Imagine this situation: Mr A who is a close friend of Mr B enters into a heated argument with Mr C who is their common friend, in a remote area. Mr C provokes A to such an extent that the latter loses control of the situation. In an emotional upsurge, Mr A hits Mr C who falls dead. Mr A runs away from the scene and takes refuge in the house of Mr B. It is a civil offence on Mr B to shelter Mr A who is now a wanted criminal of the State which follows the rule of eye-for-eye. But, friendship coupled with charity forces Mr B to render a hiding place for Mr A.

My question is: According to Catholic scholars, it it a gravely sinful act to give shelter to a criminal wanted by the State if one feels that the offender is not fully accountable for the crime?

  • 1
    The header question and the last sentence ask a question. The narrative may or may not represent that question. The question also muddles 'civil offence' and 'shelter to a criminal'. This question badly needs a full edit for clarity and detail.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 24, 2022 at 6:56
  • Thanks, Nigel. I have since modified the question. Hope it helps. Nov 24, 2022 at 7:42
  • It would be a criminal offence (not a civil offence) to harbour a criminal. The correct and lawful procedure is to allow the proper judicial authorities to investigate the situation and to bring charges if appropriate. Then a Court will allow a proper and logical defence to be made on behalf of the defendant. What is proposed above is unlawful anarchy.
    – Nigel J
    Nov 24, 2022 at 7:45
  • True, Nigel, But sadly, all countries do not per se allow fair trail to the charged person. In some countries, death is avenged by the killing of the convict at the intervention of the State. Some do allow commutation of sentence if the kith and kin of the deceased person forgive the convict. Nov 24, 2022 at 10:12
  • 2
    Was it a mortal sin for Jethro to adopt the fled-murderer Moses into his family, and accept him as a son-in-law?
    – Biblasia
    Nov 25, 2022 at 5:06

3 Answers 3


Is it a gravely sinful act to give shelter to a criminal wanted by the State?

Under normal circumstances, the above mentioned outline of events would constitute a mortal sin, if someone were to give shelter to someone fleeing from justice.

As Catholics, we must try to uphold the law as best as possible. But the above scenario does not do that.

The threshold of the three conditions for a serious sin are met here, for someone hiding (giving shelter) to a fugitive from the law:

So what kind of Sins are Mortal?

In order for a sin to be mortal, it must meet three conditions, for the individual concealing someone hiding from the law:

  • Mortal sin is a sin of grave matter

  • Mortal sin is committed with full knowledge of the sinner

  • Mortal sin is committed with deliberate consent of the sinner

This means that mortal sins cannot be done “accidentally.” A person who commits a mortal sin is one who knows that their sin is wrong, but still deliberately commits the sin anyway. This means that mortal sins are “premeditated” by the sinner and thus are truly a rejection of God’s law and love.

The first condition, that a mortal sin is of grave matter, means that certain premeditated offenses against God are more severe than others. We know that some sins are graver than others (e.g. it is a graver sin to murder someone than to lie to someone). St. John tells us, “If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly.” (1 John 5:16-17). Thus St. John distinguishes between mortal and venial sin. Jesus also warns us that “Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned” (John 15:6).

Unless there is extenuating circumstances that could possibly diminish a person’s culpability, which I do not see here, it would be sinful for someone to give shelter to a criminal fleeing from justice!

It is not up to individuals to decide of determine if the offender is not fully accountable for the crime?

Once arrested, at least in most countries, the perpetrator of a serous crime and the crime itself would have to be analyzed as to what were the circumstances of a particular murder or accidental killing. In any case the individual is guilty of manslaughter. Hiding him would get you in a serious situation with the law.

Best to encourage him to hand himself over.

The Church, mediated by the authority invested in the successor of Peter, can bind us in conscience on defined and infallible matters of faith and morals, but what of human law, those matters of directives and discipline, that are at times all-too fallible? Is it always a sin to skirt around the law, and might we do so in good conscience? Saint Thomas Aquinas asks this very question (I-II, q. 96, a. 4), and the principles he offers will help guide our own decisions, as we make our way ‘by the tangle of our wits’, as More advised Roper.

Aquinas defines law as an ‘ordinance of reason, promulgated by him who has authority over community, for the common good’ (I-II, Q. 90, a. 4). Human law, as it is based on reason, ultimately has its binding force from the natural moral law, in turn defined as ‘the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law’. So law binds not from its own authority but from God’s, and we are bound to obey the law insofar as it carries the authority of God.

Hence, if any law violates the law of God – the natural or divine law – then not only does it not bind in conscience, but we are rather bound to disobey such laws, at least by passive resistance (such as refusing to participate in abortion or euthanasia), and, if push comes to shove, to die a martyr rather than follow them, as did the first Christians of Rome, as did Thomas More himself, and as did countless witnesses against all the anti-Christian totalitarian regimes. - The Limits of Law and Obedience

  • It would help if this answer cited Catholic sources for the claim that upholding the law is a strict moral obligation and that it would constitute grave matter. The answer mostly states that as a fact and then provides tangential information about what is a mortal sin.
    – eques
    Nov 24, 2022 at 12:32

If it were gravely immoral then the priests hiding from Communist and Protestant authorities in the last 500 years, as well as the Christians hiding in catacombs would be obliged to turn themselves over merely because their religion was outlawed.

