A Christian Soldier Under Caesar? Was it Licit?

And the soldiers also asked him, saying: And what shall we do? And he said to them: Do violence to no man; neither calumniate any man; and be content with your pay (Matthew 3:14).

Then Jesus saith to him: Put up again thy sword into its place: for all that take the sword shall perish with the sword (Matthew 26:52).

The question came to my mind the other day whether or not an early Christian in the Apostolic and sub-Apostolic Age could be a soldier in the Roman army before the reign of Constantine?

On the one hand, Saint John the Baptist does not tell the soldiers who came to him to leave the army. Who were these soldiers? They could have been Jewish temple guards, or soldiers of Herod, but more likely it would seem that they were Gentile soldiers in the Roman army who were moved by John’s preaching and sincerely wanted to serve the one true God and follow His commandments. These came to John because in military service they had committed many sins and were now, in a better light, faced with many temptations, not the least of which was complicity with idolatry. Caesar’s troops invoked the false gods before battle and offered them incense in thanksgiving for victories. No righteous Gentile could partake of such before and most certainly after the coming of Christ.

But, the Baptist does not mention idolatry in addressing these soldiers. It would seem that they were not tempted in that regard, for they were devoted to the teaching of the great prophet in the desert. Nor did Saint John warn them against fornication or adultery, or even drunkenness. That is to say, it is not recorded in the Gospels that he did so. In a life of military service, however, there was violence. Such is the nature of combat. And, in their common life together, soldiers had to contend all the time with grumblers and calumniators. A soldier’s life, even under pagan Rome, required discipline. The lower caste among them had hopes for advancement, and Roman citizenship, as well, if they were not already so privileged. Drunkenness and debauchery would get a soldier expelled quickly. He would be deemed irresponsible and a cancer to order and morale. Consequently we find Saint John warning against other things that were typically disruptive of good morals. The soldiers had no union representative; they were expected to be content with the pay they agreed to when enlisting. If they were mercenaries, then, too, they ought not to grumble.

Nor does Our Lord Himself require the Roman centurion to forfeit his duties; he whose faith Jesus so lauded before He cured his servant from a distance: “Lord I am not worthy that thou should come under my roof. Only say the word and my servant shall be healed” (Matthew 8:8).

Nor does Saint Peter say to the centurion Cornelius, who sends for him in Acts 10:47, that he must resign his military post.

On the other hand, Our Savior admonishes Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane to put his sword away adding “for all that take the sword shall perish with the sword.” But Peter had a higher vocation than the Roman centurions.

It would seem that in regard to serving in the Roman army what Our Lord applies to paying taxes to Caesar also applies to serving in his army.

Does this mean that a Christian has no higher obligation than obedience to his military superior? Hardly. No, the Christian soldier must first keep free of any act of idolatry; second, do violence to no man (which includes doing violence to a man’s reputation by calumny) and third, be content with his pay. Calumny is singled out because the gentiles may not have taken it as serious an evil as other more debasing sins of the flesh. Yet, it is like murder, destroying a victim’s good name and that, not merely by detraction, but with the sword of an outright lie

Obviously, it is the second point that poses a problem. How does a soldier avoid violence if he engages in battle? He cannot. What he can do, and must do, is respect the life of civilians. Furthermore, he cannot fight in a clearly unjust war. If the legions of Rome invaded a peaceful nation to plunder it, steal its lands, and kill its people, a Christian soldier could not take part, not even in fighting the opposition’s soldiers. Where there may be a doubt, as you will see in Saint Augustine’s treatise below, the soldier can assume that there is a just cause and render obedience. (Saint Ambrose teaches the same [Sermon 7] as cited by Cornelius a Lapide.) Church fathers, Tertullian and Origen, on the other hand (neither of them saints), insisted that a Christian could not be a soldier in any army.

Without further ado, let us see what the African Doctor of the Church writes to the heretic Faustus on the subject of war.

