Ethically the subject of self-defense regards the right of a private person to employ force against any one who unjustly attacks his life or person, his property or good name. While differing among themselves on some of the more subtle and less practical points comprised in this topic, our moralists may be said to be unanimous on the main principles and their application regarding the right of self-defense. The teaching may be summarized as follows:
I. Defense of Life and Person
Everyone has the right to defend his life against the attacks of an unjust aggressor. For this end he may employ whatever force is necessary and even take the life of an unjust assailant. As bodily integrity is included in the good of life, it may be defended in the same way as life itself. It must be observed however that no more injury may be inflicted on the assailant than is necessary to defeat his purpose. If, for example, he can be driven off by a call for help or by inflicting a slight wound on him, he may not lawfully be slain. Again the unjust attack must be actually begun, at least morally speaking, not merely planned or intended for some future time or occasion. generally speaking one is not bound to preserve one's own life at the expense of the assailant's; one may, out of charity, forego one's right in the matter. Sometimes, however, one may be bound to defend one's own life to the utmost on account of one's duty of state or other obligations. The life of another person may be defended on the same conditions by us as our own. For since each person has the right to defend his life unjustly attacked, what he can lawfully do through his own efforts he may also do through the agency of others. Sometimes, too, charity, natural affection, or official duty imposed the obligation of defending others. A father ought, for example, to defend the lives of his children; a husband, his wife; and all ought to defend the life of one whose death would be a serious loss to the community. Soldiers, policemen, and private guards hired for that purpose are bound in justice to safeguard the lives of those entrusted to them.
II. Defense of Property
It is lawful to defend one's material goods even at the expense of the agressor's life; for neither justice nor charity require that one should sacrifice possessions, even though they be of less value than human life in order to preserve the life of a man who wantonly exposes it in order to do an injustice. Here, however,we must recall the principle that in extreme necessity every man has a right to appropriate whatever is necessary to preserve his life. The starving man who snatches a meal is not an unjust agressor; consequently it is not lawful to use force against him. Again, the property which may be defended at the expense of the agressor's life must be of considerable value; for charity forbids that in order to protect ourselves from a trivial loss we should deprive a neighbor of his life. Thefts or robberies, however, of small values are to be considered not in their individual, but in their cummulative, aspect. A thief may be slain in the act of carrying away stolen property provided that it cannot be recovered from him by any other means; if, for example, he can be made to abandon his spoil through fright, then it would not be lawful to shoot him. If he has carried the goods away to safety he cannot then be killed in order to recover them; but the owner may endeavor to take them from him, and if the thief resists with violence he may be killed in self-defense.
Since it is lawful to take life in the legitimate defense of one's material goods, it is evidently also lawful to do so in defense of chastity which is a good of a much higher order. With regard to honor or reputation, it is not lawful to kill one to prevent an insult or an attack upon our reputation which we beleive he intends, or threatens. Nor may we take a life to avenge an insult already offered. The proceeding would not be defense of our honor or reputation, but revenge. Besides, in the general estimation honor and reputation may be sufficiently protected without taking the life of the offender.
More Catholic Encyclopedia
Browse Encyclopedia by Alphabet
The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.
Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.
No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.
Browse the Catholic Encyclopedia by Topic
Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912
Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online