Commemoration of the Faithful Departed (All Souls)
2 November 2014

all souls

“Well, do you want to see a drama, a musical, or a comedy?”

The group of us were heading to NYC for the day to rummage, catch a Broadway show and dinner. Tony’s father had recently died and so I was trying to nudge the group toward something light. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, “The King and I” has been revived – no, I thought, the father dies in the end. “Titanic – A New Musical”(?), oh, no, not with all those people drowning? Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King”: her creative staging, ingenious use of puppetry and masks from various cultural traditions, the colour, the movement. “The Lion King” it was. Everyone agreed – and no one remembered…

No one remembered the father, Mufasa dies, or rather is set up for death by a stampede arranged by his brother, Scar. As the stampede began Tony was obviously getting upset. I put my hand on his leg and held firm and we got through the scene. I later apologized. But on further reflection I realized no piece of storytelling of any value does not at some point deal with death. From the plays of Sophocles and Euripides to the Passion settings of Johann Sebastian Bach; the operas of Verdi and Puccini to the plays of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, O’Neill and Miller down to Harry Potter; death is always present. Medea’s children, Ophelia, Willy Loman, Mimi, Sebastian Venable, Mario Cavaradossi, Anna Karenina, Desdemona, Antigone’s brother, Polynices, Rigoletto’s daughter, Gilda, Ajax, Bill Sikes and Nancy whom he murdered, Alyona Ivanov, Lady Macbeth, the lion, Aslan, Violetta Valery, Albus Dumbledore: revenge, mistaken identity, suicide, disease, murder, execution.

I believe it is the presence of death that gives these works of theatre, liturgy, opera and literature there greatest value and what draws us to continue performing, reading and attending these works. The richness of life and the richness of death are always present in our lives but it is death that penetrates to the core of life since death is necessary for life. Jesus taught, Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” [John 12:24]   In the spiritual life arising from the Gospels, death precedes life not the other way around. It is a death that is at the heart of our Christian story, the crucifixion of Jesus, and it is the deaths of our family members and friends that is at the heart of our personal stories. So on the 2nd of November, the Feast of All Souls, each year when the natural world around us is dying and becoming barren the Christian Church remembers her dead whom we pray for at every Mass for we are always grieving at some level in our souls. This grieving is something to be embraced and not avoided if there is to be healing and new life. Thus we Christians embrace the cross.

My observations though over the last 30 years as a Christian priest give me cause for concern. Concern that Catholic Christians, like our American culture in general, while steeped in the images and realities of death from our video games and entertainment news to war and disease are avoiding death, masking grief and unwilling to simply to be sad because it is an appropriate and necessary feeling.

  • Fewer and fewer Catholics are having a Funeral Mass to pray for their dead. Often it is just a brief service at the funeral home or only at the graveside. Often these truncated rites are accompanied by balloon releases or the presence of teddy bears but no Eucharist. Why? One reason may be is that adult children and family members responsible for the burial have left the Church or are not believers. The Eucharist and the prayers for the dead have no meaning for them. One woman was not even given a death notice or obituary. It is as if her life was none existent. At least from our Christian perspective she was and is remembered by God.
  • The term “Funeral Mass” has been commonly replaced by “Memorial Mass” or “a celebration of a person’s life”. Has the word and concept of ‘funeral’ become like dirty four letter words, inappropriate to say aloud in polite company?   Why are we displacing the crucified and risen Christ from the heart of our funeral rites with memories and stories of our loved ones? Now there is a place for those stories most assuredly but what has happened to praying: “Eternal rest grant them, O Lord…” “Delver them, O Lord…” What or Who, is at the heart of your experience of death and mourning? Do you believe Jesus has delivered us from death?
  • Funeral liturgies are often put off because the timing is not convenient for the family. One adult child put off his mother’s funeral for weeks because of vacation. The response was, “Mother would want me to go on vacation.”
  • Cremation, though allowed by the Catholic Church, has more and more replaced bringing a body to church. It is this act in which, the body, the dwelling place of the spirit is honored in the presence of the community and the Eucharistic Lord. Do you consider the body sacred? Do you believe the Holy Spirit dwells in our bodies? Do you believe in the resurrection of the body as well as the soul(?) or is the body something that can easily be discarded as we scatter cremated remains over a garden or in the sea?

