Self Defense, Vigilantism and the State’s Duty to Protect: What the Catholic Church Says
Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal and the convictions of the three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery have focused national attention on these interrelated issues.
KENOSHA, Wis. — Two high-profile murder trials — the first ending in full acquittal and the second in convictions — riveted the American public during the past month. They stirred intense debate over the limits of self-defense laws, instances of vigilante justice and the vacuum of civil authority created by the failure of local law enforcement to stem violence during the 2020 protests against police brutality and racial injustice.
In November, several media outlets and progressive activists largely framed Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenage shooter, who killed two white men and wounded a third during a chaotic night of protests in downtown Kenosha, Wisconsin, as a “white supremist” and vigilante, while supporters held him up as a model of courage worthy of emulation.
Meanwhile, in Brunswick, Georgia, the separate trial of three white men charged with the 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who jogged through their suburban neighborhood and apparently was seen entering an unoccupied home under construction, also featured defendants pleading self-defense, while the prosecutor argued that the victim posed no threat and so their pursuit of him, leading to his shooting death, was unjustified.
But if skewed media narratives and partisan messaging often distracted the public from the actual legal arguments and evidence presented at trial, Catholic scholars say that Church teaching offers more complete and reliable guidance on the morality of self-defense.
Likewise, they suggest that the Rittenhouse trial, in particular, provides a chance to explore the vital role of civil authority in upholding the law, and the problems that ensue when that duty is not fulfilled and citizens take the law into their own hands.
What the Catechism Says
“Self-defense, according to the Church, is based on the Catholic development of moral theology regarding issues of justice and protection of life,” said Dominican Father Pius Pietrzyk, who teaches canon law and theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception (Dominican House of Studies) in Washington, D.C., and serves as the vice chairman of the board of directors of the Legal Services Corporation.
“The Church has always believed that you have a right to preserve your own life and your property,” the priest stated. “That is part of the nature of being: to preserve its existence. And we have always made the distinction between murder and justified killing.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2263-2264) upholds the right to protect one’s own life or the lives of others, under specific conditions.
“The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing,” states the Catechism.
‘The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life; and the killing of the aggressor. … The one is intended, the other is not.’”
“Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality,” the Catechism continues. “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.”
At the same time, Church teaching distinguishes between individual self-defense and the “legitimate defense” of others — primarily by civil authorities.
“The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm,” reads the Catechism (2265). “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.”
Kyle Rittenhouse’s double-murder trial hinged on dueling interpretations of what acts qualify as self-defense under Wisconsin law. For example, it permits lethal force to be used if a person “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself,” and there is no requirement to retreat before using force.
According to trial testimony, Rittenhouse had picked up his rifle and headed to the tumultuous protests in downtown Kenosha on Aug. 25, 2020, with the intention of serving as a medic and of aiding a local business owner, who asked him for additional protection after the police failed to prevent looting on the two previous nights.
But as the 17-year-old moved through the crowd, he was verbally threatened with death and chased through the street by Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, an unarmed man whose angry, erratic behavior had been documented on video shown at the trial.
When the older man caught up with the teenager and reached for the barrel of his rifle, Rittenhouse fired four shots, killing Rosenbaum.
The teenager then began looking for a police officer to report the shooting, but was again chased by several men. After Anthony Huber, 26, hit the teenager with his skateboard, Rittenhouse fired a lethal shot. And when Gaige Grosskreutz, 26, another man who had given chase, confronted him with a pistol, Rittenhouse fired again, wounding him.
Thomas Binger, the lead prosecutor in the state of Wisconsin’s case against Rittenhouse, contended that the three men chasing the defendant believed he was an active shooter who needed to be stopped. And while the Kenosha protests may have been chaotic, “the only one who killed anyone,” said Binger, “was the defendant, Kyle Rittenhouse.”
But Rittenhouse’s defense attorney, Mark Richards, told the jury that it was Rosenbaum, who “lit the fuse” during the evening, “trying to take Kyle’s weapon from him to use against him.”
The jury accepted the defense’s version of events, acquitting Rittenhouse on all five felony counts, including first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless homicide and attempted first-degree intentional homicide.
Summarizing the thrust of the defense’s winning argument, Father Pietrzyk stated, “The defense of property brought him to Kenosha. The defense of his own life led him to shoot” the three men.
Rittenhouse’s many supporters applauded the jury verdict.
“Any able-bodied man over 16 years old had a moral obligation to defend Kenosha against vandals, looters and arsonists attacking while police stood down,” contended Evita Duffy in a column on the Federalist website.
Some of Rittenhouse’s defenders even appeared to celebrate the fact that the teenager had killed Rosenbaum, a man who had spent years in prison serving time for sexually abusing five preteen boys, and was reported to suffer from bipolar disorder.
But Catholic scholars who agreed with the jury’s verdict still rejected the suggestion that Rosenbaum’s past record in any way justified his killing.
“If an act of proportionate self-defense results in the death of the assailant, there is no blame attached to the act,” Bradley Lewis, a political philosopher at The Catholic University of America, told the Register, summarizing the thrust of Catholic moral teaching. “However, a private individual may never intend the death of another, even in an act of just self-defense.”
