During the just completed Memorial Day Weekend there were ceremonies across the country honoring Americans who had died in the service of our country. By coincidence I was reading Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity Volume One  over the holiday and came across his treatment of St. Augustine’s “just war theory,” which has been the backbone of Catholic moral teaching on warfare for nearly fifteen hundred years.
Augustine [354-430 A.D.] was Bishop of Hippo, a major North African diocese until it was overrun by the Vandals shortly after his death, and by the Moslems two centuries later. [And yes, our English word “vandal” is a derivative of this invader’s behavior in Rome around 450 A.D.] By 700 A.D. all traces of Christianity in North Africa had disappeared. However, it was not the encroaching Vandal threat that prompted Augustine’s treatise on war, but rather, a violent incursion between two populations of Christians along the North African Coast—the Christian Community faithful to the teachings of the Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed, on the one hand, and a violent dissenting group known as Donatists on the other. Donatists held that sacraments conferred by clergy who had avoided martyrdom during the Roman persecutions were invalid. In practice, this meant that every sitting Orthodox bishop in North Africa, including Augustine himself, was not, in fact, a legitimate bishop, according to Donatist thinking, as they had been ordained by cowardly bishops who had lost their right of jurisdiction.
To correct this error, Augustine established the sacramental principle of ex opere operato, i.e., “by the work of the work.” Put simply, a sacrament—including holy orders—is always valid so long as the correct formula is used, the rite approved by the Church. The sacraments are always valid no matter how unworthy the deacon, priest, or bishop. This doctrine was later challenged in the 1500’s by Protestant reformers, who held the principle of ex operate operantis, i.e., “by the work of the one doing the work.” Luther and others held that the priest’s holiness determined the validity of the sacraments. This was an understandable sentiment in Luther’s day when corruption of the papacy was rampant, but Augustine’s position is the teaching still held today in Catholic tradition.
This dispute lingered for over a century, as the Donatists became more radical and apocalyptic. Its extreme adherents physically engaged in bloody combat with mainstream Christians. Augustine understood the need for military defense, but for most of its history Christianity had been a pacifist community. Thus, there was a need to circumscribe the rationale and rules of combat for Christian conflict, and Augustine formulated the backbone of “just war.” As subsequent religious and secular histories have shown, these rules could be stretched like taffy, but they have survived, nonetheless.
Augustine’s first principle was that a war must be just, and never to satisfy territorial ambition or as an exercise of power. Second, war must be waged by properly instituted authority. Third, and most importantly to Augustine, amid violence the motive of love must be central. [Gonzalez, p. 248] In the Donatist struggle, Augustine could argue that these dissidents did not represent authorized Church authority. It was also true that Augustine hoped to win them back to the fold by a loving yet forceful counter-intervention, though it was hardly his first choice.
In the Medieval Era St. Thomas Aquinas elaborated the rules of war around Augustine’s principles. In his Summa Theologica Aquinas also argues for three requirements. Firstly, the war must be waged upon the command of a rightful sovereign—a king or a churchman. Secondly, the war needs to be waged for just cause, on account of some wrong the attacked have committed. Thirdly, warriors must have the right intent, namely, to promote good and to avoid evil. These three rules are virtually synonymous with Augustine’s. But Aquinas goes on to say that a just war could be offensive, and that injustice should not be tolerated to avoid war; in other words, it would be immoral not to engage in war if an evil was of a significant magnitude. Nevertheless, he argued that violence must only be used as a last resort. On the battlefield, violence was only justified to the extent it was necessary. Soldiers needed to avoid cruelty and a just war was limited by the conduct of just combatants. Aquinas argued that it was only in the pursuit of justice that the good intention of a moral act could justify negative consequences, including the killing of the innocent during a war.
A thorough history of the Church through the ages indicates that these principles were not bulwarks against violence, and that in many instances churchmen themselves construed the Augustinian-Thomistic principles into their own advantages. Popes of the medieval era understood “the good of the Church” and the intention of love as inherent to the sovereignty of the papal office, i.e., an extension of power. Pope Innocent III [r. 1198-1216] intervened politically and militarily in the affairs of at least a dozen nascent civil states as far away as Bulgaria to centralize all European power—civil and religious—into the office of the successor of St. Peter. His future successor Boniface VIII issued history’s most famous or infamous—but certainly the most audacious—position paper of all time, Unam Sanctam [‘one, holy”] as the ultimate claim of universal papal power. Wikipedia describes it thus:
Unam Sanctam is a papal bull that was issued by Pope Boniface VIII on 18 November 1302. It laid down dogmatic propositions on the unity of the Catholic Church, the necessity of belonging to it for eternal salvation, the position of the Pope as supreme head of the Church and the duty thence arising of submission to the Pope to belong to the Church and thus to attain salvation. The Pope further emphasized the higher position of the spiritual in comparison with the secular order. The historian Brian Tierney calls it "probably the most famous" document on church and state in medieval Europe…The bull was the definitive statement of the late medieval theory of hierocracy, which argued for the temporal as well as spiritual supremacy of the pope.
It was the greatest claim of universal papal power ever made, before or since, at least on Vatican letterhead stationery. Innocent III might have written such a claim with teeth a century before. But Boniface himself was seized and maltreated by Philip IV of France just before his death, Philip undaunted by the claims of Unam Sanctam. However, the attitude of ultimate authority held by Boniface’s successors in terms of both religious and secular orders endured as late as 1870. The claim to such expanse of power would inevitably conflict with the Augustinian-Aquinas rules of combat at several points. In the first instance, the Church was claiming to be the ultimate legitimate authority in matters of both altar and crown, virtually justifying any exercise of power and authority to utilize its considerable forces and resources. Second, as the sole organism of salvation, the Church could claim to be acting in love in the exercise of making converts or bringing wayward souls back into the fold. Judge and jury, so to speak.
