Batman and the Fifth Commandment: The Church's Teaching Behind the Dark Knight's One Rule

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Batman is one of the most recognizable superheroes in American pop culture in today’s day and age.  While there are several forms of media that have immortalized the Caped Crusader (comic books, TV shows, cartoons, movies, etc.), one of the biggest contributing factors to why the character of Batman resonates with so many people is Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, which started with Batman Begins back in 2005. 

While it is praised for a myriad of complex storytelling techniques, its rich themes, and great action, one of the defining characteristics of Nolan’s Batman films is the concept of the struggle between justice and vengeance.  The manifestation of this struggle is Bruce Wayne’s and his alter ego’s establishment of his one and only rule: to not kill, no matter the circumstances.  Batman’s rule in these films mirrors a key teaching found in the Catholic Church and even going back to the times of Moses, namely, the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” 

Despite the apparent simplicity of this directive, the Church has actually taught and codified in doctrine that there are extenuating, albeit very few, circumstances that allow for killing another person without sinning.  Batman finds himself in several situations throughout Batman Begins that most people might look at and think that he would be justified in resorting to killing his enemies.  In fact, some of these situations might even be condoned by the Church in a general sense, according to the strict application of its doctrine.  Nevertheless, once you take a closer look at Batman as he is presented in the film, it’s clear to see that his rule to never kill, even when it might seem logical or morally acceptable, is the one thing keeping him from going over the edge.  By examining five key moments of Bruce Wayne’s character development in Batman Begins and relevant Catholic doctrine regarding the moral considerations of killing, it is clear that Bruce Wayne and Batman have no choice but to refrain from killing when fighting crime in order to maintain his moral integrity. 

The Five Pillars of Batman’s Moral Code

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          To fully understand the moral conundrum presented to Bruce Wayne as he seeks to fit injustice without himself becoming unjust, it is crucial to comprehend how Bruce Wayne forms his moral code.  From what I can see, there are five critical moments of Bruce’s young life throughout Batman Begins that are the building blocks of his one rule. 

The first and obvious catalyst for Bruce to embark on his crime fighting crusade is the death of his parents at the hands of a desperate criminal by the name of Joe Chill.  With his parents gunned down in a Gotham back alley and their murderer having vanished into the night, a young Bruce is made an orphan in the blink of an eye.  Furthermore, he is saddled with the added guilt of knowing that if he hadn’t been terrified of bats and hadn’t forced his parents to leave the play that they were attending, they might still be alive (that is A LOT of psychological damage to place on a 10 year old boy; it’s no wonder that Bruce spends the rest of his childhood and young adult life obsessing over this incident). 

            Fast-forwarding in time to Bruce training with Ducard (who is actually…SPOILER ALERT…Ra’s Al Ghul! :O), he speaks to Bruce about vengeance and how the League of Shadows could help him avenge the death of his parents.  In response to this, Bruce tells him, “That is no help to me.”  Here, we see the second pivotal moment in Bruce’s development into the Batman.  The film shows us a flashback of a college-aged Bruce Wayne attending the court hearing of Joe Chill, who is getting some form of plea bargain due to his cooperation in providing information on the Gotham mob boss, Carmine Falcone.  Unable to allow this to happen, Bruce attempts to murder Chill outside the courthouse in the hopes of attaining true justice, only to be beaten to the punch by one of Falcone’s cronies.  Admonished by Rachel for attempting to stoop so low and confronted with Falcone face-to-face, Wayne soon realizes the errors of his ways and that killing someone like Joe Chill not only wouldn’t stop the likes of Falcone from corrupting his city, but that doing so would also corrupt his very own character.  If his parents were around to see him attempting to murder someone, they would be disappointed with their son.  Bruce realizes there must be another way to seek justice for his parents that would help provide a medicinal effect to the corruption in Gotham.  Thus, Bruce has made the first true step in forming his unshakeable moral code. 

          With his eyes opened from his encounter with Falcone, Bruce understands that he must first learn the true nature of the mind of a criminal before he can ever hope to effectively combat injustice.  Therefore, he spends his years between his attempted murder of Chill and his training with the League of Shadows as a nameless nomad, travelling the globe and embedding himself with petty criminals.  In the process, he is compelled to do things he never realized he would resort to doing.  For example, he recounts the first time he had to steal food in order to not starve.  In so doing, he “lost many assumptions about the simple nature of right and wrong.”  He even joins some gang in a non-specified Asian country and takes part in a massive heist, enjoying “the thrill of success,” only to be caught.  But even at this point, he “never became one of them,” revealing that the cargo of the heist was actually a Wayne Enterprises shipment.  Even as a “thief,” he had drawn a line in the sand, morally speaking.  He was able to maintain his own identity as a man seeking justice and used his time as a fake criminal to truly understand his enemy.  Batman’s almost flirtatious obsession with the side of evil is a key component of why his moral code is so absolute; if he deviates from his code, even slightly, he runs the irreparable risk of plunging headlong into the abyss.  This experience as a “criminal” is the third pillar in Bruce’s development. 

