Another Fresh Appraisal of War

Another Fresh Appraisal of War January 2, 2017

Last April, a number of prominent Catholic scholars and organizations focused on peacemaking (including my fellow “Mennonite Catholic” Gerald Schlabach) gathered at the Vatican for a conference on “the Catholic Church’s history of and commitment to nonviolence” (which has become the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative).  The phrasing is key: while some may portray the conference’s call for the Catholic Church to “recommit to the centrality of Gospel nonviolence”, whether favorably or unfavorably, as a hoped-for break with tradition, magisterial reexamination of the subject is in fact not at all unprecedented.

On the subject of violence in any form, the starting point in Catholic Social Teaching is the presumption against taking life.  Any concession to violence, in other words, always bears the burden of proof.  Furthermore, chronological study of the major social documents reveals a trajectory on which the exceptions granted to the presumption against taking life become gradually but increasingly narrowed.

It would be naïve to attribute this to some sort of inevitable progression of human enlightenment; indeed it may be partly attributable to something rather the opposite: accelerated technological advances in the means and methods of violence unchecked by any corresponding moral ones.  Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et spes, particularly in its 5th chapter, made exactly this point:

The horror and perversity of war is immensely magnified by the addition of scientific weapons. For acts of war involving these weapons can inflict massive and indiscriminate destruction, thus going far beyond the bounds of legitimate defense. Indeed, if the kind of instruments which can now be found in the armories of the great nations were to be employed to their fullest, an almost total and altogether reciprocal slaughter of each side by the other would follow, not to mention the widespread devastation that would take place in the world and the deadly after effects that would be spawned by the use of weapons of this kind.

All these considerations compel us to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude.

(Gaudium et spes 80)

Other translations speak of undertaking “a completely fresh reappraisal of war”, which is the rendition used by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops citing the above passage in their 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response (par. 66).  Introducing the letter, which draws strongly on the teachings of the Council and of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II, the bishops struck a similarly urgent tone:

In the words of the Holy Father [John Paul II], we need a “moral about-face.” The whole world must summon the moral courage and technical means to say no to nuclear conflict; no to weapons of mass destruction; no to an arms race which robs the poor and the vulnerable; and no to the moral danger of a nuclear age which places before humankind indefensible choices of constant terror or surrender. Peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith. We are called to be peacemakers, not by some movement of the moment, but by our Lord Jesus. The content and context of our peacemaking is set not by some political agenda or ideological program, but by the teaching of his Church.

Paradoxically perhaps, even by stressing the need for a certain kind of “about-face” in the world at large, the bishops touched on a profound continuity, acknowledging both the need for a continuation of the trajectory taken by modern Catholic Social Teaching, and also that it is part of a tradition that extends back much farther: “The Catholic tradition on war and peace is a long and complex one, reaching from the Sermon on the Mount to the statements of Pope John Paul II” (par. 7).  We can now add as well the statements of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

I still recall being particularly struck by the latter’s statement in a 2013 Angelus message that “the true strength of the Christian is the power of truth and love, which leads to the renunciation of all violence. Faith and violence are incompatible.”  Granted, I wouldn’t want to feed misconceptions related to creeping infallibility, or the hyper-sensationalism of today’s sound-bite culture, by playing this up as a dramatic doctrinal proclamation of some kind.  Nevertheless, it can serve as a beacon pointing toward the full circle to which the Church’s peacemaking tradition must lead.

As a more notable step on that road, the Holy Father has dedicated his message for this year’s World Day of Peace to the cultivation of nonviolence, on every scale from the personal to the global.  Like Gaudium et spes and The Challenge of Peace, this message too contains both urgency and continuity.  Reiterating his frequent and anguished theme of a “piecemeal” world war, Pope Francis pleads,

Violence is not the cure for our broken world. Countering violence with violence leads at best to forced migrations and enormous suffering, because vast amounts of resources are diverted to military ends and away from the everyday needs of young people, families experiencing hardship, the elderly, the infirm and the great majority of people in our world. At worst, it can lead to the death, physical and spiritual, of many people, if not of all (par. 2).