Now I don’t know exactly what “resurrection of the body” entails. Our scriptures and the Catholic tradition struggle with words, phrases and images like “glorified body”, we proclaim Mary was “assumed body and soul into heaven”, “and Jesus was transfigured before them”, the angel announces that, “he is risen”, it is a body clothed with the sun and crowned with stars, he was dazzling white, white as light, white as no fuller on earth could bleach them. [See Revelation 12:1, Matthew 17:1–9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28–36] Whatever the experience of a resurrected body is, Christians believe our whole person which includes our body will be taken up and glorified, thus our funeral rites center on the body of the person which is blessed, covered in the white pall of baptism and incensed because the body is holy and will be taken up by God.

  • There is the expectation that each of us is now to prepare our own funeral services. These overly personalized liturgies in my experience often become expressions of personality rather than expressions of the Christian community’s faith and trust in God in the face of death. What has happened to the most ancient and sacred of duties – to bury the dead? From where did the idea arise that we need to spare our family from this sacred duty? Sophocles’ play Antigone has her defy the king’s command and mock the possibility of execution so as to bury her brother, Polynices.

Today we seem to be trying to spare people from grief, sadness and mourning. And in so doing, are we not avoiding death ourselves and depriving others of the needed path toward healing?

In the earliest centuries Christians were recognized in the Greco-Roman Empire as distinctive because of how we dealt with members who were poor, the sick and our dead. Christians embraced these people and brought them into our midst rather them pushing them to the margins of society or of memory.

  • Are we distinctive today?
  • What are your reflections on grief?  Who or what are you grieving (?) …because we all are.
  • How do you respond when you feel sad?  Do you acknowledge the feeling or avoid it?

As we remember our dead and pray for them, it is, as the liturgy proclaims, truly right and just, to feel sad, to cry, to share stories and to listen to stories, no matter how many years it may have been. Sophocles, Bach, Shakespeare, Williams and J.K. Rowling know that through grief and sadness come healing and new life. Why have contemporary women and men seemed to have forgotten this necessary part of life?


The following is a series of four homilies given over four months on the occasion of the Centenary Anniversary of the beginning of World War I – 4 August 1914.


Anniversary of WWI – Part I

28 June 1914.  A warm and bright Sunday was shattered by the sound of gun shots ringing out over Sarajevo. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary and his wife Sophia were assassinated by a passionate Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip. On Tuesday, 4 August 1914 what Theodore Roosevelt called “that great black tornado” broke over Europe. One might argue – broke over humanity.  [See The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan]

For many people World War I has faded into history while unsuspectingly and insidiously its tentacles have reached deep into the history of present day events:

  • the rebirth of a Muslim caliphate by The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS);
  • the continued Kurdish quest, since WWI, for an independent state;
  • the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict;
  • the dismantling of the artificial states of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union;
  • the flowering of the Arab Spring and its subsequent withering;
  • the violence of Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, the Maghreb lands of North Africa.

Are we not witnessing the dismantling and final collapse of the division of the world as marked out by the Western powers after World War I?

“The war to end all wars”?! – is that what World War I was to be? What was said in naïve idealism and optimism now has the bitter taste of wormwood as World War I has birthed numerous children throughout this century.

Various internet sources list hundreds upon hundreds of wars, revolutions, wars of independence and civil wars during the past century which have spilled over into the 21st century. And how many people have died as a result of war? The simple answer is that it is impossible to know. One source estimated 160 million people. By the time World War I ended on 11 November 1918 sixty-five million men had fought and eight and a half million had been killed. [Margaret MacMillan] The magnitude of the death tolls and effects of war, like the distance of light-years between galaxies, becomes meaningless and so do the lives of the people they enumerate.

In the shadow of the centenary anniversary of World War I and its continuing aftermath are we not obligated, particularly as Christians, to reflect on what we are doing to ourselves, to each other and to creation? Do not the dead, the dying and the innocent caught in the jaws of war not deserve an unflinching honesty from us?

Might we first ask, what is war?

  • Professor of Christian Ethics, Mark Allman is very blunt. “War is about killing.” When wars are waged ordinary citizens are trained to kill. “In war, men, women and children are violently killed.” [See Who Would Jesus Kill, Mark Allman]
  • A more nuanced voice in defining war and reflecting on its root cause is the 19th century German general and military theorist, Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz. Clausewitz stressed the “moral” and political aspects of war. He wrote, “War is a violent way for determining who gets to say what goes on in a given territory.” Determining who is in power to who gets the wealth and resources to where the borders rest. [See Who Would Jesus Kill, Mark Allman]

 Does this definition remind you of recent and present situations and events?

