On Catholics and Peace: Augustine and the Just War


The next few post come from a project I worked on earlier this year detailing the history and concepts of Catholic peace theory.  I plan to release this in a few parts and I hope you find it informational and possibly spiritual.  This weeks post is an introduction and description of the basis for all Catholic peace theory, St. Augustine.

Famous for his writings, including Confessions and City of God, St. Augustine created the basis for the concept of “just war theory,” or how we can determine whether or not a war is right and just.  A detailed bibliography will be appended to the last post of this series so you to can review the Church documents that I am citing as well as the writings from the saints.

The Catholic tradition on war and peace is  long and complex , reaching from the Sermon on the Mount to the statements from Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.  While the traditions are long standing, there is no papal document entitled “Peace Theory,” nor is there any Sacred Scripture outlining Jesus’ teaching on war and peace.  However, the prescription of peace from the Church is clear when Scripture is examined in the context of lay organizations and their writings, encyclicals, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Using these writings, we can determine the timeline of Catholic peace theory and can understand what the church teaches regarding just and unjust war, nuclear proliferation, and social justice.  

This work will begin with the writings, analysis, and examples of Saint Augustine’s just war theory; continue with the end of the Great War and the rise of Catholic peace organizations in the United States; the atomic bomb and the Church’s teachings on nuclear non-proliferation and the use of “scientific weapons;” and end with the 21st century and Pope Francis.

For the segment on the atomic bomb, I will be referring heavily to the 1982 pastoral letter entitled The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response; various papal encyclicals, including Pacem in Terris; and documents from the Second Vatican Council, including the pastoral constitution, Gaudium et Spes.

Even though war is prevalent in the Old Testament and Jesus tells us to love one another in the New, Catholic peace theory is more complex than just those words.  The pontificates have constantly reminded us to look at the dignity of the human person and remind ourselves that this earth does not belong to us but to God, Himself.


Augustine and the Just War

Saint Augustine of Hippo is widely regarded as the person who developed the concept of just war theory., His idea is traditionally split into two different categories: jus ad bellum (having a just reason for the war) and jus in bello (the moral boundaries during the war).  These two categories carry through to today are especially described in the charter of the United Nations.

Jus ad bellum can be described as the reason for having the war.  It is translated literally from the Latin as “the right to war.”  Jus ad bellum must be a justifiable cause.  Some examples of this include the defense of the innocent, the recovery of property wrongly taken, or the punishment of evil.  These examples all come to the defense of a group of people and protect them from possible genocide or enslavement.   Jus ad bellum also includes the ideas that war can only be waged by a competent authority, as a last resort, and only by a public declaration.  In addition, peace must also be the ultimate objective of the war.

Today, as defined by the United Nations and other relevant international governmental organizations, the just cause of a war can only be defense; otherwise, war is outlawed.  The charter of the United Nations states this explicitly:

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

Because war is no longer legal, unless it is in defense, we must consider the fact that the jus ad bello can only be applicable to one side of the conflict.  If State A invades State B for the sake of claiming State B’s territory, State B is justified in defending itself. Since State A has invaded State B and has violated its sovereignty, it is therefore is not justified in its actions.  

Jus in bello is literally translated as “the right in war” or to have justice during the war.  To be in the right during the war, the state must fight the war in a moral and civil manner.  One part of this principle is the concept of proportionality. The defending party may only use the minimum amount of force required to defend themselves; this force may not exceed the force used by the instigator.  This applies to the number of soldiers and weapons.  Secondly, the just party must distinguish from combatants and non-combatants.  Anyone who is considered not part of the war effort is a non-combatant.

In my previous example where State A has invaded State B to claim State B’s territory, State B has an obligation to follow the rules of just war.  They must only fight the soldiers of the war and avoid harming civilians. They also may only fight with the same strength and force that State A is using.  Since State A has already violated the laws and rules of jus ad bello, there is no reason to expect that they will follow rule of jus in bello.

More recently, philosophers, theologians, and political scientists have come up with a third criterion for just war theory: jus post bellum.  This criterion refers to the necessity for justice after the war.  After the war, the conditions must be right to create a new, stable government.  In addition, war crime tribunals and reconciliation committees may be set up to determine whether any rules or ethics of war had been broken.  Here is a new example: State C invokes the responsibility to protect clause to intervene in genocidal efforts in State D.  State C is successful in its mission and has ended all armed conflict in State D.  State C now has an obligation to help create a security apparatus and help restart essential governmental services to ensure that the new government in State D will function smoothly.  If State C fails to do these, then they have lost all moral high ground as the war they were fighting was no longer just. State C must have the intention and set the wheels in motion to help the people of State D which includes constructing a new government.  

From the Catholic perspective, there are reasons found in Sacred Scripture for avoiding war.  Exodus 20:13 says “Do not commit murder.” Jesus says, “I tell you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you;” and “Happy are those who work for peace.”  In addition, the Catechism of the Catholic Church cites the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes when they write on what constitutes as legitimate reason for military force:

  • 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.

It goes on to state that if public officials “carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.”

Augustine’s views on the need of war to be justified were especially radical at the time of ancient Greece and Rome when the culture regarded war as a fact of life.  It is unfortunate that today, we might have these same notions, accepting war as merely  a fact of life.



Published by Matthew Handley

Matthew Handley is the Executive Director of EPIC Radio and is the general manager of its radio station in Wake Forest. He invites you to comment on his posts and to follow him on Twitter (@realHandlez).

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