Catholic News Service
While the Catholic tradition urges peace in all aspects of our lives, the Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes in No. 2309 “strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force.” Some have called this the just-war doctrine and the catechism makes certain provisions, including that “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”
The catechism adds that while all citizens have an obligation to protect their country in times of war, those “who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms” are to be given alternative ways to serve (No. 2311), that “noncombatants, wounded soldiers and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely,” (No. 2313).
The catechism also says, in No. 2314, that “indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”
The Catholic just-war tradition developed gradually over the centuries. While Jesus does not teach about war directly, his teaching that the meek shall inherit the land, the merciful will be shown mercy and that peacemakers will be called blessed and children of God (Mt 5:5-9) presents a strong case against war.
In the same passage, he also taught his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them.
In the early church, the question arose whether someone could be a Christian and a member of the Roman army. Hippolytus of Rome, a third-century theologian, wrote that if a soldier joined the church he must refuse to kill and could not take an oath to the emperor. Military commanders had to resign their commission, and any Christian who joined the military would be ostracized.
Tertullian, an early Christian author, argued that taking up the sword, even in peacetime, was forbidden by Jesus. Christians were publically ridiculed because they would not fight for the emperor.
This attitude began to change after 312, when Constantine, the Roman emperor, gave Christianity a new political status and Christianity flourished.
St. Athanasius wrote that it was meritorious to kill enemies in time of war. St. Augustine laid out the premise for a just war early in the fifth century. He said it must be waged under legitimate authority, directed to restore peace or punish injustice, fought without unnecessary violence and conducted with concern for the enemy.
Augustine’s teaching was developed further by St. Thomas Aquinas, whose writings provided the starting point for today’s teaching.
Current Catholic just-war doctrine takes into account modern weapons’ ability to kill great numbers indiscriminately and from afar. It begins with the presumption against the use of force, except in certain situations.
For example, Pope Benedict XVI, in his April 2008 address to the United Nations, argued that we have the “responsibility to protect” all who need protecting, and Pope Francis said, “It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor” when answering a question about Iraq and violence against religious minorities in that country. But he also said, “I do not say bomb,” and reiterated the word “stop.”
What is most important to understand is that the just-war doctrine is not the whole of the church’s teaching on this topic. Promoting peace is the church’s primary focus and first priority.
Mulhall is a catechist living in Louisville, Kentucky.