Consider the decisions made after World War I:

  • when borders were drawn by the Western Powers throughout the Middle East which are now being called into question;
  • when nation-state status was imposed on African peoples who had bound themselves for millennia by tribe and language;
  • when democratic structures were imposed on peoples who had lived by tribal and religious law to which they are returning;
  • and how many African nations and their peoples were and continue to be exploited for their natural resources?

The insight of Clausewitz and our present realities underscore war’s root cause and motivation – POWER. Is power not the sin of the garden and the root cause of all sin?

[The serpent] asked the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’?”  ….But the snake said to the woman: “You certainly will not die![See Genesis 3:1ff] For you can be like God. You can be your own God.

Power over God. Power instead of God. Power over another person. …over other peoples.

Consider the primitive motives that lay beneath our Civil War, the Vietnam War, The Iraq War and the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, the Russian incursion into Crimea, the Nazi motives of World War II, the present mutual bombing between Israel and Hamas, the various national desires underpinning World War I, the war in Syria, the Cold War, the violence and stalemates of Northern Ireland since the 17th century!

Is war not simply the desire for power over someone else or in the words of Clausewitz, “a violent way for determining who gets to say what goes on in a given territory”? The commendable language of democracy, freedom, defense, nationalism, humanitarian aid and national security that we use to wrap our intentions and decisions to go to war can blind us to the primitive motive of Eden. And yet are freedom, defense, humanitarian aid and security not reasonable and valued principles(?); particularly the defense of unarmed civilian populations and persecuted minorities facing genocide? The issue of war is a moral quagmire is it not?

One final voice, that of Michael Walzer, a scholar on the ethics of war and peace will not let us off easily. He reflects that ultimately “wars are the result of human choice. War is an action that humans choose based on their perception of reality and of the options they have before them.” “…on their perception of reality and of the options they have before them.” [See Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer] An important insight. We must consider that “what may seem like a reasonable way of protecting oneself can look very different from the other side of the border”. [See The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan]

Walzer concludes, War is not natural or inevitable, nor self-starting. War has human agents as well as human victims.” And having human agents war therefore is a subject for moral theology and ethical reflection. As we recall the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the beginning of the Great War, [if] we want to point fingers from the twenty-first century we can accuse those who took Europe into [World War I] of two things. First, a failure of imagination…and second, their lack of courage to stand up to those who said there was no choice left but to go to war. There are always choices.” [See The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan]

Regretfully on this anniversary, as we watch daily on the evening news the bombings of Gaza, the destruction of Homs, Syria, the enforced exodus of Christians from Mosul, Iraq, the violence and massing of arms along the Ukrainian border, the abduction, killing, starvation, selling and migration of children across borders and the unspoken dirty secret of the selling and proliferation of military arms between countries, we must ask ourselves, why we and our leaders are so lacking in imagination and courage because there are always choices.


Anniversary of WWI – Part II

Do you remember that war started by a child?

No!? You’ve correct, children don’t start wars.  In that light, have you noticed in the news the unprecedented toll that the present violence and wars of our world are taking on children?

Wars of our time have moved from the battlefield taking the fight straight into streets, neighborhoods and schools, leaving little in their wake. Children are dying in growing numbers and childhood itself is being destroyed.

Last week the United Nations noted with alarm that a child was dying every hour. Before Gaza took over the headlines, do you remember it was the children of Syria who pricked the world’s conscience? They haven’t stopped dying and suffering because the news cycle has changed. In a punishing war now in its fourth year, even the youngest of Syrians are in the snipers’ sights. Even infants have been tortured.

  • Millions of children live with hunger and fear, many suffering in areas under siege.
  • Israel insists it doesn’t intentionally target civilians, but Gaza is a sliver of a space, a densely populated and now dangerous place, where children have nowhere to hide.

On the other hand, Hamas and other armed groups deny they use civilians as human shields. Whom do you believe?

