CONDITIONS OF A JUST WAR
by Fulton J. Sheen
The tragedy of our day is that so many minds are confronted with problems,
unexpected tragedies, or catastrophies, for which they have no principle of
solution. The Christian is never in that quandary because he has his
philosophy of life and hierarchy of values made before a difficulty
presents itself. The difference between the modern pagan and the true
Christian is, that the former is confronted with strange roads without
guideposts, whereas the Christian has a map to cover all the roads; the
pagan has need of measuring something but has no measuring rod, the
Christian has his standard of values already made before the valuable is
presented for appraisal. The Christian is like a carpenter who carries his
rule in his pocket- he does not know whether he will have to measure
floors, ceilings, doghouses, palaces, movie theaters, or churches; but
regardless of whether he has to stand or stoop, he never throws away his
ruler, never decides to be a Liberal and makes the foot measure 13 inches,
or a reactionary and make it measure 11 inches. A foot, for him, is 12
inches despite Progressive education. The modern, on the other hand, uses
moral principles like clothes. He uses one set of principles at one moment,
another at another, as he wears white trousers for tennis, formal black for
dinner, trunks at the beach, and none at all in his tub. His likes and
dislikes determine his moral principles instead of his moral principles
determining his likes and dislikes.
This difference between the modern and the Christian is true not only as
regards education, economics, politics, science, but even as regards war.
The Christian does not wait until war is declared, and then through the
influence of propaganda, emotion, or slogan, deride its justice or
injustice. He has a body of principles of justice grounded in the Eternal
Reason of God, anterior to any conflict. What these principles are in
relation to war is the subject of this chapter. In other words, is a war
ever justified. The question is so worded as to ignore this war completely.
All we want to do now is to set down the invariable Catholic principles for
a just war-principles we had before this war, before the Civil War, before
the French Revolution, before Lepanto, and before Constantine, and which we
will have long after this war.
Our procedure will be to set down in general the determinants of a moral
act, and then apply them to war. In every moral act three elements must be
considered: first, the object; second, the intention; and third, the
circumstances. Not one of these may be contrary to the moral order, if the
act is to be considered morally good. To express this idea we often use an
old Latin maxim: ; that
is, all the moral determinants of an act must be good: its object, its
intention, and its circumstances. If only one of them is not good, the act
cannot claim to be wholly good.
To illustrate: Suppose one wants to know whether it is a morally good act
to help a poor friend who needs $1,000 to remain in his business. Inquire,
first: What is the of the gift? To help a neighbor. Obviously that
is good-but that alone does not make the act morally good, for two other
points must also be considered.
Second, what is the intention or the motive for the action? The act can be
good and the motive bad. If the intention in giving is to relieve the
friend's financial burden so he can continue to give himself and family the
normal comforts of life, then the act is so far morally good; but if the
motive for giving is to win the favor of his wife and ultimately to induce
her to divorce him, then the act is vitiated by an evil intention.
Third, one must inquire: What are the circumstances? If the gift is made
through the intermediary of a friend of the wife who, in giving the gift
ridiculed the sanctity of the marriage bond and justified divorce on the
grounds that everyone was doing it, the good act would be further vitiated
and spoiled by the unmoral circumstances surrounding the gift.
It cannot be too often repeated that all three elements must be good: the
action itself, the intention, and the circumstances. An act must therefore
be good not only in its end but in its . That is what the modern
pagan forgets: he thinks that because the end is good, he can use any means
he pleases. No! The end never justifies the means. And incidentally, for
those who have been deceived by lies, the Jesuits never taught anything
else but this traditional Christian doctrine.
Let us now apply these principles to war. To be just, a war must be good in
its object, in its intention, and in its circumstances:
1. The must be good; that is, a war must have a just cause. Now,
wars are of two kinds, defensive and offensive. A defensive war is just in
its cause if it is waged to defend an essential and fundamental right
unjustly denied. An offensive war is just in its action if it is the only
means for preserving an essential and fundamental right or justice unjustly
denied. It is, of course, here presumed that the war is the last resort in
the preservation of justice; that other peaceful means of righting
the wrong must have been tried, and that the importance of the justice to
be defended is proportioned to the gravity of the ills which the war would
cause. As Henry of Ghent phrased it in the Middle Ages: "There are two ways
of combating: by discussion or by violence; the first being peculiar to
man, the second to wild animals, one should only have recourse to the
latter when the former is of no avail." War cannot be just on both sides at
the same time. Doubtful rights do not give a just cause. Those in authority
are under the grave obligation of pondering all reasons, for war is not a
political problem, but moral and religious. When doubt exists about a just
cause for war, the dispute between States must be settled in another
fashion, such as arbitration. The Christian under no circumstances can
accept Stephen Decatur's doctrine: "My country right or wrong." A slogan of
this kind assumes there is no law above a nation, not even the law of God-
therefore, whatever one's nation decides to do, is right. Rather the
Christian attitude is: If our country is wrong, let us make it right; and
when it is right, if need be we will die for it; then in dying for it we
will be defending our country's justice because it is one with Divine
2. War must be good or right not only in its object or cause, but also in
its . The only intention which can justify war is to promote
common good and avoid evil. The common good here means not exclusively the
common good of the individual nation but the common good of the world,
because today no nation is hermetically sealed but rather its order and
prosperity is bound up inseparably with other nations.
