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Conditions of A Just War

by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

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  • Description:
    Bishop Sheen contrasts the Christian attitude towards war with that of the modern pagan. He sets down general the determinants of a moral act, he then apply them to war.
  • Publisher & Date:
    Unknown, 1940

The tragedy of our day is that so many minds are confronted with problems, unexpected tragedies, or catastrophies, for which they have no principle of solution. The Christian is never in that quandary because he has his philosophy of life and hierarchy of values made before a difficulty presents itself. The difference between the modern pagan and the true Christian is, that the former is confronted with strange roads without guideposts, whereas the Christian has a map to cover all the roads; the pagan has need of measuring something but has no measuring rod, the Christian has his standard of values already made before the valuable is presented for appraisal. The Christian is like a carpenter who carries his rule in his pocket — he does not know whether he will have to measure floors, ceilings, doghouses, palaces, movie theaters, or churches; but regardless of whether he has to stand or stoop, he never throws away his ruler, never decides to be a Liberal and makes the foot measure 13 inches, or a reactionary and make it measure 11 inches. A foot, for him, is 12 inches despite Progressive education. The modern, on the other hand, uses moral principles like clothes. He uses one set of principles at one moment, another at another, as he wears white trousers for tennis, formal black for dinner, trunks at the beach, and none at all in his tub. His likes and dislikes determine his moral principles instead of his moral principles determining his likes and dislikes.

This difference between the modern and the Christian is true not only as regards education, economics, politics, science, but even as regards war. The Christian does not wait until war is declared, and then through the influence of propaganda, emotion, or slogan, deride its justice or injustice. He has a body of principles of justice grounded in the Eternal Reason of God, anterior to any conflict. What these principles are in relation to war is the subject of this chapter. In other words, is a war ever justified? The question is so worded as to ignore this war completely. All we want to do now is to set down the invariable Catholic principles for a just war -- principles we had before this war, before the Civil War, before the French Revolution, before Lepanto, and before Constantine, and which we will have long after this war.

Our procedure will be to set down in general the determinants of a moral act, and then apply them to war. In every moral act three elements must be considered: first, the object; second, the intention; and third, the circumstances. Not one of these may be contrary to the moral order, if the act is to be considered morally good. To express this idea we often use an old Latin maxim: bonum ex integra causa, malum quocumque defectu; that is, all the moral determinants of an act must be good: its object, its intention, and its circumstances. If only one of them is not good, the act cannot claim to be wholly good.

To illustrate: Suppose one wants to know whether it is a morally good act to help a poor friend who needs $1,000 to remain in his business. Inquire, first: What is the purpose of the gift? To help a neighbor. Obviously that is good—but that alone does not make the act morally good, for two other points must also be considered.

Second, what is the intention or the motive for the action? The act can be good and the motive bad. If the intention in giving is to relieve the friend's financial burden so he can continue to give himself and family the normal comforts of life, then the act is so far morally good; but if the motive for giving is to win the favor of his wife and ultimately to induce her to divorce him, then the act is vitiated by an evil intention.

Third, one must inquire: What are the circumstances? If the gift is made through the intermediary of a friend of the wife who, in giving the gift ridiculed the sanctity of the marriage bond and justified divorce on the grounds that everyone was doing it, the good act would be further vitiated and spoiled by the unmoral circumstances surrounding the gift.

It cannot be too often repeated that all three elements must be good: the action itself, the intention, and the circumstances. An act must therefore be good not only in its end but in its means. That is what the modern pagan forgets: he thinks that because the end is good, he can use any means he pleases. No! The end never justifies the means. And incidentally, for those who have been deceived by lies, the Jesuits never taught anything else but this traditional Christian doctrine.