He goes on to say, in a paragraph mostly quoting Benedict XVI, who in turn was reaching back to the very gospel itself:

To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence. As my predecessor Benedict XVI observed, that teaching “is realistic because it takes into account that in the world there is too much violence, too much injustice, and therefore that this situation cannot be overcome except by countering it with more love, with more goodness. This ‘more’ comes from God”. He went on to stress that: “For Christians, nonviolence is not merely tactical behaviour but a person’s way of being, the attitude of one who is so convinced of God’s love and power that he or she is not afraid to tackle evil with the weapons of love and truth alone. Love of one’s enemy constitutes the nucleus of the ‘Christian revolution’”. The Gospel command to love your enemies (cf. Lk 6:27) “is rightly considered the magna carta of Christian nonviolence. It does not consist in succumbing to evil…, but in responding to evil with good (cf. Rom 12:17-21), and thereby breaking the chain of injustice” (par. 3).

It remains to be seen where the Church’s long and complex trajectory of nonviolence will next lead her, and if and when this may include a fuller and more authoritative treatment of the subject, specifically in the form of an encyclical, as the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative hopes.  In any case, “the centrality of Gospel nonviolence” to which they call their Church to recommit more unreservedly is really the way she is already committed to walking, taken to its logical and moral end.  A visibly definitive commitment to that end would be a step no more radical – and also no less radical – than the gospel has always been.




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  • Agellius

    But what is the “logical and moral end” towards which you think the Church is already walking. Do you mean that the Church might one day teach that all violence is sinful?

    • Julia Smucker

      I suspect that, like Church teaching on sexuality and family life (as in some of our previous discussions on Amoris Laetitia and the synod on the family), a Christian morality of nonviolence also works better when stated positively: that a total commitment to nonviolence is a normative and central part of the demands of the Christian life.

      At the very least, there can be no violence that is in itself a moral good, none that is untainted by sin and evil. So at the very least, there can be no excuse for anyone claiming the name of Christian to eagerly desire to defend violence, still less to celebrate it.

      It’s really not much of a leap except inasmuch as the corrupted human will makes it one. If Christians actually practiced nonviolence with the same tenacity with which we defend our preferred forms of violence, we could truly evangelize the world.

      • Agellius

        Kind of ironic that you think “non-violence”, a negative term, must be expressed positively. : )

        Promoting nonviolence obviously means promoting the positive goods of human dignity and integrity, but that really doesn’t convey the point of nonviolence, does it? The point is that people should not hurt and kill and violate each other.

        Which, by the way, I absolutely agree with. People shouldn’t hurt and kill and violate each other. But the question is, is that an absolute prohibition, or one which may have exceptions depending on context and circumstances?

        Is violence *intrinsically* evil? Or to look at it from the positive side, are human dignity and integrity *absolute* goods which must *never* be violated under any circumstances? Is that where you think the Church is heading? Or would you agree that some circumstances might justify violating someone’s dignity and integrity?

        • Julia Smucker

          That is a respectable question. So, at the risk of putting my cards on the table: no, I cannot conceive of justifying the violation of anyone’s intrinsic dignity and integrity. That is my axiom.

          The Church essentially teaches a weaker version of this position: any violation of human dignity involves an evil of some kind, so the presumption must always be against it, with strict criteria required to justify any exceptions to this presumption (which arguably have never been fully met in reality).

          Time will tell whether these narrowing exceptions granted within CST may eventually disappear altogether. As it is, I have enough difficulty getting fellow lay Catholics to where the Magisterium is on this. While the latter at least is appropriately sober on the subject, much of the laity seems generally more eager to defend their preferred forms of violence.

          It’s the eagerness that is the most appalling thing. Even if one does conclude the tragic necessity of such a moral trade-off as killing to defend, it is all the more imperative to remember that it is still and always a tragedy (“always a defeat for humanity”, as John Paul II said of war).

          And then even that moral trade-off, when you think of violence as always in some way involving the evil of violating human dignity, sounds like doing evil so that good may come of it, which the Church tells us we must not do. I’m not sure how that can be reconciled with making concessions to violence. But again, why should we want to?

  • Mark VA


    All serious discussions, in my view, should begin with a universal understanding of key terms. Thus (while my heart is with my understanding of “non-violence”), I would like to know two things:

    (a) How do you define violence and non-violence, and would you please illustrate with some historical examples of your choice?

    (b) What is your understanding of the word “weapon”? This is no fickle question in my view, since, for example, the etymology of this word in English essentially differs from that in Polish, which is more restrictive (“broń” in Polish is derived from “bronić”, meaning “to defend” – I would literally translate “broń” as “defensor”). Consider this a touch of the Sapir–Whorf strong hypothesis ; )

    • Julia Smucker

      To be honest, my first thought on seeing such requests for definitions is that it sounds like an equivocation in the manner of the man who asked Jesus to define the word “neighbor” in order to “justify himself”. In that respect, I’m tempted to respond as someone (the attribution escapes me at the moment) did of pornography: “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” And I really think we both do. There is understanding key terms, and then there is getting bogged down in word games.

      Still, my mental lens of Catholic Social Teaching prompts me to tie everything back to human dignity, which may provide something of an answer. On that fundamental criterion, any disrespect for a human being’s intrinsic dignity can rightly be called violence, which would at minimum include the direct taking of life, and more broadly the deprivation of anything necessary to a dignified life.

      For examples of this, I really can’t do better than the consistent-life laundry list (as I like to think of it) in Gaudium et spes 27:

      Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator.

      I wasn’t going to bother going through the usual list of exemplars of effective nonviolence (e.g. King, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, etc.), whose potency unfortunately somewhat fades into cliché over time. But then I thought of a Polish connection in the Solidarity movement, which was profoundly significant to a late mentor of mine, a historian, who was much more well-versed in its history than me, as I assume you would be as well. And then you can go back to early saints such as St. Marcellus and St. Martin of Tours, whose Christian conversions prompted them to cease to bear arms (the latter making an ironic patron saint of soldiers). While we’re on that time period, Ron Sider’s excellent research on the implicit but universal consistent life ethic among pre-Patristic Christian writers is worth a deeper look. Then there is the witness unto death of 20th-century martyrs like Blessed Oscar Romero and Blessed Franz Jagerstatter (patron of conscientious objectors, beheaded for refusing to fight for the Nazis).

      I may be having fun with this now that I’m into it, but of course the question to keep in mind about the communion of saints is whether they’re there as mere admirees or as models and guides, and what they have to teach us about the reign of God which they served during their time on earth.

      • Mark VA

        Thank you, Julia, for your response. It clarifies a few things from me.

        I would like to ask one more question, which is meaningful for me: was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising a moral act of courage?

        • Julia Smucker

          All I can say about that particular event is that it sounds more like an act of desperation.

          When I think of acts of moral courage, what springs to my mind is something like the sit-ins of the civil rights movement. Or, to cite a favorite scene from the movie Romero, gathering up the Blessed Sacrament in the army-commandeered church after watching a soldier shoot a round of bullets into the tabernacle. Or, going back to the holocaust, those who sheltered Jews at enormous personal risk. Examples abound of the overwhelming potency and staying power of nonviolent resistance (here is a prescient article I just saw citing evidence of its overall effectiveness).

          But maybe instead of leaving it there, I should ask you: what is the significance of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising for you?

        • Mark VA


          Same for the Warsaw Uprising, a year later. Double heroism for those who fought in both.

          Does heroism still mean anything for the Western people?

          • Julia Smucker

            Heroism means many things for many people. So does ancestry. Mine gives me a definition of heroism that fits hand-in-glove with that of martyrdom: self-giving, nonviolent witness, to the point of willingness to die if necessary but never to kill.

  • I think it’s important to remember that Jesus Himself occasionally consorted with soldiers, that the “model knight Don Qixote” professed to be a devout Christian, and that John Ruskin defined the “soldier’s vocation” to be to “die for one’s country.” However, although all of that is true, it is also true that one of the justifications of “just war” is that the gains may not involve the total destruction of the war’s objectives, which means that nuclear war, or even planning such a war is “intrinsically” sinful.