Though a war was declared by lawful authority and for a just cause, it
could become unjustified by reason of the wrong intention of the one who
waged it; for example, for the sake of civil vengeance, to satisfy the lust
of domination, or to create internal discords so as to incite revolution
within a country at war. This latter applies to the Communist technique of
using even a just war to stir up a civil war.
War is a terrible instrument, the last thing to be resorted to in defense
of justice, and to make use of it one requires a pure heart and clean
hands. One must therefore never confuse slogans with intentions.
Civilization and culture are not the prizes of battle and hence must not be
made the pretext of battle.
3. War, to be justified, must be good not only in its cause, not only in
its intention, but also in its or its methods. A bad method
could vitiate a good intention; for example, to circulate foul literature
to procure money for a maternity ward. The Church is most emphatic about
the of war affecting its morality. In 1937, for instance,
when the Mexican government was persecuting religion with the fury of the
Nazis, there were some evidently who thought that a revolt by force would
have been justified. For that reason, in March, 1937, the Holy Father, Pius
XI, addressed the following letter to the Mexican Bishops: "The Church
condemns every unjust rebellion or act of violence against the properly
constituted civil power.... Although it is true that a practical solution
depends on concrete circumstances, it is nevertheless our duty to remind
you of some general principles which must always be kept in mind:".
The methods used for vindicating rights are means to an end, or
constitute a relative end, not a final or absolute end." For example, a gun
is a means; it is not justified because it is shot, but because of the
reason for which it is shot. Its morality is relative to something outside
itself, for there is a world of difference between a gun used to shoot a
fat bear and a gun to shoot a rich uncle.".
That, as a means to an end, the methods for vindicating rights must be
lawful and not intrinsically evil acts." In other words, the end does not
justify the means. No advantage however great may be gained at the expense
of violating a moral law. I may not club a millionaire on the head to get
money to buy ambulances for the wounded.".
That since the methods for vindicating rights should be means
proportionate to the end, they must be used only in so far as they seem to
attain that end, in whole or in part, and in such a way that they do not
bring greater harm to the community than the harm they were intended to
remedy." For example, a bomber is a means to win a war: to use it to bomb
hospitals is not proportionate to the winning of war and therefore
unjustified. There may be no limit to what men do in war, because
they do anything; but there is a limit to what they
do in war, because morally they not do certain things; for
example, they ought not kill prisoners of war, make improper use of a flag
of truce, force conquered people and particularly women to march in front
of soldiers into battle. The Catholic Church officially believes that
aerial bombardments of civilian populations is an unjustified method of
war, and of the Vatican on June 10, 1938, declared
that the protests of the world against bombings in Spain were justified by
the fact that the centers bombed had no military interest.
When, then, an individual is confronted with the problems of war, he should
ask himself these questions: Is the cause for which my country goes to war
just? Is it grave and proportionate to the evils which will follow? Is it
to defend basic rights, which could not otherwise be preserved, or to
expand possessions, and preserve a certain form of economy or politics?
Second, supposing the cause to be just, has my country the right intention?
Is it entering the war to save loans made to foreign countries, or loans to
restore international order based on justice? Third, are its methods
justified? Is it using certain anti-religious forces? Is it so conducting
the war that it realizes war is a conflict between States and not between
individuals? Are its methods conducive to a true peace without
vindictiveness? Only when these three questions of morally good end, right
intentions, and justifiable methods can be answered in the affirmative can
war be justified. These principles are as independent of propaganda and
emotion as the sun is independent of the methods of government. They
antedated this war and every war, because the order of the universe is
grounded on the justice of God. As a ship can keep its course because its
star is fixed, so a Christian can keep his thinking straight and his mind
tidy in the midst of a self-interested and distracting world, because his
justice is fixed in God and everything else revolves about it. Our concept
of justice is as unchanging as the Eternal Spirit of God.
In the corrupted currents of this world,
Offense's gilded hand may shove by justice;
And oft 'tis seen, the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: But 'tis not so above:
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell'd
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. (, Act III, Scene 3.)
St. Thomas treats two subsidiary questions of war- viz., is it ever
permitted to disobey the order of a legitimate superior? He answers: "There
are two reasons for which a subject may not be bound to obey his superior
in all things. First, on account of the command of a higher power. For as a
gloss says on Rom. 13:2, (Vulg.- (cf. St. Augustine, ,
viii). Secondly, a
subject is not bound to obey his superior, if the latter command him to do
something wherein he is not subject to him. For Seneca says (, iii), Consequently in
matters touching the internal movement of the will man is not bound to obey
his fellow man, but God alone.
"Nevertheless man is bound to obey his fellow man in things that have to be
done externally by means of the body: and yet, since by nature all men are
equal he is not bound to obey another man in matters touching the nature of
the body, for instance in those relating to the support of his body or the
begetting of his children.
