The Case for Catholic Pacifism

Can a Catholic be a pacifist?

I’m probably genetically biased. My ancestors were Mennonites. Like the Amish and Quakers and some other sects that emigrated to Pennsylvania, the Mennonites are pacifists. They not only are against war, they register as conscientious objectors and will not join the military.

I don’t think it is possible to argue that a Catholic must be a pacifist, but it is certainly possible that a Catholic may be a committed pacifist. Here are some thoughts, which go beyond the simplistic objections to war that it is nasty and people get hurt and killed.

Indeed, my major objections to war is not that there is violence or even that life is taken. Violence and the taking of life may sometimes be necessary in the battle against evil.

My other objections to fighting in a war and joining the military are different:

1. When a person joins up to fight a war he or she must be totally loyal to his country and its leadership. This means the Christian soldier must swear allegiance to a worldly power and be willing to lay down his life for that power. Do we know of any worldly power that has the same aims and objectives of the Christian faith?

2. Wars are invariably fought to claim or defend worldly riches and power. Claims that wars are for “the defense of freedom” or “to liberate people from tyranny” or any other idealistic motives are usually false. They are public relations efforts–propaganda to get the masses behind the military machine of those in power.

3. When a person swears total allegiance to a worldly power and is prepared to lay down his life for that power he is very likely to be blind to the weaknesses and faults of that worldly power. This leads to a fearful loss of autonomy in the individual and a widening of power of the state over individuals. His total allegiance and obligation to follow orders may lead the individual into a blind commission of terrible sin.

4. Christ the Lamb teaches us that violence is not the answer. Christ’s way is to save others through identification with their suffering and to redeem them through an embrace of the suffering itself. This is also the example of the martyrs.

I admit that in the real world, if everyone were pacifists evil men would triumph. We need righteous rulers and those who would enforce justice if need be. The true pacifist does not judge those who, following their own conscience, feel it is right to join the military and serve their country. He applauds those who do so with courage and virtue, and if a war can be shown to be truly just, he does not protest even though he decides not to bear arms himself.

I also understand that true pacifism is not passive. Some of the bravest and most worthy men and women are those conscientious objectors who stepped forward to serve as ambulance men, chaplains, nurses and aid workers.

The Christian pacifist is not a worn out hippie peace-nik, but a realistic person who cannot reconcile the total commitment to an earthly power required from a soldier. At the same time the Christian pacifist must not waver from the realization that he is involved in a battle–and that he must be a warrior for Christ against evil wherever it exists.

This is the deeper commitment that a Catholic pacifist should have–not a shying away from all conflict, and certainly not a cowardly retreat from all forms of conflict, but a commitment to a war that is deeper and more far reaching than any human military conflict. The Catholic pacifist fights against spiritual and moral evil wherever it exists–he or she fights against “the world, the flesh and the devil”.

  • nannon31

    So basically Hitler would have ruled Europe and Japan would have enslaved China under that paradigm of pacifist Christians one and all. Christ as a member of the Trinity actually commanded certain wars as Word. One was the Chaldeans warring against the Moabites and here’s Jeremiah warning to the Chaldeans that they are doing God’s work in Jer.48:10…” Accursed is the one who is slack in doing the work of the Lord; and accursed is the one who keeps back the sword from bloodshed.”
    The turn the other cheek verses by Christ was about the interpersonal level and at that, scholars note it was not about real but ritualistic assault in that the one version denotes the right cheek…meaning that the other person slapped you with his weak hand. When Christ is actually struck before Annas, Christ does not give his other cheek: John 18:22 When he had said this, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me”. Christ did not even extrapolate His own turn the cheek verse to cover real assault before Annas let alone to cover the movements of armies.

    • Dave Zelenka

      One can never suppose what would happen “if.” The reality of the world does not work that way. God’s kingdom is not like that. Never suppose. There’s no freedom, no grace, no life in supposing. And even if a reality emerges that seems ‘worse’ by human standards by adhering to the instructions of our Lord and Christ Jesus, human judgment of reality is not adequate. It is far from the truth because it is tainted by sin.

      And we should apply interpersonal understanding of who Christ is to our collective Christian groups at all levels: individual > family > Church.

      We should all pray more, so we can really know who Christ is.

