On The Morality of War: In Essence and In Practice*

On The Morality of War: In Essence and In Practice* April 30, 2008

On January 13, 2003, in his Address to the Diplomatic Corps, Pope John Paul II famously said, “War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity.” There are many ways one could take this comment. If these words are taken on their own, outside of the context of the speech it was delivered in, nor in the context of Catholic moral theology which the Pope was espousing, John Paul II appear to be an absolute pacifist. Certainly there are ideas being expressed which pacifists would agree with, but John Paul II could not and would not proclaim pure unbridled pacifism as the position Christians should take. We must look at these words as a description of the events which surround war. Humanity should seek for peace through justice. However, the world we live in, and with it the human condition we experience, is imperfect and fallen; sin has entered the world, and it seeks, like a cancer, to spread its corrupting influence throughout the world. Humanity can and must try to correct this evil through peaceful means. At times, these efforts are successful; sadly, at other times, they fail, and when they do, sin has overcome humanity: we have been defeated. The best thing we can do is to try to eliminate it, as if in a surgical operation, taking care to preserve and protect as many people as possible in these efforts.

In stating that there are times when war is required in order to protect humanity from evil, we must be careful. “War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations,” Pope John Paul II, ibid. War must be employed only as the last resort, when all other options have failed. Moreover, when war is necessary, this necessity must not turn a justified action into a worse evil; not only must war be justified in its cause, it must be justified in how it is waged. St. Augustine tells us that in waging war, the desire must not be war for the sake of war, but war for the sake of peace. “Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace. For peace is not sought in order to the kindling of war, but war is waged in order that peace may be obtained. Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace,” St. Augustine, Letter 189.6 in Nicene Post Nicene Fathers, Series I. Ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1994), Vol. 1, 554. Thus, when engaging combat, one’s motivation should not be revenge, hate, greed, or the like: one’s motivation should be to overcome evil, and, more importantly, the desire to turn an enemy into a friend.

Finding someone whose actions are pure and completely good in their motives is difficult if not impossible to do, especially when talking about what motivates one to fight in a war. Just because a doctor might have greed as one motivation for why they perform medicine, if they are also motived out of a heartfelt desire to help people, we can recognize the good in what they do, even their intentions are not entirely selfless. Thus we can and should recognize that if a soldier, in the heat of battle, loses sight of the bigger picture, if their original and over-riding motivation is good, we can recognize that good despite any concupisence guiding their action. In saying this, we must also recognize that there are limits as to how far a soldier may go; good intentions are not enough to justify all possible actions. History has shown us time and again good intentions have been behind some of the greatest acts of brutality the world as ever seen.

Catholic tradition provides us with some very broad-based guidelines for war. Anyone who looks at them knows how difficult it is to discern when they are being followed or not. Two different people with two different positions on a given war can and do use them to either justify or criticize that war. Thus one or the other, if not both, are abusing these principles. But, as S.L. Frank reminds us “In general, there is no moral truth that cannot be abused,” S.L. Frank, The Light Shineth in Darkness. Trans. Boris Jakim (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1989), 132. Their abuse does not remove their value; they have been established and explained so as to preserve the moral order. Only when they are followed under and with Christian love can they be effective. When Catholic teaching says that a war must be just in its cause (ius ad bellum), and just in its engagement with war (ius in bello), we must never separate the two, thinking the ends (a good cause) justifies the means. But the reason why these guidelines are broad is because in actuality war cannot be waged by strict literal a-priori rules, but must be enacted according to the situation. An a-prioi list of what is permitted or not permitted would be incapable of dealing with the reality of war, which, if it is to be engaged at all, must be seen as an extraordinary circumstance. “The genuine right moral solution is determined not by the observance of the letter of the moral law, not by soulless obedience to abstract general rules without attention to the concrete needs of real life – but only by love, the demands of which are always concrete,” ibid., 130.

