Most zombie fiction, at some point, deals with the moral question of killing the living dead. This dilemma is often highlighted when a main character is forced to “kill” a close relative or friend who has zombified. The protagonist must answer the question, “What is this thing?” Is this still my child or is it just a lumbering piece of flesh that bears my child’s image? Do my parents’ memories lie hidden in the skull of this dead-eyed walker? Usually, the protagonist comes to terms with the difficult task at the last second, dispatching the former loved one with gusto and a smattering of brains.
For those of us planning for the zombie apocalypse, we have the privilege of time to think through the moral implications of our actions and so plan accordingly. But this task is immediately complicated by the myriad of explanations for zombie outbreaks in modern fiction. The original zombies of African Vodou were corpses animated by witchcraft. The lifeless body remained under the control of the sorcerer who conjured it. The father of the modern zombie archetype, George Romero, never explicitly explains the zombie epidemic in Night of the Living Dead (which is a classic you MUST see. It’s on Netflix and the remastered version is here on Amazon). But, in subsequent movies, the explanation is some sort of infection affects the recently deceased as well as those bitten by the corpses – perhaps the most popular zombie origin story. The Return of the Living Dead series of films by John Russo and Dan O’Bannon uses a kind of chemical, Trioxin, to explain zombies. Despite contradictions in the rate and exact transmission of infection, early films agree that the zombies are definitely dead. This is in contrast to some newer zombie fiction such as the movie 28 Days Later and video game Left 4 Dead where the “zombies” are actually living human beings infected with a virus. In these cases, the virus seems to be so severe that those infected lose all memories and agency, becoming single minded in their pursuit of the uninfected.
So, what do you do when you wake up from a coma and realize the zombie apocalypse is in full swing? Consult the Catechism of the Catholic Church, of course!
Here are a few things to remember:
1) Human beings are spiritual AND physical
What is a human being? Matter in the shape of a hairless ape, incidentally possessing self-awareness? Some sort of spirit inhabiting a physical body? This is what the Catechism says:
The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that “then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Man, whole and entire, is therefore willed by God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 362)
The Catholic Church maintains this belief against two prevalent but opposing ideas in our culture: 1) the materialist view that humans are simply a collection of atoms animated by electricity and 2) the vague concept that we are simply spirit inhabiting flesh. The odd thing about these contradictory ideas is that they share a low view of the human body. That fact certainly contributes to the “culture of death” of which St. Pope John Paul warned. This low assessment also contributes to the widely held belief that zombies are no more than animated meat and thus fair game for any and all forms of destruction.
2) The soul is not simply the sum of their firing neurons
A popular idea in both zombie fiction and sci-fi such as Star Trek is that the soul is basically just a vague term for the mind and that this mind is simply data stored in organic form, nothing more than neurons shooting around a squishy organ. Given this view survivors often have reason to hope that their loved ones may still be there, somewhere “inside” an animated corpse. The Governor and the Greene family shared this hope on The Walking Dead. This hope ended in disaster, of course. These characters could have been spared some trouble if they’d listened to what the Catechism has to say about the soul:
In Sacred Scripture the term “soul” often refers to human life or the entire human person. But “soul” also refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image: “soul” signifies the spiritual principle in man. (CCC 363)
Human beings are made in the image of God but it is the soul that “most especially” reflects this image. Man is not just flesh. But neither is he just memory. Even if memories could somehow be recovered from an undead brain, these pieces of data would not a soul make. That leads us to the third thing worth remembering:
3) The Soul does not die but it does leave the body at death
The fact the Catholics believe humans are both body and soul doesn’t necessarily mean that a zombie possesses all the dignity and rights of a living human being. From the Catechism again:
The Church teaches that every spiritual soul is created immediately by God — it is not “produced” by the parents — and also that it is immortal: it does not perish when it separates from the body at death, and it will be reunited with the body at the final Resurrection. (CCC 366)
If someone dies, his soul leaves his body. That means that the body is no longer a full “human being.” So, a soulless body- reanimated by dark magic, trioxin, or a weird virus- can be incapacitated or “killed” without fear of violating the fifth commandment. However! We must also remember…
4) The body is not JUST a body!
That is to say, it isn’t just atoms cobbled together in a familiar shape:
The human body shares in the dignity of “the image of God”: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole human person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit: Man, though made of body and soul, is a unity. Through his very bodily condition he sums up in himself the elements of the material world. Through him they are thus brought to their highest perfection and can raise their voice in praise freely given to the Creator. For this reason man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day. (CCC 364)
This is why Catholics believe we should treat our bodies with respect. This is why we don’t sprinkle ashes; because the matter that makes up our body has had dignity breathed into it. Regarding the very important and real question of zombies: the dignity of the human body doesn’t mean you can’t do what needs to be done to protect yourself from zombies. But it DOES mean you should make a reasonable effort to give the human body the respect it deserves. Even if that body has been reanimated and filled with a ghoulish, single minded hunger for the brains of the living.
Given these examples from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, I think it is safe to say that it is morally permissible to “kill” reanimated corpses as long as we don’t take pleasure in the act and do our best to treat the bodies with respect. However, I think we have to go a little farther when dealing with zombies that are not, in fact, dead. In the case of 28 Days Later, the zombies are actually living human infected with a “rage virus.” It would be tempting to look at such a “zombie” and assume their likelihood of harming an uninfected human coupled with a lack of a cure for their disease means that we have every right to kill that person. However, some people with severe illnesses have been known to have violent, potentially lethal outbursts. Yet we wouldn’t view such a person as expendable simply because they are violent and their disease is incurable. So, in the case of zombies who aren’t actually dead, I don’t think it would be acceptable to be quite as blasé about, well, killing. Still, I think it would be safe to fall back on another point of Catholic doctrine:
5) We have the right to defend ourselves
If another person is threatening my life, I do have the right to defend myself. The same goes for those threatening the lives of others. Just ask Thomas Aquinas:
“If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s.” (Summa Theologica II-II, 64, 7)
Well, that settles that. Given the rules established in most zombie films, it’s safe to assume we can kill the ravenous zombies in our near vicinity threatening our lives even if they are “weird disease zombies” and not the good old fashioned undead kind. Whew!
To sum everything up: Theology in zombie fiction is often really bad. A human being is a unity of body and soul, created in the image of God. It is morally permissible “kill” a dead zombie. But you must make a reasonable effort to treat the body with dignity (even if that body was recently trying to eat your brains). You can kill a “living zombie” if it is threatening the life of another human being.