The Christian Soldier

The documents of Vatican II contain a wonderfully short and direct charter for the Christian citizen and soldier in chapter five of Gaudium et Spes (“The Church in the Modern World”). As in many other cases, it is a document more praised than read; and in the name of the “spirit of Vatican II” many Churchmen ignore or even contradict the tenets of the document. We must insist on adherence to its fundamentals. The document is characterized by a simplicity and subtle balance. It affirms quite simply the right and duty of a nation to maintain a military force; it also condemns quite forcefully the unjust and indiscriminate use of force. Yet in order to qualify and temper any tendency to simplistic solutions or slogans, the document strikes a subtle balance between national and international points of view, between force and non-violence, and between principle and prudential application.

Every Christian soldier should find encouragement in the following words: “Those who are pledged to the ser-vice of their country as members of its armed forces should regard themselves as agents of security and freedom on behalf of their people. As long as they fulfill their role properly, they are making a genuine contribution to the establishment of peace” (#79). The soldier can be a peacemaker; the pacifist does not have an exclusive claim to this title. This fundamental truth is rooted deeply in both empirical and moral judgment. Human affairs require some amount of force to maintain order and promote justice; violence must be restrained through force and its threat. The love of peace and justice require that such a force be maintained. The neglect of such matters is foolish and morally wrong. Thus the document states unequivocally that “governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense” and they have a “duty to protect the welfare of the people entrusted to their care” (#79). The military has a clear role in establishing peace by defending the nation from attack and deterring would-be aggressors.

This direct affirmation of the positive role of the soldier is balanced by the phrase, “as long as they pursue this role properly.” Blind obedience does not excuse unjust actions. The fundamental rule which must guide the actions of soldiers is that they avoid the direct killing of non-combatants. The document forbids the methodical extermination of peoples, nations or minorities (#79); and it condemns the indiscriminate destruction of cities and populated areas (#80). A soldier, an army, and a nation should acknowledge this principle in speech and deed. Restraint must be built into policy, rules of engagement, international agreements, and world opinion. The document further advises commanders and policy makers to “conduct such grave matters soberly.” Force should be used only as a last resort, i.e., “once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted” (#79). Further, they should see that military force is used for the “just defense of its people” and not for the “subjugation of other nations” (#79). The document simply lays out in its own fashion the elements of the “just war theory.” Military force should be used only for a just cause, as a last resort, in a discriminate fashion, and proportionate to the end. A framework for assessing the use of force is clearly laid out, with proper provisions made for practical judgment. Without a doubt the soldier has a critical role to play in the quest for peace.

The role of the military must be placed in a larger perspective. The soldier does not exist in isolation from the citizen, just as military strategy does not exist in isolation from political purpose. The document insists that peace cannot be reduced to a sheer balance of power, nor can it be brought about by dictatorship. Peace is “an enterprise of justice” (#78). The build-up of arms and the use of force does not produce a “steady peace” (#81). In fact, the causes of war gradually grow stronger and there emerges a unique hazard of total war: “those who possess modern scientific weapons are provided with a kind of occasion for perpetrating such abominations, and through an inexorable chain of events, it can urge men on to the most atrocious decisions” (#80). In light of this great risk and unsteady peace, the document takes an international perspective and encourages much greater international cooperation. In fact, it calls for “the establishment of some universal public authority acknowledged as such by all, and endowed with effective power to safeguard on behalf of all, security, regard for justice, and respect for rights” (#82). This is a tall order indeed and a high hope for the earthly city; it may not be realistically possible. But it does serve as an upward pull on the thoughts and actions of the citizens of each nation. It may help to check corporate selfishness and ambition and “nourish a respect for humanity as a whole” (#82). It can lead citizens to be honest in their appraisal of the causes of tension and war. The document mentions for our consideration “excessive economic inequalities, the quest for power, and contempt for personal rights” as injustices upon which wars thrive (#83). It also raises the problems caused by “excessive desire for profit, nationalistic pretensions, lust for political domination, militaristic thinking, and intrigues designed to impose and spread ideologies” (#85). These sources of disorder and injustice apply in different ways to different regimes and nations. Let each nation and its citizens examine themselves and do what must be done to rectify the unsteady peace.

The upward pull which serves to qualify the right and duty of a nation to self-defense is itself qualified by a sober realism. For example, the call for disarmament is not unilateral and must be “backed up by authentic and workable safeguards” (#82). Those who are willing to for-sake the use of force for non-violent solutions are praised only insofar as they do no “injury to the rights and duties of others or of the community itself” (#78). The work of peace actually extends beyond the order of justice and requires charity and love of neighbor (#78). And indeed, the deepest explanation for violence and war lies in “human jealousy, distrust, pride, and other egotistic passions” (#83). The real problem is human sinfulness and the solution divine redemption. So the document states that “insofar as men are sinful, the threat of war hangs over them, and hang over them it will until the return of Christ. But to the extent that men vanquish sin by the union of love, they will vanquish violence as well” (#78). The goal of true peace will be accomplished only in proportion to the advance of love. This is more an object and hope for prayer and grace than it is for political action as such. So we must not forget one of the fundamentals: “Certainly war has not been rooted out of human affairs. As long as the danger of war remains and there is no competent and sufficiently powerful authority at the international level, governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense” (#79).

How might this charter apply to American soldiers as they consider their role as Catholics in service of God and country? First, one should consider the role and purpose of the United States in the world today. On balance, American power is a force for good in the world. As Peter Berger says in his reflections on “Indochina and the American Conscience,” this is a sober proposition based on empirical realities of the contemporary world and not mindless nationalism. The desire for profit should not be allowed to deflect our dedication to right. Second, the soldier should be assured that strategic policy and rules of engagement do not contain provisions for the direct killing of non-combatants. Third, insofar as the document calls for greater international cooperation, the Catholic citizen must resist the American strain of isolationism and retreat. Alliances must be strengthened, not weakened. A generous but prudent pro-gram of economic assistance must be urged for the development of other nations. And finally, a Catholic citizen can do the most for establishing a true peace by nurturing the seeds of Christian culture. Genuine Christian education and spirituality will alone plant the seeds for any future harvest of peace and justice. And through solidarity with the universal Church we can best extend the hope of the gospel to all humanity.


John Hittinger is a professor in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St Thomas, Houston and the author of Liberty, Wisdom and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory. He is the founder and director of the Pope John Paul II Forum for the Church in the Modern World and president of the International Catholic University, founded by Ralph McInerny (1929-2010), the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He is also developing a MA in John Paul II studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.