Christianity, Just War, and Just Punishment

by Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.

Can Christians take part in war? The Christian life is participation in the life of Christ. Christ gives us this participation through the free gift of grace. He is both the sanctifier, the divine workman, who works grace within us, and the plan, the exemplar cause and model, according to which He conforms us in His work of sanctification. He conforms us to His Eternal Sonship, by giving us the beginning, the inchoatio, of eternal life through the infused virtues. And He also conforms us to the works and virtues of His earthly life. He conforms us especially to His patience and mildness under suffering. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter and opened not His mouth. He Himself lived the precepts that He gives in the Sermon on the Mount; He turned the other cheek and suffered injustice without defending Himself. And we are called to do the same:

It was to this that you were called, because Christ also suffered, for your sake, leaving you his example so that you might follow in his footsteps. He did no wrong, nor was any treachery found in his utterance; He was reviled and did not revile in answer; He suffered and spoke no threats but gave Himself up to him who judges justly… (1 Peter 2:21)

Can Christians, who should do all that they do out of the grace of Christ, take up arms in war? Should they not rather refuse to take any part, and suffer the injustices of their enemies patiently?

Despite the apparent plausibility of Christian pacifism, the tradition of the Church holds that there can be just wars, and that Christians who take part in them act justly. St. Thomas in synthesizing St. Augustine’s teachings on war gives three criteria for the justice of war. War has to be (1) declared by a public authority, (2) for a just cause, and (3) with the right intention.  (Summa Theologiae, IIa-IIae Q 40, A1.)

The first of these is by far the most important, and is the key to understanding how the teaching on just war is compatible with the Gospel. Political authority is derived from God, who created human beings as political beings, capable of attaining common goods that are naturally superior to any private good. During the time between His first and second comings, Christ did not abolish the order of temporal authorities established by the natural law. He Himself recognizes the authority of temporal rulers: “Give Caesar what is Caesar’s.”(Matthew, 22:21). And this authority carries with it the power of the sword: “It is not for nothing that that minister wears a sword, since he is God’s minister, vindictive in anger against the evildoer.” (Romans 13:4) The power of the sword exceeds any merely human authority, since God alone has authority over life and death. But the one in charge of the common good of a complete society does not have merely human authority; such a one has been granted the power of the sword by God Himself. St Augustine and St Thomas see the power of rulers to wage war against external enemies of the common good as an analogical extension of the power of the sword that they have against internal enemies of the common good. A complete society would not have everything it needed to attain its end if it could not use the sword against external as well as internal enemies. The primary intrinsic common good of society is is peace. But peace depends on justice, and justice at times requires punishment. Therefore, to say that the power of rulers to wage war is an extension of the power of the sword, is to say that they can wage war only in the service of peace.

This brings us to the second point: just cause. War has to be waged against injustice. In the internal pacification of a society, the rulers can only use the power of the sword against those who have committed injustice. The infliction of the physical evil of suffering and death is morally good, because it is just— the just recompense for the unjust deeds of the criminal. Similarly, in attacking external enemies the rulers only act justly if they attack their enemies to rectify injustice. The rulers who decide to inflict violent suffering and death on the external enemies of the common good, and the soldiers who carry out their decision, act well, when they act justly, to rectify injustices committed by the enemy. As Cajetan writes in the Summula: “a just battle is an act of vindictive justice.”[1] In Romans 12:19, St. Paul writes: “Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give way to God’s anger, since it is written: Mine is the vengeance, mine the retribution, says the Lord.” But this dictum has to be read in the light of what he says earlier in the same letter (13:4) namely that legitimate authority executes “vengeance” (i.e. vindictive justice) and retribution on God’s behalf. And the same Epistle of Peter that tells us to suffer in patience like Christ, also tells us that temporal authority has been established by God to punish evil-doers: “Be obedient to all human authority for the sake of the Lord; to a king, as one who is above you; to governors, because they are sent by him to punish the evildoers and to praise the doers of good.” (1 Peter 2:13-14.)

The third point, right intention, requires that those who wage war do not take authority and just cause as excuses to satisfy their lust for blood-shedding or plunder. The waging of war must not only be objectively just, but also subjectively an act of the virtue of justice. And for Christians it must also be an act of supernatural love, of charity. All acts done by Christians, including acts of natural justice, must be done out of supernatural love of God and neighbor. Since in waging just wars one renders others their due (just punishment) it is fully compatible with a true and ardent love of benevolence— an intending of the good for the other. Thus Christians can indeed take part in war, and in doing so act out of the grace of Christ, who conforms us to Himself as the exemplar of love.

[1]Praelium iustum est actus vindicativae iustitiae.” Summula Caitani (Venice, 1596), s.v. “Bellum,” p. 27.

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