Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Church Recognizes Self-Defense As A Natural Right, The

by Frank Morriss


An explanation of the Church's teaching on a nation's right to defend its citizens and its sovereignty by war when necessary.

Larger Work

The Wanderer


4 & 8

Publisher & Date

Wanderer Printing Co., St. Paul, MN, February 14, 2002

Vision Book Cover Prints

Whenever our nation finds it necessary to wage war, there are always objections (mostly from the liberal side of opinion) questioning the legitimacy of doing so. When that involves the legitimacy of waging war itself, there is seldom advanced an argument for out-right pacifism — that all war is by its nature evil and therefore never justified — but rather what might be called "soft pacifism" — the argument that it is at best the lesser of two evils, or a "necessary" evil.

A commentary in Commonweal magazine (January 25) is an example of this, as its title indicates: "When Christians Kill — Don't Make a Virtue of Necessity." In this essay John Garvey puts it at its softest, but it is pacifism nevertheless:

"Any deaths that result from our action — not only the civilians who die but even the terrorists — defile us. Our response must be repentant, and the idea of a victory parade is truly obscene."

Since it is good theology that we must repent only for doing wrong (true also for Orthodox Christians, which Garvey seems to be or have once been), it must follow that the writer is judging all acts of war which result in death — whether intentionally or not — as wrong. Is this a genuine Catholic position — that, as Garvey writes, "we participate in an evil, however necessary, it may be, when we kill people for whom Christ died"?

Garvey cites two cases (taken here as factual for the sake of argument) of such "defilement" — that of Oedipus "for sleeping with a woman he did not know was his mother, and by killing a man he did not know was his father." Indeed, Garvey says such "defilement" is just as that incurred by taking life, both directly and indirectly, in war. The second case was the discipline he claims was imposed in the early Church upon all who shed blood, "even in self-defense," delaying "readmission to the Eucharist."

The "defilement" in both cases cited by Garvey was a cultural belief, not indicative of moral guilt. The pagan Greeks considered many things operative negatively by the fate to which all men were subject. Hector is dishonored by the mistreatment visited upon his corpse by Achilles. The defilement that Oedipus incurred was by fate, not because of personal guilt.

The early Church was ambivalent about a number of things, one being the ritual impurity that Jews attached to contact with blood. That is why Peter at the meeting of all the clergy at Jerusalem determined Gentile converts must refrain from meat offered to idols or from strangled animals and from blood, in accordance with the thought of James. Even today the blood involved in acts of violence is a problem for observant Jews, and special persons are assigned to deal with it, as when slaughter happens in the streets.

The Church, however, never officially taught that self-defense is immoral and therefore forbidden, but to the contrary has recognized it as a natural right. That right extends to a nation's right to defend its citizens and its sovereignty by war when necessary. For Garvey to use cultural ideas about incest and about ritual impurity attached to contact with blood or the eating of strangled (bloody) meat is to mix categories and possibly mislead his readers into believing the concept of just war was a later departure in the Church from an earlier condemnation of it.

Cornelius, baptized by Peter, was an officer over a hundred troops in Rome's army. He was known by Jews as a just and God-fearing man even before his reception into the Christian community. There is no evidence he was ordered to change his soldierly vocation. Many early Christians were soldiers, shown by the martyrdoms of several of them of the Thundering Legion under Marcus Aurelius. Any problem about early Christians being warriors arose from the question of serving emperors who claimed divinity, not over any immorality necessarily attached to waging war.

If, as the subtitle of Garvey's article suggested, we should not make killing by Christians in war a virtue, neither should we make it a vice, as the writer does when he insists any killing in war defiles us. Unfortunately, reputed cases of psychological trauma endured by Americans after their service in Vietnam have been used by opponents of that war to suggest that psychological damage resulted from a guilt for fighting it. Popular fiction perpetuated that argument in its depiction of agonizing veterans of that war, atoning for what they had done by tortures of conscience. How much of that is real and how much fiction probably is beyond determination.

