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“It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.” (The Latin original has for “the wars,” iusta bella.) So runs the thirty-seventh of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the doctrine of the Church of England. It is directed against one of the horrible heresies of the Anabaptists, who held that the world and all its doings were under the power of the evil one. The Anglican Article represents fairly enough the consensus in practice of most Christians (apart from the Anabaptists and other small sects) in this matter from the age of Constantine down to modern times. It is still the doctrine, it is safe to say, of Cardinal Spellman, of Archbishop Makarios, and the Patriarch of Moscow, and of a variety of other divines, Catholic, Prottestant, and Orthodox. It has persisted in somewhat uneasy partnership, uneasy in theory if not in practice, with another theological doctrine, that of the Just War. Aquinas asks, in that section of his Summa Theologiae entitled De Bello, utrum bellare sit semper peccatum. There is a whole battery of implications in that semper. It suggests that the presumption is that war is sinful, but that under certain very carefully defined and restricted circumstances it may be justifiable; and these conditions, as they are stated by Aquinas and elaborated by later theologians in the same tradition, are such that most of the wars of history are by these criteria to be condemned. What certainly follows, as a matter of logic, from the doctrine of the Just War, is that in any given war (for the sake of simplicity, I take only those cases where there are not more than two parties concerned) there are only two possibilities: that the war is sinful on the part of both parties; or that the war is sinful on the part of one of the parties.
It seems then to follow that the individual Christian who takes this doctrine seriously is bound to conclude that the commandment of the Magistrate is as likely as not, perhaps more likely than not, to be a commandment to sin; and thus the good Christian is bound to obey such a commandment only after a long and suspicious scrutiny has reassured him that in this case, at any rate, the war can be justified. The situation is even more complicated; for it is the common teaching of those theologians who discuss the matter that a war which is just in its initial stage can become unjust through the adoption by the belligerent of intrinsically wicked means—the direct and intentional killing of the civilian population, for example—to gain a victory.
The casuistry of the Just War has remained for the most part an apparently pointless theological exercise because it has in practice been emasculated by another doctrine: that in matters of war and peace the good intentions and wisdom of the Magistrate are to be presumed, for the private citizen has neither the…
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