Can a Catholic be a pacifist?

Everyone knows that the Catholic Church teaches that a person has the right to self-defense. And that she has taught the “just war” theory. However, is there a place in the Church for those who are strict pacifists and refuse to fight in any war? Pacifists often defend their position by saying that in any war there are innocent people on both sides who will be killed or seriously injured. Some religions accept pacifists, while other religions, such as JW, preach pacifism and teach their members not to participate in any war. Although the RCC allows for a just war under certain conditions, it is OK for a Catholic to embrace pacifism and refuse to fight in any war, whether it is “just” or not?

you should be careful about terminology. pacifism isn’t a ticket out of legitimate national service, if drafted. pacifists have served honorably in the armed forces, and have been awarded the medal of honor in the US (army medic Desmond Doss), and the victoria cross in the UK (ambulance drivers, I believe).

as for pacifism and nonviolence in general, while I am only mildly surprised that a pacifist would not defend himself, I’ll never get over the pacifist who refuses to defend others that he’s got a moral obligation to defend, e.g., the pacifist who won’t use violence to stop the rape of his baby.

A Catholic might take the position that in the modern world conditions for a war to be just are not likely to ever be met, but he or she is not at liberty to simply discard just war doctrine.

Speaking only for myself, I would support your right to be a pacifist, but I would also remind you that at least in America this right was secured for you by people who were not pacifists.

Would it then be a mortal sin for a Catholic to say that there is no such thing in reality as a just war, since in every war there will be innocent people who will be killed or hurt? In other words, the Catholic is rejecting the just war theory in principle, because he claims that every war is going to be unjust in one way or another and he says that according to Scripture, Christ commands us to turn the other cheek.

It is a particularly difficult task to try to define when error becomes heresy and when heresy is or is not a mortal sin. I won’t attempt to make that discernment here. But certainly a Catholic who felt free to pick and choose from the body of Catholic doctrine, rejecting aspects of it that they personally didn’t understand, would not be displaying an appropriate attitude towards revealed truth and Magisterial authority. Indeed I would speculatively suggest that adopting such an attitude towards Church teaching, appointing oneself the supreme judge of doctrinal truth, might be more likely to be a mortal sin than the actual rejection of this teaching or that which this attitude opens the way for.

How is a Catholic supposed to reconcile participation in war with the command of Our Divine Lord to turn the other cheek?

By studying scripture and Church teaching, realizing that Christ’s command to “turn the other cheek” is not a command to become a doormat and avoid service to those in need.

I am always struck by the pacifist who won’t get involved to help another in trouble but expects others to come to his aid in a time of need.

Can a pacifist be a Catholic?

What do you mean by “in principle”?

You seem to be saying two things here:

1). “there is no such thing in reality as a just war”
2). “in every war there will be innocent people who will be killed or hurt”

First, I would say that 1). does not follow from 2)., as your phrasing above kind of implies it does; the reason for there not being any just wars in reality would not be that innocent people are harmed. The just war doctrine does not say that innocent people cannot be harmed, but “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” It is fair to say that 2). is true (in any war, innocent people will be harmed), but 1). is not necessarily true (the harm done to innocent people is not necessarily greater than the evil done by the force that requires elimination).

I think it is acceptable for a Catholic to acknowledge that a modern war is likely not to fall under just war doctrine (“rejecting” just war doctrine in practice, and not absolutely). I don’t think it is acceptable for a Catholic to assume that all future wars will be unjust (rejecting just war doctrine because you are claiming it could never apply).

I don’t think that a Catholic can reject just war doctrine in principle, either, which I think you would be doing by claiming that a war is unjust because any innocent people are harmed. If the evil to be eliminated is greater than the unintended evil, then I think a Catholic is obliged to adhere to the just war doctrine - even if that means some innocents are harmed. This doesn’t mean you have to fight; the Church teaches that governments should respect those who do not want to fight by providing them with other roles. We are called to turn the other cheek, but that concerns offenses to ourselves. We can also have obligations to others, which is when just war doctrine applies.

