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Ask A Catholic: Guns in Church

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What questions do you have about Catholicism? Submit them online, or fill out the form below. 

By Mitch Finley

Do you think guns should be allowed in sanctuaries (for protection)?

I regret to say that in our time this is a relevant question.  There is nothing specifically Catholic about the issue, however, following a horrific mass shooting in August 2019, the U. S. Bishops issued a statement. 

“We encourage all Catholics to increased prayer and sacrifice for healing and the end of these shootings,” the U.S. bishops wrote.  “We encourage Catholics to pray and raise their voices for needed changes to our national policy and national culture as well. God’s mercy and wisdom compel us to move toward preventative action,” they added.

Your question is about having individuals present in churches and other houses of worship with guns as a security precaution, but the larger issue is that of the national debate over so-called “Second Ammendment rights.”  In an article by Mary Farrow dated Aug. 8,, Catholic News Agency (CNA) provided an overview, and I think it’s worth quoting at some length:

 “Fr. Thomas Petri, OP, a moral theologian and professor at Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies, told CNA that the issue of gun control is one that is not definitively settled in Church teaching, in terms of exactly what practical policies to enact.

 “It’s important to say that firearms . . . are something relatively modern in the life of the Church and the history of the Church. The Church tends to think in terms of centuries and not in years,” he said.

“While Church teaching does not explicitly spell out exactly which gun regulations should and should not be enacted, Petri said, the Church does give Catholics some principles to take into account when they are considering or voting on gun control policies.

One of these principles is the principle of self-defense, he said.

“This is part of the Church’s moral teaching, that you have a right to defend your life and to defend the lives of those under your care,” he said, such as one’s family or anyone else one has been entrusted to protect.

“If it ends up being that you, inevitably, must kill an assailant to protect your life or the life of those under your roof, then that is a moral choice you can make. That would be a legitimate choice,” he said.

Dr. Kevin Miller, a moral theologian and assistant professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, told CNA that self-defense falls under the Church’s teachings about the respect for life.

“You are commanded to respect the life of others,” Miller said. “You are also commanded to respect your own life—love your neighbor as yourself.  So out of love for your own life, you’re allowed to protect your own life.”

There is an important distinction to be made in intent, both Petri and Miller noted. The Church teaches that one must never intend to kill someone as an end, or as a means to an end.  It is only morally permissible to apply lethal force when someone intending to defend themselves or their family must apply lethal force because it is the only thing deemed reasonable to stop the assailant.

“Out of protection for your own life, if the minimum amount of force that you can reasonably judge in the heat of the moment is such that it is also likely to cause the death of the other person, then you’re allowed to do that,” Miller said.

Paragraph 2264 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “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 of another’s.”

A claim that does not seem to be morally or reasonably supported by Church teaching is the supposed right of citizens to protect themselves against their government, Petri said.

Given that Church teaching allows for a lot of middle ground between two extreme positions on gun control, Catholics are to use their best prudential judgement when voting on gun policy or electing government officials, Miller said.  “Any Catholic who wants to take this into account when voting has to do what he or she reasonably can to inform him or herself regarding the evidence . . . on what kinds of gun control measures are or are not helpful in making communities and states safer rather than unsafe places,” he said.

Because there is a “plethora” of sometimes conflicting studies and claims out there, this can prove difficult, Miller admitted, but Catholics must do their best to be “intellectually honest” and to take a serious look at the evidence surrounding gun policy when making these decisions.

“That doesn’t mean people should simply throw up their hands . . . you have to give it your best shot in figuring out what experts in the field think makes sense, and what they don’t think makes sense,” he said.

People should also take into account the different social and cultural circumstances of their region that relate to the use of guns, Miller added.

“I think if a Catholic in good faith is making every effort to be intellectually honest in his [or her] reasoning, and stakes out a position almost anywhere between those extremes (of a total gun ban, or total unregulated access to guns), I don’t think it would be right to say they are somehow taking a position that is explicitly contrary to the teaching of the Church,” he said.


Mitch Finley

About Mitch Finley

Mitch Finley is the author of 30+ books on Roman Catholic theological topics and spirituality, all written to appeal to both non-academic and academic readers. Mitch holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University and an M.A. in Theology from Marquette University. He and Kathy Finley have been married since 1974 and are the parents of three grown sons. To learn more visit mitchandkathyfinley.com.

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