War and Christian Doctrine. (Correspondence)

First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, January 2002 | Go to article overview
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War and Christian Doctrine. (Correspondence)


No doubt every reader of Darrell Cole's "Good Wars" (October 2001) was struck, as I was, by its eerie timeliness, appearing as it did just a few days after the attack on America September 11, 2001. But rather than link his essay with the devastation of that day (an assault that could easily launch a war that future historians might someday be calling a new "Hundred Years War"), I would rather cast my glance backward to the same time in history that Professor Cole's essay also treated. For when I read the author's citations of Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, with their startling claims that war can sometimes be the most charitable course of action, I thought of another voice roughly contemporaneous with Calvin's: that of the founder of the Jesuit Order, St. Ignatius of Loyola.

On August 6, 1552, Ignatius sent two letters of reflection and instruction to Jesuit Father Jerome Nadal, who was sojourning in Sicily at the time to promulgate the newly written Constitutions of the Order. At the end, Ignatius instructed this Jesuit delegate to add one more task to these duties: he wanted Nadal to visit the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, to convince the emperor to join in Ignatius' grandly conceived plan to sweep the Turkish navy from the Mediterranean. As the editor and English translator of these missives, William Young, S.J., notes in his Letters of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Loyola University Press, 1959): "The plan reveals a broad political vision and no common gifts of organization. But no less interesting are the general principles which rule the project, and especially the supernatural motives so familiar in the saint's spiritual outlook which are at the base of the plan" [emphasis added].

Speaking of himself (as was his habit) in the third person, Ignatius says: "Seeing all this [devastation] and the losses which the pirates are wont to inflict on the coastlands, on the souls and bodies and belongings of Christian men, he has come to understand in our Lord and to hold the firm conviction that the emperor ought to muster a great fleet and regain control of the seas.... [Moreover,] he would gladly devote the rest of his old age to this plan, with no thought of the labor involved in journeying to the emperor and to the prince, or of the dangers along the way, or of his bodily ailments, or any other discomfort whatever."

Then in the second letter (sent the same day), and casting a wary eye on European geopolitics and the self-interested nationalism that would soon become the hallmark of European diplomacy (at least until it came near to destroying Western civilization in the twentieth century), Ignatius ruefully points out how easily the Ottoman Turks exploited Christian divisions: "Beginning with what little is left of Christendom, they are employing the tactics which enabled them to take Constantinople; that is, playing one prince against another, and then taking what they please from both vanquished and survivor."

But for Ignatius a strong campaign to build a large imperial navy would not only help to obviate such nationalism but would also perhaps even serve as a deterrent to war: "The reputation and honor of his majesty are involved, a reputation which must be sustained among the faithful and even the infidel. This will be vastly improved by a fleet which could seek honor and reputation in foreign parts and defend them at home without effort. As it is now, much credit and authority is lost. For this authority can be a defense in many places to one's nationals even without the backing of arms."

Needless to say, the expense of such an undertaking would have been immense. But even here Ignatius did not shirk from the implications that such a levy would have for religious houses, including those of the Jesuits: "An order could be issued," he suggested, "that many of the rich religious orders in the estates of his majesty--which could get along with much less than they have--should provide a good number of galleys.

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