Hello Father Angelo,
on a weekly magazine I have read an article that takes the cue from the recent attacks of extremist Islam matrix and ends up outlining a reflection of a wider scope concerning the relationship between religious faith (especially Christian faith) and the use of military force. Among observation that I find shareable, there is a passage that leaves me perplexed: “One might fittingly object that that the rightfulness of legitimate defense derives from natural law, which is recognized by the Church on the grounds of its rationality (which in its turn originates from God who is Logos), but not from Christian revelation in the strictest sense of the word. As a matter of fact, the latter propounds non-violence in radical terms: ‘to the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic’ (Lk 6:29). The reaffirmation of the rightfulness of legitimate defense is something that the Church has in common with whatever other religion or philosophy that does not contradict religion. On the other hand, non resisting an evil person is a content specifically belonging to Christian revelation, just like all the other exhortations uttered by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. The Church has always presented them as exhortations aimed at people who wish to be perfect in the eyes of God and prophetic in front of men, in the same way as the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, which are not compulsory for all Christians, but are part of the rule of monastic and religious orders”.
As far as I know, evangelical counsels are not required of every faithful, whereas in the Sermon on the Mount the Lord addressed the totality of His disciples. Of course, applying His words to specific everyday-life situations requires discernment, but the approach taken by this article seems to imply that Christ’s teaching is only for those who wish to witness a special perfection. In my view, this approach is a little simplistic.
The priest’s reply
- it is true that the Church borrows the legitimacy of self-defense from reason. But it is not true that Divine Revelation simply asks to renounce self-defense. As a matter of fact, just as grace does not destroy nature, but rather it heals it and elevates it, so evangelical law does not destroy natural law but it casts further light on it.
- It is interesting to point out that Saint Thomas talks about righteous war (it is righteous when it is in self-defense) within the treatise on charity, which is a theological virtue, rather than simply within the scope of justice. This means that the reasonability of war does not derive only from natural law, but also from the revealed one.
- For instance, here is what Saint Augustine writes: “if the Christian religion condemned wars of every kind, the command given in the gospel to soldiers asking counsel as to salvation would rather be to cast away their arms, and withdraw themselves wholly from military service; whereas the word spoken to such was: ‘Do violence to no man, and be content with your wages’ ( Luke 3:14) — the command to be content with their wages manifestly implying no prohibition to continue in the service” (Letter 138).
- The duty to defend one’s house, which must be interpreted in a broader sense as the duty to defend one’s country, is mentioned in the Sacred Scripture. Saint Paul says: “And whoever does not provide for relatives and especially family members has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1Tim 5:8).
- Sacred Scripture also says: “but if you do evil, be afraid, for it [scilicet the authority] does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer” (Rom 13:4). Saint Thomas Aquinas comments this passage as follows: “it is their [scilicet: of those who are in authority] business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies.Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Ps 81:4): Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner; and for this reason Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 75): The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 40,1).
- Of course, there are particular situations in which Christians, for specific reasons, renounce self-defense. As a matter of fact, in Evangelium Vitae John Paul II said: “no one can renounce the right to self-defense out of lack of love for life or for self. This can only be done in virtue of a heroic love which deepens and transfigures the love of self into a radical self-offering, according to the spirit of the Gospel Beatitudes (cf. Mt 5:38-40). The sublime example of this self-offering is the Lord Jesus himself” (EV 55).
- But in other circumstances there is the duty to defend oneself, not only in the name of justice (natural law) but also in that of charity (revealed law). Here in the name of love for one’s life, for those of one’s loved ones and for the weak, “legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another’s life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2265).
- After all, not only justice, but also charity require us to donate ourselves in order to defend the innocent. For this reason Saint Thomas writes:“those who wage war justly aim at peace, and so they are not opposed to peace, except to the evil peace, which Our Lord came not to send upon earth (Matt 10:34)” (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 40, 1, ad 3).
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to offer these clarifications, I wish you all the best, I remember you to the Lord and I bless you.