The Returning Warrior and the Limits of Just War Theory

84 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2014

See all articles by Robert J. Delahunty

Robert J. Delahunty

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota)

Date Written: March 26, 2014


In this essay, I seek to explore a Christian tradition that is neither the just war theory nor pacifism. Unlike pacifism, this tradition teaches that war is a necessary and inescapable aspect of the human condition, and that Christians cannot escape from engaging in it. Unlike just war theory, this tradition holds that engaging in war is intrinsically sinful, however justifiable that activity may be considered to be in the light of human law, morality or reason. Michael Walzer captured the essence of this way of thinking in a celebrated essay on the problem of “dirty hands.” Although Walzer’s essay was chiefly about political rather than military action, he rightly observed that there was a strand in Christian reflection that saw killing, whether in a just or unjust war, as defiling or even sinful, even if it conformed to moral and legal standards. That tradition, though subordinate, still survives in Christian, especially Lutheran, thought.

The Church’s thought about war and peace went through several phases before finally settling on the just war theory. Throughout much of the Middle Ages, the Church’s approach to war was primarily pastoral and unsystematic. Although opinions varied widely depending on the circumstances, the early medieval Church was commonly skeptical of the permissibility of killing in warfare. Rather, the Church at that time tended to the view that killing – even in a just war – was sinful and required penance. The decisive change from that attitude towards a systematic just war theory took place during the great eleventh century Reform – some would say, Revolution -- under Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand) and his immediate predecessors and twelfth century successors. These papacies marked the emergence of the Church as a prototype of the early modern European State, equipped with legislative authority, courts, a legal and administrative bureaucracy and even a military enforcement arm. As an essential part of this epochal transformation, the Papal program required the Church to abandon its earlier skepticism about war and to settle on the view that war could be justifiable, even sanctified.

Keywords: law and war, christian tradition and war, law and religion, Catholic teaching on war, just war, pacifism

Suggested Citation

Delahunty, Robert J., The Returning Warrior and the Limits of Just War Theory (March 26, 2014). Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion, 2014, Forthcoming, U of St. Thomas (Minnesota) Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-15, Available at SSRN:

Robert J. Delahunty (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota) ( email )

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Minneapolis, MN Minnesota 55403-2005
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