Friday, January 14, 2011

Faith and Firearms, Part 1

It's the new year, I'm back into the blog world after deciding to take a break from grad school, and I'm going to start 2011's posting off with a bang...literally.   This is the first in a series of posts (however many it takes) to discuss two things that, until a couple of years ago, I never saw as being related: faith and firearms.  I've focused until now on the spiritual battle that we are called to engage in, but the reality is that we are not only spiritual beings.  God has put us, body and soul, to live and work in a physical world.  As we saw with the tragic shootings in Arizona last week, and that we hear about all too frequently these days, evil is very real and very much at work within that world.  It manifests itself in the hearts and the physical actions of men, often with devastating effects.  Where it is within our ability and responsibility, we have a duty to prevent those acts, and where we cannot prevent them, to repel them with force.

Since my wife and I began dating over five years ago (man, how time flies), and in particular during our engagement, I had to think long and hard about one of the grave responsibilities that would soon fall upon my shoulders as the head of the household: the physical protection of my family.  That has been brought into even sharper focus now being a father, and was finally stirred to the point where I knew I needed to put something down in writing when I listened to an episode of one of my favorite independent living podcasts, Off the Grid News, entitled, Does God's law require us to own a gun?

In response to the title's immediate question, are we morally obligated to own a firearm?,  I would argue that no, there is no direct moral imperative to own or train to use any type of weapon. It is a personal choice.  But before we can discuss that specific choice, another, deeper question has to be considered: How far does my duty as a husband and father to protect my family extend?  If it came to a point or situation where there was no other option to protect their lives (or my own) from the malicious intentions of a ne'er-do-well, would I be able to do what was necessary to stop them, even if stopping them requires lethal force?  Where is the line between relying exclusively on God's providence for protection, and recognizing that He has put resources at my disposal to carry out this particular responsibility, as far as it is within my capacity to do so?  I don't relish even having to think about the potential of malicious harm coming to my family, but the reality is that it happens every day, hundreds if not thousands of times per day, to people who never thought that it would happen to them.  Although statistically unlikely, it is very real, and has very real and grave consequences.

So, we are led into the deeper philosophical discussion of legitimate defense.  The Catechism addresses directly in Part Three, Article 5: The Fifth Commandment (2264-2265):

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.  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 another's. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, 64,7)

 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.

I quickly came to the conclusion that: (1) I am responsible for the lives of my family, both physical and spiritual, as far they are within the authority and ability that God has given me to serve them and protect them; and (2) I therefore have a grave duty to be working constantly toward ensuring the defense of both.

As the last sentence of 2265 alludes to, there are divisions of legitimate authority, beginning with the family and extending into the community and society at large, and so there are divisions (or layers) of responsibility for providing legitimate defense.  More on that in the next post, Faith and Firearms Part 2: Legitimate Authority.



  1. A year ago I would have thought the question, "Does God's law require us to own a gun?" was completely and utterly insane. Now it makes sense to me and seems a question worth asking and debating. You've taught me a lot, honey!

  2. Can you apply ccc 2265 to the movie Boondock Saints?

  3. Bill,

    Thanks for commenting. As much as CC 2265 would add legitimacy to the movie, I don't think so. "Defense" is the key word. That defense becomes illegitimate where it crosses into the realm of justice or, worse, vengeance. Justice is a function of the state & ultimately of God. Basically, a good rule of thumb (IMHO) is that, if a police officer wouldn't be justified in doing it, neither would I.

    1. Of course I understand that when applied to simple hypotheticals - and agree. However, you do mention ccc 2265 applies from the state on down through you as a father. And it is a "grave duty": something you MUST do and something sinful if you do not do it (grave). So...if the state (military) can take preemptive strikes, can you also as a father do the same? I believe from a Catholic perspective, theologians disagree on this preemptive strike issue.