  • Children aren’t just caught in crossfire they are now targeted.
  • Homes are destroyed and schools attacked.
  • An edict by the Islamic militants in Pakistan bans immunization of children.
  • We have been witnessing tens of thousands of unaccompanied children making their way to the US from Central America to escape the violence plaguing their home countries. Much of the killing, torture and kidnapping is carried out by criminal gangs who do not hesitate to target little children or force them into gang life.
  • Orphaned boys are recruited by government forces and trained as child soldiers.

How can we not be reminded of Pharaoh’s edict to kill all the boys born to the Hebrews in Egypt and the slaughter mimicked by Herod on the innocents of Bethlehem? Two leaders who acted out of fear because they perceived their power was being threatened; threatened by the presence of children. I wonder, what motivates world leaders, militants and arms groups today?

Why is such a high cost being exacted from the world’s children for the blindness, hatred and unwillingness to listen and compromise of the adults of this world?

And what is the cost to our children?

How many friends have been turned into enemies? Syrian Jalal (aged 14) regrets that “the crisis changed us. Now children understand and talk about politics. We’re all ready to die for our country.” Both Jalal and Ezadine (aged 9) peer across a deep divide and see former friends.  Children accuse former friends of being pro or antigovernment, calling for war – repeating what they have heard from their parents and other adults.

I am reminded of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from the Broadway musical, “South Pacific”, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught”.

You’ve got to be taught To hate and fear, You’ve got to be taught From year to year, You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught!

And children around the world have been carefully taught by adults and want to fight back.

Childhood and innocence are being destroyed. Listen to the voices of war children:

  • “In my dreams…I see the ghosts of my friends…”
  • “I’m a child in age and appearance. But in terms of morals and humanity, I’m not.”
  • “Instead of learning to read and write, I learnt about all types of weapons.  I now know the names of bullets, tracers and rubber bullets.”

Some 2 million Syrian children have been displaced by war and more than 1 million of them are now refugees in neighboring countries. Though safe in places like southern Turkey, many say they don’t feel secure.

  •  It is reported in Syria alone that 299,000 children need psychosocial help. Eight-year-old Baraa, whose family fled the besieged Old Quarter of Homs, Syria, speaks with shame that there’s a new and troubling “normal” for children living in war.
  •  Though we are not living in a war zone of Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Gaza, Nigeria…

What are we teaching our children by our words and actions?  I’ve experienced adults/parents who are just as much bullies as some children.

  • It continues to be asked, should we let our children play with war toys or should we allow them to be creative with war play? What is the difference between war play, aggression and competition?
  • What violent images are present on our children’s video games? …and what amount of simulated killing are they doing in the name of play?

Can we watch and then when uncomfortable surf television channels with no felt responsibility?

  • How many of the mortars from our military industrial complex are killing the world’s children because they were sold to countries by the United States paid for by our taxes? We were warned about the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power by the military industrial complex in President Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address on 17 January 1961.
  • It is organized crime gangs from Los Angeles that have spread to Central America and are a cause of much of the violence and killing in Honduras and Guatemala.
  • The edict by the Islamic militants to ban immunization was in response to the CIA’s setting up a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign in Pakistan. Not only has the ban been imposed on children but more than 60 polio workers have been killed over the past two years.

The plight of the world’s children living in war is a complex web woven by many of us.

How might we as Christians respond?

  •  I would invite you to Google children+war and Click on Images.  Contemplate what you see. Adopt a child by making a copy of one child’s photo and place it somewhere to remind you daily of the plight of children in our world.
  •  Pray, not only for the children of our world but for the adults in power throughout our world. Remember that war started by a child?
  •  Consider writing our legislative representatives. Convey your thoughts in regard to the world’s children caught in the jaws of war. Inquire about the armaments our country sells. Why do we sell arms? To whom do we sell and what are they being used for?
  •  Seek out agencies of our church and other organizations that strive to assist the children of war and financially support them.
  •  Most importantly, consider what you are teaching your/our children and the neighbor’s children by our actions, attitudes and words. Remember, they’ve got to be carefully taught!

Children tell us a lot about war, they tell us a lot about ourselves, and they give us a glimpse into the future.  What is our future? What is their future?


Anniversary of WWI – Part III

Over the past month, in the light of the centenary anniversary of World War I and the present violent situations in our world, I have addressed the issue of war. What is war? What are war’s root causes? How do we address the plight of children living in war which will affect future generations? And though there are always choices to be made, the situations of stopping an unjust aggressor, providing humanitarian aid and the defense of unarmed civilian populations seem to force the choice over and over toward a military response.

