Shooting to kill: St. Thomas Aquinas provides balanced view of respect for life and self-defense
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director
North Dakota Catholic Conference
March 2007

It is late at night, well after you have fallen asleep. The sound of someone rummaging through a part of the house awakens you. What would you do?

A bill moving through the North Dakota legislature – though not exactly on point – has produced a great deal of discussion about what people would or should do in that situation. From the comments, it would appear that many people would shoot the burglar with the intent to kill.

That is not, however, what Samuel Aquila, Bishop of Fargo, did when confronted with the same situation a few years ago. I don’t know whether the bishop even owns a gun, but it appears that even if he did, he would not have used it. Rather, when he found the intruder in the kitchen of the Bishop’s Residence, the bishop yelled, “Get out!” The intruder left, broke into another house, and was later arrested.

Someone might respond, “Well, that is to be expected from a man of the cloth, but the average Joe needs to protect himself and his family.” When it comes to the dignity of his life, however, Bishop Aquila is no different than anyone else.

What can someone do in that situation? How much force can someone use to protect himself or his family? Does it matter where the event occurs? Though at one level these are legal questions, they are ultimately moral questions. We are called to do what is morally right, not just what is legal. Moreover, our civil laws should reflect the moral law.

As is often the case, St. Thomas Aquinas provides the most accepted and definitive, treatment of the question. It also the reasoning cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Aquinas stated that, even in self-defense, it is not permissible for a
private individual to intentionally kill a person. A person can, however, use moderate force to repel an aggressor when it is necessary to do so in order to protect oneself or someone for whom the person is responsible. If the use of force meets these conditions, and the aggressor dies as a result, the person is not guilty of murder. The death of the aggressor in such a situation is a double effect. In other words, the death is an unintended result. (It is important to note that the rules are different for a person authorized by the government to preserve the peace.)

Underlying this teaching are three fundamental principles. First, intentional killing of an innocent person is always evil. Second, it is never permissible to do an evil act to achieve a greater good. Third, the mere fact that an individual is not where they should be or may be intending harm does not create an exception to the rule. Even in that case, a person cannot intend to kill the individual.

Supporters of less stringent parameters sometimes cite Exodus 22:1, which states: “If a thief is caught in the act of housebreaking and beaten to death, there is no bloodguilt involved.” What they often leave out is the next verse: “But if after sunrise he is thus beaten, there is bloodguilt.” In other words, killing an intruder at night was permissible, but killing in an intruder during the day was not. Why the difference? Scholars have noted that a person had options in daylight which he or she would not have in the small, lightless, dwellings of that time. So long as options other than deadly force were available, killing was not permitted. The passage, therefore, actually supports the Church’s teaching that deadly force can be used only when it is necessary.

Through the centuries, courts and lawmakers incorporated Aquinas’ principles into law. English common law, for example, provided that a person had a “duty to retreat” from an aggressor if possible, since the use of deadly force could not be viewed as necessary if the person could escape. Similar to the passage in Exodus, some jurisdictions, including North Dakota, removed the duty to retreat with regards to a person’s dwelling.

The bill generating discussion is House Bill 1319. It would remove the duty to retreat in non-home situations and abolish the current law that “deadly force is not justified if it can be avoided.” Additionally, it would create a non-rebuttable presumption that a person reasonably feared imminent death or serious bodily injury when faced with an intruder, even if the facts were otherwise.

St. Thomas Aquinas provided a careful balance between the obligation to respect all human life and the right to self-defense. The North Dakota legislature would do well to heed this Doctor of the Church.