Because of the Church’s Position on War III

Because of the Church’s Position on War III December 1, 2009

Posted by Webster
I’ve outlined the teaching of the Catechism on “just war”; I’ve presented the pacifist case, represented by Dorothy Day and effectively endorsed by CCC 2304–2306. I’d like to return to a homily by St. John Chrysostom that I quoted on Thanksgiving Day, while throwing a bouquet to a man who combined aggression and pacifism in a historic way, St. Bernard of Clairvaux (pictured here).

The homily, on Matthew, makes an odd proposal: Be a sheep, not a wolf, it says; and at the same time, be both a snake and a dove.

Sheep over wolf? I get that. Blessed are the poor, the meek, the mournful, the peacemakers, and those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. According to St. John, the shepherd (Jesus) tells us,

Do not be upset that, as I send you out among the wolves, I bid you be as sheep and doves. I could have managed things quite differently and sent you, not to suffer evil nor to yield like sheep to the wolves, but to be fiercer than lions. But the way I have chosen is right. It will bring you greater praise and at the same time manifest my power.

If Jesus had wanted us to be wolves, He would have told us so. Wolves show off their own power (as our government and most other governments often do); but He wants us to “manifest” His power. Yep, he’s asking us to be martyrs, and martyrdom is not in the contemporary code of conduct of our culture. But it is what He asks for.

Then He asks for something else. He wants us to “contribute something,” according to the early Church Father, “lest everything seem to be the work of grace . . . ” 

Therefore he adds: You must be clever as snakes and innocent as doves. . . . What cleverness is the Lord requiring here? The cleverness of a snake. A snake will surrender everything and will put up no great resistance even if its body is being cut in pieces, provided it can save its head. So you, the Lord is saying, must surrender everything but your faith: money, body, even life itself.

In other words, He is asking us not merely to lie down in front of the sword and lay everything to grace. We have to make an effort. It is an effort of surrender (an oxymoron? no), also an effort of holding on to our faith when everything else is gone. And we have to do all this while remaining innocent as doves. St. John puts a spin on snakes, as passive: They “will surrender everything and will put up no great resistance . . . ” I’m not qualified to contradict a saint, but I wonder if there isn’t something more here, as well.

A snake was the Original bad animal, the serpent in the garden. A snake can be deadly. But a snake is also clever, cagey, sly. A snake waits and calculates the moment for striking. It may “surrender everything” but it is also capable of delivering a lethal blow suddenly and with chilling efficiency. The Navy motto “Don’t Tread on Me,” featuring a coiled snake, originated in the American Revolution as a symbol of the Colonies’ willingness to resist aggression. The coiled snake takes a defensive posture, but will go on the offensive if provoked, and woe to the aggressor.

In this rich symbol, as in the model of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, I think I see another example of the Church taking a position not of either/or but of both/and. Under St. Bernard the Cistercians (later “Trappists”), a reformed order of Benedictines and ideally as peaceful as they come, emerged as a growing, vibrant force in the High Middle Ages. Yet, Bernard also preached the Second Crusade, inciting Christian knights to take back the Holy Lands. (For my knowledge of St. Bernard I am indebted to Frank, as well as Wikipedia. My knowledge runs deep!)

While I was on retreat a few weeks back, Father Matthew, our retreat director, cited St. Bernard as a conundrum: How could he have been a monk, a general, and a saint—all in one? I guess I prefigured an answer to that question with the title of my post about the retreat: Because Monks Are Just Soldiers in Awkward Clothes. Remember this about St. Bernard next time you think about just war and pacifism: He was a monk, he was a general (though he stayed home in his bunker), and he was a saint. Is there a lesson in that?

"Vaya con Dios, Leonard; Rest in Peace."

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  • Anonymous

    I think I read a sermon just recently -an early one-that said something about beating plows into swords when necessary. War is complicated, but if it comes down to tyranny or war, I saw war. We were born for liberty.