      • nannon31

        You can suppose the “if”. If you come home to find a loved one being attacked and raped in your home by a strong meth energized man, pacifism or calling 911 in that context will rightly bequeath life long guilt to you…or life long denial from repressed guilt because immediate action is needed. You are going to have to do… the disgusting to him like Judith did to Holofernes. You’re going to have cut arteries…unless you have a gun.
        What if Christ came home to find Mary being attacked like that…ruling out miracles for the moment….Christ who whipped men and animals out of the temple without using a miracle against them? Christ who as Word ordered a preemptive attack on Aram through Elisha of the king of Israel as Elisha was dying in 2 Kings 13′s ending passage….Christ who as God killed Herod Agrippa in Acts 12 and Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5.

        • Dave Zelenka

          It’s funny, people always use the “what if the man had your wife at gunpoint” thing. There’s no exception. I never heard my beloved Christ Jesus give that instruction. People always suppose. Let God’s reality dawn upon you rather than Heaven-forbid our made-up reality dawn on us. We make up all kinds of false scenarios. It’s the sin within us that does that. I’m speaking from my own heart. The sinful side (my old man, as Paul puts it) always wants to see the terrible and for me to take my eyes off the Kingdom of Heaven. Keep your eyes on Jesus. These days, my primary confession is that I dwell too much on the bad things that could be, but that aren’t. It’s hard to stop that sort of sin when it takes hold. But it’s paralyzing and only Jesus can heal that.

          Oh, yes, and people always use the Jesus whipped the money-lenders out of the temple argument also. Where is the temple of the Holy Spirit today? Exactly, in our heart. And I tell you, we should do a lot more whippin’ to get those evil money changers out of our hearts. With Jesus we sternly say, “Be quiet!” “Come out of him” or in my case “out of me.”

          • nannon31

            Ergo…you would let your wife get raped then based on cherry picking pacifist sounding quotes rather than integrating the entire Bible and its testimony on the just use of violence. Romans 13:4 gives the state the sword
            “machaira” to execute God’s wrath ( see Acts 12:2 wherein Herod executes James with the same “machaira”). That state deputes to citizens the right to use that sword in their home when cops are far away as a quasi deputy of the state when execution only will stop a criminal…check your state laws and what it requires.. I stopped a criminal with a rear choke two years ago without killing him though it could have gone that way in seconds if he pulled a gun as I watched his hands and his pockets. You depend on never being in that situation and you’re calling that immunity…peace.

    • fats

      and if Hitler’s countrymen were pacifists?

      • Nordog6561

        >>and if Hitler’s countrymen were pacifists?<<
        Many were pacifists. They went into the ovens.

      • Patricius

        There is the example of Blessed Franz Jaggerstatter!

  • Augustine

    And we have the word of the “semper fidelis” Gen. Butler that war is always a racket:

  • Koa Airman

    The total obedience Fr Longnecker talks about doesn’t exist in modern Western militaries. Further, despite what some in the blogosphere think, our conduct is governed by a code of conduct based on Christian Just War Doctrine.

    First of all, as a military officer, my oath isn’t to the government or the president, it’s to the Constitution. We’re taught in the Prussian tradition that we’re only to obey lawful orders and have a *duty* to disobey immoral orders, or orders that conflict with the Law of Armed Conflict (look it up).

    Second, while we go where we’re told and fight whom we’re told to fight, military men an women are not automatons. None of us who fight our nation’s wars are blind to the faults of our leadership and our country. We do what we do because we are part of a team who depend on each other to stay alive, and because we’ve sworn an oath to defend the Constitution. Yes, weak and evil men sometimes do evil deeds, but those evil deeds are breaches of our Code, and not the rule.

    Finally, St Augustine dealt with the idea of pacifism in the 5th Century. He found that pacifism was not required of the Christian, and that Christians have a duty to oppose evil. We have a duty to defend ourselves and our countrymen from unjust attack. We have a duty to stop evil, even if stopping evil means using deadly force.

    • frdlongenecker

      Good comments. Thanks for joining the discussion.

    • Dale

      Indeed, there is a good case for the necessity of physical force, even military force. But did Augustine (much less Christ) -forbid- pacifism? I would be surprised if Augustine supported mandatory military service, given his low view of human government.