As painful as it is to admit, Church conduct through the centuries has not contributed to the development of a theology of peace. Rather than repeat the details of the moral failures of the Crusades, the Inquisitions, and the forced conversions and submissions of indigenous peoples in the Americas and elsewhere, it may be more useful to look at possible causes for these moral lapses and how the Church can recover its credibility in teaching and preaching on peace.
There can be little argument that the Church lost something of its identity in the fourth century when circumstances changed its identity from communities of the poor who gathered to recollect the teachings of Jesus and break bread, to the monarchical church of the Roman Empire. The early Church, as noted, was pacifist because its eucharists were strongly centered around the memory of Jesus, whose Resurrection blessing had been “My peace I give to you, my peace I leave with you.” The early Christians were reminded over and over of Jesus’ response to Peter when the latter drew his sword and cut off the servant’s ear at Jesus’ arrest. “Put thy sword back in into its scabbard.”
As Christianity took on more of the trappings of a world empire, its focus turned from its charismatic roots to a large body invested in law and order—whether that be the order of high liturgy in the elegant temples of Rome, the development of an infallible creed and code of law, a structure of governance, or a basis for legitimacy. Among those things that declined through the first millennium and well into the second was the memory of the actual Jesus of Nazareth and the full content of the Gospel narratives.
In fact, by the time of Francis of Assisi [1181-1226 A.D.] there was something of an ecclesiastical distrust of the “stand alone Bible” and Francis’s biography may explain at least part of it. He was no subversive—he loved the Church—but he instinctively recognized the gulf between Scripture and Church life of his day. [The Council of IV Lateran, in 1215, is remembered for, among other things, mandating that all Catholics must receive communion once a year, hardly a high bar in communion with the personal Jesus.] Francis’s desire was to live the poverty and meekness of Christ word for word from the Gospel, an idea that originally stunned Innocent III as impossible—or deeply embarrassing, or both. Innocent did ultimately approve of this Franciscan Gospel lifestyle. As more laity followed Francis in what would eventually be called “the third order” [St. Clare’s cloistered women’s order of Franciscan ideals being the “second order”], the Franciscan movement embraced pacifism because this was how Jesus himself had lived. In fact, civil authorities bemoaned the absence of soldiers to fight the city-state wars, so deeply had Franciscan pacifism penetrated European Church life after Francis.
The Inquisition did not trouble Francis, given his close association with popes and the deep love of the populace for Franciscan ideals. After his death, the radical element of the Order, the Spiritual Franciscans, came under scrutiny for denying papal authority over interpretation of the Franciscan Rule. In the late 1200’s St. Bonaventure gradually eased the Franciscan life into more conventual clerical norms. The Spiritual Franciscans were ostracized and the frequent targets of Inquisitorial prosecution until the group virtually vanished in the 1300’s.
However, from Francis until the Reformation three centuries later, there arose other religious movements in Europe which turned from the highly structured and academic life of the mainstream Church to a simpler, more devout, and Christo-centric religious experience. Collectively referred to as the Devotio Moderna or the Via Moderna, it produced a pious return to the person of Jesus and his lifestyle. One of its most famous literary products is The Imitation of Christ, written around 1425 by Thomas a Kempis. [See Wikipedia’s excellent description of the work.] The Imitation is considered the greatest spiritual work after the Bible: it was a critical text in the lives of St. Ignatius Loyola, St. Theresa of the Little Flower, Pope John XXIII, and Thomas Merton, to cite several---and my only true inspiration during my early years in the seminary, I might add.
Adherents to the Devotio Moderna were always under the scrutiny of the Inquisition, given that a collective cultivation of personal religious experience of Jesus could be taken as a kind of democratization of the Gospels—access to the Word without the intervention of Church supervision. The idea of “personal spirituality” without structural link to an official Church organ was novel and suspect—particularly as its adherents usually embraced in some shape or form virtues of simplicity, humility, poverty, and peacefulness, qualities often lacking in medieval Catholicism. Even today, the Catholic who embraces a pacifist ethic based upon the life of Jesus in the Scripture is regarded as something of a “subversive,” particularly in an American culture of power; American exceptionalism can bear a striking resemblance to Boniface VIII’s claim of universal sovereignty, while running many of the same risks.
By the time of the discovery of the Americas and the rise of nationalism in Europe and elsewhere, the Church enjoyed less control over the conduct of nations and the ethics of war. The twentieth century—with the horrors of two world wars, the Holocaust, and the first use of the atomic bomb—exponentially increased the urgency of the Church’s ministry for peace, and it was this catastrophic half-century that motivated in large part the calling of Vatican II.
We began this reflection with Augustine’s efforts to concoct a concrete ethic of just war. It is worth noting here that Augustine also provided the Church with the theological language of original sin and its damage to the human spirit that we still employ today. One can guess that Augustine’s writings on just war were penned with the knowledge that humanity’s fallen state makes the idea of a violence-free world an impossibility before the Second Coming. Augustine’s own baptism, by the future saint, Ambrose of Milan, took place with imperial soldiers surrounding the structure, threatening an invasion. But Augustine also wrote that history is not static, but rather, that it moves inexorably to its final climax of Christ’s Second Coming. In fact, the term “Middle Ages” was first coined to describe where in time the Christian lives, between the first and second comings of the Christ.
Gonzalez notes in his history of Christianity that most converts to baptism in the early centuries came to the faith not by extraordinary missionary efforts but by the sincere and determined example of the baptized in their midst’s. When the faith is lived lively and well at the grass roots, the seeds of Christ’s peace are sown. We live as peacemakers that, when the Lord comes again, he may find us faithfully sowing the seeds of his peace.