Before I was a Catholic, more fifty years ago, I was a conscientious objector. This is what I informed the U. S. draft board. Men still could be drafted then. I believed it wrong to kill in war. It would have been possible to go to prison with such a view if you were drafted. Then I became a Catholic, and found about the just war doctrine of Catholicism, as first formulated by Saint Augustine. After looking at it, I wrote the draft board, and said I had become a Catholic and that I no longer was a conscientious objector because of that.
Even when I was a conscientious objector I did not think it a sin the take the other view, and I do not think now that it would be heresy to reject the just war doctrine for one reason or another.
As far as I know, the just war theory is not defined doctrine of Catholicism, but it is a very serious teaching. I think that any Catholic who seriously considers taking the position that it is wrong to kill in war should look at it first as a very serious view of Catholicism.

There are some things in Catholicism which you are not obligated to believe in. For example, that the miracles at Lourdes are due to divine intervention. Other things are mandatory, such as defined doctrine which says that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary. Are you sure that the just war theory is a defined doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church? If so, when was this infallibly defined?

Too often in discussions like this it seems that many Catholics fall into this trap of asking: “When is it okay for Catholics to kill.” We always hear about Just War theory and how the Church applies that teaching, but it seems to me that implicit in the name of the theory is an indication that there is something inherent in war that makes it unjust.

I’m also not sure that pacifism gets accurately represented here either. Dorothy Day was a pacifist but she was under no illusion that her position on war could still end up with her getting hurt or possibly killed. She believed it was her duty to resist, but to do it non-violently and to, if necessary, lay down her life for others. Her’s wasn’t a meek pacifism from somebody afraid of conflict, but one that seems to me to have been well thought out and she understood that violence could still be visited upon her, but she refused to let that be an excuse to harm others.

She wasn’t afraid of the people that could only harm her physical body and not touch her soul.

Her particular calling was one that is difficult to embrace and one I’m not sure that many are called to embrace, but can’t her example be a witness for all of us to avoid war and killing?


Having grow up in one of the historic peace churches, every pacifist I know, my self included, would agree with you. There is a very strong emphasis on serving others in the Brethren tradition, best symbolized by by our tradition of washing one another’s feet as part of the love feast (a reenactment of the last supper we hold twice a year that also includes the agape meal and is one of the only times we take communion), and no one supports becoming a doormat and letting evil have its way. What we would disagree about is how best to resist evil and serve others in obedience to Christ’s teachings.

No, it is not a dogma. I think mdgspencer puts it well. Just war doctrine is coherent with the Church’s moral system, and it’s really an extension of the same principle that would obligate you to fight off someone who is attempting to rape a child. It’s not that you are obliged to hold it per se, but I find it hard to imagine that a Catholic could coherently reject it in principle. You can take the position that wars probably will not be just, but I don’t think it would be logical to assume that wars cannot be just; I think a just war is rather conceivable.

I don’t know, when I read just war doctrine, I don’t find it “hawkish” at all. It is pretty clear that war should be a last resort and that war should not produce more evil than it is attempting to eliminate.

The problem is that the Catholic Church will not tell a soldier which war meets the criteria of a just war, and which does not. It maintains neutrality and allows Catholics to decide the matter with their own consciences. It did not provide definitive guidance to German Catholic chaplins, soldiers, or civilians during the outbreak of WW II; nor to American Catholics vis a vis Vietnam, nor the two wars in Iraq. If unjust killing is, by definition, murder, this is a grave shortcoming; it appears that, when it comes to war, the Church does not dare to pass unequivocal, absolute judgments on another nation’s military conflicts, even though military conflicts involve nothing less grave than the conditions under which one takes human life.

This is a BIG problem because if no one ever knows which war meets their criteria, then of what value are these criteria?

Do you honestly think that the Holy See has a “Just War Department” that reviews the relevant data available and makes a decision to declare the “justness” of a war one way or the other?

The Church does not view her members as mindless robots; she leaves many things to our own intellectual abilities and discernment.

