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Prayer as a Condition for Just War

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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:

  1. 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;
  2. personal and national examination of conscience, with special attention to considering any national injustices committed which may have provoked an attack by an enemy;
  3. confession of sins and earnest promise of reformation;
  4. prayer that the Holy Spirit be sent, for counsel and right deliberation;
  5. 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.


Written by John Uebersax

May 1, 2012 at 5:13 pm

The Genius of Christianity

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From time to time I experience the temptation to write something countering the many atheist invectives against religion that appear in print.  For the most part I’m able to resist,  reasoning that no argument will convince the atheists, and none is needed for theists.

This probably deserves  a little elaboration, however. It seems to me that religion is basically something natural to human beings. It is as much a natural mode of knowing certain things as vision is a natural sense, or humor is a natural emotional experience.  Someone who is blessed with sight, yet has shut their eyes and insists that vision is a superstition, hardly wants a serious reply; or, at least, not a reply that takes at face value their objection.  Rather, the real questions are what the motives are of such people, and whether they are being honest with themselves and their readers.

Perhaps the real concern here is a third category of persons besides atheists and theists:  namely people who do not currently practice any religion, but who are sympathetic to the message and principles of religion, and who will, eventually, either discover or rediscover it.  The danger, then, is that atheist writers may discourage the authentic religious investigations of people in this third group.  If an apology for Christianity is to be written, then, it should be for the sake of this ‘in between’ group.

Such considerations have often led me to imagine writing a book titled, “The Grandeur of Christianity“, which would enumerate  the many excellencies and benefits of Christianity.  Now it seems that Providence has supplied such a book ready-made — written in the 19th century by François-René de Chateaubriand (1768 – 1848).

Chateaubriand was a noted French novelist, part of the Romantic movement, and an influence on Victor Hugo, among others.  Living through the French Revolution, Chateaubriand experienced more than the usual amount of adventure and personal tragedy.   His most famous novels include Atala (1801) and René (1802).  (And yes, it is after him that Chateaubriand steak is named — his hobby was gourmet cooking.)

But another great production from the pen of this literary master is The Genius of Christianity (Génie du christianisme; 1802).  In beautiful prose, speaking from the heart to the heart, Chateaubriand explains to the rationalists of his day why Christianity is important and necessary.

Briefly we should note the historical context of the book, which parallels in important respects the situation today.  Chateaubriand was writing at the close of two centuries in which rationalist philosophy had dominated the intellectual scene.  Faced with the ponderous edifice of empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism – which left little room for traditional faith –  Romantic writers (e.g., Goethe, Coleridge, Wordsworth — and Chateaubriand), artists (e.g., William Blake), essayists (Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Waldo Emerson) and philosophers (e.g., Kant, Hegel) mounted a response.  The Romantics, in short, pointed out that there are other forms of valid knowledge beyond that which is supplied by sense data, or by rational inferences made from sense data.  Aesthetic and moral experiences, in particular, are real – just as real to the awareness as sense data – and must be fully accounted for in any satisfactory model of the human being.

These writers, artists and philosophers were not mere fuzzy-headed dreamers, but extremely intelligent and incisive thinkers.  It’s no small matter that the atheists of today have neglected to counter, or even acknowledge the arguments of the Romantics.

In any case, I shall say no more – for, as already noted, good fortune has placed this brilliant work by Chateaubriand before us.  The work remains fresh and readable today.  Links are supplied below.  If there were one stylistic detail which modern readers might take slight exception to, it would perhaps be the author’s tendency to minimize the value of other religions – Judaism, Islam, Eastern religions, etc.  However this is easily overlooked, and in no way detracts from the principal arguments.


For English-speakers, Stork (1858) is a small volume of selections, containing many choice excerpts from the full work:

de Chateaubriand, François-René; Emma Β. Stork (tr.). The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion. (Selections from Chateaubriand’s Genius Of Christianity). Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1858.

A full English translation is also online:

de Chateaubriand, François-René; White, Charles I. (Charles Ignatius; tr.). The Genius Of Christianity; or, The Spirit and Beauty of the Christian Religion. Baltimore: Murphy, 1856.

Numerous editions in French are also online.

Chapters in Stork’s ‘Selections’  edition of 1858:

  • The Bible
  • The Existence of God
  • The Character of the True God
  • General Spectacle of the Universe
  • Mystery
  • Paradise
  • Physical Man
  • Adam and Eve
  • Marriage
  • The Father — Priam
  • The Mother — Andromache
  • The Son — Gusman
  • The Daughter — Iphigenia
  • “Virtues and Moral Laws
  • Our Saviour
  • The Passions
  • Dido, or Passionate Love
  • The Christian Religion as a Passion
  • Undisciplined Passions
  • Faith
  • Hope and Charity
  • Desire of Happiness
  • Redemption
  • Christianity a great Blessing to Mankind — Services rendered to Society by the Clergy, and the Christian
  • Religion in general
  • Missions—General Idea of Missions
  • Defence of Christianity
  • The Sabbath
  • Singing and Prayer
  • Christian Festivals
  • Christian Tombs
  • Country Churchyards
  • The Influence of Christianity upon History
  • Beauties of History
  • Christian Eloquence
  • Moral Harmonies
  • The Influence of Christianity upon Music
  • The Influence of Christianity upon Painting
  • Songs of Birds — For Man they are Created
  • Language of Animals — Laws appertaining thereto
  • Birds’ Nests
  • The Infidel and Christian Mother
  • Remorse of Conscience..
  • The Christian’s Death-bed
  • Two Views of Nature — Ocean; Niagara Falls
  • Youth and Old Age of the Earth
  • The World without Christianity — Conjectures

Related:  Christianity for Agnostics — my own brief apologia for Christianity, written just before reading Chateaubriand’s work.

