But for Just War, the West Would Be Muslim, Pagan, or Barbarian

August 22, 2019

St. Maximus presents to the people of Turin the Icon of the Madonna Consolata.

During the centuries which separated those two giants of the Christian ages, St. Augustine and St. Thomas, one is witness of acts which may appear strange to an impartial observer. The Church, in its canons issued by its councils, continued to manifest at intervals its profound horror of war, while in the writings of its teachers it encourages soldiers who are really Christians. Nothing is more logical nor more consistent than this, and no one has ever known how better to reconcile the interests of the absolute and those of the relative. “War is bad, but since it is inevitable, one must justify those who make war honestly, and simply for the advancement of the right.” In the fifth century St. Maximus, of Turin, did not hesitate to break away from his former hesitancy, and declare that there was nothing blamable in military service. A deacon who was an ornament to the Church at Carthage in the sixth century, Fulentius Ferrandus, permits himself to lay down this rule for a Christian general: “Love the Commonwealth as thyself, and let thy life be as a mirror in which thy soldiers can see their duty clearly.”

Pope St. Nicholas I

St. Gregory the Great, who died at the commencement of the seventh century, addressed one of his beautiful epistles to the soldiers at Naples, and told them their principal virtue should be obedience. It was to the most military and most manly nation of its age—to the Franks—that St. Leo IV addressed in the ninth century, this most manly and military language directed against the enemies of the Christian faith: “Have no fear. Think of your fathers. Whatever the number of their enemies, those warriors were always victorious.” And the Pope added, “To him who dies in such a battle God will open the gates of Heaven.” Does not one seem to hear in advance a couplet of Roland? Some years later, in 865, the Bulgarians consulted St. Nicholas I on the disputed question, “Is it lawful to make war during Lent?” And the Sovereign Pontiff replied in words which might serve as the motto of our book, “War is always devilish in its origin, and we should always abstain from it. But if we cannot avoid it, we must wage it in self-defense, in defense of our country and of our laws, no doubt we may make preparations for it, even in Lent.” Pierre Damien is scarcely less decided in his language, for about the time when an unknown poet was dedicating our most ancient epic poem to the memory of the glorious disaster of Roncevaux, he branded with infamy all refugees and deserters. At the Lateran council in 1189, the Church, which still detests war and endeavors to mitigate it, forbade the too murderous use of the bow and the arbalest in all battle between Christians. But she cannot kill war itself, and so endeavors in every way to impart to the combatants a high and proper spirit.

Battle of Roncevaux Pass

“In the eyes of a soldier,” says Hildebert, “it is not death which is terrible, but dishonor!” Observe that the Christian theory of war becomes more precise from day to day, and calculate, if you can, the progress it has made since the Council of Arles. The features of chivalry are becoming more distinct. The outline has become a drawing with accentuated lines, and this will in time become a richly colored picture. In fact, the day is breaking in which we shall see suddenly founded those grand orders, at once religious and military. And to whom do they go for advise regarding the management of the most celebrated of these orders? To a monk, to a cenobite, to a saint who has left his name upon the age in which he lived, St. Bernard! The great Cistercian, the White Friar, at once set to work and wrote his famous letter to the Knights of the Temple, which may pass for the most daring contribution to the subject:

“They can fight the battles of the Lord, and can be of a surety the soldiers of Christ. Let them kill the enemy or die. They need have no fear! To submit to die for Christ or to cause His enemies to submit to death, is nought but glory, it is no crime! Besides it is not without a reason that the soldier of Christ carries a sword. It is for the chastisement of the wicked, and for the glory of the good. If it bring death to the malefactor, the soldier is not a homicide, but—excuse the word—a malicide! And we must recognize in him the avenger who is in the service of Christ, and the liberator of the Christian people.”

One can scarcely go beyond this, and Joseph de Maistre himself does not appear more audacious if we compare him to the preacher of the first crusade. But John of Salisbury, about the same time, condenses this doctrine into a typical sentence which has often been repeated—sometimes exaggerated: “The military profession, as praiseworthy as it is necessary, was instituted by God himself.” This is the end of our journey across the centuries, and we may believe that John of Salisbury has overshot the mark. “Instituted” may seem to be too strong a term, and war is after all only an evil, an evil which the Church is forced to tolerate, and which God ordains shall swell the triumph of the good.

Joseph-Marie de Maistre, comte de Maistre

If one wishes to reduce it to the proportions which Saint Augustine gave it, such a doctrine is a truly wise one. For, as a mater of fact, from the termination of the persecution to the epoch of the Crusades, the Church has never believed in its right to cry halt to war. During those Iron Ages she was not able to, and she did not, condemn any but intestine struggles and private wars. Could she—ought she—to have prevented Clovis from founding, by his heroic struggles against the Alemanni and the Goths, that grand Frankish unity which was to be so favorable to the great Christian unity? Could she—ought she—to have detained Charles Martel when he was hurrying to Poitiers to preserve not only France, but all the Christian Western world from the Eastern barbarian? Could she—ought she—to have strangled the ardor of Pepin, who so energetically prepared all his son’s wars; and should she have stopped him on the road to Italy, whither he was proceeding to give to the throne of St. Peter the temporal support of which it had need? Could she—ought she—to have bound down the two powerful arms of Charlemagne, who with one hand hurled back the Mussulmans across the Ebro, and with the other strangled German paganism? Could she—ought she—in face of the incessant menaces of Islam, advocate the insensate doctrine of those Albigenses, who declared that they would consider as homicides all preachers of the Crusade against the Saracens?


I appeal to the most determined advocates of peace, and I beg them to reply honestly to these questions. Is it not true that without all the wars favored by the Church, we would be today Mussulmans, pagans, barbarians? Is it not true that, without them, France would not even have had the liberty to gain its existence?

Battle of Tours with a triumphant Charles Martel (mounted) facing Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi (right).

Not being able to prevent war, the Church has Christianized the soldier. And so we are logically  led to elucidate the origin of this chivalry, which on a former page we have termed “a German custom idealized by the Church.”


León Gautier, Chivalry, trans. Henry Frith (London: George Routledge and Sons, Ltd., 1891), 8–11.


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