So far it has been said that war is a necessary, but extraordinary, tool to be used to prevent the spread of great evil in the world, and it is a tool to be only used as a last resort. It is better not to have to wage war, “But it is a higher glory still to stay war itself with a word, than to slay men with the sword, and to procure or maintain peace by peace, not by war,” St. Augustine, Letter 229.2 in Nicene Post Nicene Fathers, Series I. Ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1994), Vol. 1, 581 -2. When war is necessary, it must be and can only justly be waged under the dictates of love. It is to be an act of charity, trying to help overcome an evil and to make the world a better place for all. Moreover, the desired outcome of war must not be more war, but peace. Vladimir Solovyov points out that, historically, war has had its place in establishing peace. Not only does it create states with ever-increasing spheres of influence where peace reigns, “War unites more powerfully than anything else the inner forces of each of the warring states and at the same time proves to be the condition for subsequent coming together and mutual interpenetration of the opponents themselves,” Vladimir Solovyof, The Justification of the Good. Trans. Nathalie A. Duddington (New York: Macmillan Company, 1918), 392.

It is in this light we can understand why Scripture reveals to us many heroes who engaged in warfare, such as Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Samson, and David. Indeed, David is considered a man after God’s heart (1 Samuel 13:13-14; Acts 13:22).David represented the ideal ruler in Scripture; there was none like him before, only the messiah is shown to be greater, and the messiah was to be David’s descendent. David’s exploits are famous: he killed Goliath as a young man (1 Samuel 17); he waged many victorious battles against the Philistines (1 Samuel 18: 30), indeed saving the city of Keilah from destruction (1 Samuel 23:1-14); his kingship is established in war (2 Samuel 2 -5), and as king, he continued to fight for the sake of Israel.

Yet there is another side to the story. David, the man of God, in his piety wanted to build a temple to honor God. While this desire was good, David was told he was incapable of building it. David told his son, Solomon, the reason why he was not allowed to do so: “My son, I had planned to build a house to the name of the LORD my God. But the word of the LORD came to me, saying, ‘You have shed much blood and have waged great wars; you shall not build a house in my name, because you have shed so much blood in my sight on the earth’” (1 Chronicles 22:7-8). On the one hand, David is the ideal king: he defended Israel in battle, and was directed by God to do so; on the other hand, by obeying God, God saw him unfit to build the temple. It seems as if there is something wrong here. How and why can God demand action out of David and yet consider him impure when he does as was commanded?

It is here that something about the nature of war is revealed, and why war, while necessary, must be seen not as a good in and of itself, but a necessary evil if and when it is properly engaged. War can, in a relative sense, be seen as a good, but in an absolute sense, it must be and always is seen as an evil. It is a symptom of fallen humanity, and it would not exist in an ideal world. By saying a war is justified, we must not think we are saying war in itself is good; we must think of it as saying that all the options available to us are evil, but of those evils, war is the lesser of all possible evils and so must be waged. It must be seen as such a situation where it is impossible to sit back in quiet solitude, because a greater evil would prevail – sin can be sin in omission and not just commission. Christians know that our call to love our enemies comes from the fact that all life is sacred. But if we do not prevent tyrants from wholesale brutality, while we might have saved ourselves from the sin of directly killing a few people, in our lack of activity, we are guilty of the death of many more. True, we might, and even must try non-violent means of halting evil; but what are we to do when non-violent resistance fails? There is a sad truth which we must come to understand: life in our fallen world often does not leave us with morally pure, idealized solutions to the problems which face us. In such a situation we must act with selfless courage and boldness, and embrace the least morally repugnant choice:

Thus, in the Christian world of protecting our neighbors and the whole world from evil and easing suffering, our moral responsibility for the real effectiveness of our aid and the world can always compel us to employ (where there is no other possibility) worldly means of struggle, which are inevitably burdened with sin, that is, it can always compel us to follow a path that diverges (we shall see later precisely in what sense) from the path of inner spiritual perfection. In this sphere, Christian duty compels us to take the burden of sin upon our conscience, and not to observe our personal purity in a situation where we would be responsible by our inaction, for the triumph of evil in the world.
–S.L. Frank, The Light Shineth in Darkness, 127.

