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There is a romantic wistfulness for the pacifist cause. Last year’s Mel Gibson’s excellent film Hacksaw Ridge depicted the heroic actions of Desmond Doss, a Seventh Day Adventist who conscientiously objected to taking up a firearm during World War II. Gary Cooper played World War I pacifist sharpshooter Alvin York in the highest grossing film of 1941, Sergeant York.
Part of the wistfulness may be rooted in the desire for some ideal “Super-Christian” who is so profoundly devoted to the Prince of Peace that he refuses to arm himself against any threats from a violent aggressor. He rather leaves his fate to God’s will, a kind of Gandhian striving for absolute non-violence.
But Catholics cannot be pacifists, at least not at the level of principle or doctrine.
I got a letter from a listener to my show recently. The gentleman chided me because I advocated the killing of ISIS combatants, and he wrote with sadness that “he would become a Catholic except that the Catholic Church justifies war.”
Better a sad non-Catholic than a compromised Catholic. For the Church does not sanction pacifism and has a rich tradition known as just war doctrine (not, as some put it, “just war theory”) The conditions for a just war are laid down in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, starting in no. 2308.
Pacifists often turn to the Fifth Commandment to justify their position, asking, “What part of Thou Shalt Not Kill is hard to understand?” The key here is, the Hebrew word for kill in the Fifth Commandment is ratsach, which means murder, not kill per se. Otherwise, Israel sinned gravely by going to war against her enemies, and by administering capital punishment, which God set forth in the Law of Moses for 36 offenses against God and man.
Turning to the New Testament, our Lord Himself pointed to the military chain of command as a symbol of the obedience of faith when He praised the faith of the centurion in Matthew 8:10. Remember that the centurion was the representative of the oppressive occupiers of Israel.
In Luke 14:31, Jesus relates a parable in which a king is advised to make sure he’s ready before taking on a larger army. “Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?”
In Luke 22:16, He tells His apostles in effect to bear arms: “Let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one.” He says this at the approach of His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, where we particularly remember Jesus’ line from Matthew 26:52, “those who love by the sword shall perish by the sword,” which He says after the disciple cuts off the slave’s ear.
But note the slight variation in Luke’s rendering, which doesn’t contradict Matthew, but adds information:
“And when those who were about him saw what would follow, they said, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?” And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. Then Jesus said to the chief priests and officers of the temple and elders, who had come out against him, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs?” (Luke 22:49-52).
A pacifist might look at Jesus’ sharp rebuke, “No more of this!” as a prohibition against the use of swords in self-defense. But that’s not what our Lord said. He never condemns previous uses of lethal force, never scolds the disciples for wanting to defend their Master. He simply, at this critical moment in the Garden, turns His face to the events of the next day and offers healing to the slave’s ear—a scene rendered so movingly in another Gibson masterpiece, The Passion of the Christ).
And notice, too, the question Jesus poses to the band of Temple guards and elders, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs?” This strongly implies that swords and clubs are the ordinary means of dealing with robbers, i.e., not by the tenets of pacifism.
And who is more peaceful than Jesus Christ?
While we’re thinking about force, and protection, let’s bring to mind our military men and women overseas, and our brave law enforcement professions here at home, and ask God to protect and strengthen them.
They deserve someone to have their back, even if spiritually in a prayer of protection and gratitude.