What is the Church teaching on a Just War?

In 410 AD, St. Augustine of Hippo, in what is now Libya, watched in horror as the Roman Empire fell to Barbarian invaders. In his book, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, the author Edward Gibbons blames this fall of civilization on Christianity. In 410 AD, Augustine had the same fear because for years critics had warned that Christian pacifism would weaken the empire.

Augustine felt he needed to defend Christianity and Christianity had to defend civilization. The problem before him was the teachings of Jesus, which dealt with love, humility and compassion. Augustine argued that that Jesus’ teachings did not in all cases call for a literal obedience. To Augustine, turning the other cheek was more a spiritual action and not a physical action.

Augustine went on to state that killing was justified under the authority of God by a direct command from God or from a legitimate ruler who carries out God’s intent in restraining evil. Therefore, a person in this case does not break the commandment, but instead acts as an instrument of God.

For Augustine, war could be just if it was called for by a proper authority for a proper cause. St. Augustine said "A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly."

To Augustine, the restoration of peace was to be the main motive for waging a just war.

In his own words: "Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace."

Later, this concept was further defined by St. Thomas Aquinas in his work, Summa Theologica. According to Aquinas, it is the duty of a ruler to defined his people against internal strife by punishing those who do evil, and it is the duty of Christians to obey this temporal ruler according to Paul’s Letter to the Romans 13:4.

St. Thomas More, 200 years later, said that "in reality no war…in the present, or in the foreseeable future was just." He condemned all wars.

In the 16th and 17th century, more thought was given to justifying war and these teachings became part of general Christianity.

Much later in the 1960’s, Pope John XXIII in his encyclical "Pacem in Terris" condemned all wars, also, stating that a proportional injury does not exist anymore to justify war.

In Vatican II, the Council addressed war in this manner: war is not morally justifiable to punish an offense or to recover something, but it is justifiable to repel injury and aggression.

To see what is today the teaching of the Church, please check the US. Catholic Bishops site : for more information, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2309-2317).

So, are Christians justified in going to war? The Church teaches that in the limited framework of the "just war" concept, that they are. Some argue that this is contrary to Jesus’ teaching. In the end, one needs to use discernment to decide for oneself what is one’s response to war. I have Catholic friends of my generation who fought in Vietnam and those that were conscientious objectors. Who was right and who was wrong?

God knows…


SOURCES: Holmes, Robert. “A Time for War?” Christian History Issue 67: Augustine from the Christianity Today Web Site © 2001 Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica, Vol. 3 IIaIIaeQQ,1-148. Musto, Ronald. The Catholic Peace Tradition, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1986. Raymond, John. The Just War Theory (internet web site). Catholic Encyclopedia

- Deacon George Kozak (6/02)

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