, that in our time, despitethe approval and patronage of many, legislators have felt bound to repressit by public authority and published penalties. What is so perverse anddestructive in this case is that the written laws for the most part areevaded in substance and in deed; and this often happens with the knowledgeand silence of those whose duty it is to punish the guilty and see to itthat the laws are enforced. Thus it happens that frequently duels arefought and go unpunished, mocking the law.

7. Absurd, certainly, and unworthy of a sensible man is the belief of thosewho think that civilians are to be prevented from these contests, yetrecommend that they be permitted to the military because, they maintain,such experience sharpens military valor. Now, in the first place, honorabledeeds and disgraceful acts are essentially different; in no way can they bechanged to their opposites by the different status of persons. Indeed, menin whatever condition of life are equally bound by natural and divine law.The reason, moreover, for such a concession for the military would have tobe sought in public benefit which could never be so great so as to silencethe voice of natural and divine law. What about the obvious deficiency inthis rationale of public advantage? Assuredly, the incentives to militarycourage aim at better preparing the state against the enemy. Can this beaccomplished by the practice of a custom that by its very nature causes thedeath of one of the individual parties of the country's defense wheneverdissension arises among the soldiers for which, indeed, occasions are by nomeans rare?

8. Finally, the new age which boasts of far excelling previous ages in amore civilized culture and refinement of manners is wont to consider olderinstitutions of little value and too often reject whatever differs from thecharacter of the new elegance. Why is it that in its great zeal forcivilization, it does not repudiate the base remnants of an uncouth age andforeign barbarism that we know as the custom of dueling?

9. It will be your duty, venerable brothers, to impress diligently upon theminds of your people these points which I have briefly touched upon, thatthey not rashly follow false notions concerning dueling, nor allowthemselves to be carried away by the judgments of shallow men. Takeparticular care that youth at the right time understand that the Church'sposition on dueling is in agreement with natural philosophy. Indeed, justas in other countries Catholics in the prime of youth voluntarily andfaithfully refuse to endorse dishonorable associations, in like manner, weare extending to Catholic youth the opportunity to make the same agreementamong themselves and pledge that at no time and under no condition willthey engage in a duel.

10. We humble pray God that he strengthen our common efforts with divinegrace and that He kindly grant what We desire for public welfare, for theintegrity of morals and for Christian life. Affectionately in the Lord, weimpart the Apostolic Blessing, Venerable Brothers, in protection of trulydivine favors and as a witness of Our good will.

Given at Rome at the See of St. Peter, September 12, 1891, in thefourteenth year of Our Pontificate.

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