Jacques Maritain, circa 1930 (Wikimedia Commons)

In December 1939, Jacques Maritain, arguably the most important Catholic intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century, marveled in the pages of Commonweal at the power with which “events challenge the spirit.”


The events of that tumultuous and trying decade involved suffering and bloodshed, and included a global depression and human carnage across continents. As the 1930s drew to a close, people were faced with the dispiriting reality of a second world war, and Commonweal editors wrestled with the American people’s increasing isolationist bent and the moral obligation to oppose evil forces mobilizing to destroy human life and freedom.


In the fire of such events, Maritain cautioned, reason has a duty to see clearly. In this case, seeing clearly meant accepting the just declaration of war by France and England against Nazi Germany, a regime that held high “the banners of blasphemy and of pagan empire.” Nothing less would prevent the world’s enslavement to “the lust for brutal domination by which Hitler’s totalitarianism is obsessed.”


Writing in exile from his native France, Maritain believed war was a scourge worse than plague or famine; to even consider it as a means to achieve political objectives was, for him, barbaric. And yet, he nevertheless recognized the Anglo-French declarations of war, issued only two short months before the publication of his essay, as necessary against such an “iniquitous aggressor.”


Though he plainly acknowledged that the war of armies had become the war of peoples, he also saw amid this “cosmic cataclysm” that the rule governing what is just and unjust had remained constant in the battle between good and evil. “But if it acts in its true character of iniquity by swallowing and by absorbing the things of God into the things of Caesar,” he wrote “we act in our true character of justice by maintaining the distinction between them, even though the temporal cause which we defend is in closest relation to the sacred welfare of souls.”


Neither Maritain’s essay nor Commonweal’s editorials calling for greater U.S. involvement in the escalating conflict in Europe had much immediate effect. Most Americans opposed U.S. intervention until the attacks on Pearl Harbor. But Maritain did succeed in situating Catholic just-war thinking at the center of public debate and in advancing difficult conversations about the morality of war, for Christians and non-Christians alike.


Throughout the rest of Commonweal’s first century, it has continued to weigh its positions on war against the criteria Maritain outlines. Writers like George Shuster, Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan, William Pfaff, Andrew J. Bachevich, William T. Cavanaugh, and Phil Klay, to name just a few, have reckoned in these pages with the moral and spiritual implications of, among many other events, the widespread American Catholic support for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq and, most recently, the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza.


As we continue to celebrate the magazine’s one hundredth year of publication, we are pleased to present Jacques Maritain’s “Just War,” whose argument is as relevant now as it was eighty years ago.

With what power events, when they involve suffering and bloodshed, challenge the spirit. More than ever, reason has a duty to see clearly. But in the fire of such events ideas are quickly put to the test.

Many people thought that under modern world conditions there could no longer be a just war; this idea seemed to them tenable in the abstract, yet it was false. Of course it is true that the criteria for a just war established by the theologians of the classic age need revision, for war itself has radically changed: the war of armies has become the war of peoples, and is something which more closely resembles a cosmic cataclysm than the “last recourse” (ultima ratio) of those theologians. Yet in this cosmic cataclysm human beings are engaged, and hence the rules governing what is just and what is unjust remain. Confronted with the joint action by which the two peoples of France and of England—in order to challenge the frightful passion of violence and pride which thrust out against Poland and in order to prevent the world’s being enslaved to the lust for brutal domination by which Hitler’s totalitarianism is obsessed—decided to go to war against Germany, what man of right judgment would not say in conscience: this war against Germany is a just war?

Here is no question of an ideological war. It is not to serve an Idea or a divinized abstract Principle that France and Great Britain are giving the blood of their children and jeopardizing their heritage of civilization. It is rather for the elementary realities in the absence of which human life ceases to be human. It is rather in order that countries old in the tradition of justice and honor—where man can still breathe freely, order his own person, his work and his feelings, bring up his sons like himself, not as chattels of the state—may protect their historic existence and even their reason for existing.

Nor is there here any question of a holy war. The people of this country have enough common sense, they know well enough what every war brings with it and after it, in misery and in poison and in the intensification of the most vile as well as the exaltation of the most noble in our earthly life, to guard themselves against enlisting the sanctity of the ineffable Name in the temporal war which they are fighting.

