Prayer as a Condition for Just War
Various lists itemize the conditions required for a war to be considered just. The lists vary, with more or fewer points; the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 2309, gives four conditions, while some others present seven or more. No list I’ve seen, however, includes a requirement to pray for averting or ending conflict as a condition of just war. (The Catholic Catechism, in Section 2307, asserts the duty of Christians to pray for an end to war generally, but stops short of listing prayer among the formal conditions for the justice of a particular war.)
This seems unusual. One would think that, for a Christian or other religious person, prayer is not only a condition of just warfare, but arguably the most important one – because it properly emphasizes the absolute authority and power of God in determining human affairs.
The Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero, the subject of several recent posts here, never specifically identified prayer as a condition for just warfare, but the principle follows from his religious and moral orientation. He did stipulate that war must be formally declared, and in Rome that was a function of the priests; the Roman Senate might propose a war, but the decision was ultimately a religious one. Augurs, and sometimes the Sybilline Books were consulted. If the omens were inauspicious, war was not commenced. This acknowledged the ancient religious principle that the gods (and God, in whom Cicero believed) would reward pious humility, and punish impious hubris.
Such a view was by no means limited to the ancient world. From colonial times onward, and as recently as the early 20th century, Americans were officially urged by the government to communal and private prayer in times of war or impending war. Scores of official proclamations of Days of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer were issued by the federal and state governments. A representative collection of these can be found here.
It is instructive to look at one example. On April 15, 1775, in response to the threat of impending war with Great Britain, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress officially recommended “to all good people” that there be, a special day set aside for “humiliation, fasting and prayer.” Total abstinence from servile labor and recreation was recommended, and people were asked to attend suitable religious prayer services. The Proclamation acknowledged that “God is the Sovereign of the universe.” It allowed that war may sometimes be sent to a people as just chastisement, and therefore exhorted citizens to “confess the sins they have committed” and “implore the forgiveness of all our transgressions” with “a spirit of repentance and reformation.” Moreover, it went so far as to recommend prayer for the oppressor, Great Britain, that “their rulers may have their eyes opened to discern the things that make for the peace.”
The curious thing is not that our forbearers thought that prayer to avert war was so important, but that we are so negligent in this respect today. There is today a lack of any firm sense that war may represent a judgment from God, merely delivered by the hand of the enemy, and that the first and best response to impending war should be humility, confession and reformation.
Some might say that, while prayer before war is certainly a Christian duty, it is not a requirement for a war itself to be just. To this one might respond that a requirement for prayer follows from the just war principle of right intention: only a person (or nation) who has heartily prayed can have any reasonable assurance of right intentions.
Let us then, as a thought experiment, construct a theoretical addition to the Catholic Catechism, adding, to the four conditions of just war now stated there, a fifth:
2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
– (existing four points: grave harm or threat; last resort; possibility of success; no greater harms produced)…
– [New] fervent individual and communal prayer must precede any decision to make war; to be faithful to Christian teaching, such prayer should address all of the following:
- humble acknowledgment of God’s sovereign power over human affairs, such that everything – war or no war, success or failure in war – occurs by God’s will alone;
- personal and national examination of conscience, with special attention to considering any national injustices committed which may have provoked an attack by an enemy;
- confession of sins and earnest promise of reformation;
- prayer that the Holy Spirit be sent, for counsel and right deliberation;
- prayer for enemies: that their anger may be turned; that their judgment may be improved and God may guide them away from aggression; that they may be spared God’s retribution; for their welfare, and for their salvation.
It follows from the same principles that not only should such prayers be offered before war commences, but for as long as it continues, and that failure to do this indicates an unjust attitude towards war.