The Christian Soldier

Absolute or doctrinal pacifism is incompatible with the Catholic faith, because it directly attacks the significance of Christ’s crucifixion. That is why it is popular with secularizing forces in our day. I believe it is urgent that Catholics understand this incompatibility.

First, we should note that not everything called “pacifism” today is absolute or doctrinal pacifism. This latter is, I believe, the false doctrine that all use of deadly force is wrong, or that God forbids us ever to kill human life. It stands in stark contrast with the Catholic doctrine which, I believe, is true: namely, that all intentional or direct killing of the innocent is wrong; or, in other words, the belief that God absolutely forbids murder, abortion, and suicide, no matter what euphemisms are used for these acts and no matter what the circumstances or consequences. There are no exceptions. But, capital punishment and killing in the just conduct of a justly declared war do not come under this absolute prohibition. Thus Catholic belief sets up a distinction between the kinds of killing that are absolutely prohibited and other kinds of killing. I think this distinction is essential to Christian faith and decent living.

Before we can see how absolute pacifism, which rejects the distinction just made, is incompatible with the Catholic faith, we should recognize that much popular talk about pacifism is incompatible with an accurate use of language. The refusal to fight a war because there is no just cause or because it is being unjustly conducted is unfortunately often called pacifism tout court. It should be called relative or practical pacifism to distinguish it from the absolute doctrine, The moral law, often expounded as the just war doctrine, could require a man to be a relative or practical pacifist. I do not see how, for example, anyone could licitly take up arms and fight for Pol Pot in what used to be Cambodia. I am sure that refusing to do so on grounds of conscience would result in a swift death, but that is truly better than doing something wicked. The same Catholic who would refuse to fight for Pol Pot might well volunteer to use deadly force, if that could be done with reasonable hope of success, in order to protect the innocent human beings Pol Pot set out to slaughter in such large numbers. In other words, a relative or practical pacifist does not reject all use of deadly force, only unjust or unwise use.

Some relative pacifists believe all modern warfare is either unjust or unwise. Yet, even they are not absolute pacifists, because, without violating their principles, they could serve as police, knowing full well that they might be required to use deadly force.

Another badly needed distinction which is all too often simply ignored in our day, is that between pacifism and non-violent resistance. It is the latter that may be chosen for sound Christian reasons which have nothing to do with the false claim that Jesus the Christ taught that all use of force, particularly deadly force, was wrong. Non-violent resistance may be chosen out of genuine love for the enemy, as Christ commanded. It may be chosen because there is no other realistic alternative. It may be chosen by some who could resort to force but instead wish to identify themselves with those who are so dispossessed that they cannot even think of trying to use force. And so on. It should be carefully distinguished from absolute pacifism because the Church has commended non-violent resistance under certain circumstances, and She does not, in fact She cannot, commend absolute pacifism.

Tradition has long since determined that the claim that Christ taught absolute pacifism is false. I find it hard to see how it could ever have been convincingly made, for this claim implies that Christ broke with the moral doctrine of the Old Testament which acknowledges the licit use of deadly force, and taught a “higher” morality instead.

In Exodus 20:13, we read, “You shall not kill.” In Ex-odus 21:17, we read that “Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death.” In the New Testament we read that Christ cited these two provisions of the law with clear approval and used the setting aside of these laws as the sign of Pharisaism (Mark 7:10; Matthew 15:4.) which, as I trust all know, was the “ism” Our Lord most vigorously condemned. It is certain that the Chosen People, Our Lord, and His Church throughout history have known that God through the fifth commandment (Exodus 20:13) does not absolutely prohibit all killing, but absolutely prohibits only the intentional killing of the innocent. In fact the great saints of the Old Testament, both men and women, killed and were praised for it. Such killings were celebrated, as when David killed Goliath or Judith killed Holofernes. The Old Testament is not a place to turn for a doctrine of absolute pacifism.

It is true, as Dei Verbum says, that “even though” the books of the Old Testament “contain matters imperfect and provisional, nevertheless (they) show us authentic divine teaching” (section #15). The Church has perfected the imperfect and set aside the provisional by sharpening the distinction between licit and absolutely illicit killing. Nevertheless, this development towards strictness notwithstanding, neither Our Lord nor his Church breaks with the truth of the fundamental distinction.

Our Lord explicitly said that He did not break with the moral doctrine of the Old Testament in the Sermon on the Mount:

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:17-20 RSV)

The Church interprets these words rightly. The moral law has not in the least been abolished. That is an illusion the Church has had to deal with from the beginning. No less a figure than St. Paul had to correct nominal Christians who seemed to have thought otherwise. (cf. Romans 3:8.) But the moral law must be lived as faith in Christ and its observance must be a work of his grace, otherwise it does not avail towards salvation.

