Dear Father Joe
Q: Is it a sin to join the military if the war is unjust
catechist asked, “How many of you children would like to go to
All raised their hands except little Jimmy. The teacher asked
him why not.
“I’m sorry,” Jimmy replied. “Mommy told me to come right home
after Sunday School.”
A: This is a tough one and a bit nuanced. Let’s see what we can do
Often, in these musings of mine, I will point out how we need to
form our consciences in union with the church and its teachings.
In this case, as polarized as we are politically, it is
particularly important that we look to the church for guidance
in order to keep from “baptizing our politics.”
When you speak of an unjust war, then, let’s look at the
church’s standard for what is a just war.
Our wisdom on this comes primarily from St. Thomas Aquinas. You
can find it in your catechism in section 2309, which states
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:
• The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or
community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain;
• All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown
to be impractical or ineffective;
• There must be serious prospects of success;
• The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver
than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of
destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs
to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for
the common good.
What we are to do with this information, then, is place it in
our hearts, listen for the church to make a declaration about
whether the war is just or not, and then pray for the wisdom to
If the church has not spoken, you will need to follow your own
conscience about whether or not you believe the war in question
to be unjust or not.
People who join the military do so for numerous reasons: some
require the vast financial assistance available to them if they
join; others seek training in fields that will provide them with
a lifetime of skills, which will feed them and their families.
Other people join to grow in discipline and or “team concept.”
There will also be those noble persons who join the military out
of a sense of duty and gratitude.
Whatever the reasons, if someone joins the military during a
time of “unjust war” in order to provide assistance in a
non-killing manner, I believe that to be morally acceptable. For
instance, priests who serve as chaplains in the military do not
necessarily need to agree with the war to believe that their
help is desperately needed. Medical doctors, or those in
training to be doctors, may feel that they are called to offer
their skills to soldiers in a war that they believe to be unjust
or that the church has deemed unjust.
Can I be a conscientious objector?
A: Not until there is a draft ... OK, bad joke, sorry.
Absolutely. I can find no teaching from the church that says you
have to join or accept the draft into the military, even if the
church declares a war just. In section 2311, the catechism
Public authorities should make equitable provision for those who
for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms; these are
nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other
So, that much is clear. We know that if an individual feels
called to be a conscientious objector, he or she is not just
allowed to follow that prompting but is actually required to do
Let’s pray and work for peace.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!