  • brian martin

    In regard to the moral wrong or evil of violence…I would argue that violence done is always evil…but the sin of its commission would not always rest on the perpetrator. I would suggest that if someone is attacking my wife, and I respond by hitting him with something and he is seriously injured or dies…the sin of the violence originates with him. In a similar vein, I was attacked last fall in the parking lot of my place of employment. The individual suffered mental illness, was unmedicated and in the throes of a psychotic episode. I was knocked down, and was being kicked and kneed and had my head bashed repeatedly into the asphalt. I did not fight back, and was able to talk the person down…however, had reached a point where if my head struck the ground another time, I was fearful that I was being seriously injured or rendered not able to defend myself, so I was at a point of having reached a decision to defend my life. Thank God that I was able to talk him down and get away. But had I defended my life, he would have been injured…as bad as needed to stop him. I feel no sense that it would be sinful. I have every sense that the violence was rooted in evil. I hope that makes sense. I realize that this is not war, this is a more personal level.
    Going back to my original point, if a violation of another’s dinity is evil..then the attacker is as culpable for the response as for the attack…unless the response is intentionally beyond stopping the attack. If I knock the attacker off of my wife, I don’t get to keep harming him once he is not threatening.

    • Julia Smucker

      No need to apologize for taking it to a more personal level. In some ways this is where violence and nonviolence begin, and where it hits home.

      I certainly don’t deny the culpability of someone attacking someone else. But as your example illustrates, this does not place the burden of moral agency solely on one individual. You and your attacker were both moral agents, and it’s clear from your description of the incident that you acted as one. You may “feel no sense that it would be sinful” to have injured him in self-defense, but you implicitly (and rightly) suggest a sense of the gravity of the injury. Hence, you did everything you could to avoid that, just as (based on the sense of proportionality you articulate here) even if you had fought him, you would not have tried to kill him.

      I notice that you also seem to imply his culpability being mitigated to some degree by his mental condition – although not removed altogether. That is also worth noting since, when hypothetical attacker scenarios (as opposed to your real-life anecdote) are used for the sake of argument, it is generally the attacker who is implicitly presumed to have no moral agency at all.

      I am not opposed to physical restraint, in cases of immediate necessity. In fact, I think your story is a good example of the range of options in any given situation beyond taking life and doing nothing.

  • Agellius


    You write, “even that moral trade-off, when you think of violence as always in some way involving the evil of violating human dignity, sounds like doing evil so that good may come of it, which the Church tells us we must not do.”

    But in that case, shouldn’t you and the Church also condemn the performing of amputations in order to save a person’s life? After all, an amputation is a violation of one’s bodily integrity.

    The answer, it seems to me, is that amputation is an evil, but it’s an evil brought about by the injury to the limb. The amputating itself is not an evil act, but an act rendered necessary by the evil of the injury (which itself may have been a natural as opposed to a moral evil).

    Therefore, amputating a limb in order to save a life is not “doing evil so that good may come of it”. Rather, saving the person’s life through amputation is a good act.

    By the same token, if you hit someone over the head with a brick because he is threatening to cut your child’s throat, that is not “doing evil so that good may come of it,” but rather an act made necessary by the evil of someone threatening your child’s life. Or to look at it positively, you’re not so much committing the evil of violating someone’s bodily integrity, as committing the moral act of saving someone else’s. The fact that you must violate one person’s bodily integrity to save that of another, is a circumstance brought about by the perpetrator’s actions, over which you have no control (other than the power of stopping him with a brick).

    Why would I watch my child’s bodily integrity being violated, for the sake of preserving that of the perpetrator? If he gets hit over the head with a brick, he has brought that calamity on himself. Just as, in threatening an innocent child, he has forfeited his own dignity.

    You say that “the eagerness … is the most appalling thing.” But I assure you that I have no eagerness to hit anyone over the head with a brick in order to save my child’s life. I would strongly prefer to avoid that situation entirely.

    I find it hard to believe that the Church has not worked out these issues long ago. I don’t know what we can say about violence that Christians haven’t already thought of. It’s bad. It’s to be avoided. It’s uncharitable. It’s better to turn the other cheek. These are not new ideas. Granted, modern means of waging war make it all the more imperative to avoid war. But that very conclusion is based on principles known long ago. It’s not the understanding of the evil of violence, but technology which has changed.