    2. Bill,

      Hello again! Although the principle of defense is a grave duty at all levels, defense presupposes an action by the aggressor requiring defense. While I have not researched terribly in depth the issue of preemptive strikes, I would argue, based on the predominant Christian view of just war theory (jus ad bellum), that no, they are not justified by the individual...or , for that matter, at any level.

      CCC 2309 lays out the four rigorous, strict conditions for entry into war:

      At one and the same time:
      1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
      2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
      3. there must be serious prospects of success;
      4. 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.

      I would argue "no" based on my interpretation of (1), that damage inflicted by the aggressor, in the strictest sense, is not certain until the aggressive action has already begun.

      I've been mulling over a blog post specifically on just war for some time now. Do you have any other specific resources
      with arguments for the permissibility of preemptive strikes?

  4. Just Cause
    Traditionally, there are three things that are just according to classical just war theory: to fight against evil, to recapture something which is unjustly taken, or as an act of defense. If the aggression is sure to take place, surly in this day and age it would be ludicrous (and damnable to he whose duty it is to act) to wait for the aggression to occur - and then strike back - after harm is done. However, determining with accuracy wether the aggressor will strike is difficult. I cannot do the subject justice so I will let George Weigel do it:

    Pre-emption, Just War and the Defense of World Order

    ZENIT: Much of the opposition against U.S. military action centers on worries about endorsing the concept of a pre-emptive strike. What does Catholic moral teaching have to say on this matter?

    Weigel: As the classic just-war tradition evolved over the centuries, three situations satisfied the criteria of "just cause": defense against an aggression under way, recovery of something wrongfully taken, and/or punishment for evil.

    Modern just-war thinking, which is reflected in articles 2 and 51 of the U.N. Charter, has tended to limit "just cause" to "defense against an aggression under way." But we should note that the idea of a moral obligation to "humanitarian intervention" in cases of genocide — of which Pope John Paul II spoke at the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in 1992 — raises interesting questions about reviving the classic category of "punishment for evil."

    In the case of Iraq, the crucial issue in the moral analysis is what we mean by an "aggression under way." When a vicious regime that has not hesitated to use chemical weapons against its own people and against a neighboring country, a regime that has no concept of the rule of law and that flagrantly violates its international obligations, works feverishly to obtain and deploy further weapons of mass destruction, I think a compelling moral case can be made that this is a matter of an "aggression under way."

    The nature of the regime, which is the crucial factor in the analysis, makes that plain. It surely makes no moral sense to say that the U.S. or the international community can only respond with armed force when an Iraqi missile carrying a weapon of mass destruction has been launched, or is being readied for launch.

    To be sure, there are serious questions of prudence to be addressed in thinking through the question of military action against the Iraqi regime. At the level of moral principle, however, it seems to me that there are, in fact, instances where it is not only right to "go first," but "going first" may even be morally obligatory. And I think this may well be one of those instances.

    1. Thanks for sharing the Weigel piece. He does make an interesting proposition, that "aggression underway" does not necessarily have to mean "underway against the responder." Though I would tend to agree that there are grave injustices--including genocide--that deserve our attention, as he mentioned, "there are serious questions of prudence to be addressed." Those questions, including the consideration of blowback, don't even seem to be a serious part of the political discourse.

      On a separate note, would you mind if I use our exchange here as kicking-off point for that post (possible series) on Just War?

    2. Bill dad of eightJune 8, 2012 at 3:22 PM

      See today's Wall Street Jounal article linked below. Specifically, " just-war theory should broaden, rather than limit, the use of force against terrorists. The work of the Catholic theologians (Aquinas and Augustine) drew upon traditions stretching back to the ancient world that would have considered terrorists to be hostis humani generis, the enemy of all mankind, who merited virtually no protections under the laws of war."

  5. yes, serious questions of prudence. yes, you may use the exchange. I would also suggest your consulting Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg (a good Catholic boy) as examples of ordinary people (vs state officials) taking (or attempting to take) pre-emptive strikes. In their cases too, the responder was not the focus of the aggressor. But millions of others died.