This does not quite seem to be “the problem” of this thread, regarding whether a Catholic must follow just war doctrine, but regarding whether the Catholic Church is credible regarding war. :slight_smile:

How would it pass unequivocal, absolute judgments on another nation’s military conflicts? Take Iraq. I think many would argue that the United States was not justified in entering that conflict. But the claim was that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and if Iraq did have weapons of mass destruction, then an invasion would be justified. The Catholic Church had less information than the American government regarding the threat Iraq posed to the rest of the world. Why should it have pronounced an unequivocal, absolute judgment?

But this isn’t really surprising. The Catholic Church does not claim to be privy to all information in moral matters. The just war doctrine does not state that the Catholic Church will make unequivocal, absolute pronouncements about which wars or just. It provides a standard for what constitutes a just war. And as in any moral circumstance, we have to take some course of action based on the knowledge that we have.

Because the burden of proof – that concept of “erring on the side of safety” – would have been on the United States to prove that Iraq posed a clear and present danger. The Vatican itself, and the American bishops, appeared to be saying what the rest of the world was saying – that this had not been proven; the rhetoric coming out of Washington was troubling; the United States should respect international law and undergo due process through the UN.

The only problem is that the Vatican did not dare to tell Catholic soldiers not to fight in this war, anymore than it did not tell German soldiers not to fight World War II (or, for that matter, southern Catholics not to fight for the Confederacy). Its policy of neutrality is largely pragmatic, it seems to me; telling Catholic soldiers or civilians what they should or shouldn’t be doing within the boundaries of another sovereign nation can be dangerous. This is, indeed, “subversive.” I think that St. Paul also has something to do with it, and his notion that “the state does not wield the sword in vain.” On some level, I believe the Church has not entirely divested itself of the idea that the power of even a secular state draws its ultimate legitimacy from God (of course, if this notion is held, it has come back to haunt the Church regarding abortion and even capital punishment).

It is often asked “can a Catholic become a soldier?” and this is the flip-side of the question “can a Catholic become a pacifist?” And I would have to say no, for the following reason – the United States government (for example) has not now, nor has it ever, subscribed to the Catholic notion of a “just war theory.” All bets are off as to whether, even in its own eyes, it is constrained to follow it. This means that, if you are a Catholic soldier, you are joining the armed forces in a country that is not Catholic in its moral orientation, nor subscribes to the only conditions under which a war is not gravely immoral – namely, just war theory. If you have volunteered to become a soldier, you cannot question orders; yet you are taking orders for a military power that is non-Catholic, and that makes no promises about the “justice” or “injustice” of a military conflict, from a Catholic point of view.

The only morally safe thing to do – and again, this is in the name of erring on the side of caution – is not to serve in the military of a non-Catholic government, which can indeed order you to participate in an immoral war.

But I do feel this is way out of the Church’s comfort zone; governments have not always been the best friend of the Church but, at the same time, there are close ties nonetheless. Religions are friendly with politicians, constituting a Christian presence in public events and ceremonies; chaplins are a mainstay of all military conflicts, and it is important to Christians that their soldiers have their religious needs ministered to, when serving in the military. Nonetheless, I think a compromise is being made in the name of pragmatism; a compromise that someone like Tolstoy greatly lamented, given the similarly “comfortable” relationship between Eastern orthodox Catholicism, and the Russian military. It’s almost as if the attitude is because it is possible for a war to be justified, then all wars cannot be unequivocally condemned. By the time the debate is over as to whether the war is just, the war itself is over. And, even after the war is over, it is still not decided whether the war was just.

Presumably, the war of the Germans against the rest of Europe was an unjust war. I could see there being debate, still, as to whether the war of the Confederacy against the North was an unjust war, or not. Iraq, in retrospect, was probably an unjust war. So is it that Catholic soldiers have not endangered their salvation, if they were following orders and didn’t know for sure whether the war was unjust? But that could be said of anything – if no one knew that fornication was wrong, engaging in it wouldn’t endanger the salvation of anyone.

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