    • Julia Smucker

      “Bodily integrity” is too broad a criterion, which sets up the glaring flaw in your analogy: the conflation of a part of a human body with a full human life. Do you really mean to suggest that actions intended to save life are morally analogous to actions intended to take life?

      Just as, in threatening an innocent child, he has forfeited his own dignity.

      But there’s the rub: the imago Dei means that human dignity is innate and cannot be forfeited.

      But I assure you that I have no eagerness to hit anyone over the head with a brick in order to save my child’s life.

      I’m sure you don’t. I wasn’t talking about any eagerness to commit violent acts. I was talking about the eagerness to find and cling to reasons for justifying violence, to plead its case, to rush to its defense whenever it is challenged.

      • Agellius


        I’m at a loss as to where you think I’m conflating a body part with a life. In my previous comment I defined “violence” as the violation of one’s dignity or integrity; integrity referring to bodily integrity, i.e. intactness. When I hit someone in the head with a brick I violate both.

        An amputation violates bodily integrity, but we nevertheless see it as a good thing since it saves a life. By the same token, hitting someone in the head with a brick to prevent him cutting a child’s throat, also saves a life or at least preserves bodily integrity. The perpetrator’s bodily integrity gets violated but, morally speaking, I see that as a consequence of his own act of violence. He brings it on himself by making it necessary to save the child’s life in that manner.

        If a person can’t forfeit his own human dignity, then neither can he lose it at the hands of another. In which case we may as well eliminate dignity from the equation. But if dignity can be violated by another, then it can also be self-violated. My point was that someone who would threaten a child with mortal violence has already violated his own dignity, to such an extent that my hitting him with a brick can hardly do it more damage.

        Regarding eagerness to defend violence, I don’t know if you were referring to me, but for the record I’m not defending violence per se, but what I understand to be traditional orthodoxy. The topic in this instance happens to be violence, but I have been just as active in defending the Church’s traditional teaching (as I understand it) in other areas.

        • Julia Smucker

          If you did not intend to draw a direct moral line between amputating a limb and taking a life, then by all means please clarify. It sounds like you’re insisting on a definition of violence broad enough to erase even the distinction between healing and killing in a kind of all-or-nothing flat-lined equivalency, so that if it is ever a moral good to amputate, then it is a moral good to kill. It’s hard to see another reading of your analogy, but I hope I’m wrong.

          This is to say nothing of the perennial false choice between lethal violence and inaction. I hope we can at least agree that it is better to use the minimum restraint necessary to prevent someone from harming someone else than to kill that person, and that even the life of someone who must be physically restrained at a given moment must not be taken lightly.

          And why is this if not for the intrinsic worth of human life? We need clarity here on what the Church means when she teaches that human dignity is inviolable. Of course it’s not that human dignity can’t be violated in the sense of offenses being committed against it, but that regardless of those offenses, the dignity of the imago Dei is intrinsic to human nature and cannot be removed.

          If your desire is to defend traditional orthodoxy, then we have that in common, although I believe it preferable (even if I don’t always practice this as well as I should) to speak in terms of lifting up the beauty of its truths rather than in defensive terms. Maybe the difference is stylistic, but you seem focused on what is or isn’t allowed. I believe a better approach is to seek to understand what we are called to – as Catholics, as Christians, and as humans. The Christian tradition is so much more than a set of rules; it is a way of life.

          Now before you object, I’m not saying rules don’t have a place in that life, but it is not reducible to them. It’s a way of life with high standards, to be sure – sometimes stringently high, at least as it appears from the outside (or folly to the world at large, to paraphrase St. Paul). You seem a lot more comfortable holding people to the highest standards of sexual morality (which I agree with) than keeping the standard even nearly as high on nonviolence.

          (On the subject of those categories, abortion is often nonsensically grouped with the former, even though it’s more directly violent than sexual. A bit of a digression, but one that illustrates the distortions and superficiality of the left/right political dualism in which we’re now trained to think of these things, which is far from traditional in any ecclesial sense, or indeed any meaningful one.)