    • Augustine

      If this were true in practice, then American military would have refused to engage in military action for the last 60 years, since the last just war, WWII. And even then would have refused to bomb civilian populations, war crimes that only victors get away with.

      So it seems to me that padre is right and that the American military blindly obeys immoral orders.

    • kkollwitz

      Yes. I don’t find “total commitment to an earthly power” at all persuasive.

    • Joseph D’Hippolito

      We have a duty to stop evil, even if stopping evil means using deadly force.

      Apparently, the Catholic historical revisionists (Shea, Keating, et al) who condemn Hiroshima and Nagasaki nearly 60 years after the fact would disagree with you….

    • Dan C

      Basic training and other methods of military indoctrination create habits of thinking that make the rejection of an order very very difficult. As such, obedience to a commander may be more far far more absolute in de facto behavior, even in immoral instances, than rejection of this behavior occurs in reality. Likely, only modern fears of transparency of consequences has placed the breaks on most aberrant behaviors. (The “I do not want to be on the news” phenomenon.) It is not just in the military, but in most social structures that leaders hold enormous sway just from being in the office of leader.

      To conclude: while military individuals point to the fact that the Code of Military Conduct permits disobedience to clearly unconscionable, illegal orders, this itself has been less a deterrent in the military (due to the habitual requirements of a hierarchical organization), as it has been less a deterrent in medical contexts, corporate contexts, and even in Church governance. Hierarchy creates demands of behavior of subordinates that is very compelling.

    • JJ

      Oh, so you take an oath to the Constitution, not the President? If that were true, then we would have seen mass disobedience the moment the President ordered our military to unconstitutionally attack Libya or drone assassinate American citizens without trial. No, like good Roman legions , our troops obey the Emperor, not any theoretical Constitution.

  • Shelagh Deakin

    Good topic to discuss, Fr Dwight, particularly at this moment in time. My view is that Pacifism is Un-Godly and that Christians may not be Pacifists if we are to follow the Gospel and the actions of Jesus Himself. Catholics also have the teachings of Aquinas and Augustine to help them.

    I take the view that a Christian seeks to defend the weak and vulnerable and this may involve fighting. It may also involve loss of life in the name of defending the weak and vulnerable. It is un-Christian to stand by and to watch the weak being unfairly disadvantaged.

    Jesus spoke about Peace, but I do not see how he asked his followers to be Pacifists. He was non-political and Pacifism is a political stance ( adopted, interestingly by Protestants).

    • Dale

      Perhaps we need to define the terms, before we can fully engage in discussion. I would be surprised to think that St. Augustine supported mandatory military conscription. He didn’t see the state as being necessarily just, or necessarily having just laws.

      The issue of Christian pacifism revolves around the justice of using violence to stop violence. It is one thing to put this on a personal level, e.g. stopping someone from assaulting children. However, the issue is entirely different if it involves relinquishing prudential judgment to the government. When is it right to attack a village? When your government arranged commander tells you to do so, regardless of your qualms?

      The issue of Christian pacifism is complex. Certainly Jesus did not require us to be pacifists. However, that doesn’t mean he forbade it either.Sussing out the complexities is a worthwhile endeavor, if anyone cares enough to do so.

    • Augustine

      The problem is that since the Enlightenment’s nation-state, the state is total (everything that happens in a state belongs to the state), therefore its population is regarded as part and parcel of the state and legitimate target, thus total war, a logical consequence that came into being four centuries later in the 20th century.

      So, whenever one mentions the Christian duty to defend a nation – not a state – in war, if the war is total, it cannot be morally justified. Therefore, since no evil means may be used to achieve good goals, modern warfare is immoral and never just, always immoral and demanding a Christian to refuse to participate in it.

    • Gary Simmons

      Beati pacifici.

    • Dan C

      I think that earlier precepts have a legitimate hold on the individual Catholic.

      St. Basil’s views are well described in this essay:

      From the essay:

      “By his regulation and by the ritual exclusion of the illumined warrior from the sacrament (the returning victor presumably would have received many other public honors and the gratitude of the local folk ), Basil is making sure at least one public sign is given to the entire community that the Gospel standard has no place for war, violence and organized death. He is trying to sustain an eschatological balance: that war is not part of the Kingdom of God (signified in the Eucharistic ritual as arriving in the present) but is part of the bloody and greed-driven reality of world affairs which is the Kingdom-Not-Arrived.”