But that very tactic of condemning war because of some "defilement" it imposes on all who wage it must be answered with the honest truth that such "defilement" as a moral inevitability does not exist. It is a myth of either hard or soft pacifism, promoted by those who either condemn all war or certain wars of their own determination.

The "victory parades" that Garvey views as obscene are such only if they are to glorify the death and destruction of war, but not if they celebrate success in defending fellow citizens by the bravery and commitment of a nation's military. For such defense is not merely a moral right. It is a nation's duty, and those who risk their lives in carrying out that duty deserve the nation's special recognition and praise.

Garvey is badly off the mark when he writes:

"Participation in a necessary war means that we are involved in evil; but the evil may be necessary. We must go into this with a sense of mourning, an understanding that this is tragedy, and there can be no real triumph, only an attempt to keep even greater evil at bay."

He reinforces the idea that there is no real victory in war by quoting words from Neil Young's song Let's Roll — "I hope that we're forgiven / For what we've got to do." Like the shibboleth that says war has no victors, only survivors, it may be effective propaganda, but it doesn't reflect either theological or historical reality.

There is no reason to believe those on the flight who helped save the Capitol or White House and the persons in them felt they were doing something wrong for which they would need forgiveness. Only in the realm of pacifist thought is it true that war is evil and therefore absolutely wrong, or evil but allowed by necessity. To attempt to foist that upon heroes who resist evil and use force to attempt to save themselves and others is an exercise in nontruth. And to the degree it might propagate the idea that all use of force is evil it is a dangerous untruth, inviting a destruction of sovereignty at the hands of enemies, and an enslavement of us all by the success of our enemies. The idea that war is evil but a sometime duty of a nation are contradictory. What is done with the authorization of the natural law cannot be evil; a contrary assertion is close to blasphemy.

Garvey never provides his readers the distinction between material evil — death, destruction, suffering — and moral evil — murder, confiscation, cruelty. The former are inescapable in war, and war does involve us with them. But the latter are acts of the free will, and we must not be involved in them. Fortunately, it is not necessary that we be so involved for a successful war, no matter how some may use war as an excuse to do evil. Some people will use any excuse to do evil, but that does not defile a lawful enterprise, which defense against an aggressor certainly can be.

Those who think as does Garvey create a mythic "defilement" by war and all who take part in it when they call war evil. The idea of the permissibility of involvement "in evil." (the preposition is Garvey's) out of necessity is actually an immorality. One may not do moral evil for any reason. There is no such thing as a necessary moral evil, that is, no moral evil we can have permission to do.

All war is a tragedy, in that war reflects the tragic fall of Adam. That tragedy touches us all — the just and the unjust. Its tragic results affect us all — but not because of everyone's personal guilt for it, but because of the inescapability of its results. Christ saved us from the worst of those results — loss of salvation. Others remain, but not out of individual or even group guilt. That is the meaning of the Catholic rejection of Luther's claim of the corruption of human nature.

The sin of some in war does not defile those not themselves sinning. The aggression of the attacker does not make the lawful response of those attacked sinful. The predatory motive of the aggressor in war does not corrupt the motives of the defenders. The attempt to create what has the essence of some ritual impurity in legitimate shedding of blood in war cannot create an immorality or evil where that does not exist. It should be recognized as a tactic of pacifism to give itself a legitimacy it lacks. Pacifism that insists on an immorality ascribable to all who wage war, aggressor and defenders alike, is a heresy.

Christians may choose to surrender for themselves exercise of the right to self-defense rather than take an aggressor's life; but they may not insist on others doing so, or claim if they do not they are involving themselves in evil.

A nation may not choose nonresistance to evil if the choice will bring loss of sovereignty and enslavement of its citizens. That would have a malice akin to suicide. A people might agree to loss of lesser goods — some amount of territory or some privileges flowing from sovereignty. But they cannot make of the determination to fight and if necessary die rather than surrender freedom an immorality.

A free nation will not long exist adopting that error, nor would it deserve to.

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