          The great paradox about tradition is that it is timeless but not static. I’ve sometimes thought of it as a tall and ancient tree, whose rootedness keeps it alive and growing. Or as John Henry Newman put it, “Doctrine is always true, but never complete.” Whatever direction it moves in should be moving it – moving all of us – toward that completion, toward a greater fidelity to our telos (i.e. the end for which we were made) and to our Lord.

          • Agellius


            >>If you did not intend to draw a direct moral line between amputating a limb and taking a life, then by all means please clarify.

            I don’t think I was quite so unclear, but I’ll keep trying.

            The similarity between amputation and violence is that both involve violation of bodily integrity. What makes one good and the other bad? Is it not the intention of healing versus the intention of harming? Assuming that’s it, then I’m arguing that hitting someone with a brick for the sake of saving a child from having his throat cut, has the intention of preserving bodily integrity. In this respect it is similar to the violation of bodily integrity that is involved in amputation, since its goal is the preservation of health. (The difference is that with amputation, you’re trying to preserve the health of the person you’re operating on, whereas in the brick scenario you’re preserving someone else’s health, that of his victim.)

            Yes, we agree that the minimum “restraint” necessary to prevent harm should be used. But I would go further and say that *at least* that much should be used; far from being a sin, it’s rather an obligation to use some kind of force in that scenario.

            If I’m focused on what is allowed, it’s because you’re focused in what isn’t allowed, when you say that you “cannot conceive of justifying the violation of anyone’s intrinsic dignity and integrity,” which you call an axiom. Since I disagree with you, obviously my argument focuses on what *is* allowed. If we’re not discussing principles, it’s probably because we agree on the principles. What we disagree on is the specific application of the principles.

            >>You seem a lot more comfortable holding people to the highest standards of sexual morality (which I agree with) than keeping the standard even nearly as high on nonviolence.

            It’s not a matter of upholding high standards in one case and not the another. Sex is licit in some circumstances and not in others. Just as I would disagree that sex is always bad, I also disagree that violence is always bad. This is the position I’m defending. If someone were to argue that it’s OK to hit people over the head out of anger or in order to steal their wallets, I assure you I would be just as adamant in opposing that idea, as I am with regard to Communion for the divorced and remarried, or what have you.

        • Julia Smucker

          That’s still presuming exactly two possible courses of action: 1) hit someone with a brick, or 2) passively observe a child get killed. Or to take it back to Brian Martin’s real-life example (much more helpful than any hypothetical one), presuming he could not have intervened by talking down the mentally disturbed man who attacked him, which in fact he did. And I believe he acted heroically.

          That’s the problem with hypotheticals: it sets up a false and god-like presumption of the ability to dole out moral agency, and to set the scene and props in ways designed to lead to as dualistic a choice as possible. (Why did this person suddenly decide to attack this child? Where did this brick in my hand come from anyway?)

          And please don’t twist my words into the exact opposite of what I said. It is exactly not my intention to focus on what isn’t allowed. If that’s all you can see, then you have missed the point entirely: it is about much, much more than a list of forbidden activities.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS


    thanks for prompting a really interesting discussion. I want to add a historical fact for which I lack sufficient context, but which I think shows that the Church has thought about these question for a long time (pace the recent comment by Agellius) and also the whole question of the treatment of violence as a moral issue.

    In 1066, William invaded England to seize the throne from Harold. He had papal approbation, as Harold had sworn an oath on holy relics that he would yield the throne to William. Thus Harold was not only a usurper, but a blasphemer. Nevertheless, the papal legate accompanying William issued a decree imposing penances on Williams troops for having committed violence: i.e., killing and wounding the forces opposing them. I finally tracked down a proper reference for this: see and the texts he cites.