          Rotting in a jail cell for his “crime” of stealing from himself, Bruce meets Ducard/Ra’s, who offers him a path through the League of Shadows.  In this encounter, Ducard/Ra’s makes several promises to Bruce.  He offers him the path of a man “who shares his hatred of evil,” the opportunity to “serve true justice,” and to do so by being more than just a vigilante “lost in the scramble for his own gratification.”  Here, Ducard provides Bruce with a revelation, that “if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal…then you become something else entirely…a legend.”  This serves as Bruce’s fourth pillar in his journey to becoming the Batman.  Understanding that if he is to change Gotham for the better in any sort of permanent way, he can’t do it simply as Bruce Wayne.  Later, he discusses this further with Alfred, saying, “as a man, I’m flesh and blood, I can be ignored, I can be destroyed.”  He understands that if he picks a symbol that is “something elemental, something terrifying,” he can galvanize the good citizens of Gotham to take back their corrupt city, and, likewise, he can “turn fear against those who pray on the fearful.” 

          Armed with his newfound purpose, Bruce spends months and/or years training with the League of Shadows, becoming a world-class stealth warrior (essentially a ninja…which is super cool, by the way).  Having proven himself worthy of acceptance into the League of Shadows and even chosen for a position of leadership, Bruce is confronted with one final test; a test that will serve as his fifth crucial moment in his path to becoming the Caped Crusader.  Ducard gives Bruce a sword and presents him with a violent criminal who has been condemned to death for his crimes (doubtfully as a result of due process and a fair trial…).  Much to Ducard’s surprise, Bruce refuses to take this guilty man’s life.  Ducard admonishes him, saying, “Your compassion is a weakness your enemies will not share.”  Bruce calmly rebuts Ducard’s critical statement with, “That’s why it’s so important: it separates us from them.”  It’s at this moment that Bruce sees clearly what he must do and to what set of ideals he must commit in order to bring justice to the streets of Gotham.  He now knows the clear delineation between vigilante and hero, criminal and peacekeeper, vengeance and justice.  At this moment, Bruce has completed his transformation into the Batman, whether he has all his gadgets and specific symbol assembled and figured out yet or not.  The rest of Batman Begins shows the manifestation of Bruce’s moral transformation through his conflict with the Scarecrow and the real Ra’s Al Ghul. 

The Church’s Teaching on the Fifth Commandment

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          Now that we know how Bruce developed his “no killing” rule, let’s now examine the Church’s teachings on when it is and is not ethical to resort to killing.  Most Christians are, at the very least, familiar with the Ten Commandments as presented in the Book of Exodus.  Perhaps the most straight forward of these is the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.”  Seems pretty easy to follow for most of us, right?  Well, Jesus Christ further expounds on this and many other Hebrew teachings in the Book of Matthew.  In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus tells the crowds at His Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill: and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.”  Stemming from Jesus’ teachings here, His Church has continued to further explain, teach, and clarify key aspects of God’s laws regarding the nature of killing.  To better understand Batman’s dilemma as he seeks true justice, we need to have a clear understanding of key aspects of Catholic doctrine on killing and its relation to sin.

          One facet of the Fifth Commandment that has been codified in Catholic doctrine is the concept of the use of killing for “legitimate defense.”  The Church discusses killing an aggressor who would otherwise cause harm to an individual as potentially justifiable (a.k.a. self-defense), provided that the intent is not necessarily to kill the aggressor.  In other words, save yourself and/or the lives of your friends and loved ones from a murderous maniac, and in the words of Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, “If he dies [in the process], he dies.”  While potentially fruitful to examine in a variety of stories and real-world cases, I’m going to shift our focus to the next step in this discussion to the societal and governmental level.  According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others.”  It further explains that “those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.”  This last piece will become integral to our understanding of how Batman fits into the social and governmental fabric of Gotham and what authority he actually holds.  The Church even goes as far as to say that it “does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against an unjust aggressor.”  It appears, therefore, that there could potentially be scenarios in which Batman could be justified in condemning some of his adversaries to death.  As we will see, however, there are other factors that preclude the Batman we see in Batman Begins from resorting to taking the life of criminals and adversaries, even in the name of defending Gotham City from unjust aggressors. 