When we look at war in light of absolutes, Vladimir Solovyov is correct in saying, “war is an evil,” Vladimir Solovyof, The Justification of the Good, 387. However, as he further elaborates, when looking at war in light of lived human existence, “Evil may be either absolute (such as deadly sin, eternal damnation) or relative, that is, it may be less than some other evil, and as compared with it, maybe be regarded as a good (e.g. a surgical operation to save a patient’s life),ibid.. If we rightfully say peace is good, we must question what it is that we are striving for. “To respond adequately to this question, we must realize that peace cannot be reduced to the simple absence of armed conflict, but needs to be understood as ‘the fruit of an order which has been planted in human society by its divine Founder’, an order ‘which must be brought about by humanity in its thirst for ever more perfect justice,'” Pope Benedict XVI, Message For World Peace Day, January 1, 2006. Indeed, when justice, and with it, the dignity of the human person, is lacking in a nation, even if there is no armed conflict in that land, what might seem to be a time of peace turns out to be anything but peace. “As far as the right to life is concerned, we must denounce its widespread violation in our society: alongside the victims of armed conflicts, terrorism and the different forms of violence, there are the silent deaths caused by hunger, abortion, experimentation on human embryos and euthanasia. How can we fail to see in all this an attack on peace,” Pope Benedict XVI, Message for World Peace Day, January 1. 2007. Thus, we must recognize, “that external peace is not necessarily a true good in itself and that it becomes a good only in connection with an inner regeneration of humanity,” Vladimir Solovyof, The Justification of the Good, 401.

Looking at war in this way, one can see it accepts the criticism of war without following an absolute pacifist’s approach (as was the problem, for example, in Tolstoy), but it is also not quick to fall into some of the simplistic rhetoric used to favor war, when war is a possibility we must contemplate. It recognizes that our lived experience often requires extraordinary means to deal with extraordinary crises. “Thus, for instance, every one will agree that, speaking generally, it is godless, inhuman, and unnatural to throw children out of the window on to the pavement. Yet in case of a fire, if there were no other means of extricating the unfortunate babes from the burning house, this terrible action would become permissible and even obligatory,” ibid., 387. War can become an obligation for nations when the world is being consumed by evil. Those heroes who take action must on the one hand be applauded for that action; we should grant them our respect and gratitude. Their moral virtues are obvious, especially their courageous self-sacrifice, not only for the benefit of their nation, but for the world. We must understand the consequences of this; we are not to glorify war and the violence that might be necessary in order to free the world from some greater evil, but the aims and virtues it is needed to bring about a just victory. War for the sake of war, violence for the sake of violence, is a deadly temptation. Because war is only justified as the lesser of all possible evils in a certain time and place, we must remember that, in the absolute moral sense, it is still an evil, and “sin, even a morally obligatory sinful act always has unintended harmful consequences, which must be sensitively taken into account; the habituation to such acts tends to suppress this sensitivity,” S.L. Frank, The Light Shineth in Darkness, 132. David was stained with blood, even though what he did was morally speaking, the right choice. War is not something we should take delight in, but it is something which we must acknowledge as necessary whenever evil thrives and gains uncontrollable dominance in the world.

If war is necessary, who is it that decides this necessity? On the one hand, it is the state, because it is only states with their leaders which have the right to declare war. It is the state which has been given the authority to execute justice (Romans 13:1-7). But in indicating this, it must also be said that the state is not to be turned into an idol. Its purpose is to execute justice, but there needs to be a spiritual core which transcends the state to keep the state in check and to determine if and when a state is violating justice. Ancient Rome brought peace to the world, but it turned the state into an ends instead of a means for justice. Early Christians resisted this principle because they believed that God’s demands must be followed above the state, and the state must be willing to forsake its claim as an ends when confronted with Christ. “The state, even when surmounted by the cross, ceased for the Christian to be the supreme good and the final form of life,” Vladimir Solovyof, The Justification of the Good, 395. By saying the state has the right to action does not say the state in its action is always right; when it is not, it must be confronted. Without a transcendent spiritual core to judge the state, there is no way of knowing if a war is justified, because when the war is declared just, this means that in principle their opponent is an evil state which is no longer to be obeyed. But who is it that determines this? Both sides will always accuse the other of being that evil state.

