Catholics and the Military in the Age of the Apostles

On my website I am trying to start a series on Catholics and the Military in each age of Church History. The first installment is up, and is called “Catholics and the Military in the Age of the Apostles”. I’ve subtitled it “The Just War Tradition in the Doctrine of the New Testament” because it echoes a similar document I have on my website about the just war tradition in the doctrine of the pre-nicene Church. I thought you guys might be interested in this series, so I’ll post the links here as I complete them. I hope you enjoy!

The Just War Tradition in the Doctrine of the New Testament


—The Italian Cohort and St. Cornelius
—St. John the Baptist and the Soliders
—Jesus and the Centurion
—Jesus on the Right of Armed Defense
—St. Paul and the Armed Guards
—St. Paul on the Ruler’s Sword
—The Book of Revelation on Just War

The Italian Cohort and St. Cornelius

Acts 10:1-2, 22, 48 – “At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God. … [He was] well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation… And [Peter] commanded [him] to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

The Italian Cohort is the only regiment of the Roman army that I am aware of where we have solid data of at least one Catholic soldier belonging to it in the Age of the Apostles. One interesting feature of this passage is that it lays stress on St. Cornelius’ piety even before he became a Catholic. This is evidence that one can be devout and pious, in the mind of God, even while being a soldier, and that this was regarded in the Church of this age as being perfectly compatible with being a Christian.

St. John the Baptist and the Soldiers

Luke 3:14 – “Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’ ”

This is perhaps the earliest indication in the New Testament that Christians can justly serve in the military. St. John the Baptist tells some disciples to accept their wages as soldiers, and therefore he implies that they may remain soldiers. He could not do that if being a soldier was evil.

Jesus and the Centurion

Luke 7:2-9 – “Now a centurion had a slave who was dear to him, who was sick and at the point of death. … When [Jesus] was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, ‘Lord…say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, “Go,” and he goes; and to another, “Come,” and he comes; and to my slave, “Do this,” and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that followed him, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ ”

This passage comes at a point in Luke’s gospel where Jesus is forming a community of disciples. I think this community of Jesus’ disciples was an early stage in the development of the Catholic Church. A very significant person in this community was this centurion. His experience as a soldier informed his faith, because he made a favorable comparison between the authority he saw in Jesus and the authority he wielded over other soldiers. Jesus praises the centurion for his faith, and to me this indicates that Jesus was okay with at least one of His disciples being in the military.

Jesus on the Right of Armed Defense

Luke 22:35-38 – “[Before now] I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals… But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfilment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”

This passage can be used to defend the right to armed defense, which is an important foundation of the just war doctrine. Jesus sends the apostles on a journey and tells them to take two swords. That is the same as telling them to be armed. There is evidence that this was for the purpose of defending one another in case the Apostles were noticed by robbers. Thus, the right to armed defense is defensible from the teaching of Jesus.

This is significant in the history of the doctrine of just war because one of the principles of just war is that it ought to be fought for the purpose of defending against an unjust attack. The same reason that gives small communities the right to armed defense gives large communities the right to armed defense. Nations who arm themselves for the purpose of defending people in case there is an unjust attack are simply a larger example of the principle at work in this passage.

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