    The author of the blog post refers to this as the “last” medieval decree of this kind, which suggests some kind of change in the high medieval period. More interesting is his reference to Anglo-Saxon penitential manuals. I chased it through and found the following penance, repeated in two different sources:

    If one slays (another) in public war, he must fast for 40 days.

    and if I understand the indexing system correctly, the next line reads

    and if he does that in anger, he must do penance for 3 years;


    As I said, I wish I knew the theological context for these manuals. Nevertheless, the fact that they are in a penitential manual suggests that killing, even in war, was regarded as a sin that one must repent of and do penance for. Thus killing seems to be regarded as an intrinsic evil, malum in se. But, especially given the relatively light penance (compared to other acts of violence) suggests that for performing this violent act is legitimate in the face of sufficiently grave reasons (e.g. a just “public war”). In other words, the Church at this times seems to go even further than you did in your analysis Brian Martin’s encounter with the violent, mentally ill man at work. (By the by: Brian, your response in this situation is awe inspiring and I commend you for really embracing non-violence even at the threat to your personal safety. This is an example I hope I can aspire to as a Franciscan.)

    In particular, this seems to contradict (or at least go off in a very different direction) from the current understanding that one cannot commit evil in order to do good, and so interpreting acts which appear to be violence against another as not being so (pace the discussion about hitting someone with a brick to save the life of a child), or at least not being sinful acts.

    The only modern analogy I can think of to this Anglo Saxon example is an old acquaintance of mine in the Catholic Worker movement. He teaches and so draws a paycheck and has to pay taxes. Every year, he told me, he would pay his taxes and then go to confession, believing that by paying taxes he was complicit in the violence that was committed using those tax dollars. I always thought this was a bit extreme: was he really formally cooperating with evil, or was paying taxes “remote material cooperation” and therefore not a sin. But, comparing this to this 1000 year old example, I wonder if he was simply rejecting such fine distinctions and repenting of an evil he had to commit, perhaps even in the service of a greater good (i.e., stable civil government that tries to promote the common good).

    I am not sure where to go with this, but I hope that I have given you all something to chew on.

    • Mark VA

      Some situations are not morally or procedurally tidy, especially those that involve extremes of human experience – here is one:

      During World War II a village cleric in occupied Poland was suspected of cooperation with the Germans. The underground (Armia Krajowa (Home Army) – the “AK”) tested his case, and his culpability was proven beyond the shadow of a doubt. His activities either risked or caused the death of those individuals and their families who defied the Germans – for example, those who helped the Jews, smuggled food, taught children beyond fourth grade, helped the underground in any way, etc.

      The case was brought to the judges in the underground who had to decide the case, and pronounce the sentence. Keep in mind that ordinary actions, such as incarceration, taking the case to the Bishop, or just talking to him, was out of the question (here I hope the reader knows the differences in German policies in Eastern vs. Western occupied Europe). His case was decided.

      Also, Norman Davies, in his book “Europe” (see “Responsa”, page 1019) lists the “dubia” and the answers the Rabbis provided to the fundamental questions of a community facing certain extinction. For example: can forged baptismal certificates be used to save one’s family?

      In such situations, there are no satisfactory solutions – may God have mercy on our souls.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

        I was not familiar with these precise examples, but I have heard of similar ones. The question becomes, then, is how to create a moral framework robust enough to handle these situations while still maintaining itself and not devolving into pure situationalism. Your first example is an extreme one, but let me ask a couple questions about it. (In doing so I presume the AK partisans chose to execute this priest.) Was this act sinful? Was it necessary, under the circumstances? If the answer to both is yes, how to reconcile the two?

  • Mark VA

    David: before I answer, let me provide some background information:

    The AK was part of a larger underground state, which, in addition to military actions, also provided for education (such as “Flying Universities”, a judiciary system, underground press, liaison with related organizations (such as those within the Ghettos), etc,, and was answerable to the Polish Government in exile in London;

    In the type of situation which I mentioned, the AK relied on the judiciary (the underground judges) to decide each case. Anything else would be seen as vigilantism, a short step from anarchy morphing into lawlessness. Aware of this, the AK held onto and instilled professionalism within its ranks.

    To answer your questions:

    (a) You presumed the outcome correctly;

    (b) The aim of this act was to save lives, in a time when on the spot executions of families by the occupier were a daily occurrence. To do nothing, would be a willful act that put innocent lives in a clear and present danger of death. Under these extreme circumstances, I do not see this act as sinful;

    (c) This act was not necessary – strictly speaking nothing is, since we posses free will. The AK could have chosen, for example, to follow a pacifist path. Actually, a global pacifist response to Nazi Germany is imaginable. However, that choice would be synonymous, in my opinion, with suicide.