          Another key aspect of the Church’s teaching on killing is with regard to anger, envy, and, more relevantly, vengeance.  As already discussed, Jesus cautions those who hear His words that even those who are angry with their brother is liable to judgment in relation to the Fifth Commandment.  Is Jesus equivocating the murder of an innocent victim with someone getting really angry with someone but not physically acting out?  I think it’s fair to say no, but He is highlighting that Anger, which is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, is often the root of violent action.  One of the earliest recorded sins in the Bible is Cain murdering his brother Abel, which is fratricide in the truest and most heinous sense of the word.  What drove Cain to do such a thing?  Well, he was motivated by bitter envy that his brother had gained favor over him and his anger led him to lash out and murder Abel.  Anger, more often than not, is a prerequisite of vengeance and murder.  Furthermore, if someone harbors “a deliberate desire to kill or seriously wound a neighbor, it is gravely against charity; it is a mortal sin.”  No matter how angry we are or how justified it might seem to exact revenge on someone who has wronged us, we must refrain from killing someone for these reasons, whether they are innocent or guilty. 

          Next, it is worth noting the distinction between lethal and non-lethal means of protecting the safety of people and societies from violent criminals.  While the Church acknowledges that sometimes lethal means of defending people and societies are sometimes required, an individual or government must first exhaust all non-lethal means of preserving order that are available to them before resorting to lethal means.  The Catechism explains that “if, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the dignity of the human person.”  So even if using lethal means is more logical or easier to implement than non-lethal means when dealing with violent criminals, authorities who are entrusted with maintaining order and defending the innocent are obliged, in accordance with Church teaching, to choose the non-lethal means first, provided it is still a valid and viable way to handle the problem at hand. 

          One final point to discuss before examining the film itself and how these teachings can influence how we view Batman is what is known as “Just War Doctrine.”  I won’t dwell on this too long since it does not fully apply to Batman, but there is one part of Church doctrine that can be useful to us, especially if we consider that Batman is, in a way, declaring war on crime in Gotham, particularly in Batman Begins.  The Catechism asserts that in order to maintain moral legitimacy in any sort of armed conflict, “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.  The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.”  In other words, even if we are justified in taking lives through the function of war, we must be mindful of the impact our actions in this armed conflict could have on our own souls as well as the moral legitimacy of our side of the conflict.  For example, if in order to defeat a morally deficient aggressor in war, we would have to kill innocent men and women in the process, our actions would no longer be justified, even if it did allow us to win the war.  Put more simply, the ends do not justify the means.     

Batman’s Crusade and the Fifth Commandment

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          If you’ve stuck with me up to this point, congratulations!  You have a much better attention span than I expected (and probably better than I deserve).  If I didn’t lose you with heavy analysis and dry explanation of Church doctrine, then you’re on the home stretch!  Now we can see where the intersections are between Church teaching and Batman’s moral decisions throughout the film.  

An inherent component of the purpose of Batman is to operate outside of or above the law.  It is the very failure of the government of Gotham and the corruption of its leaders and politicians that the legend of Batman became necessary in the first place in Batman Begins.  Therefore, no matter how objectively Batman combats crime and seeks justice in the streets of Gotham, he does not “legitimately hold authority” to use lethal measures to “repel aggressors against the civil community” of Gotham.  As the Catholic Church defines it in the Catechism, Batman does not fit the description of a legitimate governing authority and, therefore, cannot take it upon himself the become judge, jury and executioner.  He stresses this point to Ra’s at the critical moment when the League of Shadows tries to force him to kill a criminal.  He tells him that while he would gladly fight men like him, he refuses to become an executioner.  By refusing to kill even obviously guilty criminals, Bruce distinguishes himself as an enforcer for justice rather than a murderous vigilante.  In this way, he aligns himself well within the Church’s teachings on killing in the case of legitimate defense of society. 