Wherefore servants are not bound to obey their masters, nor children their
parents, in the question of contracting marriage, or of remaining in the
state of virginity, or the like. But in matters concerning the disposal of
actions and human affairs, a subject is bound to obey his superior within
the sphere of his authority; for instance, a soldier must obey his general
in matters relating to war, a servant his master in matters touching the
execution of the duties of his service, a son his father in matters
relating to the conduct of his life and the care of the household, and so
Next he discusses whether clerics should be asked to combat in war. "Now
warlike pursuits are altogether incompatible with the duties of a bishop
and a cleric for two reasons. The first reason is a general one because, to
wit, warlike pursuits are full of unrest, so that they hinder the mind very
much from the contemplation of Divine things, the praise of God, and
prayers for the people, which belong to the duties of a cleric. Wherefore
just as commercial enterprises are forbidden to clerics, because they
unsettle the mind too much, so, too, are warlike pursuits, according to 2
Tim. 2:4: The second reason is a special one, because, to wit, all the
clerical Orders are directed to the ministry of the altar, on which the
Passion of Christ is represented sacramentally, according to 1 Cor. 11:26:
and implies law, and law implies justice, and justice implies God.
So, too, in war, a nation that fights for freedom divorced from justice has
no right to war, because it does not know why it wants to be free, or why
it wants anyone else to be free.
The Christian, in opposition to the spirit of the world, should think of
war first and primarily in terms of justice. Whenever there is justice
there is freedom, but when there is freedom, there is not always justice.
There can be freedom without justice-and that is the basic reason why there
is war today; men wanting to be free from discipline, and particularly from
dependence on the Justice of God.
It is indeed interesting that our Lord never praised those who sought
freedom apart from justice. Never did He say:
"Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after freedom," but "Blessed are
they who hunger and thirst after justice," and "Blessed are they that
suffer persecution for justice's sake, for theirs is the kingdom of
heaven." Let us, then, in the name of God, stop talking about freedom
until we decide why we want to be free; let us, when the world has gone mad
with freedom alienated from the law of God, unfurl the flag of justice-then
we shall be free: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice and all
these things shall be added unto you."
Second, since the God of Justice is the God of Charity it follows that
although a war may be justified, one may not enter into it in a spirit of
hate. We too often identify what is really a sin against charity with a
love of justice. It is precisely against this divorce of justice and
charity that the Church cautions us, even in times of war. The condemnation
of injustice must not be separated from the plea for charity and prayer-the
hatred of enmity from the love of enemy. Justice may demand, in history,
physical resistance to an aggressor's physical assault; but charity demands
that we pray for his conversion from his onslaught against the morality and
justice of God.
As a recent writer in the London expressed it: "Our Lord tells us
not to fear those who can kill the body, and afterwards can do no more, but
rather to fear him who has the power to send our body and our soul into the
fire of hell. An immediate application of these words to our present
situation is that we should not allow our enemy to induce us to fall into
sin. It is the supreme issue for us in this war as in everything.
"The sins to which an enemy is most likely to tempt us are these three:
sins of intemperance, sins of doubt, and sins of hate. Sins of
intemperance, as when men depressed by war seek distraction in corporeal
excess. Sins of doubt, as when men begin to question the goodness of God
who allows such evil to befall them. And sins of hate, when men deny the
enemy their charity.
"The important thing for us in these temporal incidents is to be on the
side of Christ and of His charity. It is by no means enough that our cause
should be just. For one could fight on the right side in this sense and yet
defeat its righteous purpose by admitting a decline of temperance or trust
or charity. Even the good things of his temporal life must be carefully
handled lest self-deception overtake us; for it is not without profundity
that the sacred liturgy teaches us to pray so that we may pass through
temporal things as not to lose eternal things....
"It is no figure to call God our Father and we His children. It is indeed
the most remarkable letter of the truth, for we are adopted through His
Son. That truth works out with the validities of paternity and filiation,
including the cross-purposes, if we may say so. Is it likely, for instance,
that we as children should know what is best for us? Is it not natural that
we should, in the heat of the moment and as children do, see first the
hardship and realize the blessing tardily?
"That there is blessing we have no doubt: such inducements as the urgent
putting of our souls in the state of grace if need be; the discharge of
some long-neglected duty, such as making a will, paying a debt, forgiving
an injury; suffering a salutary reduction of one's pride of life; being
forced to face in a novel, vivid way the four last things; and being so
deprived on every side that we are compelled to look to the one thing left
to us, the saving of our souls. It may even be that God sends these abrupt
blessings for very serious reasons, as when Catholics have grown complacent
intellectually and deteriorated morally, and need to be aroused to their
true business of salvation by severe awakening. "
1. , 2-2ae, q. 104, art. 5.
2. , 2-2ae, q. 40, art.
3. Ibid., ad 2.
4. Ibid., ad 3.
5. Matt. 5:6.
6. Matt. 5:10.
7. Matt. 6:33.
8. , August 3, 1940, pp. 97, 98.