Contra Faustum Book XXII

What is the evil in war? Is it the death of some who will soon die in any case, that others may live in peaceful subjection? This is mere cowardly dislike, not any religious feeling. The real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power, and such like; and it is generally to punish these things, when force is required to inflict the punishment, that, in obedience to God or some lawful authority, good men undertake wars, when they find themselves in such a position as regards the conduct of human affairs, that right conduct requires them to act, or to make others act in this way. Otherwise John, when the soldiers who came to be baptized asked, What shall we do? Would have replied, Throw away your arms; give up the service; never strike, or wound, or disable any one. But knowing that such actions in battle were not murderous but authorized by law, and that the soldiers did not thus avenge themselves, but defend the public safety, he replied, “Do violence to no man, accuse no man falsely, and be content with your wages” ( Luke 3:14). But as the Manichæans are in the habit of speaking evil of John, let them hear the Lord Jesus Christ Himself ordering this money to be given to Cæsar, which John tells the soldiers to be content with. “Give,” He says, “to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s” (Matthew 22:21). For tribute-money is given on purpose to pay the soldiers for war. Again, in the case of the centurion who said, “I am a man under authority, and have soldiers under me: and I say to one, Go, and he goes; and to another, Come, and he comes; and to my servant, Do this, and he does it,” Christ gave due praise to his faith (Matthew 8:9-10). He did not tell him to leave the service. But there is no need here to enter on the long discussion of just and unjust wars.

75. A great deal depends on the causes for which men undertake wars, and on the authority they have for doing so; for the natural order which seeks the peace of mankind, ordains that the monarch should have the power of undertaking war if he thinks it advisable, and that the soldiers should perform their military duties in behalf of the peace and safety of the community. When war is undertaken in obedience to God, who would rebuke, or humble, or crush the pride of man, it must be allowed to be a righteous war; for even the wars which arise from human passion cannot harm the eternal well-being of God, nor even hurt His saints; for in the trial of their patience, and the chastening of their spirit, and in bearing fatherly correction, they are rather benefited than injured. No one can have any power against them but what is given him from above. For there is no power but of God (Romans 13:1) who either orders or permits. Since, therefore, a righteous man, serving it may be under an ungodly king, may do the duty belonging to his position in the State in fighting by the order of his sovereign — for in some cases it is plainly the will of God that he should fight, and in others, where this is not so plain [doubtful], it may be an unrighteous command on the part of the king, while the soldier is innocent, because his position makes obedience a duty, — how much more must the man be blameless who carries on war on the authority of God, of whom every one who serves Him knows that He can never require what is wrong?

Please note that Saint Augustine is not saying that a soldier can obey any command against the law of God; he is saying that when there is a doubt as to the justice of a military campaign, the soldier can obey orders and fight the soldiers of the enemy, presuming that his superiors know better than he the righteousness of the cause. Never, ever, however, can a soldier commit violence against an innocent person or civilian. This would include burning the property or crops of civilians or otherwise destroying their livelihood.

Examples of Military Saints from the Early Church

There are many saints and martyrs who served in the Roman army under evil emperors. One immediately calls to mind — the Theban Legion. Under their leader Saint Maurice, 6600 Christian soldiers, most of whom Egyptian, were martyred in Switzerland in the year 287 for refusing to sacrifice to idols. These soldiers fought under the pagan emperor Maximian. They did not refuse their service in suppressing a revolt against Rome in Burgundy. What they refused to do was to offer incense to gods (and to the “divine” emperor) before battle. And for this they were slain for Christ.

Other Christian soldiers and martyrs who served in the Roman army before Constantine’s reign were:

Saint Andrew the General (303, Cilicia). He was a general in the Roman army under Emperor Maximian. Refusing the pay tribute to the false gods, he and 2593 of his men were beheaded in Syria under orders of the diabolical leader of all the troops, Antiocus, who hated the Christian religion. Andrew was tortured first, but this was to no avail.

Saint Demetrius of Thessalonica (306). He was a nobelman and soldier from Thessalonica, where he was also martyred, under the persecution of Diocletian.

Saint Eustace (118). He was converted while hunting when he saw a crucifix shinning in the antlers of a deer, just as another saint, Hubert, did. He sought baptism and along with receiving the sacrament changed his name from Placidus to Eustace. He converted his family and, together with his wife and sons, was roasted to death for refusing to sacrifice to idols. He was from Tivoli, near Rome.

