Because of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Thoughts On War

Have I mentioned lately that I’ve been taking a shine to the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas? It’s difficult not to, seeing how much of the Angelic Doctor’s work undergirds many of the doctrines of Holy Mother Church.

Did you realize that another title given to St. Thomas Aquinas is that of the Common Doctor? That was the sobriquet that Blessed Pope John XXIII bestowed upon him when he addressed a Thomistic Conference back in September of 1960. Regarding Aquinas he writes,

His teaching was, more than any other, fully in keeping with the truths that God has revealed, with the writings of the Holy Fathers, and with the principles of right reason and therefore Holy Church has adopted it as her own, and has given the name of common or universal teacher to its author.

So you should be very interested in much of what the Angelic Doctor has to say on every subject under the sun. His writings are so voluminous that if he hasn’t weighed in on a particular subject, it probably didn’t exist at the time.

But war existed, see, and here then is an excerpt of his thoughts, which are indeed the Churches’ thoughts, on that interesting and troubling subject of war. You will find them to be grounded in reality, because Aquinas, as Jacques Maritain says, is “the greatest master in realism—an integral realism, as aware of the reality of the spirit as well as of the body—who ever lived.”


Article I.—Is it always a sin to go to war?

R. There are three requisites for a war to be just. The first thing is the authority of the prince by whose command the war is to be waged. It does not belong to a private person to start a war, for he can prosecute his claim in the court of his superior. In like manner the mustering of the people, that has to be done in wars, does not belong to a private person. But since the care of the commonwealth is entrusted to princes, to them belongs the protection of the common weal of the city, kingdom, or province subject to them. And as they lawfully defend it with the material sword against inward disturbances by punishing malefactors, so it belongs to them also to protect the commonwealth from enemies without by the sword of war. The second requisite is a just cause, so that they who are assailed should deserve to be assailed for some fault that they have committed.

Hence it is no justification for an enterprise of violence commenced by private individuals in a civilized State, to call it a war. Every State is bound to suppress private war within the limits of its own jurisdiction; as also to take away all pretext for such war by due redress of wrongs.
Hence Augustine says: “Just wars are usually denned as those which avenge injuries, in cases where a nation or city has to be chastised for having either neglected to punish the wicked doings of its people, or neglected to restore what has been wrongfully taken away.” The third thing requisite is a right intention of promoting good or avoiding evil. For Augustine says: “Eagerness to hurt, bloodthirsty desire of revenge, an untamed and unforgiving temper, ferocity in renewing the struggle, lust of empire,—these and the like excesses are justly blamed in war.”

§ i. To the objection from the text that “all that take the sword shall perish with the sword,” it is to be said, as Augustine says, that “he takes the sword, who without either command or grant of any superior or lawful authority, arms himself to shed the blood of another.” But he who uses the sword by the authority of a prince or judge (if he is a private person), or out of zeal for justice, and by the authority of God (if he is a public person), does not take the sword of himself, but uses it as committed to him by another.

§ 2. To the objection from the text, “I say to you not to resist evil,” it is to be said, as Augustine says, that such precepts are always to be observed “in readiness of heart,” so that a man be ever ready not to resist, if there be occasion for non-resistance. But sometimes he must take another course in view of the common good, or even in view of those with whom he fights.

Augustine says: “He is the better for being overcome, from whom the license of wrong-doing is snatched away: for there is no greater unhappiness than the happiness of sinners, the nourishment of an impunity which is only granted as a punishment, and the strengthening of that domestic foe, an evil will.”

Article III.—Is it lawful in war to use stratagems?

R. The end of stratagems is to deceive the enemy. Now there are two ways of deceiving in word or deed. One way is by telling lies and breaking promises, and no one ought to deceive the enemy in this way; for “there are certain laws of war, and agreements to be observed even among enemies,” as Ambrose says. In another way one may be deceived by the fact that we do not open our purpose or declare our mind to him. That we are not always bound to do. Even in sacred doctrine many things are to be concealed from unbelievers, that they may not scoff at them, according to the text: “Give not what is holy to dogs.” Much more are our preparations to attack our enemies to be hidden from them. Such concealment belongs to the nature of stratagems, which it is lawful to use in just wars. Nor are such stratagems properly called frauds, nor are they inconsistent with justice, nor with a well-ordered will. For it would be an inordinate will for any one to wish nothing to be concealed from him by other people.

Article IV.—Is war lawful on feast-days?

R. The observance of feasts does not bar the taking the means even to the bodily welfare of man. Hence our Lord rebukes the Jews, saying: “Are you angry at me because I have healed the whole man on the sabbath-day?” Therefore it is that physicians may lawfully apply remedies to men on a feast-day. Much more is the good estate of the commonwealth to be maintained, whereby many murders are prevented, and countless ills both temporal and spiritual—a more important good than the bodily well-being of a single man. And therefore, for the defence of the commonwealth of the faithful, just wars may lawfully be prosecuted on feast-days, if necessity so requires: for it would be tempting God for a man to want to keep his hands from war under stress of such necessity. But when the necessity ceases, war is not lawful on feastdays.

§ 4. “And they determined in that day, saying: Whoever shall come up against us to fight on the sabbath-day, we will fight against him.

Interested in reading more? Head on over to the YIMCatholic Bookshelf. Also, for those who wish to explore this further, Catholic Answers has a Primer on Just War Doctrine.

Update: “Justice has been done,” states President Obama, and just-war scholars agree.

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  • Frank

    A discussion from the Facebook Page, moved "in-house."James Thamm: I think St Thomas is rationalizing. Jesus said love your enemies, we can not love our enemies if we are shooting back at them.YIM Catholic: And you can't love your neighbors if you allow others to shoot them. Yes, proving once again that faith and reason are compatible.James Thamm: I think that Jesus is more literal, and that your statement is again a rationalization of Jesus' word, like Aquinas, to allow for the preservation of the self, and others. Jesus said to love your enemies, and if someone hits you on one side of your face, allow them to hit you on the other. Killing your enemy is a choice, and maybe a valid choice, but it is not the choice of Christ. I believe Gandhi presents the path that Jesus wanted his followers to take when meeting violence.YIM Catholic: My thoughts, your thoughts, or Gandi's thoughts, are not the thoughts of the Church, because the Church notes that sometimes killing your enemies is a duty, not just a choice. I'll add a Primer to Just War doctrine link to the post.YIM Catholic: Individually, you are free to consider the path of conscientous objection. See CCC 2311.James Thamm: I think the church is wrong, the church is contradicting the gospels. I think that it is a dumbing down of Jesus' words to make it easy to rationalize going against specific instructions of Christ. Imagine how different the world would have been if every "christian" leader in history all the way back to Constantine approached their enemy with love and strength, and not with the death of the other. Perhaps the crusades would have been avoided.YIM Catholic The Church has given you the outlet of CCC2311. The Church, in her wisdom, has thought deeper, and longer, about this than any single person has. That is why she is the Magisterium, and you and I must be schooled. Your personal interpretation of scripture is not authoritative. I am moving these comments over to the blog, by the way. So that others may join in if they desire. :)

  • Frank

    CCC 2311:2311 Public authorities should make equitable provision for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms; these are nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way.

  • James Thamm

    James Thamm The church can be wrong. The church interprets things in order to keep power, and to defend that power, going back to the time of Constantine. The way of Christ is the way of loving God with my heart, mind and soul and loving my neighbor as myself. The way of Christ is to not build earthly riches, something the Church of the middle ages ignored and as such needed to defend it's right to remain rich with earthly treasure against the Muslims. Hence the justification of the Crusades.

  • Frank

    That is where you are headed? I don't subscribe to the school of Triumphant Church history, as in "the Church can do no wrong." At the same time, I can clearly see that She has developed since the days of the Crusades.Your personal thesis of how the Church interprets "things" is wrong, though. I'll point you to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church for more specifics regarding The rights and duties of the Church.

  • CD

    Actually, part of our Church's reasons for starting the Crusades was that the Muslims' assault on Europe was escalating. See myhts #1 and #2 over here,

  • Anonymous

    Jesus' teachings on these subjects (in particular, turn the cheek) were directed to individual conduct. How would you reconclie Jesus' teachings on these subjects with St. Paul's teachings that the state is a legitimate authority (when properly used) to punish the wicked?Prosecuting a just war, using just means, is not incompatible with loving your enemy. Love (willing the best for another) is more than just hugs. It also involves correction of error.If the West had collectively taken your advice on the Crusades or Huns, we would all be pagan or Muslim now.

  • Kinana

    @James ThammI understand and admire your confidence in your point of view. Its basis is in the certain knowledge of the love that Jesus Christ has for everyone, even for those who would wish to harm us. How can my life be more important than the life of another who intends to kill me and/or my family? From God’s perspective it is not, as God loves everyone equally.You need to reconcile this love with God’s love for justice, especially for the ‘little ones.’Good luck in doing that.