      I agree that an Apocalyptic religion has to have a severe tension between the clear shortfall that is war and violence and the vision of the Kingdom as elucidated so clearly in the Sermon.

    • Richard Stevens

      Totally agree with you. I used to be a pacifist in my teenage, non Catholic and Socialist youth. However, I really believe pacifism is ungodly and ultimately anti Christian. We are required by God to defend the weak, to fight for the truth, to oppose evil.
      Pacifism, as I think C.S.Lewis may have argued, also makes the assumption that the worst thing that can happen to a person is death. Such is not the case. Evil and sin are worse than death and a Christian has a duty to fight against both.

  • Joseph D’Hippolito

    Christ the Lamb teaches us that violence is not the answer. Christ’s way is to save others through identification with their suffering and to redeem them through an embrace of the suffering itself. This is also the example of the martyrs.

    Father, after studying at Oxford and being a member of three different Christian denominations, this is how you understand Christ’s redemption? Are such words as “justification” and “propitiation” part of your vocabulary? Have you ever studied the OT in depth? Do you understand the fundamental meaning of the Mosaic sacrificial system?

    Had Christ not died on the cross, the entire human race would have had to face divine condemnation because a holy, righteous God cannot tolerate sin!! Among other things, Christ bore His Father’s legitimate, justifiable anger at sin on the cross. Why do you think the veil at the Holy of Holies at the Temple was torn asunder from the top down??? It was a miracle to show that Christ’s death made direct access to God possible for anyone who embraced the Son’s death as his own atoning sacrifice. Read the letter to the Hebrews, if you don’t believe me.

  • Charles Mac Kay

    Swore allegiance for over 25 years and found I had sworn allegiance to a monster. The values became that of my enemies. Abortion, homosexuality, death in hospital. Selective abortion for girls public scandal involving huge handouts to masonic trolls are the norm.
    I am ashamed of swearing allegiance to the monster

  • Will

    I do not support US strikes in Syria, but I can see both sides of the issue.

  • Rationalist1

    Good post. Despite leaving the Catholic Church for atheism 15 years ago I still remain proud and in agreement of the Church’s stand on war and it’s reluctance to support most of the military actions that have occurred since the fall of the cold war.

    In my High School and university days I served in the military reserve and support the need for a strong capable military. I myself am reluctant to use the military except when all other courses of actions have been exhausted but so many of our leaders tend to become reluctant pacifists rather than reluctant militarists.

  • Irenist

    Perhaps the pacifist is to the just warrior as the man who takes vows of chastity, poverty, obedience, and stability is to the ordinary layman: some of us in the Body of Christ must embrace the supererrogatory counsels of Our Lord if we are to work well for the Kingdom. A little leaven….

  • Dan C

    A fine assessment.

    I think the focus on allegiances is a good primer on the non-Catholic Christian rationale for pacifism.

    I think modern pacifism has two functional brands. One is the Catholic Worker/John Dear brand of pacifism. Absolute in its formulation prior to any war. The second is a brand of selective pacifism, but one in which it is unlikely to ever identify participation in a specific proposed war as meeting Christian criteria. Some conservatives often criticized JP2 as being of this latter category, particularly around the Second Gulf War, and, as a consequence, found his critiques dismissable.

    Christian involvement in war evolved to a more permittable state by Augustine. At the time of Basil, soldiers returning from war had a form of “excommunication” placed upon them for several years, with the thought that their participation in war left them someone “unclean” and as a consequence unfit for the sacraments.

    Most modern Catholic pacifists use saints and the Gospel as the virtuous icons of their behaviors. The Gospels, particularly the Sermon on the Mount, frame a series of habits and behaviors that seem, in the eyes of the pacifist, to create demands that prevent participation in war and war efforts. Dorothy Day would oppose war in varied measures, with a rejection of the nuclear blast drills of NYC in the 1950′s, to suggesting that taxes should not be paid, since so much of the money goes to war efforts.

