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Clarity on the Catholic Doctrine on War, Part 2

February 3, 2007

Part One here.

A man has no vindictive power within the nation itself; it is the work of the community to punish the enemies of fthe community. The same is true outside the limits of the nation; the private person has no more vindictive power against external enemies than he has against criminals within the nation. He is not the one delegated to care for and act for the community; he has no authority to convoke the whole community, as would be necessary in the case of war. All this belongs in authority, to him who has charge of the community.

But even here, in the case of the governor of a nation declaring war, it is not a matter of any particular person taking up the sword. The sword of defense is given to the soldier by the authorities; and it is given to the authorities themselves by their very office as community guardians. In each case, the sword is not taken up, rather it is thrust upon them. Even though the cause be just, the war is rendered unjust when the competent authority declaring it vitiates its justice by such evil intentions as cupidity, cruelty and the like. Nor is this surprising; with a sufficiently evil intention a man can make the love he has for his mother or the support he gives his wife a vicious thing.

The brief, classic statement on the morality of war demands three conditions for war’s justification: it must be declared by competent authority, it must be for a just cause, and it must be waged for a right intention. These three must be had simultaneously. War is not just merely because competent authority declares it; it is not just merely because it has a just cause; nor is war just merely because one’s intention is very pure. When these conditions are present simultaneously, war is not sinful; it is an act of virtue, a defense of the common good.

Such wars were the crusades. Such a war might have been the war waged by Spain against the Moors. But it is not always easy to determine the justice or injustice of a particular war, not because the principles are not clear, but because the evidence is often difficult to get at. In this case, as in every other case of judgement of a moral act, it is essential that we have the whole story, honestly told; but to break through the protective barrier of propaganda thrown around the evidence of modern wars is almost too much even for the tank-like minds with which nature has gifted historians.


Remembering that war is a moral act, waged by a moral agent, and therefore strictly limited by the precepts of moral law, it becomes evident that an act evil in itself is never permitted in the name of war. There is no cause that can justify a morally wrong act, for the end never justifies the means.

-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.124-125, 126.


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