Saints Florian, George, Victor the Moor, and Expeditus (303). Of these Saint George is the most popular. He was a member of the Roman Praetorian Guard, a tribune; his father, from Cappadocia (today Turkey) was a general in the Roman army. George is a Greek name. He was martyred under Diocletian for refusing to recant his Catholic Faith. The emperor tried every worldly ruse to get George to sacrifice to idols, but the holy tribune would not waver. He was subsequently beheaded in Nicomedia. As we know, George is one of the patron saints of England. Why that is so is another story. He was also the patron saint of the Crusaders.

Saint Menas of Phrygia (309). Called the “Wonder Worker” Saint Menas was a Christian soldier in the imperial army. He joined the army as a young man in Egypt and was sent to Phrygia. When the persecutions of Maximian and Diocletian were raging there he left the army and retired to a hermetical life in the mountains. When his fellow Christians were being slaughtered in the city he came out of seclusion and professed his Faith publicly during a circus. He was arrested, scourged, and finally beheaded. His body was returned to Egypt where he is to this day highly venerated.

Saint Martin of Tours (397) was a soldier for a time under Julian the Apostate before abandoning military life for that of a hermit, abbot, and bishop. He was the uncle of Saint Patrick. He had determined in his mid-life that he could not serve Christ and Julian.

Lastly, I wish to include the martyrs, John and Paul, brothers, martyred by Julian the Apostate in 362. They were Roman soldiers of high rank in the imperial army who retired from service during Julian’s persecution. They were beheaded in Rome for refusing to worship idols at the command of Julian. They are named in the Canon of the Mass.

It also shoud be noted that the wretched apostate emperor passed a decree in his short two-year reign expelling all Christians from the Roman army.

I kept my examples of military saints to the early centuries of the Church. If I went too far beyond that I would have to write a book. Let these three saints suffice: The soldier, Saint Ignatius Loyola (+1556), after all, originally named his order, The Company of Jesus. The word “Jesuit” was actually a pejorative term used in the fifteenth century to mock those devout Catholics who repeatedly invoked the Holy Name. The term fared well with the Protestants who used it to malign the Company or “Society” of Jesus. In an ironic twist of history, Ignatius the soldier fought for Spain when Ferdinand and Isabella invaded the Kingdom of Navarre, which was then allied with France under King John III. The two Catholic nations fought each other for eighteen years, Spain dominating in the end. Fighting for Navarre were two of Saint Francis Xavier’s brothers. Perhaps it was one of them whose cannonball happily wounded the wayward Loyolan, leading to his conversion? In God’s wonderful Providence the mystic General teamed up with the great missionary-to-be from the castle of Xavier, and, after the latter’s conversion, Ignatius sent him on his mission “to set the world on fire.”

Too, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2000, canonized the Portuguese warrior saint, Blessed Nuno Alvares Pereira. A little more than a century before Ignatius, Saint Nuno, led his soldiers to victory against Spain in 1383-85. His 6,500 Portuguese troops defeated over 30,000 Castilians in the battle of Aljubarrota in 1385. This victory secured Portugal’s independence from Spain.

Lastly, I cannot fail to mention Saint Joan of Arc. Hers is a unique case as she was commissioned by God Himself, through His saints, to fight the English invaders and their French quislings. She led the French troops in battle carrying a banner she herself had created, which had the image of Our Lord Crucified on it. She never had to use the sword she carried: “I loved my banner forty times better than my sword” she said at her trial. She was captured in a battle against the Burgundian traitors who supported the English. They handed her over to the enemy invaders. But it wasn’t the English who condemned her to death. It was an inquisition of disloyal clergy led by the French Bishop Pierre Cauchon. She was martyred in 1431 at the age of nineteen, burned at the stake.

Although, it is a terrible thing when two Catholic nations go to war against each other, each soldier being a Member of the Mystical Body of Christ, God can and does draw good from it. Prescinding from all the injustices that move one Christian nation to make war on another, am I being too simplistic by affirming that both sides are never equally at fault? No, rather, it seems to me that when grievances are weighed in the balance, the truth is that one side is less at fault than the other. Or, one side is more justified than the other in the final analysis. Nevertheless, “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” and “There is safety where there is much counsel” (Proverbs 11:14).

Our readers may be interested in a book just published by Loreto Publications called Gospel of Peace, by Father John J. Hugo. The book deals with the subject of a just and unjust war. You can order this book from our bookstore here.