Let us now apply these principles to war. To be just, a war must be good in its object, in its intention, and in its circumstances:

1. The object must be good; that is, a war must have a just cause. Now, wars are of two kinds, defensive and offensive. A defensive war is just in its cause if it is waged to defend an essential and fundamental right unjustly denied. An offensive war is just in its cause if it is the only means for preserving an essential and fundamental right or justice unjustly denied. It is, of course, here presumed that the war is the last resort in the preservation of justice; that other peaceful means of righting the wrong must have been tried, and that the importance of the justice to be defended is proportioned to the gravity of the ills which the war would cause. As Henry of Ghent phrased it in the Middle Ages: "There are two ways of combating: by discussion or by violence; the first being peculiar to man, the second to wild animals, one should only have recourse to the latter when the former is of no avail." War cannot be just on both sides at the same time. Doubtful rights do not give a just cause. Those in authority are under the grave obligation of pondering all reasons, for war is not a political problem, but moral and religious. When doubt exists about a just cause for war, the dispute between States must be settled in another fashion, such as arbitration. The Christian under no circumstances can accept Stephen Decatur's doctrine: "My country right or wrong." A slogan of this kind assumes there is no law above a nation, not even the law of God— therefore, whatever one's nation decides to do, is right. Rather the Christian attitude is: If our country is wrong, let us make it right; and when it is right, if need be we will die for it; then in dying for it we will be defending our country's justice because it is one with Divine Justice.

2. War must be good or right not only in its object or cause, but also in its intention. The only intention which can justify war is to promote common good and avoid evil. The common good here means not exclusively the common good of the individual nation but the common good of the world, because today no nation is hermetically sealed but rather its order and prosperity is bound up inseparably with other nations.

Though a war was declared by lawful authority and for a just cause, it could become unjustified by reason of the wrong intention of the one who waged it; for example, for the sake of civil vengeance, to satisfy the lust of domination, or to create internal discords so as to incite revolution within a country at war. This latter applies to the Communist technique of using even a just war to stir up a civil war.

War is a terrible instrument, the last thing to be resorted to in defense of justice, and to make use of it one requires a pure heart and clean hands. One must therefore never confuse slogans with intentions. Civilization and culture are not the prizes of battle and hence must not be made the pretext of battle.

3. War, to be justified, must be good not only in its cause, not only in its intention, but also in its circumstances or its methods. A bad method could vitiate a good intention; for example, to circulate foul literature to procure money for a maternity ward. The Church is most emphatic about the circumstances of war affecting its morality. In 1937, for instance, when the Mexican government was persecuting religion with the fury of the Nazis, there were some evidently who thought that a revolt by force would have been justified. For that reason, in March, 1937, the Holy Father, Pius XI, addressed the following letter to the Mexican Bishops: "The Church condemns every unjust rebellion or act of violence against the properly constituted civil power.... Although it is true that a practical solution depends on concrete circumstances, it is nevertheless our duty to remind you of some general principles which must always be kept in mind:"1

"That the methods used for vindicating rights are means to an end, or constitute a relative end, not a final or absolute end." For example, a gun is a means; it is not justified because it is shot, but because of the reason for which it is shot. Its morality is relative to something outside itself, for there is a world of difference between a gun used to shoot a fat bear and a gun to shoot a rich uncle.2

"That, as a means to an end, the methods for vindicating rights must be lawful and not intrinsically evil acts." In other words, the end does not justify the means. No advantage however great may be gained at the expense of violating a moral law. I may not club a millionaire on the head to get money to buy ambulances for the wounded.3

"That since the methods for vindicating rights should be means proportionate to the end, they must be used only in so far as they seem to attain that end, in whole or in part, and in such a way that they do not bring greater harm to the community than the harm they were intended to remedy." For example, a bomber is a means to win a war: to use it to bomb hospitals is not proportionate to the winning of war and therefore unjustified. There may be no limit to what men will do in war, because physically they can do anything; but there is a limit to what they may do in war, because morally they ought not do certain things; for example, they ought not kill prisoners of war, make improper use of a flag of truce, force conquered people and particularly women to march in front of soldiers into battle. The Catholic Church officially believes that aerial bombardments of civilian populations is an unjustified method of war, and L'Osservatore Romano of the Vatican on June 10, 1938, declared that the protests of the world against bombings in Spain were justified by the fact that the centers bombed had no military interest.