Today I would like to continue exploring this topic by looking at what light the Scriptures and the Catholic Moral Tradition shed on our reflection.

What do the Gospels, if anything, reveal about Jesus’ response to violence and war?

  • Lest we forget, Jesus lived in an occupied and militarized nation.
  • It is recorded that Jesus praises a Roman military officer for having greater faith than anyone in Israel for believing that he can cure the officer’s servant. [See Matthew 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10] At no time does Jesus ever encourage the soldier to leave military service. It is this soldier’s words that we make our own at every Eucharist just before approaching to receive Holy Communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word…” [Roman Missal; Matthew 8:8]
  • Jesus uses the imagery of war in at least one parable. The parable of a king preparing for war suggesting that a weaker military power should calculate whether with the troops he has the king can defeat a larger enemy. [Luke 14:31]
  • Jesus never condemns war but neither does he affirm war. Yet, does the act of making a whip of cords to drive out the merchants and turning over the tables of the moneychangers from the Temple imply Jesus’ approval of the use of violence at least in certain situations – or might we be reading too much into this scene? [See Matthew 21:12; Mark, 11:15; Luke 19:45; John 2:14-15]
  • Is there something to be said in that three Gospels record a Roman soldier proclaiming Jesus innocent and Son of God when he dies? [See Mark 15:39; Matthew 27:54; Luke 23:47]

In concert with these revelations Jesus enjoins his followers not to resist an evil person, to turn the other check if slapped and to love our enemies. [See Matthew 5:39 and 44] In the light of bullying, sexual and physical abuse cases, the experience of the Holocaust and other genocides and of many a contemporary dictator, how are we to respond to Jesus’ teaching of non-resistance? Would you instruct a battered spouse, an assaulted child or the Christians and Yizadis of Mosul, Iraq to non-resistance or turning the other cheek? Jesus doesn’t spell out the “how” of his non-violent, non-resistant teachings on loving our enemies, does he?

Scripture reveals itself not as an instruction or answer book that tells us exactly what to do in all circumstances. Its lack of specifics and even stark contradictions(!) may cause great dismay and confusion to Christians, especially those looking for black and white answers. Rather what the Bible and our moral tradition invite us into is the responsibility of deep reflection and discernment for the wisdom and insights of the Holy Spirit. Then to make choices and take responsibility for our choices and the consequences that arise from them.

Two responses to violence and war are found in Catholic Moral Theology: Pacifism and what is known as the Just War Tradition.

Pacifism is a commitment to peacemaking by a rejection of violence; a rejection of violence as a way to solve our differences or as a response to violence done to us. The Christian pacifist desires to break the cycle of violence by choosing not to retaliate. I am reminded of Tevye’s response in the musical, Fiddler on the Roof, when confronted with the ancient mandate, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”. “Very good,” he says, “That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.” Yet violence rarely erupts out of nowhere. Violence is usually caused when people feel threatened, humiliated, betrayed or are fearful. This happens to individuals, groups, and even nations who then resort to the use of force causing their opponent to likewise feel threatened and feel compelled to retaliate.

Do you recall such an incident in your own life when you felt cheated or threatened?  Was is a playground scuffle?   …a family or spousal quarrel?   …a conflict with a boss?  …a perceived unfair treatment in a business deal?  How did you, how do you respond when you feel threatened or wronged?  Have you ever considered how the other person feels to cause them to attack in the first place?

As a parish priest, a public person, I’ve have been attacked numerous times in my years, usually immediately after Mass. The displays of anger, fear, and the need for control have caused me to reflect on infants. Infants are open, happy, inquisitive, and playful. This is how all of us were born and what God intended for human relationship. Thus I’ve come to ask myself, what happened to these people that have led them to be miserable, angry and fearful and thus attack others?

And it’s this true for nations? On a larger scale, have you ever considered why Russia, China, The Islamic State, racial and armed extremists groups feel threatened and lash out?   What is in their history, geography, politics or treatment by others that have affected their way of thinking and thus acting in such violent manners? This exercise is not an excuse for violence but a path for us to understanding.

