Stephen Estes

Blessed Are the Peacemakers: What Makes a Just War?

We think a lot about war these days. Turn on the national news, it’s constant – this country is invading that country, someone committed a war crime, the tensions are rising between two other countries. It never seems to end. Somehow, we’ve got ourselves into a crazy mess – and, sadly this has basically been the situation since civilization began.

However, we have to be careful not to think of peace as unnatural and war as natural simply because war is more common. Even though there may not be a single perfectly healthy person in the world, disease still isn’t the natural thing. This thought is difficult because today almost every nation has a prepared military, tons of weapons, and complete plans of strategy etc. Normally, we don’t even consider the possibility that in a properly functioning society, we wouldn’t need war – we just expect it.

So, for my mathematical friends: peace = good. Remember, Jesus said “blessed are the peacemakers” – the Christian has the duty to seek peace in every scenario.

But war is happening, and in the midst of it, we have to remember to keep all the soldiers in our prayers, and to constantly support troops that are putting their lives on the line for freedom and peace. Some of these soldiers are our loved ones: friends, family, spouses – and if this is the case, war hits even closer to home for you.

Since peace is the best scenario, yet war is happening and every soldier is someone’s loved one, it becomes extremely important for us to ask questions about war: is all war bad? Is there any point at which war is justified (morally okay) or even necessary? What about soldiers who are fighting in war – is that okay?

The arguments over this question go back to the earliest of civilizations because no reasonable government will send people to kill and be killed without at least believing they have a good reason. It is important to realize that war is not intrinsically evil, meaning it is not morally wrong in every scenario. A country has the right to do what it needs to keep itself in existence, functioning properly, and protect itself, and there may be situations in which the only way a country can do this is by war.

St. Augustine said that a country may go to war in order to achieve or keep peace (Ep. ad Bonif. clxxxix.) – it may seem contradictory, but sometimes the only way for a country to maintain peace, is by going to war. The arguments over what situations make it okay or necessary to go to war are the beginnings of what is called just war theory.

St. Augustine coined the term “Just War” in his book The City of God and St. Thomas Aquinas give the basics for the Just War Doctrine (Summa Theologica, Q 40), which is the Catholic Church’s teaching on when and how a country can fight in a war (CCC 2309). The Just War Doctrine teaches us that even though war is not intrinsically wrong, it is only okay under certain conditions. It has four main points:

1. War must be declared by lawful authority.

We must remember the fifth commandment – “thou shalt not kill,” and war involves death; this fact cannot be avoided. In order for a war to happen justly there must be a very serious reason. This can’t be left up to just anyone’s opinion, but the government or ruling group must take the authority to decide whether or not it is time for war.

2. War must have a just cause.

It would be impossible to list all the reasons that a nation could go to war. An important one is self-defense: just as if someone ran up and attacked you on the street, you would have the right to fight back – so does a country.

A second reason might be if a country chooses to help a group who is getting persecuted: just as it would be the morally good thing to help someone who is getting beaten-up by a mob on a street corner, it is also just for a country to help.

St. Augustine also says that punishing an evil and retrieving stolen goods are just reasons for war. But, glory, envy, personal spites, power etc. all are never acceptable reasons to wage war. If there is a just cause for war, there are a few other points to be considered:

  • There must be more good accomplished by war than evil that
    will come with the war. Since war is a horrible thing, only the most
    serious cases can make it okay.
  • War must be the last resort. A country must have attempted
    every peaceful measure possible, otherwise there is no way to prove
    that a war was unavoidable.
  • There must be a good chance of success. To fight a war with no
    chance of victory would be to cause harm, damage, and even death
    for no purpose.
  • The cause must be made public. The country has the obligation
    to let its citizens know its reasons for going to war.

3. Must have the right intention for going to war.

Even though a country may have a just cause for war, it still may fight the war for the wrong reasons. It is possible that a country may simply use the just cause as an excuse to go to war for other purposes. Bad intentions can always spoil something that seems good. For instance, donating money to the poor is a good thing, but if one donates money in order to receive praise from other people, it was not morally good.

4. Right use of means.

A war may have a just cause, and be fought with the right intention; however; it could be morally wrong because of the way it is fought. This involves a number of issues; however, the most important is that civilians (those not fighting in battle) should never be the direct victim of attack. The extermination of an entire city, vast area, people, or nation is always immoral (CCC 2313-2314) and this is especially important today because of the new weapons that countries have at their disposal. Certain other issues are involved such as the right treating of war prisoners and wounded soldiers.

If the above criteria are met, it is possible that there is a just war. As for the question about soldiers in war: the Catechism says of soldiers who fight justly in war: “if they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.” (CCC 2311) Therefore, military personnel who fight justly are a service to society. Civilians need to remember that the battlefield is a very stressful place and soldiers can’t always carry an ethics textbook in one of their hands. As they fight, we must constantly ask God to guide them and their decisions.

We continue to pray for our national leaders to seek peaceful solutions to conflict, reflecting on the words of Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44). In working work for peace, we must constantly pray for both our enemies and our soldiers, realizing the true battle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers of darkness (Ephesians 6:12).

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Stephen Estes

About the Author

In middle school, people thought I would play baseball for the rest of my life. In high school, people thought I would be in detention for the rest of my life. In undergrad, no one had any clue what I would do for the rest of my life. Then I fell in love with Jesus and now I will try and make Him famous for the rest of my life. I speak, I write, and I make weird faces at people in public – they generally all get the same response. I come from St. Louis, but I now live in Steubenville and study theology at Franciscan University. I love reading, the outdoors, biking, playing music, and staring at the stars or water while thinking for abnormal amounts of time.