When, then, an individual is confronted with the problems of war, he should ask himself these questions: Is the cause for which my country goes to war just? Is it grave and proportionate to the evils which will follow? Is it to defend basic rights, which could not otherwise be preserved, or to expand possessions, and preserve a certain form of economy or politics? Second, supposing the cause to be just, has my country the right intention? Is it entering the war to save loans made to foreign countries, or loans to restore international order based on justice? Third, are its methods justified? Is it using certain anti-religious forces? Is it so conducting the war that it realizes war is a conflict between States and not between individuals? Are its methods conducive to a true peace without vindictiveness? Only when these three questions of morally good end, right intentions, and justifiable methods can be answered in the affirmative can war be justified. These principles are as independent of propaganda and emotion as the sun is independent of the methods of government. They antedated this war and every war, because the order of the universe is grounded on the justice of God. As a ship can keep its course because its star is fixed, so a Christian can keep his thinking straight and his mind tidy in the midst of a self-interested and distracting world, because his justice is fixed in God and everything else revolves about it. Our concept of justice is as unchanging as the Eternal Spirit of God:

In the corrupted currents of this world,
Offense's gilded hand may shove by justice;
And oft 'tis seen, the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: But 'tis not so above:
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell'd
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. (Hamlet, Act III, Scene 3.)

St. Thomas treats two subsidiary questions of war. First, is it ever permitted to disobey the order of a legitimate superior? He answers:

There are two reasons for which a subject may not be bound to obey his superior in all things. First, on account of the command of a higher power. For as a gloss says on Rom. 13:2, They that resist (Vulg.—He that resisteth) the higher power, resist the ordinance of God (cf. St. Augustine, De Verb. Dom., viii). If a commissioner issues an order, are you to comply if it is contrary the bidding of the proconsul? Again if the proconsul commands one thing and the emperor another, will anyone hesitate to disregard the former and serve latter? Therefore, when God commands, we must obey God. Second, a subject is not bound to obey his superior if the latter commands him to do something wherein he is not subject to him. For Seneca says (De Beneficiis, iii), It is wrong to suppose that slavery falls upon the whole man: for the better part of him is excepted. His body is subjected and assigned a master, but his soul is his own. Consequently in matters touching the internal movement of the will man is not bound to obey his fellow man, but God alone.

Nevertheless man is bound to obey his fellow man in things that have to be done externally by means of the body: and yet, since by nature all men are equal he is not bound to obey another man in matters touching the nature of the body, for instance in those relating to the support of his body or the begetting of his children.

Wherefore servants are not bound to obey their masters, nor children their parents, in the question of contracting marriage, or of remaining in the state of virginity, or the like. But in matters concerning the disposal of actions and human affairs, a subject is bound to obey his superior within the sphere of his authority; for instance, a soldier must obey his general in matters relating to war, a servant his master in matters touching the execution of the duties of his service, a son his father in matters relating to the conduct of his life and the care of the household, and so forth.1

Next he discusses whether clerics should be asked to combat in war:

Now warlike pursuits are altogether incompatible with the duties of a bishop and a cleric for two reasons. The first reason is a general one because, to wit, warlike pursuits are full of unrest, so that they hinder the mind very much from the contemplation of Divine things, the praise of God, and prayers for the people, which belong to the duties of a cleric. Wherefore just as commercial enterprises are forbidden to clerics, because they unsettle the mind too much, so, too, are warlike pursuits, according to 2 Tim. 2:4: No man being a soldier to God, entangleth himself with secular business. The second reason is a special one, because, to wit, all the clerical Orders are directed to the ministry of the altar, on which the Passion of Christ is represented sacramentally, according to 1 Cor. 11:26: As often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, show death of Lord, until He come. Wherefore it is unbecoming for them to slay or shed blood, more fitting that they should be ready their own blood for Christ, so to imitate in deed what they portray ministry. Now no man with a certain duty to perform, can lawfully do which renders him unfit for duty. Therefore it is altogether unlawful for clerics fight, because war is directed to shedding blood.2

Prelates and clerics may, by the authority of their superiors, take part in wars, not indeed by taking up arms themselves, but by affording spiritual help to those who fight justly, by exhorting and absolving them, and by other like spiritual helps. Thus in the Old Testament (Jos. 6:4) the priests were commanded to sound the sacred trumpets in the battle. It was for this purpose that bishops or clerics were first allowed to go to the front: and it is an abuse of this permission if any of them take up arms.3

Now, among the faithful, carnal wars should be considered as having for their end Divine spiritual good to which clerics are deputed. Wherefore, it is the duty of clerics to dispose and counsel other men to engage in just wars. For they are forbidden to take up arms, not as though it were a sin, but because such an occupation is unbecoming their personality.4