What are we to do at the end of war? Justice suggests that we are to show as much mercy as is possible to our enemies. “As violence is used towards him who rebels and resists, so mercy is due to the vanquished or the captive, especially in the case in which future troubling of the peace is not to be feared,” St. Augustine, Letter 189.6, 54. After victory, our work has not ended, but only begun: it should be the point where some justice is restored, leading to our spiritual renewal. Acknowledging that the enmity of evil rulers made war necessary, it is even more vital to establish friendship in victory, so that justice can prevent a habitual cycle of violence:

If we are to avoid descending into chaos, it seems to me that two conditions must be met. First, we must rediscover within States and between States the paramount value of the natural law, which was the source of inspiration for the rights of nations and for the first formulations of international law. Even if today some people question its validity, I am convinced that its general and universal principles can still help us to understand more clearly the unity of the human race and to foster the development of the consciences both of those who govern and of those who are governed. Second, we need the persevering work of Statesmen who are honest and selfless. In effect, the indispensable professional competence of political leaders can find no legitimacy unless it is connected to strong moral convictions.
–John Paul II, Address to the Diplomatic Corps.

But, this integration of states into a coordinated reality of peaceful co-existence must not only recognize friendly relations as a necessary condition to preserve this peace, but also the recognition of the differences that exist between nations and cultures. We must not look for one cultural outlook to dominate the world scene. Yes, goodness and virtue are necessary, but these can be incarnated in a variety of beautiful ways, and we must not limit the spirit of humanity into one cultural expression of them. “Nations must live and develop in their essential peculiarities as the living organs of humanity; apart from them its unity would be dead and devoid of content, and this peace of death would be worse than war. The true unity of mankind and the hoped-for peace must be based not upon the weakness and subjugation of nations but upon the highest development of their powers and a free interaction between nationalities which serve as a complement to one another,” Vladimir Solovyof, The Justification of the Good, 396.

To sum up: war is in its essence evil, such that, “With the exception of savage paganism all religions condemn war in principle,” ibid., 386. But the world we live in is fallen, and we are often required in practice to do that which we would otherwise not be permitted to do. War, though in principle is wrong, in relative activity might be a necessity and an obligation; in such a situation, we can say war is a relative good – a good which is better than any other available option we have before us. When war becomes necessary, it should not be a thing of glamour, excitement and jubilation, but a time of sorrow, knowing that evil has prevailed upon the world and stained all of us so that we must need act in a manner which is inherently evil. Virtues expressed in war can be and should be honored, and soldiers should be recognized for the virtues they show in combat. When war is rightfully executed and brought to a just conclusion, then is the time for celebration. If asked when we are to know war is to be declared, and how we are to know the way to properly wage it, the sole answer we can give here is the answer of love. In love we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves, even if it means direct action which sullies our spiritual purity. In doing so, our love imitates the love of Christ: “we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us […] For our sake he made him to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:20 -21).


*This is a slightly modified version of a text I put on on The Well At The World’s End; because I thought this essay still best explains my view on war (and can be used to engage other discussions, such as the death penalty), and because I doubt many people have visited my other blog, I decided to post it here as well. Moreover, it demonstrates the kind of pacifism I hold to, which is considered by pacifists to be within the domain of Christian pacifism, but it is not the kind called “absolute pacifism” (a term I understand and use, but I think is also a problematic one).

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  • Henry, I think you unwittingly endorse part of the myth of redemptive violence when you write: “what are we to do when non-violent resistance fails? . . . life in our fallen world often does not leave us with morally pure, idealized solutions to the problems which face us.”

    The world may be fallen, but the Kingdom of God is among us. The world may be fallen, but we are the body of Christ. The Holy Spirit has empowered us to storm the very gates of hell! While the fallen world claims that loving one’s enemies leads to failure, the body of Christ knows that “love of one’s enemies constitutes the nucleus of the Christian revolution.” And this revolution cannot fail.

