Is War Ever Just?

Statue of St. Michael the Archangel - University of Bonn, Germany

     This question is ever on the minds of Christians, and other people of the world who care deeply for and who promote peace. It is especially during times of such intense religious persecution and genocide as what is currently being committed upon the people of the Holy Land, throughout the Middle East, and the African continent that our human desires for justice pull most strongly on our heartstrings, and our reasoning demands action. In such times as these we  followers of our Lord Jesus wrestle with two basic tenants of our faith; that of promoting peace between all mankind, and that of providing real and tangible assistance to our neighbors and those most in need of our help. Fortunately for Catholic-Christians, we have the Word of God and a two thousand year history of Holy Spirit-led Tradition to draw upon for guidance and direction.

     It may surprise you that the message of Christianity as delivered to us by God Himself through Jesus Christ His Son, as recorded in the biblical texts and espoused by the Apostles and earliest disciples, does not include a strict call for pacifism at all costs. In fact, while Jesus did preach a message of love of neighbor, equal justice, and charity towards all, Jesus never called his disciples to a purely pacifistic life. While the following Gospel quote from Jesus from Matthew 26:52, "Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword," is the one most familiar to people when discussing pacifism in the Christian context, it's what Jesus didn't say or do in these instances that tell us just as much about Jesus' thoughts and teachings, for example: 

  • Jesus apparently allowed His disciples to carry swords on their person while travelling with him. Historians of the period have noted that the distinct design of the sword demonstrates its purpose. It's purpose was to conduct warfare and to provide for self-defense, not to peel potatos or whittle a block of wood.
  • Jesus did not rebuke the disciple for having committed a sinful act in his use of the sword to defend Jesus from the armed mob who were there to kidnap him.
  • Jesus did not tell the disciple to throw away his sword, nor did he tell him never again to own, carry, or use one. 

     Both the actions and non-actions of Jesus have been pondered throughout the history of the Church, first by the Apostles, and later by Church Fathers, Saints, other clergy and laymen. It continues to be pondered and expounded upon to this day. However, from its wisdom the Church has given us a derived and coalesced formula for the legitimate use of physical violence against other human beings. It is called the Just War Doctrine.

This doctrine in its present form is explained clearly in paragraph 2309 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church as follows:

"The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • there must be serious prospects of success;
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good."

This responsibility is further clarified to include, "whoever is responsible for the lives of others." (See paragraph 2321 of the Catechism)

     So, just who is it that has responsibility for the lives of others or the common good? Who is it that has this "prudential judgment" and authority to act on behalf of the defense of others?

      In the Catholic understanding of society and the human family, we believe that God has entrusted each and every one of us, and the legitimate civil authorities that we place over ourselves for governance, with this obligation.

This understanding of individual and corporate responsibility is summed up in paragraph 1884 of the Catechism which states,

     "God has not willed to reserve to himself all excercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of governance ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard for human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence." 

     For legitimate civil authorities and the governed to refuse to act in accordance with this obligation, when it is rightly called for and justified by available evidence, is itself an act contrary to the common good. When the conditions for conducting Just War have been met, continuing inaction results in the unnecessary prolonging of injustices and the continuation of the suffering of the innocent. For these reasons, consciously abdicating our responsibility when we have the means and the justification to act opens ourselves up to sins of indifference and incredulity. 

Is War Ever Just? For Catholics the answer is yes.