For the pacifist the best way to break the cycle of violence is to try and understand and to consciously choose not to retaliate. Pacifist claims are rooted in Gospel passages such as, “love your enemies” and “Blessed are the peacemakers…” [See Matthew 5]. Perhaps the strongest reason advanced for this moral position is the example of Jesus himself, who when being violently put to death, did not strike back. But taking Gospel passages out of context to support any moral or theological position is a questionable approach. The pacifist moral position has a number of variations from Absolute Pacifism which believes there are no exceptions to the use of violence through what are called Principled, Classical and Strategic Pacifisms which allow for various exceptions in limited situations.

Yet there are challenges and criticisms to this moral position.

  • Pacifists are often derided as cowards, “free riders” enjoying the benefits of security without accepting any of the obligations of citizenship and the burdens of dealing with conflicting moral obligations.
  • Many argue pacifism is hypocritical; on the one hand claiming that violence must be rejected because life is sacred while ignoring the reality that sometimes force must be used on behalf of oppressed peoples.
  • Pacifism is often accused of being naïve. How does active non-violence measure up to human experience? While the active non-violence of Mohandas Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Archbishop Oscar Romero and their followers have shown pacifism can be an effective tool, none of these examples are free from violence.
  • Pacifism is criticized for failing to take seriously human sinfulness.

Pacifism enjoyed a place of prominence in the early centuries of Christianity. It was later supplanted by the Just War Tradition and even, so called, holy wars in the Crusades and 16th century wars of religion. But in the light of the atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction and what are called Weapons of Long-Term Destruction such as landmines, cluster bombs and depleted uranium shells which claim lives long after formal war has ended; pacifism has experienced a resurgence in the teachings of the church beginning with Pope John XXIII, the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, The US Bishops Pastoral Letter, The Challenge of Peace and the revised Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Conversely we must ask, if pacifism is accused of failing to take human sinfulness seriously do not those who oppose active non-violence lack confidence in the power of the resurrection? The Christian faith is one of unprecedented optimism which believes that because Jesus Christ, the Son of God was born, lived, died and was raised from the dead; sin in our world has already been conquered. Do you believe this? The question is not whether you live out a form of Christian pacifism or not but are you willing to reflect?

At another time I will take up the Just War Tradition which is in tandem with Pacifism as a Christian response to violence and war.

[Gratia tibi. Phrases and ideas have been quoted from Mark Allman, Who Would Jesus Kill?; Barbara Di Tommaso, Some Reflections on Pacifism and Just War]


Anniversary of WWI – Part IV

Recently I have addressed the topic of war on the occasion of the centenary of the beginning of World War I and reflected with you on the Christian moral response to violence and war as found in the life of Jesus, the Scriptures and the Catholic Moral Tradition. Having presented the Pacifist position, today I would like to continue that discussion presenting the Just War Tradition. Taken together Scripture, the various forms of Pacifism and the Just War Tradition of the Catholic Church inform us and many people in the halls of government and the military on how we maneuver through the moral ambiguities of violence and war in our world.


  • Is it ever acceptable to use weapons of mass destruction? (Think Hiroshima.)
  • Can armed forces ever intentionally target civilians to achieve the overall good of winning a war? (Think ISIS or Hezbollah imbedded amidst civilian populations.)
  • Which is worse, to invade a country to protect a persecuted minority group or to stand by and do nothing? (Think Rwanda or the Christians and Yazidis of Syria-Iraq.)

While Pacifism is a commitment to peacemaking by a rejection of violence as a way to solve our differences or as a response to violence done to us; the Just War Tradition holds that sometimes the use of force, even deadly force, is morally acceptable, but only in situations that meet strict requirements. This tradition was articulated by Saints Augustine, Ambrose and Thomas Aquinas. They built on the reflections of Plato, Aristotle and Cicero; a tradition further developed by Jewish and Muslim scholars, philosophers, political scientists and military experts.

Augustine articulated three principles. As I enumerate them think: World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, The Gulf War, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, ISIS. Augustine stated…

  • A war is just if and only if it is waged for a just cause such as self-defense or protecting the weak and vulnerable.
  • A war is just if and only if it is declared by the proper legitimate political authority.
  • A war is just if and only if those waging the war are motivated by good intentions.

