The Just War Tradition in the Age of Faith
Vox Nova's Kyle R. Cupp quotes a "picture [that] speaks a thousand plus words to our contemporary thinking about the justification of war" — Osborn on the Origins of Just War Tradition. Writes Commonweal's Ronald Osborn:
- During the Middle Ages—the historical context for the rise of what would come to be known as the “just war” tradition—violence under any circumstance was deemed a great evil by the church. In official Catholic teaching, combat was accepted as legitimate only when it prevented still greater evils and led to an otherwise unobtainable peace. The common ecclesiastical opinion, though, was that virtually all wars by the feudal nobility were waged from libido dominandi, lacked just cause, and resulted in far greater harm than good.
The rules of “just war” were not developed in courts by religious advisers keen to justify war. Rather, the tradition took shape largely in the setting of the confessional. It was codified in canon law by priests who wanted to limit the brutality of war and who were responding to a very practical question: Should knights returning from the battlefield be allowed to partake of the Eucharist? “Just war” precepts were applied to determine what sorts of penance soldiers should be made to perform before being fully readmitted to the Body of Christ.
There was no place, then, for triumphal displays in the aftermath of wars or violence, even when a conflict was seen as a tragic necessity or manifestation of God’s providential punishment of the wicked by the sword of the magistrate. The authorities who served as the agents of God’s wrath might themselves reap the violence they sowed. The moral legitimacy of taking any human life made in the imago Dei was always at best a regrettable concession to the violent realities of the “city of man” still in defiance of the City of God. In all cases, the attitude of believers toward wars and killing was to be one of somber soul-searching and even mourning for their enemies.