The Catholic Theory of War and the Soldier

June 27, 2019

One has hardly arrived at this conclusion when a great problem arises quickly in our minds. “Did the Church sanction war?” We know of no more important question, nor one more intimately connected with our subject.

St. Bernard preaching the Second Crusade painted by Émile Signol.

The Church’s theory is well known: in three words—She hates war! Vainly have certain sophists endeavored to tone down the grand words of the Savior, “They who take the sword shall perish with the sword.” After much hesitation and the inevitable searchings out, the true thought of the Church was magnificently formulated by Saint Augustine when he said:

“He who can think of war and can support it without great sorrow, is truly dead to human feelings;” and when he laid down the grand principle—this fertilizing principle, “It is necessary to submit to war—but to wish for peace.”

Statue of Father William Corby on Gettysburg Battlefield, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He served as chaplain of the 88th New York Infantry, which was one of the five original regiments in the Irish Brigade. Fr. Corby gave general absolution to the Irish Brigade on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Of the Brigade’s original 3,000 men, only about 500 remained, and more than a third of them were killed or wounded in the battle.

Another axiom, again, is that of which the Fathers of the Council of Kiersy, in 858, threw at the heads of the feudal system, then in its wild youth. “We ought,” they said, “to war against our vices, and make peace with our brethren.” So, from axiom to axiom we pass on to the celebrated proclamation which Leo X made to the Lateran Council in 1514: “Nothing is more pernicious, nothing is more disastrous to the Christian Republic than the inhuman rage for war.”

Fr. Francis Duffy in World War I trenches. He was the chaplain for the “Fighting 69th” and became the most highly decorated cleric in the history of the U.S. Army.

The Church hated war, but it was forced, alas, to acknowledge its existence in the New World as in the Old, and we are led to give a philosophical explanation of it, which we must here make known with rigorous impartiality and in no apologetic tone. War, then, presents to the eyes of the Church the triple character of being at once a righteous punishment, a useful expiation, a Providential preparation. As soon as a nation ceases to be manly and self-sacrificing, as soon as it enters into its era of decadence, and becomes capable of rendering other nations effeminate; or again when in the midst of its prosperity and splendor it becomes tyrannical; oppresses the human conscience, and threatens the free destiny of the truth on the earth—God makes use of another people to chastise this corrupt, haughty, and dangerous nation. These are the righteous punishments of which we speak: These are the redoubtable executions of Divine Justice. But nevertheless they do not explain all wars, and it is beyond doubt that there are many instances in history in which they have assisted in the downfall of nations both pure and noble, which deserved well of God and the Truth. It happens that these faithful nations are unfortunately conquered and on the point of succumbing beneath the efforts of a people who are far inferior.

Captain Chaplain Father Emil Joseph Kapaun, US Army, celebrating Mass using the hood of a jeep as his altar, October 7, 1950. Fr. Kapaun served during World War II and then in the Korean War, where he was captured. He died in a prisoner of war camp. In 1993 he was declared Servant of God.

The Catholic philosophy of war is not embarrassed by this view. “These nations,” says she, “are punished for themselves or for others,” and this noble doctrine is easily applicable to individuals, and to the last of the soldiers who take part in the struggle. War is, in fact, a great means of expiation. “Cruel separations: a home quitted in tears; a family which no longer thinks of the absent ones; many physical ills; hunger, thirst, fatigue, and mortal wounds from which one dies by inches on the field of battle. Death at length. Death alone a hundred leagues from one’s home and friends. Death unconsoled.” The soldier who wishes to make expiation for himself or for others has only to choose amid so many sufferings, that which he can efficaciously offer to Heaven, and it is by such means that he merits so well the noble title of expiator which we need not comment on any further. As for war considered as the terrestrial preparation for the kingdom of God, we must refer to Bossuet and show, with him, how empires fall one upon another to form a foundation whereon to build the Church. But after Bossuet we must be silent.

Such is the “Catholic theory of war and of the soldier.” It was necessary to examine it plainly in the first pages of a volume dedicated to chivalry. We shall have no occasion to return to it.

León Gautier, Chivalry, trans. Henry Frith (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1891), 2–4.



Previous post:

Next post: