Combat

The Catholic Guide to Self Defense

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Imagine you are looking for a parking spot at the mall on a busy weekend. You finally find someone pulling out of a spot, and once it is empty, you pull into it. But because there is a lot of traffic, you didn’t see another driver who had been waiting for the same spot for 5 minutes. You took the other driver’s spot and didn’t know it.

As you and your family leave the car, the driver jumps out of the car enraged and screaming obscenities. He is well built and looks like he could do some serious damage. You try to calm him down and explain that you didn’t see him, but it isn’t working. Finally, he pulls a knife and begins brandishing it aggressively while moving closer to you. Your family is terrified. What do you do?

Is self defense ever justified?

Hopefully the above situation never happens to you, but these and similar scenarios do happen all the time. As Catholic men, are we justified in defending ourselves and our families? Or should we meekly turn the other cheek, come what may?

The short answer is yes, self defense is justified. The Doctors of the Church and the Magisterium have made it clear that self-defense is not only a right, but in some cases, a duty. In the Catechism, the guidelines for when exactly self-defense is legitimate are presented. Let’s take a look at what it has to say.

First, the Catechism makes clear that killing a human being is always a grave issue, and it should never be taken lightly. Obviously, we should not be trigger happy vigilantes killing anyone who gives us a dirty look (2261-2262). But then, the Catechism goes on to explain that the fundamental principle of morality is love and preservation of one’s self (2264).

Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one’s own right to life.

In other words, loving one’s neighbor means nothing if you don’t first love yourself in a rightly ordered way. After all, Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The instinct of self-preservation is based on the fact that life is a good given to us by God. We have an intrinsic and fundamental right to live. Therefore, we also have a right to defend ourselves.

But what about defending others? Do we have a right to do that, too? Absolutely. In fact, defending the innocent is not only a right, it is a duty. We have the ability to lay down our own life for a greater good (as Jesus and the martyrs of the Church did), but we never have the right to lay down the lives of others. I can surrender my own life, but I can never surrender your life for you. The Catechism makes this clear (2265):

Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

While this paragraph specifically refers to the defense of the civil community, it also applies to the family. If someone is presenting a clear danger to the lives of your wife and children, you have the right and duty to do whatever is necessary to render them harmless— even if it means killing them. And that leads me to my next point.

Lethal Force

Now that we have established that self-defense is indeed justified, the question of lethal force arises. Can we justifiably ever kill an aggressor? There are certainly a number of good Catholics with a pacifist bent that would say no— it is never justifiable. Despite the feelings of these well meaning Catholics, however, the answer given by the Church is yes, lethal force can be justified.

But before we examine what justifies killing another human being, let me first say that the Church is and always has been the defender of common sense. The Church defends sanity in an age that has gone insane, and this sanity applies to every area of life, including self defense. What do I mean? Well, I am a former member of the Colorado Rangers, a state-wide auxiliary law enforcement agency, and I received much of the same training mandated for police officers. What amazes me is how similar the standards for using lethal force presented to law enforcement officers are to those presented in the Catechism. You can trust the wisdom of the Church, folks.

The Catechism spells out that lethal force can be justified if one is left with no other choice. Killing should be a last resort, however, after everything else has been tried. Here’s what the Catechism, citing St. Thomas Aquinas says (2264):

Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow: 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.

St. Thomas, quoted by the Catechism, is basically saying, Don’t shoot someone for stealing your wallet. That is more than necessary violence. But if someone has pulled a knife on you and they by all appearances seem ready to use it, then you can respond in kind. Responding to force with like force is moderation in self-defense.

The idea of moderation in the use of force is very similar to the “use of force continuum” used by law enforcement officers. While the details of this continuum are beyond the scope of this post, it boils down to the maxim: Don’t shoot someone unless you have no other choice. If your life— or the life of someone else—is in imminent danger, you have the right to use lethal force. If there is any possibility of anything else working (verbal commands, physical combat, pepper spray, etc.), you have an obligation to try that first.

Conclusion

The guiding principles laid out by the Church can be summarized as follows:

  • We have a legitimate right to self defense based on rightly ordered self love
  • We have a duty to protect those in our care, such as our families
  •  Force should be used in moderation. Force should be met with like force.
  • The taking of a human life in self defense should be a last resort, when all other options have been exhausted

Self defense can be a tricky issue, especially when lethal force is involved. Life and death situations involve split second decisions that can leave someone dead and alter the course of your life. Never, ever, should a human life be taken in a careless fashion.

I will conclude with a quote from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter, Evangelium Vitae, on the tension between respect for human life, obedience to the 5th commandment, and self defense. It summarizes the issue perfectly.