    To conclude my thoughts on this: many people have reflected on the “moral framework robust enough to handle these situations”. Pope John Paul II was one such person – also, competent history faculty members specializing in this time period at the Jagiellonian University, or the Catholic University (KUL) in Lublin, come to mind – may I suggest Norman Davies? Based on all of this, my personal convictions are as follows:

    (a) The death penalty should be reserved for extreme situations only, for example, when for whatever reason a society has stopped functioning normally. In a country such as the USA, the death penalty serves no just purpose, since life incarceration is possible;

    (b) Vigilantism and its cousin, anarchy, are destructive of justice. For example, there should be no yahoos in pickup trucks “protecting” our southern border. This job must be done by the border patrol, according to strict professional standards;

    (c) Law and order are not always synonymous with charity and justice. We need God and religion to keep the two reconciled.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

      Mark, thanks for the details. With regards to point (b), I think I misspoke when I said “necessary”, since I did not intend to make it a question of free will or determinism. Perhaps “legitimate” or “an acceptable course of action demanded by the circumstances” would be better. And your point (a) addresses this question.

      I had not thought of this as an act of justice (death penalty) versus an act of war, and it would be interesting if we knew what penances, if any, were assigned to executioners in the period the Anglo-Saxon manuals were written. A quick search turned up the following curious reference, which indicates that executioners were required to confess publicly in the medieval period. (See footnote 121.)

      Anyway, I think what we can extract from all of this is the following distinction: by your reasoning (which I think tracks with current Catholic theology), this act, which decontextualized would be sinful (“thou shall not kill”), is not sinful because of the extreme circumstances that it occurs under and the intent of the persons involved. The position I see in the manuals is that the act remains sinful (“thou shall not kill” is a moral absolute) but is allowable and the offense severity mitigated (e.g. with a much reduced penance) because of the extreme circumstances.

      Both of these are ways of dealing with, as you put it in your first comment, “situations [that] are not morally or procedurally tidy, especially those that involve extremes of human experience”. With reference to the original post, and to the ongoing discussion between Julia and Agellius, each approach gives a different way of deciding when violence is acceptable. One approach tries to find a “clear zone” in the interior where violence is clearly okay (or even obligatory as Agellius seems to argue in his child/brick example) and then tries to push out find the boundaries. This can lead (though I don’t accuse Agellius of this) to what Julia calls Christians defending their favorite forms of violence. The other approach eliminates the clear zone entirely, but replaces it with a sliding scale of grey on which each person has to move and be cognizant of his/her own sinfulness in acting. This could very well lead to the same problem: how far can I go and still get away with a (metaphorical) slap on the wrist? It does have the advantage, to my mind, of grounding the discussion in the absolute sinfulness of the act, which then pushes (ideally) towards the least violent solution practicable in the circumstances. There are probably drawbacks, and I would like to see them brought out as none come to me as I type this over my morning coffee.

      • Mark VA

        Thank you, David, for your response.

        It seems we agree that some situations do not lend themselves to clear solutions – which doesn’t mean we should not persevere. I have a few more miscellaneous thoughts:

        An Orthodox Jewish friend of mine who “knows his stuff” (one of his doctorates is in Philosophy) once explained to me that the Fifth Commandment should read “Though shall not murder”. If so, then I would propose that our “reasoning room” is at once broader and more perilous – can we have a firm framework for distinguishing killing from murder?

        You pose an excellent “two zones” question – I don’t know how to think thru it as of now. I would complicate this question even more by pointing out that our spiritual adversary is an adaptable master at confusing our thoughts “on the fly”. Thus, we may begin “in the clear”, and a few seconds later are “sliding” – say, the enemy is now using civilians as shields? I wonder why so many of our veterans commit suicide – could this be the root of it ?

        Perhaps Vox Nova’s theologian in residence could weigh in on this?

        • David Cruz-Uribe, OFS

          I hope some other folks weigh in on this.

          I have heard the translation “thou shall not murder” but I am uncertain of how to parse this, since it then boils down to some semantic games which sound like the clear zone arguments: “if it is X, Y and Z I am killing but not murdering, so everything is okay.”