    We must show our fallen world how powerful the cross truly is. Otherwise the myth of redemptive violence will continue to convince men to “stick to their guns”, for fear that nothing else will work.

    Truly, only one thing never fails, only one thing ultimately “works”, as our Pope Benedict teaches:

    “We have need of the God who overcomes on the cross, who does not conquer with violence, but with his love . . . through the nonviolence of his cross.

    . . . He does not oppose violence with a stronger violence. He opposes violence precisely with the contrary: with love to the end, his cross. This is God’s humble way of overcoming: With his love — and only thus is it possible — he puts a limit to violence. This is a way of conquering that seems very slow to us, but it is the true way of overcoming evil, of overcoming violence, and we must trust this divine way of overcoming.”

  • Great post, btw. And I’m not denying legitimate bloodshed when one is faced with only evil choices. I’m only pointing out that being redeemed by Christ and empowered by his Spirit allows us to transcend this fallen world with its evil choices – and that allows us to finally achieve victory.

  • Nate

    By saying one might engage in war — this does not mean one opposes violence with stronger violence. It might be that one opposes with a lesser physical force but greater moral force in love and mercy. I still see war has to be primarily defensive, and as a last resort. It is not, in this case, looking to redemption through violence — as I point out, even in the points of necessity, there is evil (hence it is not redemption). It is preservation which requires the greater work — the work of love — in other ways before, during and after — and the redemption is through that other work.

    Nonetheless, one of the qualities which is often forgotten when engaging a discussion on war is that the issue is not just one of an individual but of a community, and sin is not just “what the other person does” but also what we do or fail to do. I agree — again — we must always work in and through other means first; but, as Scripture shows, as the Popes show, this does not mean in this world that it is all. Thus, as I consistently point out in comments all over the net — war, when it is justified, must only be seen as dispensation, and to be treated as a sorrow, and worked out so that as little actual physical force is used as needed and nothing more. And dispensations are given because, in the world at large, there are moral quandries which have no solution without some taint of evil in one way or another, and a person needs guidance in knowing what, in such circumstances, is permissible.

    Finally – something I will be working with later, mercy always comes with judgment. Look in Scripture, you will find one with the other; the rejection of mercy does not mean the rejection of judgment — but as Balthasar points out, that is all which remains. We are always to be open to mercy — before, during, and after — such situations where war may occur — but in this mercy, there must be a judgment, and it is through mercy combined with judgment that transformation is able to occur. In the way God is a consuming fire — the effects of that fire of judgment will differ depending upon how one joins in — one will either become a lamp for the light of God, or consumed…. one or the other. The hope — which I think is real — is that, in the end, we will all become lamps.

  • Nate

    BTW I think, in general, we still agree. The point is not that war is redemption, rather, it shows the need for redemption even more. In no way am I trying to see war as redemption but only, at best, preservation. Of course, it can be, and is more often the case, it isn’t even that, but total destruction and hell on earth. Yet even in hell, Christ is there. And thus, as you say, there is still hope for the world, for its transformation, for its healing in Christ through the work of love, which is the work of Christians sent into the world to follow Christ’s mission.

  • Chase


    A very thoughtful and appreciated post (One which, I admit, I printed out so I could read it in detail!) Were we as a world community fortunate enough to have more principled commentary like this!

    My concern about an allowance, even if hypothetically justified, of a defensive, surgical war is that it almost inevitably inculturates violence. The hair on my back raises every time I hear a soldier in the field argue to the press that “Some of the people out here just need to be killed.” I’m concerned that, unlike even personal defense against an attacker, war by necessity trains people to be violent and thus leads them to unjust execution of war. I tend to think of this in terms of avoiding the near occasion of sin.