All three principles, a just cause, declared by legitimate authority and motivated by good intention, must be met for a war to be considered just. The real evils in war are love of violence, revenge, blood sport of war, cruelty, coldhearted hatred and lust for power. For Augustine intention is crucial. Consider the reasons we have engaged in war. Has the United States always fulfilled these principles? The goal of war is peace, (which seems like a contradiction), but that goal opens up the possibility for the addition of a fourth principle: last resort. Augustine’s aim was not to glorify war, but to limit it. His strong presumption was in favour of peaceful conflict resolution; war being a concession to a sinful world. The Tradition also addresses behavior in battle:

  • Militaries must make every reasonable effort to distinguish between civilians (non-combatants) and soldiers. In our present era, with terrorists dressed as civilians driving car bombs, the atomic explosions at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the use of chemical warfare in Syria and landmines in Cambodia, North Africa and Central America, we seem to be witnessing more and more a lack of effort to distinguish between civilian and legitimate combatants.
  •  Second, the use of force cannot be disproportionate. Militaries must exercise restraint.

But warfare has evolved since Augustine’s 4th century Roman Empire and even the conventional warfare of World War I. Is it possible in our day to adhere to Augustine’s criteria?

  •  …in a nuclear age?
  •  …in an era of drones where a soldier in a comfortable office in the States views the enemy through a camera lens and pushes a button which kills on the opposite side of the globe?   How antiseptic war is becoming! But does such an action not still affect the soul of the soldier any less than Hector or Ajax in the Trojan Wars?
  •  …in a period of chemical warfare which is most often used against civilian populations?
  •  …in the wake of Weapons of Long-Term Destruction which claim lives long after formal war has ended?

Do the developments in warfare and the form of violence called terrorism, seemingly adhering to no moral compass of restraint and resulting in the barbarism we have seen against journalists, contort the Just War Tradition beyond usefulness?

To address the morality of violence and war might we need to look at the root causes of war. Pope Paul VI was succinct, “If you want peace, work for justice.” [World Day of Peace Message, 1 January 1972] Building on that Pope John Paul II made an impromptu remark, “Peace is always the work of justice…it is the fruit of charity.” [Rome, 17 February 1991] If we desire peace, we therefore need to consider the causes of injustice in our world?

  • With the distance between the haves and have-nots widening in our society and world, how is global poverty to be addressed when any talk of equal distribution of resources and goods, even by the church, is met with charges of Marxism? Might we Christians recall Jesus’ multiplication of loaves and fishes which resulted in there being more than enough for everyone present?
  • How much of our national budget supports the military industrial complex in comparison to education and the arts? The former addressing ignorance which breeds superstition, prejudices and despair and the latter feeding the spirit of humanity with visions that challenge us through music, art, dance, film, and theatre; calling for the best in us?
  • How will climate change affect many of the poorest peoples and coastal cities and nations of our world?   Is there not an issue of injustice in pollution which seems to be creating mega-hurricanes, the rising of sea levels and extended cycles of weather extremes affecting planting and harvest seasons and causing drought or flooding? Do you not think that peoples will not go to war over survival and clean water?
  • And then there is fear; fear of the unknown and fear of the stranger – the fertile ground in which the seeds of generations of bigotries, ancient hatreds, biases and prejudices are continued against peoples and nations.

The bishops gathered at the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council taught, “Peace is more than the absence of war; it cannot be reduced to the maintenance of a balance of power.” “[It] will never be achieved once and for all, but must be built up continually.” “Insofar as people are sinners, the threat of war hangs over humanity and will continue until the coming of Christ; but insofar as they can vanquish sin by coming together in charity, violence will ultimately by vanquished.” [Lumen gentium, no.78] Charity and justice are the dual ax at the roots of violence and war.

World War II was a watershed in the history of war. The carpet bombings of London and Dresden coupled with the nuclear attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima laid bare the awesome destructiveness of modern weaponry. And now we encounter the fear generated by terrorism. In our contemporary historical situation both Pacifism and the Just War Tradition are still legitimate moral approaches embraced by Catholics for addressing violence. While there are legitimate critiques of both moral responses and while due to the destructive and indiscriminate nature of modern warfare contemporary thinkers and theologians seem to be moving closer to pacifism. We cannot abdicate are responsibility as moral beings. Reflection on our actions and intentions is central to what it means to be human.

What is remarkable about our Catholic Moral Tradition found in the responses of Pacifism and the Just War Tradition is their flexibility and longevity in the tradition of the world and church as we strive to act and reflect as moral beings in a world at war.

[Gratia tibi. Phrases and ideas have been quoted from Mark Allman, Who Would Jesus Kill?]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s