Christ’s coming, which, as He said, fulfilled but did not abolish the Law and the prophets, did radically alter the Law of the Old Testament. The ceremonial provisions of the Law, such as circumcision, may no longer be practiced as a means to salvation, because the salvation they signified has been accomplished. That means that when a doctor wants to circumcise a male Christian baby, He should do so for secular reasons of health and not for religious reasons. The judicial precepts — i.e., the laws that provide for the good order of the community — are relativized by Our Lord’s fulfillment. They may be used or changed as any other community may see fit. But the moral law — e.g., the prohibition against adultery — is as binding now as it was when David lusted after Bathsheba.

A sentence in the Sermon on the Mount that comes a bit after the passage in which Our Lord said that He did not abolish the Law is one often used to make the claim that Christ taught absolute pacifism. (Of course, He could not have done so because that would have amounted to abolishing, rather than fulfilling, the moral law.) That sentence reads:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42 RSV)

If this was not the abolition of the old law and the teaching of pseudo-higher morality, then it means exactly what the Church has said that it means through the ages and most recently through the words of Pope Paul II in his encyclical Dives in Misericordia:

Not in vain did Christ challenge His listeners, faithful to the doctrine of the Old Testament, for their attitude which was manifested in the words: `An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ This was the form of distortion of justice at that time; and today’s forms continue to be modeled on it. It is obvious, in fact, that in the name of an alleged justice (for example, historical justice or class justice) the neighbor is sometimes destroyed, killed, deprived of liberty or stripped of fundamental human rights. The experience of the past and of our own time demonstrates that justice alone is not enough, that it can even lead to the negation and destruction of itself, if that deeper power, which is love, is not allowed to shape human life in its various dimensions. It has been precisely historical experience that, among other things, has led to the formulation of the saying: summum ius, summa iniuria. This statement does not detract from the value of justice and does not minimize the significance of the order that is based upon it; it only indicates, under another aspect, the need to draw from the powers of the spirit which condition the very order of justice, powers which are still more profound. (Dives in Misericordia, section 12.)

Among many other things, this means that rather than insisting on justice when an evil man strikes me, if I can win him to Christ, I forego what justice permits me to claim and thereby show him that Christ is rich in mercy. I run a risk and I may lose even my life, but I follow a Lord who gave His freely. This does not mean that if I am responsible for the welfare of a young girl, I do not use force, even deadly force, to assure her welfare if she is attacked. I do not turn her cheek, only my own! I follow a Lord who gave His life, not somebody else’s. So, if a Hitler, or a Stalin, or a Pol Pot, wish to conquer the town where the young girl resides, and deprive her of the Christian faith, I fight. If there is little chance of success with arms, as in present day Poland, I use non-violent resistance, and, if necessary, give my life in that way. I choose the way that will most effectively protect the little girl, and I am not afraid to use deadly force, if indicated, because I know that it is not always wrong to do so. But it is always wrong to do so if I fail to do it out of love, love for the young girl and for the evil man I am forced to resist. If I had only myself to risk, I would strive to win him even at the cost of my own life. But I may have to kill him, and if I am forced to that, I pray for him and do the deadly deed without hatred or malice.

The distinction between such killing in just war or capital punishment and murder, which is absolutely prohibited, is one we must understand if we are to read the gospels. The man tradition named St. Dismas could make this distinction while he hung on the Cross next to Our Lord. (Luke: 23:40-41.) And making the distinction was part of his salvation. The other criminal seemed unable to make it, and as a result he may have had a different eternal destiny from the paradise Dismas enjoys. We too have to make the distinction because the human point of Christ’s death is that He is innocent. He is like us in all things but sin, which means it was impossible that He could be justly killed. He more closely resembles an aborted baby than He does Gary Gilmore. Pacifism suggests that the real evil was that someone was killed, thus eviscerating His sacrifice; whereas, the evil, humanly speaking, was that wicked and weak men willfully and knowingly murdered an innocent man behind the facade of judicial process. Without the reality of this difference, the sacrifice loses its point.

With that point in mind, we may look back on the other New Testament saying that has been used to make a Christian claim for absolute pacifism. It may be found in the Gospel according to St. Matthew:

Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’ (Matthew 26:52 RSV)

The general truth is, of course, that we should not take the sword unless we absolutely have to. And Christ foresaw that we would have to, for He said in St. Luke’s account of the same scene:

But now let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag, And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one. (Luke 22:36)

I think the particular reference in both cases was to what would happen both for the guilty and the innocent because of the Jews who rejected Jesus and followed false messiahs who led them into rebellion against the Roman Empire. Those deluded folk who took up the sword did indeed perish by it. And others had to sell their mantles in order to have something to defend their families with.

But more important than our interpretation of these verses is the fundamental observation that the moral law, which Our Lord most certainly did not abrogate because it proceeds from His Father’s eternal law, distinguishes between kinds of killing which are absolutely forbidden and kinds which are not. We do not know the meaning of the Son’s death if we do not make this distinction, for He is not like St. Dismas. Our Lord is a victim of judicial murder, not licit capital punishment. Once a believer appreciates this essential distinction, he or she knows that the doctrine of absolute pacifism does not come from God.


  • Richard R. Roach

    Rev. Richard Roach was a Jesuit and teacher of moral theology at Marquette University.

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