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Clarity on the Catholic Doctrine on War, Part 1

January 27, 2007

It must be noticed…that the clash of armed forces which constitutes war is not in itself sinful. Sin enters when war is unjust. There are today two odd extremes of opinion. The first glorifies war and admits no legal limitations to military victory. The other completely condemns war, refusing to admit any justification whatsoever for armed hostilities between nations.

Actually these conflicting positions are twin sons of the same horrible mother; they have a common source in athiestic materialism. The fundamental principle of the glorifiers of war is: “might is right.” Law, then, is the dictate of the bully. This amounts to a deification of brute strength, an inculcation of the philosophy of the bully; it leaves men much worse off than the animals, for it leaves men shorn of every principle of order and condemns them to the chaos of shifting power, with its inevitable results of constant desolation. The opposite extreme opinion has about it the softness of corruption and disintegration. Behind it is the conviction that the things destroyed by war are supreme in the scale of human values: property, health, luxury, money, even life itself.

Both opinions are evil from their very root; of the two, perhaps the absolute pacifist extreme is the most destructive of things distinctively human, for normally there is apt to be a healthy reaction on the part of the recipient of a bloody nose. As a matter of fact, acts of nations are as subject to moral law as are the acts of individuals. They are pointed to or away from a goal that does not vary; they are, then, right or wrong, leading to the goal or away from it. The power that may allow them to escape immediate punishment cannot make good out of evil. On the other hand, there are things worth fighting for, worth the loss of life itself. We cannot refuse to fight under any circumstances without admitting that there is nothing worthy of the efforts of man above what he can reach in the world; what he can touch with his hands.

The modern opinions are not glittering novelties. Man has unconditionally condemned war before. The Manicheans were sure war was always a sin; Luther was convinced that to fight against the Turks would be to resist the will of God, impeding His punishments; while Erasmus, conceding that war might have been justified in the Old Law, maintained that in the New Law of love, it is certainly not. That war, under some circumstances, is justified is not a mere philosophical opinion; a Catholic is not free to embrace or reject it. It is a solemn doctrine of the Church; in fact, time and again through the ages, the Church, through her councils and Supreme Pontiffs, has urged men to wage war.

Perhaps we could compress the basis for a just war into one word – defense. The just cause of war is to repulse an attempted injury or to obtain satisfaction for an injury already done. In the first case, we have what is called a defensive war; in the second case, what is called an offensive war. In both cases, we may have a just war, for in both cases action is taken in defense of rights.

Such defense is, of course, desperate, last-ditch defense….

-Excerpted from A Companion to the Summa, Vol. III The Fullness of Life, Walter Farrell, O.P., S.T.D., S.T.M.,Sheed & Ward, NY, 1940, p.122-123.

Related Posts:
Clarity on the Catholic Doctrine on War, Part 2


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