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Ten thing Catholics need to know about war

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As conflict looms, we need to understand the Catholic teaching on war.

As Catholics, we are called to act differently. We are called to see things with wisdom, that is, to see things as God does. War is a difficult topic, charged with emotion; anger, fear, hatred, sorrow, but also patriotism, pride, and defiance. These are natural human emotions. How should we respond as Catholics? The following is not intended as commentary or critique for current events. Instead, this is a summary of the Social Doctrine of the Church (see: 497-520) so each Catholic may proceed with an informed conscience. Reading of the source material is strongly encouraged for a comprehensive understanding. Those with further questions should consult their pastor. 

What does the Church teach about war?

What does the Church teach about war?


By Marshall Connolly (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
Catholic Online (
1/6/2020 (2 months ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: Catholic, war, conflict, Middle East, Social Doctrine

LOS ANGELES, CA (California Network) - As the prospect of conflict looms in the Middle East, Catholics must make up their mind how to approach the news and information that will be presented to them. It is impossible to predict precisely how large or terrible the conflict may become. Cooler heads may prevail and the conflict could de-escalate. Or, it could grow quickly out of control as World War I did, following the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary. In any case, Catholics should be reminded what the Church teaches on the matter of war. 

1. The Magisterium condemns the savagery of war and asks that war be considered in a new way. 

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church teaches that war is a scourge. In the current atomic age, war cannot be an instrument of justice. War creates new, more complicated conflicts. It is the failure of humanism. The damage is both material and moral, and it is a defeat for humanity. (497)

2. Seeking alternative solutions to war for resolving international conflicts has taken on tremendous urgency today. (498)

The Compendium speaks of the destructive power even small nations now possess, and the close links between people in the modern age. These factors make alternatives to war critical, since tremendous harm can be done with ease. Instead of conflict, we are directed to seek the underlying causes of conflict, structural injustice, poverty, and exploitation. We must promote development instead of conflict. This means all people should be included in the benefits of peace and growth. 

3. States should come together to organize for defense, but more importantly to work together to resolve conflicts. We must develop trust and understanding so as to make war unthinkable. (499)

4. All wars of aggression are intrinsically immoral. Leaders have the right and duty to organize a defense of their people. But there are conditions to consider. The threat of damage must be lasting, grave, and certain. All other means of ending the conflict must be impractical or ineffective, success must be possible, and the use of force should not create a yet greater evil. The goal should be self-defense, and not subjugation of others. Political and military objectives should not be the aim of war. And even in spite of a state of war, nations should not proceed as though all is fair. (500)

5. The right to self defense must be limited by necessity and proportionality. Preventative or preemptive wars fought without proof of imminent danger, are immoral. (501)

6. While nations have armed forces, those personnel should be employed in the service of peace, providing both security and ensuring freedom. (502)

7. All members of the armed services have a moral obligation to resist orders which are criminal in nature, violating the law of nations and the universal principles of law. In other words, there exists an obligation to conduct oneself morally, even in time of war, and to resist criminal orders. (503)

8. We have a duty to protect the innocent, especially those who cannot defend themselves. This includes those living in a nation considered hostile. Humanitarian law must be respected. Aid must reach those who require it, with the good of the human person taking precedence over the interests of the warring parties. Those who commit crimes in time of war must answer both to humanity and to God. (504-506)

9. Sanctions are acceptable when they are reasonably applied. Disarmament should be sought, especially with weapons which have great destructive potential. The accumulation of weapons as a means of deterrence is always, ultimately, counterproductive. (507-510)

10. Terrorism is especially wrong, and to declare oneself a terrorist in the name of God is blasphemous. Nations and people have a right to defend themselves against terrorism, but they are still bound by moral and legal norms, and human rights. Criminal responsibility for terrorism must be assigned individually, and not to groups of people, especially national, religious, or ethnic groups. Where terrorist occurs, a careful study of the causes behind it is essential to developing the means to end it peacefully. (513-515)

It should be noted these ten points outlined above are a lay summary of the teaching in the Compendium, and interested Catholics ought to read the sections for themselves and seek additional instruction from a qualified and faithful teacher. 

Naturally, these requirements are strict and under them it is difficult to argue that any war in human history has ever been just. Certainly, there have been conflicts in which one side has justly responded, only for both parties to subsequently engage in unjust activity. Such is the nature of war. Given this, the Church seeks to minimize the danger, duration and impact of conflict, promoting peaceful resolution as the only reasonable means of dealing with conflicts between nations. 

To be clear, all have the right to self-defense and to respond proportionally to aggression, so as to neutralize genuine threats. However, these rights are limited and come with responsibilities when exercised. 

Let us pray for peace and an end to conflict. Let us pray for justice and an end to terrorism and the conditions from which it grows. Let us pray for safety and well-being for all people, that nations develop in peace and prosperity, and that war becomes an anachronism as we learn to coexist.

As Christians, we have an example to set, and can do much to promote the cause of peace. 


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