There are in fact situations in which values proposed by God’s Law seem to involve a genuine paradox. This happens for example in the case of legitimate defence, in which the right to protect one’s own life and the duty not to harm someone else’s life are difficult to reconcile in practice. Certainly, the intrinsic value of life and the duty to love oneself no less than others are the basis of a true right to self-defence. The demanding commandment of love of neighbour, set forth in the Old Testament and confirmed by Jesus, itself presupposes love of oneself as the basis of comparison: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself ” (Mk 12:31). Consequently, no one can renounce the right to self-defence out of lack of love for life or for self. This can only be done in virtue of a heroic love which deepens and transfigures the love of self into a radical self-offering, according to the spirit of the Gospel Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:38-40). The sublime example of this self-offering is the Lord Jesus himself. Moreover, “legitimate defence can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life, the common good of the family or of the State”. [The quotation is from # 2265 in the first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.] Unfortunately it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life. In this case, the fatal outcome is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about, even though he may not be morally responsible because of a lack of the use of reason.

What are your thoughts on self defense? Would you know how to defend yourself or your family if you had to?

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22 thoughts on “The Catholic Guide to Self Defense

  1. Great article. Although you mention in passing under the defense-of-others portion, I am still left wondering about whether the martyrs may have had a duty to defend themselves. The man in the parking lot is not too different from a Roman soldier.

    Thanks for your thoughts. Love the blog.

    – Will Russell Catholic University, Columbus School of Law JD Candidate 2016

    • Sometimes martyrdom is the most effective tactic in support of the greater war effort. For example, I don’t think Dr. King’s efforts would have been nearly as effective if his followers had exercised their rights to self-defense during their clashes with police. For all we know the martyrs were following God’s plan for their lives when they went to their deaths. Make no mistake, we are at war with Satan, and we must all fulfill our individual missions in support of the battle.

    • Dear William Russell,

      To answer your question on the martyrs having an obligation to defend themselves: no, they are under no such obligation. Nobody has an obligation to defend themselves insofar as the defence is purely defence of oneself; self-defence becomes a duty when one ‘is responsible for the lives of others’ (CCC 2265). The martyrs are under no obligation to defend their lives; in many regards, they are better for sacrificing them for two reasons. First, they attain salvation. Second, they allow their persecutors the opportunity to repent before their own deaths, which is surely more desirable an outcome.

      I would recommend checking out St. Augustine’s ‘On Free Choice of the Will’ if you have the time.

      In Christ,
      JT

    • “not too different” is still different. The martyrs were accused of being Christian and found guilty. A Roman soldier was an officer of the law. The martyr’s submission to the law was giving witness to Christ. The law may have been unjust, but their submission to it was not.

      Their is also the point that the duty is to render the aggressor incapable of doing further harm. I doubt that the martyr’s had the ability to render the aggressor (i.e. the empire) incapable of harm, even if they tried to defend their lives from the officers of the law who executed them.

  2. Thank you for a good post. I’m a convert to Catholicism from a very conservative Mennonite group (think Amish with cars) that holds as one of it pillars of faith the idea of “non-resistance”, the teaching that we should “resist not evil”. I’ve struggled with this issue since converting and this post to really help clear thing up for me. Thanks for what you do and Gad bless your efforts.

  3. Jesus said “resist not evil, but if a man striketh you upon the right cheek turn unto him your left.” He when He sent the disciples out to preach the Word forbade them from going armed. When Peter attempted to defend HIm from the High Priest’s men, He said, “All they who take up the sword shall die by the sword.” Jesus never advocated violence, even in self-defense. As Christians, we should be guided by His instructions, not by human reasonings.

    • Not to play tit for tat here, but how would you deal with the Jesus who cleansed the temple of money changers? If you read the gospel accounts closely you will see that Jesus observes what is going on in the temple; takes a piece of cord, braids it into a whip, and then drives them out. That is a violent act. An act which was completely premeditated and enacted out of righteous anger. I don’t really think you can spin that passage any other way.

    • Out of curiosity, Mr. Wilson, how do you reconcile what you have written with what Paul wrote in Romans: ‘For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil’ (Romans 13:4).

      Second, I would point out that Christ’s instruction to turn one’s cheek was not an instruction to submit to an oppressor. Indeed, an understanding of Semitic culture would lead one to understand that Christ was instructing his disciples to stand firm in their faith and challenge those who would oppose them.

      Pax!

      In Christ,
      JT

    • “And He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one.” Luke 22:36

      “Simon Peter then, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear; and the slave’s name was Malchus. So Jesus said to Peter, “Put the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?”–John 18:10-11

      In this case, it simply wasn’t the right time or place to act out in defense. It was the appointed time for Christ to redeem us by his sacrifice; He intended to allow the guards to take Him. There’s really no way to compare that to the situations any of us may face that necessitate the defense of ourselves or other innocents.

  4. I’m so glad to see this issue covered from a Catholic perspective! The idea that it is our duty as men to protect those who may be weaker than us (especially women and children) seems to be increasingly unpopular these days, but it really is true.

    While it is a major part of it, being willing and able to take extreme measures is not the only part of defense. Mindset and habits play a part in your preparedness and may hopefully even help you avoid dire situations. There’s far more to consider than I can write here, but I highly encourage everyone to look at articles/books/Youtube videos/etc. that discuss these types of self-defense/concealed carry habits and mindset.

  5. While a student getting my degree in Theology, I was also studying Martial Arts. I had some friends challenge me on this saying that Jesus said to turn the other cheek. My challenge back was the the Swiss Guards that protect the Pope also study Martial Arts.

    When I mentioned turning the cheek to one of my professors, he gave asked me if someone attacked my wife, would I turn her cheek, or would I protect her?

    Additionally, I was told by a friend that when he visited the Vatican, he noticed the Vatican being protected by armed guards. They carry those weapons in case they would need to use one.

  6. Great post!

    Otherwise, it is sometimes difficult to think in these kind of situation.
    You sometimes don’t know whether you are going to be killed or not.

    It may be better to wound the bad guy.

    • “It may be better to wound the bad guy.”
      Forgive me if this is not where you are coming from and this post is superfluous, but this is where the continuum of force comes in. The goal is not to kill the aggressor, per se, but to stop the threat. You shouldn’t use a gun when pepper spray or de-escalation would suffice, for example, but at the same time once the situation calls for something more potent, use that method in such a way that ensures the greatest probability of survival (your survival, that is). If you are calm enough or have the time to confidently attempt a shot at a leg or arm (quite a bit more difficult to hit than the upper torso, and not necessarily with any difference in potential lethality) that’s a sign that shooting at all is not called for.

  7. Another great article. As a practicing Catholic and a lifelong boxing fan, I have been interested in the issues surrounding morality and violence from a young age.
    I would like to query one point – the notion that ‘force should be met with like force’ in a moral act of self defense: Surely the purpose of self defense is success, not equality of opportunity – hence it would be perfectly moral to wield a baseball bat against a burglar who attacks you with just his fists, or a firearm against someone bearing a knife or a knuckleduster. The point is that Justice and Innocence have the ‘Right’ to win the situation, and surely the principle point is that justice prevails, not that it is a ‘fair fight’ in terms of force (Policemen do not carry batons or firearms in order to defend themselves with equality, but in order to enforce justice successfully – to win. They are not bound by the Queensbury Rules).
    I have long felt that this is the real meaning of Christ’s command to turn the other cheek – not that striking is in itself wrong but that striking unnecessarily is wrong. i.e. don’t strike back unless you have to… but when you do have to – hit hard and hit to win. Someone in an argument with a friend who is suddenly struck across the face through loss of temper (but this lapse does not continue into a full assault), is constrained by the Gospel from taking vengeance in angry violence. He must turn the other cheek. The same man confronted in the street by a robber with a knife is perfectly justified in putting a firearm against the robbers head and blowing his sorry life out, without undue hesitation.
    Unless of course he feels that there is genuine opportunity for him to use the mere threat of the gun, or talk-down the criminal, etc etc. However, these opportunities rely more on the individual character of the victim than they do on the justice of the situation.
    Best wishes from the UK.

    • Greg,

      Thank you for your thoughts. To respond to your points, it really depends on what you mean by “win” the situation.

      In the scenario where the burglar attacks you with his fists, yes, you might be within your bounds to fight back with a baseball bat. However, the principle that would apply in that situation is “stop the threat.” In other words, do what it takes to disable the aggressor to the point where he no longer presents a danger—that is the definition of “winning” in my book. But that doesn’t necessarily mean killing him.

      If the robber is knocked unconscious by a blow from your baseball bat, you should stop your attack. To continue beating him until he is dead is not self-defense, it is murder.

      The point is, you don’t necessarily have to have equal weapons, just equal force. Don’t meet non-lethal force with lethal force.

      It all comes down to imminent, right-this-second danger. Do you truly believe you are going to die or be seriously maimed if you do not immediately respond with lethal force? Then you can use lethal force, regardless of whether or not your attacker is using brass knuckles, a knife, or anything else.

      I hope that makes sense!

      Sam

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