Written by John Uebersax

February 7, 2012 at 2:59 am

Latest Pope Bashing by the Media

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Latest Pope Bashing by the Media

Eager to seize even the slightest pretense for bashing the Pope, news media, European governments, and even medical journals have taken his recent comments about African AIDS completely out of context.

The Lancet even went so far as to accuse His Holiness of “manipulating science” and having “publicly distorted scientific evidence”. Apparently his critics have not bothered to read the transcript of his remarks. The context makes it plain that Pope Benedict scarcely denies the physical effects of condoms. His point, as his preceding sentences makes plain, was that the real solution to the AIDS crisis is to strengthen spiritual values in society — including a respect for continence and personal virtue. It is not condoms per se which contribute to the AIDS epidemic, but materialistic values which over-reliance on condoms as public policy promotes. Governments are happy to distribute condoms, but afraid to tell people: “look, you are spiritual beings with moral responsibilities; act that way.”

The Pope isn’t afraid to say that, and for exposing the pretensions of atheistic civil government they are attacking him.

They are counting on the fact that people won’t bother to read the transcript of the interview in question.

The relevant portion is as follows:

Moderator – Now a further question from a French speaker: our colleague Philippe Visseyrias from France 2:

VisseyriasYour Holiness, among the many ills that beset Africa, one of the most pressing is the spread of AIDS. The position of the Catholic Church on the way to fight it is often considered unrealistic and ineffective. Will you address this theme during the journey? Holy Father, would you be able to respond in French to this question?

Pope – [Reply in Italian]. I would say the opposite. I think that the most efficient, most truly present player in the fight against AIDS is the Catholic Church herself, with her movements and her various organizations. I think of the Sant’Egidio community that does so much, visibly and also behind the scenes, in the struggle against Aids, I think of the Camillians, and so much more besides, I think of all the Sisters who take care of the sick. I would say that this problem of Aids cannot be overcome merely with money, necessary though it is. If there is no human dimension [se non c’è l’anima — literally, if there is not soul], if Africans do not help, the problem cannot be overcome by the distribution of prophylactics: on the contrary, they increase it. The solution must have two elements: firstly, bringing out the human dimension of sexuality, that is to say a spiritual and human renewal that would bring with it a new way of behaving towards others, and secondly, true friendship offered above all to those who are suffering, a willingness to make sacrifices and to practise self-denial, to be alongside the suffering. And so these are the factors that help and that lead to real progress: our twofold effort to renew humanity inwardly, to give spiritual and human strength for proper conduct towards our bodies and those of others, and this capacity to suffer with those who are suffering, to remain present in situations of trial. It seems to me that this is the proper response, and the Church does this, thereby offering an enormous and important contribution. We thank all who do so.

Here is a letter of reply I submitted to The Lancet.

To the Editors:

Subject: The Lancet Catholic Bashing

Concerning your editorial [1] on recent comments of Pope Benedict XVI:

A basic principle of science and civil discourse holds that, as words are inherently limited and ambiguous, one should consider context and interpret another’s statements generously. This is especially true when translation between languages is involved.

The opposite — to interpret something in the least charitable way — implies prejudice.

Clearly the Pope does not wish to “manipulate science” and has not “publicly distorted scientific evidence” as the editorial states; to suggest this reflects badly on the motives, credibility, and critical thinking of the Editors.

As the full transcript [2] shows, his comments were ethical in nature: they observed — correctly — that an excessive public emphasis on condoms, and the resulting underemphasis on issues of the soul (“se non c’è l’anima”), personal virtue, and continence, supports an overly casual cultural attitude towards extra-marital sex which is a major contributor to the AIDS epidemic.

To paraphrase your own remark: When an influential medical journal makes comments that misrepresent the intentions and statements of religious leaders in ways that could injure the religious health of many millions of people, it should retract or correct the public record.

The Editors should seek the causes of their inability to discern the plain meaning and intentions of the Pope. Perhaps this is a clue: Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart. (Eph 4:18)

John S. Uebersax PhD
Brussels, Belgium


1. The Lancet, Volume 373, Issue 9669, Page 1054, 28 March 2009

2. “Interview of the holy father benedict xvi during the flight to Africa”. 17 March 2009.
Available at: (Accesssed 27 March 2009).

Written by John Uebersax

March 27, 2009 at 7:03 pm