  • Thomas Merton writes in the Foreword to Daniel Rops biography that Bernard of Clairvaux…"was plunged deep in the mystery of the Cross, which was the mystery of God's will for his world and ours. He who had left the world to become a monk was thrown back into the world to be an apostle, a worker, a worker of miracles, a peace maker, a war maker, the reformer of abbeys, the monitor of Popes and a prophet sent to alarm kings."Ah, the Active Contemplative! Not sitting on his hands, that was for sure. @ Anonymous – Reminds me of something Qoheleth says in a great passage from my ole favorite Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3: There is a given time for everything and a time for every happening under heaven:A time for giving birth, a time for dying;a time for planting, a time for uprooting.A time for killing, a time for healing; a time for knocking down, a time for building. A time for tears, a time for laughter; a time for mourning, a time for dancing. A time for throwing stones, a time for gathering stones; a time for embracing, a time to refrain from embracing. A time for searching, a time for losing; a time for keeping, a time for throwing away. A time for tearing, a time for sewing; a time to be silent and a time to speak.A time for loving, a time for hating; a time for war, a time for peace. What profit is there for a man from all his toils? Finally I considered the task God gave to the humans. He made everything fitting in its time, but he also set eternity in their hearts, although man is not able to embrace the work of God from the beginning to the end.

  • Webster Bull

    The Anchoress (blogger extraordinaire Elizabeth Scalia) sent me this quote from Chesterton's "Orthodoxy" that perfectly captures the Church's both/and position on war: “It is true that the Church told some men to fight and others not to fight; and it is true that those who fought were like thunderbolts and those who did not fight were like statues. All this simply means that the Church preferred to use its Supermen and to use its Tolstoyans. There must be some good in the life of battle, for so many good men have enjoyed being soldiers. There must be some good in the idea of non-resistance, for so many good men seem to enjoy being Quakers. All that the Church did (so far as that goes) was to prevent either of these good things from ousting the other. They existed side by side. The Tolstoyans, having all the scruples of monks, simply became monks. The Quakers became a club instead of becoming a sect. Monks said all that Tolstoy says; they poured out lucid lamentations about the cruelty of battles and the vanity of revenge. But the Tolstoyans are not quite right enough to run the whole world; and in the ages of faith they were not allowed to run it. The world did not lose the last charge of Sir James Douglas or the banner of Joan the Maid. And sometimes this pure gentleness and this pure fierceness met and justified their juncture; the paradox of all the prophets was fulfilled, and, in the soul of St. Louis, the lion lay down with the lamb. But remember that this text is too lightly interpreted. It is constantly assured, especially in our Tolstoyan tendencies, that when the lion lies down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb. The real problem is–Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? THAT is the problem the Church attempted; THAT is the miracle she achieved.”

  • That right there is the equivalent of the military's "tooth-to-tail ratio" and Chesterton (and the Anchoress) are "all over it!" And more importantly, The Church Militant is organized like an Army! Wow GKC…THAT is what a homerun reads like!And Webster says "enough fat man?!!" I can't get enough of GKC's stuff LOL.Tooth-to-tail is the ratio between actual combatants or "Teeth"(rifle carriers) and Logisticssupport "Tail"(Admin/Supply/Medical/Cooks etc).Thanks to GKC and The Anchoress for throwing this bone our way! I can still resist and be a warrior because "to each according to his gifts." Yes!

  • Webster Bull

    Julie at "Happy Catholic" (great blog, check it out) sent along this from this from Roy H. Williams:… You understood the Jesus who turned water into wine at the wedding feast to save the young couple from embarrassment. You believed in that Jesus, the one who was kind and anonymously generous. But you never quite believed in the Jesus of the second half of that chapter [John 2] who braided a whip to drive the businessmen from the temple, who flung aside the tables of the moneychangers and scattered their cash and stampeded all their livestock.Was there human blood on the whip when he was done do you think? Or did he just wave the whip over his head like a baton twirler in a halftime show and request that all the nasty, bad men please leave the premises immediately?Jesus wasn't Gandhi. Jesus said that when someone jolted your jaw, the right thing to do was look them calmly in the eye and stick out your chin to give them a clean swing at the other side. This is how a tiger says, "Is that your best shot? You want another swing? Here, let me make this easy for you."Turning the other cheek isn't submissive. It's defiant. …