If you're describing a society with laws that are antithetical to Christian Justice (distributive justice, not retributive justice);

Among the many and grave duties of rulers who would do their best for the people, the first and chief is to act with strict justice - with that justice which is called distributive - toward each and every class alike.


where there is no expectation of justice, then the state, itself, is the lawless actor. It is acting against the natural moral law and no man has any obligation to honor that king.

In Roman times, when St. Peter was preaching and St. Paul was writing, justice was clearly held in high esteem. Otherwise St. Paul wouldn't have been kept alive so long on the principle that he was a Roman citizen and he was begging for his day in court when the local governor Felix apparently liked him enough to just let him go.

But in later times, when barbaric ideologies (like communism) arose, the need to harbor criminals in the name of higher justice rose with it.

I don't know about rural India, but I know from the firsthand account of missionaries that this kind of justice still occurs in Africa and it would be a Christian's obligation to prevent the miscarriage of justice.

As for Catholic Scholars, I take Chesterton's example in the case of Gabriel Gale, who in one of his stories covered this exact situation. The protagonist secretly harbored a murderer whom he knew was a murder that could not expect a fair trial. Chesterton apparently thought this was a murky situation and he realized what a problem it could create for a person in this situation, but he certainly believed it the greater good was served by hiding from a form of justice that itself was unjust.

  • Thanks, Peter Turner. Your quoting of Chesterton is apt. But, refugees of persecution by the State stand on a different footing. The scope of my question does not extend to them. Nov 28, 2022 at 10:37

I would follow the general guidelines straight from Peter The Apostle (1 Peter 2:13–25):

13 Be ye subject therefore to every human creature for God's sake: whether it be to the king as excelling; 14 Or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of the good: 15 For so is the will of God, that by doing well you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: 16 As free, and not as making liberty a cloak for malice, but as the servants of God. 17 Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.

This is a famous quote that, by way it's interpreted by people in position of authority, is often used to justify their demand for Christians' to comply with lawful orders. This also famous interpretation is wrong, though: Peter says rulers' authority comes from God so, in order to have Christians' obedience, they must rule accordingly to the Law Of God. If the law is unjust or immoral in the eyes of God, we should not follow it.

Early Christians, though, would also not offer a resistance. For example Lactantius writes:

"For religion is to be defended, not by putting to death, but by dying; not by cruelty, but by patient endurance; not by guilt, but by good faith; for the former belong to evils, but the latter to goods; and it is necessary for that which is good to have place in religion, and not that which is evil.

This is consistent with CCC:

Authority does not derive its moral legitimacy from itself. It must not behave in a despotic manner, but must act for the common good as a moral force based on freedom and a sense of responsibility: A human law has the character of law to the extent that it accords with right reason, and thus derives from the eternal law. Insofar as it falls short of right reason it is said to be an unjust law, and thus has not so much the nature of law as of a kind of violence. (1902)

Authority is exercised legitimately only when it seeks the common good of the group concerned and if it employs morally licit means to attain it. If rulers were to enact unjust laws or take measures contrary to the moral order, such arrangements would not be binding in conscience. In such a case, authority breaks down completely and results in shameful abuse. (1903)

So, overall, if the law is bad (immoral, unjust or plain evil), we have a duty to disobey it. It comes down to the conscience of an individual, though.

The biggest problem now is Francis, who promotes somewhat different take: obey laws if they are devised for benefit of the society (i.e. masks, vaccination - just off the top, but list is much longer), even if they are immoral or unjust or straight up harmful. Not sure how that will play a role in the world in a few more years, but fortunately we don't have to obey him in that, too.

There is a mention of "eye-for-an-eye" laws. Bible recognizes the concept and does not reject it. But one must be careful here and first be absolutely sure one knows what it means.

In your example situation is not complicated: Mr. A is a criminal and should surrender to the authorities. Crime of "passion" is still a crime, but even eye-for-an-eye rule rejects death penalty in this instance.

The only thing, that I can think of, to make the shelter scenario work is: grant it just for few days, for Mr. C's representatives to negotiate peaceful surrender to the authorities.

  • For a question tagged "catholicism", personal interpretations are less than useful.
    – eques
    Nov 25, 2022 at 16:43
  • @eques - I'd agree in principle, but this dillema hasn't clear-cut doctrinal solution. If you go with Early Christians, then this would be an unequivocal no, not a sin at all, and OP would be obligated to shelter the offender (eye-for-an-eye means he will face death penalty). According to numerous Doctors of the Church, if offender faces fair and impartial trial, then yes, it is a sin (as 1 Peter 2:13–25 clearly directs us). According to our currenct Pope Francis this would be a grave sin and a good deed at the same time... So what do you think?
    – AcePL
    Nov 30, 2022 at 8:54
  • I think you aren't countering my point. My point was that your personal interpretation based upon an excerpt of Scripture is not sufficient for a Catholicism tagged question. Acknowledging in an answer the varied opinions within the Catholic tradition with quotes would be.
    – eques
    Nov 30, 2022 at 14:30

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