Catholics and the Prime Directive

Let’s say that you’re a Catholic living in the Star Trek universe. Specifically, you’re on the U.S.S. Enterprise during the opening scene of the new movie, Star Trek Into Darkness. The crew’s mission is to observe a planet with a pre-industrial society.

The science officer immediately observes that the planet’s volcano will soon erupt and all these primitive people will be dead. The instinct of all decent human beings among the crew is to do something to save these people on the doomed planet.

But you can’t. Star Trek World has a non-interference clause called the Prime Directive. (See wikipedia for a thorough definition.) Your only job is to observe and record. As a faithful Catholic, is this something you can condone?

I submit to you that your answer is, “Yes.”

Read about Free Will in the catechism. (Try #1738.) To rephrase, the section on Free Will is basically saying that you have every right to screw up your life. If God can sit by while you make a mess of things, including an obstinate refusal to possibly deny His very existence, then we humans on earth can certainly respect an individual’s right to choose very unwisely. If God made us do stuff it would be compulsion, which is another word for slavery. All God can do is love, wait and persuade. It’s all we’re legitimately allowed to do, too. (CCC #160.)

If you love something, set it free. Sparkly, sparkly butterfly twinkle-ness.

It really sucks to sit by while somebody you love does something terribly stupid. But that’s how it goes. Work on your powers of persuasion and better luck next time.

“But,” you say (and rightly so), “these primitive people aren’t choosing to do something stupid. Their environment is destructing.”

Yes. Their volcano is choosing to do something stupid. And I’m being only partly facetious.

Free Will includes physics. Nature plays out according to the rules of science. That’s why an earthquake is not divine retribution. It’s just an effect caused by geology. God has given us a knowable universe. If He changed the rules every other day, the universe would be no longer knowable. It’s random. Be happy about this if you like Star Trek. We won’t ever get into space if the universe behaves randomly.

So, we on the deck of the Enterprise are very sad to see these people disappear, but them’s the breaks.

If you’ve seen the movie, though, you know that the crew does not stand by and let this happen. They break the Prime Directive and intervene. Kirk and McCoy distract the primitives from their pagan worship and lead them away from the volcano. Meanwhile, Spock goes into the volcano to set off a cold fusion reaction which will flash freeze the lava. (If the science of this seems hinky to you, be quiet.) When Spock’s escape from the volcano fails, Kirk flies in with the Enterprise and rescues him, exposing the ship to the primitives. Spock is indignant that the Prime Directive was broken. (I guess the earlier violation bounced off his pointy ears.)

Star Fleet command reprimands Kirk for his rule-breaking. The primitives now worship an Enterprise-shaped idol.


Whatever argument Kirk would make for his disobedience is lost in the further convolutions of the plot.

As a Catholic crew member, though, you may have wanted to make these excuses:

We have the means to save these primitive people from extinction. Isn’t our knowledge of science meant to be used for good? Isn’t our ability to intervene necessary on the grounds of compassion?

The Star Trek movie does not directly address these objections. I will, though.

The answer is, “No.”

When America in 2003 wanted to wage the Iraq War Pope John Paul II vehemently opposed the action. His envoy even met directly with Saddam Hussein, an unbelievably brutal dictator. If ever a man should have been removed from power because compassion for the people demanded it, this was that man.

And yet the Pope refused to condone it. Compassion was not a good enough reason to intervene. Free will, even when it allows evil to exist, is paramount. (See #310-311.)

How many Catholics understand that our faith demands we stand by sometimes and watch pain because compulsion is the only way to stop it, and compulsion is not allowed? This can be a hard tenet to comprehend. It can seem heartless.

Star Trek does a beautiful job of defending this difficult but necessary rule.

Let’s hurry up and get out there, humanity.



  1. Love it! Makes me imagine a Catholic Missionary who may have brought a primitive village salvation only to see its volcano erupt and consume them, only, some of their souls would have been saved. Which begs the observation that it is not a breaking of the Catholic Prime Directive to enter a primitive culture peacefully and with a soul saving intent

  2. As long as the missionary died in the volcano eruption, too. Hedging his bets by keeping a tricorder in his back pocket would be a no-no.

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