Bruce Wayne fully comprehends that his unbridled anger towards the criminals of Gotham and his innate desire to attain some form of justice for the death of his parents present legitimate temptation for him to give into darkness and undermine the very idea of the Batman.  Seeing Joe Chill potentially walk away scot-free and not answer for his crime, Bruce couldn’t help but give into his anger and foster “a deliberate desire to kill.”  As he tells Rachel, almost mournfully so, “all these years I wanted to kill him…now I can’t.”  Bruce’s anger twisted his character in such a way that the line between justice and vengeance was blurred beyond recognition for him.  Even years after this, once he has begun his training with the League of Shadows, Bruce tells Ra’s that “my anger outweighs my guilt,” in reference to his emotions regarding his parents’ death.  The death of Bruce’s parents, therefore, is forever the driving force behind the very existence of Batman, which means that Bruce’s anger and vitriol associated with their death can never truly dissipate or be removed from the fabric of the Batman.  Thus, if Batman were ever to kill in the name of this crusade against crime in Gotham, Bruce would not be able to escape the fact that the deaths of his victims would be the direct result of anger, vengeance, and “a deliberate desire to kill.”  His own sanity and grasp of true morality and justice is balancing precariously on the precipice of madness, so much so that just one death such as this would tip the scales and drive him to unleash wrathful death and destruction on all the criminals of Gotham.  Therefore, the only way for Bruce to seek justice for his parents without crossing over into the realm of vengeance is to refrain from killing altogether in every circumstance possible.  

Although Batman does not have superpowers in the same way other superheroes do, he, at the very least, has achieved pique physical condition above most, if not all other men on Earth in Batman Begins.  In addition to this, aside from his superior intellect and use of advanced technology and weaponry, I would argue that his main superpower is his restraint and optimized use of non-lethal means to neutralize threats.  Having received his training from an organization that is based on the “League of Assassins” from the comic books, it’s pretty clear that Bruce gained tremendous combat and stealth abilities that could allow him to kill anyone he so desired.  In other terms, he had attained both lethal and non-lethal means of fighting his opponents through his training with Ra’s Al Ghul.  By choosing to ignore his lethal skillset altogether in favor of strictly using his non-lethal skillset, he’s essentially fighting with one hand tied behind his back.  He is also, coincidentally, staying true to Catholic doctrine, which favors the use of non-lethal means of maintaining peace and order before the use of lethal means.  While most other governments, militaries, and even other superheroes must resort to killing their opponents in order to achieve victory, Batman is able to achieve similar results without killing his enemies, thus neutralizing their threat on society while still affirming their dignity as human beings. 

Batman’s moral code is in keeping with the Church’s teaching on Just War Doctrine because Bruce is intimately aware of his own capabilities and acts accordingly.  In the climactic moments of the film, we see Ra’s Al Ghul use a weaponized, fear-inducing hallucinogen in conjunction with a device that deploys this hallucinogen on the citizens of Gotham.  It’s in this third act of the film that we can for ourselves what path Bruce could have taken if not guided by his moral code.  Ra’s tells Bruce, “You were my greatest student.  It should be you standing by my side saving the world.”  It’s clear that Bruce not only learned how to fight and operate like Ra’s and the rest of the League of Shadows, but that he also possesses the potential to level cities and cripple societies at their very foundations with the tools he gained from the League.  On top of that, Bruce also has access to top level, cutting edge technology and weaponry through Wayne Enterprises, not to mention his tremendous wealth and influence in the global economy.  If he were to apply these talents, gifts, and tools to their fullest destructive potential, Bruce would most certainly be susceptible to producing “evils and disorders” that are “graver than the evil to be eliminated.”  He could have chosen the path that Ra’s Al Ghul wanted him to follow, but if he did, he would have gravely violated Catholic morality in relation to Just War Doctrine (as well as most rational people’s moral principles, I hope). 

All in all, Batman possesses the physical, intellectual, and technological capacity to unleash unfathomable calamities not only on Gotham, but on the world at large.  Therefore, his commitment to not killing, even in cases where it could be justified, serves to keep Bruce in check; to ensure he does not bring about this type of destruction amidst his war on crime.  

 

That’s it, ladies and gentlemen!  Those are my thoughts on the parallels between Catholic teachings on killing and one of my favorite fictional characters of all time in one of my favorite movies ever.  If you follow me on Instagram, you may be disappointed that this wasn’t a podcast, as I initially promised.  However, as you can see, I needed to sit down and let these ideas marinate and formulate in a proper way so I could get these complex concepts across in a way that made even a little bit of sense.  As far as moving forward, I plan to shift the focus of the blog from movie reviews of current movies to more things like this, where I take an old movie and discuss it through a Catholic and/or ethics lens.  I’m still debating what the proper use of the podcast is, so I won’t promise anything on that front just yet. 

Anyway, that’s just about it.  For my Catholic brothers and sisters, I hope you learned something about the Faith and gained an added perspective on how to view not only Batman Begins, but also other superhero movies and movies in general.  For my non-Catholic readers, perhaps this will give you some insight on what us Catholics think about certain moral dilemmas, storytelling in movies, or both.  As always, until next time, stay tuned and God Bless!