    Additionally, philosophical speculation on the Just War Theory, even by secularists, find it unworkable, and probably using the principle of double effect in a context that find it may be inapplicable. Secularists, noting the origins of the Just War Theory, also note that the Eastern Churches, in parallel fashion, justify war entirely differently and several do not have Just War Theories or a tradition of this theory. Ironically, the most original work on this very Catholic point of moral philosophy is being done by secularists, who, among other things, suggest the universal tendency toward relativism make such a moral calculus in a time of aggression unusable (example, see Dr. Weigel, Mr. Novak, and Fr. Neuhaus as they work to justify the Second Gulf War).

    Finally, practitioners of non-violent change (a different form of action among pacifists) would definitely agree with Augustine that evil must be challenged. It is just that they would find that violence is morally unjustifiable. As such, they embrace other modes of pursuing change and ends to evil.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    I am not a pacifist and my youngest son served in the army for a 4 year hitch after 9-11. I do admire those who will put their lives on the line to fight evil (like the Nazis.)
    But I also admire those who will stand up for peace and non-violence individually or in groups. And the Church has frequently protected or backed such “solitary witness.” Take for example St. Francis of Assisi. And pacifist Dorothy Day may be on the way to canonization

  • Steve

    I discussed this with a preist friend of mine while we were on a road trip. His position was one of passifism. I agree that providing for my own self defence is optional for me. And it could be a pious act to refuse to return blow for blow.

    However, my duties as a father compell me to defend my family. If they are in a situation where I must use force to repell an agressor, the Church teaches that I am morally compelled to do so with a “grave duty”:

    “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.” – CCC 2265

    It is for this reason that a person can be a pacifist for himself. But on behalf of of my wife and son, the Church does not allow me to be a passifict.

  • Steve

    I talked about this with a priest friend once. He also took the side of pacifism. I pointed out that my duty as a father binds me to protect my children and wife. [CCC 2265]

    So while I’m not obligated to defend myself, I can be gravely morally required to use force on their behalf.

  • Dr. Eric

    Fr. Longenecker already addressed your concerns:

    “I admit that in the real world, if everyone were pacifists evil men would triumph. We need righteous rulers and those who would enforce justice if need be. The true pacifist does not judge those who, following their own conscience, feel it is right to join the military and serve their country. He applauds those who do so with courage and virtue, and if a war can be shown to be truly just, he does not protest even though he decides not to bear arms himself.”

  • Stu

    It’s on thing to be a pacifist when you are personally being attacked. It’s quite another to be a “pacifist” in the face of others being attacked and you have the means to come to their defense through means of violence and choose not to do so.

  • dougpruner

    Your reasoning is good, yet the church to which you have an allegiance supplies chaplains to the military forces of several countries. (Catholic vs. Catholic; Lutheran vs. Lutheran… ) Do you see this as a conflict?

    I found no scriptures in your post, so here’s one I feel is relevant: John 13:34,35 (Kx)
    “I have a new commandment to give you, that you are to love one another; that your love for one another is to be like the love I have borne you. The mark by which all men will know you for my disciples will be the love you bear one another.”
    After saying this, Jesus went out and died for people including those who were opposing him at the time. (“My kingdom, said Jesus, does not belong to this world. If my kingdom were one which belonged to this world, my servants would be fighting, to prevent my falling into the hands of the Jews; but no, my kingdom does not take its origin here. And, “Dost thou doubt that if I call upon my Father, even now, he will send more than twelve legions of angels to my side?”)
    He left no instructions to ‘his disciples’ for physical warfare, and his follower Paul wrote much on oppostion, always counseling “In God We Trust”. (I read that somewhere.) Isn’t it possible for a Christian to use this scriptural information and counsel to resolve not to be involved in any way with man’s wars?

  • dougpruner

    Add military: A story just now was added to, “Archbishop for the Military Services: “I am shocked and deeply saddened by the terrible loss of life at the Navy Yard…”
    The link is bad, but here’s the homepage:
    (In case the paste doesn’t work, it’s “[Catholic]Archdiocese_for_the_Military”

  • jerrycstanaway

    I don’t agree that we need non-pacifistic righteous rulers. Everyone must be a committed pacifist, there are no just wars, and no Christian should serve as a soldier..