Two practical considerations follow from this Catholic theology of war: First, we Christians should never talk of war, as the world does, in terms of freedom, but always in terms of justice. One of the greatest disasters that happened to modern civilization was for democracy to inscribe "liberty" on its banners instead of "justice." Because "liberty" was considered the ideal it was not long until some men interpreted it as meaning "freedom from justice"; then when religion and decent government attempted to bring them back to justice, organizing into "freedom groups" they protested that their constitutional and natural rights were being violated. The industrial and social injustice of our era is the tragic aftermath of democracy's overemphasis on freedom as the "right to do whatever you please." No, freedom means the right to do what you ought, and implies law, and law implies justice, and justice implies God. So, too, in war, a nation that fights for freedom divorced from justice has no right to war, because it does not know why it wants to be free, or why it wants anyone else to be free.

The Christian, in opposition to the spirit of the world, should think of war first and primarily in terms of justice. Whenever there is justice there is freedom, but when there is freedom, there is not always justice. There can be freedom without justice—and that is the basic reason why there is war today; men wanting to be free from discipline, and particularly from dependence on the Justice of God.

It is indeed interesting that our Lord never praised those who sought freedom apart from justice. Never did He say:

"Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after freedom," but "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after justice,"5 and "Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice's sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."6 Let us, then, in the name of God, stop talking about freedom until we decide why we want to be free; let us, when the world has gone mad with freedom alienated from the law of God, unfurl the flag of justice—then we shall be free: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice and all these things shall be added unto you."7

Second, since the God of Justice is the God of Charity it follows that although a war may be justified, one may not enter into it in a spirit of hate. We too often identify what is really a sin against charity with a love of justice. It is precisely against this divorce of justice and charity that the Church cautions us, even in times of war. The condemnation of injustice must not be separated from the plea for charity and prayer—the hatred of enmity from the love of enemy. Justice may demand, in history, physical resistance to an aggressor's physical assault; but charity demands that we pray for his conversion from his onslaught against the morality and justice of God.

As a recent writer in the London Tablet expressed it:

Our Lord tells us not to fear those who can kill the body, and afterwards can do no more, but rather to fear him who has the power to send our body and our soul into the fire of hell. An immediate application of these words to our present situation is that we should not allow our enemy to induce us to fall into sin. It is the supreme issue for us in this war as in everything.

The sins to which an enemy is most likely to tempt us are these three: sins of intemperance, sins of doubt, and sins of hate. Sins of intemperance, as when men depressed by war seek distraction in corporeal excess. Sins of doubt, as when men begin to question the goodness of God who allows such evil to befall them. And sins of hate, when men deny the enemy their charity.

The important thing for us in these temporal incidents is to be on the side of Christ and of His charity. It is by no means enough that our cause should be just. For one could fight on the right side in this sense and yet defeat its righteous purpose by admitting a decline of temperance or trust or charity. Even the good things of this temporal life must be carefully handled lest self-deception overtake us; for it is not without profundity that the sacred liturgy teaches us to pray so that we may pass through temporal things as not to lose eternal things....

It is no figure to call God our Father and we His children. It is indeed the most remarkable letter of the truth, for we are adopted through His Son. That truth works out with the validities of paternity and filiation, including the cross-purposes, if we may say so. Is it likely, for instance, that we as children should know what is best for us? Is it not natural that we should, in the heat of the moment and as children do, see first the hardship and realize the blessing tardily?

That there is blessing we have no doubt: such inducements as the urgent putting of our souls in the state of grace if need be; the discharge of some long-neglected duty, such as making a will, paying a debt, forgiving an injury; suffering a salutary reduction of one's pride of life; being forced to face in a novel, vivid way the four last things; and being so deprived on every side that we are compelled to look to the one thing left to us, the saving of our souls. It may even be that God sends these abrupt blessings for very serious reasons, as when Catholics have grown complacent intellectually and deteriorated morally, and need to be aroused to their true business of salvation by severe awakening. Hora iam est nos de somno surgere.8

ENDNOTES

1. Summa Theologica 2-2ae, q. 104, art. 5.

2. Summa Theologica 2-2ae, q. 40, art.

3. Ibid., ad 2.

4. Ibid., ad 3.

5. Matt. 5:6.

6. Matt. 5:10.

7. Matt. 6:33.

8. London Tablet August 3, 1940, pp. 97, 98.

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