Lewis further noted that a comprehensive moral analysis of this case should take into account the full context of the events that inspired Rittenhouse to volunteer his services in the first place.
The Washington Post reported at the time that local law enforcement in Kenosha were “overwhelmed” by the civil unrest sparked by Jacob Blake’s shooting death.
When Rittenhouse arrived on the scene, the Post reported, “the only visible law enforcement presence was around the Kenosha County Courthouse, where an 8-foot-high fence was erected around the building, with about 1,000 protesters gathered outside the barrier.”
Wisconsin Governor Criticized
Over several days, [Wisconsin] Gov. Tony Evers reportedly authorized three deployments of Wisconsin National Guard troops to Kenosha,” totaling 500 by Aug. 26, the day after the teenager shot the three men.
The governor, who is up for re-election in 2022, has defended his actions. But his critics contend that Evers waited too long and did too little, with two people dead and the cost of property damage reaching an estimated $50 million.
“The basic moral question here concerns the responsibility of political officials to defend the common good,” said Lewis.
In the case of the days-long Kenosha riots, “public authorities manifestly failed in their responsibility to protect the community,” he contended. “This would not by itself justify efforts of vigilante justice or protection, especially by individuals without the proper training and acting on their own,” and looking for trouble.
However, if “political authorities fail for some period of time to carry out their responsibilities then it would not be unreasonable for groups of private individuals to organize some kind of careful and limited effort to defend their lives and properties until order is restored,” he said.
At the same time, Rittenhouse’s actions revealed the problems associated with citizens who are unprepared to deal with civil unrest seeking to replace highly trained, experienced police officers.
Lewis emphasized that such an undertaking was a “grave” matter that required a “fully informed conscience and full knowledge of the relevant facts,” as it could “quickly degenerate into conflicts among rival groups or become cover for private acts of violence.”
Thus, the Rittenhouse trial exposed the danger posed by the absence of law enforcement during a violent riot, and the unpredictability of armed citizens and self-appointed militias interacting with protesters, looters and mentally unstable individuals like Rosenbaum.
In contrast, the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial, which ended in convictions for the three defendants, failed to support their claim of self-defense, and there was no absence of civil authority to justify their efforts to chase and hold a young Black man running through the suburban neighborhood of Satilla Shores on Feb. 23, 2020.
Gregory McMichael, 65, who resided in the neighborhood, saw Arbery first, and thought he looked like a suspect linked to several local break-ins. McMichael contacted his son, Travis, 35, and the two armed men went after Arbery in their truck, while a neighbor, William Bryan, 52, took up the chase in another vehicle.
Arbery ran away from Bryan, until the McMichaels’ vehicle barred him from going further. Video shown at trial revealed the father and son both holding their guns as they confronted Arbery.
When the younger McMichael asked Arbery to stop and he refused, there was a struggle over the weapon and Travis McMichael fired three times.
During the trial, the prosecution challenged the defendants’ claims that the confrontation was a “life-or-death situation” and that the policing of the neighborhood was a “duty and responsibility.” And though media analysts argued that evidence of racial bias was present, and may have prompted the defendants to go after Arbery, the prosecutor Linda Dunikoski did not probe their motives. Instead, she told the jury that the defendants should be held "accountable and responsible for their actions."
The jury agreed with the prosecution’s contention that the deceased did not pose an imminent threat to the lives of the three men, and no evidence had been provided to suggest that Arbery had robbed the empty house.
Reacting to the Arbery murder trial, Father Pietrzyk made two larger points regarding the nature of lethal force and the problem of vigilante justice.
“Catholic teaching has always stressed the enormous gravity of any action that results in the death of a human being,” he said. “The taking of human life must be the last resort. And that was not there in the Arbery case. These men were the instigators. They never gave legal authorities sufficient time to investigate. They could have fled.”
And one serious issue, among the many problems with vigilantism, Father Pietrzyk said, is that it circumvents our system of justice.
“They take upon themselves the role that belongs to the community, to determine guilt and innocence. They are applying the penalty without a just mechanism and attention to the common good. Their actions are simply unjust even if there is a certain righteous indignation that inspired it.”
He noted that vigilantism can become the norm in societies where the rule of law has utterly broken down. However, he does not believe that in the case in the United States, whatever its flaws.
In the wake of Rittenhouse's acquittal, Archbishop Jerome Listecki of Milwaukee urged the public to respect the jury's verdict.
“As Americans, we rely upon the rule of law and our justice system, which ensures the rights of all our citizens,” said the archbishop. “We need to remember that every individual is made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore we need to follow the two great commandments -- love God, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
CUA’s Lewis echoed this point, but he also warned that both selective media narratives and conspiracy theories promoted on social media are battering the moral credibility of the nation's system of justice and fueling support for vigilantism.
“The maintenance of justice and internal peace is never perfect — many criminals get away with crimes,” noted Lewis.
The problem now, he said, is that “too many people are willing to accept even the most outrageous claims based not on the plausibility of the argument or evidence, but simply on the basis of whether the source is ‘on their side.’ Lying is always wrong and so is detraction — these things are often the gasoline poured onto already smoldering tensions and divisions in our society.”