Editor’s note: This article was published in the March 2023 issue of the North Star Catholic.
Dear Fr. Leo,
Can a Christian be in the military? What about the fifth commandment?
The quick answer is, “Yes, but only for the right reasons.” Christian soldiers do not wage war indiscriminately. Rather, they are the agents of peace in the maintenance of legitimate self-defense.
The question is one of the oldest moral conundrums in the Church. It came to the fore in the early 4th century soon after the emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 A.D. By the beginning of the 5th century, Christianity was the official religion of the Empire. Things came to a head after the pagan armies sacked Rome in 410 A.D.
Many had written on the subject before, but it was St. Augustine, in his classic work on religion and civil society, The City of God, who gave us the definitive articulation. Augustine said that Christians actually make the best soldiers because they only fight in just wars. Augustine’s articulation of what constitutes a just war still sets the context for public policy today. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2302-2317, Safeguarding Peace.) The taking up of arms for legitimate self-defense is only justified if all of the following conditions are met:
– The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
– All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
– There must be serious prospects of success;
– The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. (CCC, par. 2309).
The catechism goes on to say that only those with legitimate authority, namely, national governments, have the responsibility of determining if these conditions are met. By the same token, governments may impose upon their citizens the obligations of defense. In times of national crisis, they can draft people into military service. In doing so, “Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.” (CCC, par. 2310)
At the same time the Church is very clear that governments must also make allowances for those who in conscience cannot take up arms. However, “these are nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way.” (CCC, par. 2311)
In sum, Christians can and do serve honorably in the armed services, but they do so, not as “hawks” or aggressors, but under certain conditions and according to a strict moral code. Nations have a legitimate right to self-defense, but war is always the last resort when all other peaceful means of resolution of conflict have been exhausted. In the meantime, we all have an obligation to work actively to build up a more peaceful world, in our homes, in our parishes, our schools, and our communities so that armed conflict becomes not only unnecessary but truly unthinkable.
Dear Fr. Leo,
Why is only Pontius Pilate named for his role in Christ’s crucifixion in our creed? Why are the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes who persecuted, plotted, and paid blood money for Christ’s crucifixion not named?
That’s a good question. In fact, we could even take it even a step further. Why not name all of us other sinners as well? If you think about, we all had a role to play in the sufferings of Christ. That being said, I like the distinction you make that it was the religious authorities at that time, and not the whole Jewish people, who had a central role in the Passion of Christ.
But in point of fact, the wording of the Nicene Creed has less to do with what went on at the time of Jesus than what was going on at the time the Creed was written. When the bishops met at Nicaea in 325 A.D, they were faced with the first major dogmatic crisis in the Church. The priest, Arius, a good Greek well-versed in the Greek philosophers, could not get his head around the notion that Jesus was truly human and truly divine. As a result, he rejected the divinity of Christ. He gained quite a following and caused much confusion and conflict in the Church. To resolve the matter, the emperor called a Council. Long story short, with the help of St. Leo the Great, the council fathers affirmed that while truly human, Christ was at the same time “of the same substance” as the Father. Furthermore, it was the whole Christ, not just half of him, who redeemed us by his suffering on the Cross, and who glorified us by his resurrection. I suspect that since Pilate was the legitimate Roman authority who gave the order, he was named in the Creed as a way of including all those involved. And, if you think about it, all of us are included a little earlier in the Creed with the phrase “For us … and for our salvation, he came down from heaven.” Thanks for the question!