    I also agree with Nate in that the cause of the nonviolent revolution is set back when a new war is fought. When people ask if nonviolence works, they usually hold it to a completely different standard then they do violence: in millenia of human history, no war has brought about a regime of peace for even a reasonable amount of time. In the short time that nonviolence history has existed (say, since Gandhi), nonviolence has succeeded in India, in the US civil rights struggle, in South Africa (to a certain extent nonviolent), in Poland, etc.

    Undoubtedly, demonstrating nonviolence is a hard, long struggle. As difficult as it is to admit, it probably also means death, and a lot of it. But war clearly means death, in matters of degree we cannot begin to contemplate.


  • Chase

    It’s a complicated issue. I don’t think there can be universal rules which are made (per se) but there must be virtues which are always brought out. And I think the problem I am aiming at is when pacifism becomes its own legalism — so to speak — and it is why I appreciate writings such as Thich Nhat Hanh who works beyond it, and I think represents quite clearly the spirit I think of when I think of war — before, during, and especially after it has happened (no one I know has done so much as he has for those who were affected by the Vietnnam war, from both sides of the conflict).

    Nonetheless, I agree — that nonviolent means need to be always front and center; yet there are places where it would not always work (the Holocaust I think is the prime example in recent history). So it’s a difficult situation with no fast, clear answers. I think, however, the best thing is to begin within — the person and the nation — reforming the way we think, to cultivate the virtues and encourage non-violence, peacemaking resolutions as virtues. On the other hand, and again the one thing we must always keep in mind, while it can work very well, the problem is it can become quite utopian — and that, I think, is the problem with legalism in any system, is it sees its practices as the whole good and so must be enforced, yet it might then allow for and create tyranny when it ignores the real solution is not a solution of the world, but only in the world, which is through Christ.

    And yes, the idea of “need to be killed” is one which I am also trying to overcome.

  • “nonviolent means need to be always front and center; yet there are places where it would not always work”

    Henry, why don’t you think that nonviolence will always work?

  • And I should clarify, by nonviolence I mean a love of enemy that fights the enemy without recourse to blooshed.

  • Nate

    Because, as is often the case, the confrontation with true love brings about a greater hate and violence; indeed Balthasar describes how demonic hate and hell can only exist after Jesus and not before, explaining why near the incarnation there is a significant rise in demonology and their experience since Jesus brings the light which reveals them front and center. Then in history, the positive side of Christ’s work, as per the apocalypse, is met with an increasing hate and violence — the Holocaust, for example. To prevent the “final solution”, sometimes — rarely — you might have to do something. But in general, I would think of it as martial arts and defense — sometimes the thing you do is a non-violent response, but there is still bloodshed based upon the activity of the one engaging violence, but it is turned upon themselves…

  • Chase


    A thoughtful conversation, as always. I would agree that we don’t stop with merely foregoing violence, nor do we find true virtue outside of Christ.
    Pacifism seems to me, however, a critical first step in severing continued participation in vice. Comparing a peaceful world to a healthy marriage: a marriage is not good merely because the spouses do not commit adultery, however, the very act of adultery, because it is so contrary to the nature of marriage, puts up an insurmountable wall towards a virtuous relationship. We can, should and are obligated to engage in the practice of positive peace building. First, however, we must discontinue our “peace destroying” through violence.

    Examples like the Holocaust are always the most pressing on the human spirit and the most difficult. A few contextual points of note here, however. First, the progression of Nazi Germany stems from previous violent acts (namely, WWI and the disdain of Europe towards the Weinmar Republic) and a group of individuals tolerant enough of violence to allow Hitler to attempt to justify himself. In that way, there are no holocausts in the pacifist world. Second, the nonviolent sacrifices of thousands of Gentiles saved many Jews from death. Finally, note the circumstances under which the “final solution” portion of the Holocaust took place: as the allies were approaching Nazi territory and concern that they may “find out” or disrupt the process took hold.
    Our temptation is respond to horror in whatever way we can. Unfortunately, however, violence doesn’t stop genocide; tens of thousands of people died in the Holocaust despite violent attempts to halt it.

  • Nate – I thought you did a 180 and decided to embrace violence? What gives?

  • Nate Wildermuth

    hah. 🙂