It is a question of a just war. Fighing for justice—suffering and dying so that a bestial barbarism may not rule over the earth—they know (at least those who have the light of faith know) that they may count upon the help of God. They do not say: our cause is divine, our cause is the cause of God, we are the soldiers of God. They say: our cause is human, it is the cause of that human community desired by God in the natural order and which is called our fatherland, and which, hating war, has been forced to resort to war against an iniquitous aggressor; and because our cause is just, God will have pity on us.

They do not say: our cause is divine, our cause is the cause of God, we are the soldiers of God. They say: our cause is human, it is the cause of that human community desired by God.

And yet if ever a war could seem bathed in the reflections of supernatural struggles, as though already assigned its place on this side of the “threshold of the Apocalypse,” as Léon Bloy used to say, it is certainly this war which has just begun. The enemy with whom we are dealing holds high the banners of blasphemy and of pagan empire; the alliance of atheism with idolatrous racism has uncovered its true countenance. But if it acts in its true character of iniquity by swallowing and by absorbing the things of God into the things of Caesar, we act in our true character of justice by maintaining the distinction between them, even though the temporal cause that we defend is in closest relation to the sacred welfare of souls. For, precisely because the common good of the terrestrial community is not the ultimate end of human beings, it is essential to this common good that it be oriented toward a higher end; but this supremely real reference remains indirect and transcendent, and the external goods with which it is concerned extend beyond that which properly comprises the temporal welfare and the just cause of our earthly fatherland. Let us understand, therefore, and respect, the wariness with which the people of France approach those religious values with which, whether they like it or not, their cause is associated in this war. This wariness, which is a sort of modesty, is also at the same time a kind of rationalist false modesty. Someday it will cease. France will call upon God with love. And in order to receive His grace and His mercy, she will never in pride claim Him for herself alone in order to take unto herself His power.

What I would now like to point out is that the question of the justice of a war—which relates to a specific act and a dispute between men—and the question of its distant origins—which relate to the endless concatenations and criss-crossings of many acts and a dispute between the human conscience and the Master of history—are two quite different questions. For one thing, we know that sin is the cause of all the evil that happens on earth and that all men are sinners; for another thing, we know that a man may defend a just cause against an unjust adversary. And these two things are both true at the same time.

That which makes a war either just or unjust is, in essence, the immediate purpose and motive which determined it. The war against German National Socialism has for its immediately determining purpose and motive to resist the aggression of which Poland has been the victim, and to resist unbridled imperialist greed: it is a just war.

The remote origins of every war—which, moreover, involve the interior life of each people just as much as the relations between peoples—consist in accumulated moral evil. They consist in egoism, forgetfulness of the commonweal, an inordinate love for material goods, hardness of heart, a refusal to recognize the very existence of others; they consist in stupidity or folly, the weakness or ambitious fury of those in power, and that scorn for justice and for love, that scorn for God which is the boast of a politics holding itself aloof from natural ethics and the law of the Gospels. They consist in the seven deadly sins which, having flourished for a certain length of time, at last bear their fruit, in accordance with the very laws of that nature which they try to spoil.

Certainly in all this there are unequal responsibilities; the infinite Spirit recognizes these and weighs them; they may be immensely different, one from the other. In the last analysis, one way or another, to one degree or another, and without permitting the man of blood who has unleashed war in any way to clear himself of his crime, nobody, when it comes to the remote origins of a war, is altogether innocent before God.

Germany wages an unjust—a manifestly, monstrously unjust—war; and to the extent that she has yielded to Hitler and given herself over to him, her part in the underlying causes and the remote origins of the war is enormous. Yet she is not alone in carrying the burden of the sins from which the war sprung. That her war should be unjust and criminal does not free the other peoples from the duty of making themselves humble before God. That the other peoples should have some share before God in the remote origins of the war in no way makes Germany innocent of the crime of the unjust war she is waging nor of the barbarous fashion in which she is waging it.

The hard lessons of the last war and of what came after must not be lost. The German people became auto-intoxicated by the idea that not only must they recognize—what was strict truth—that they had in 1914 undertaken an unjust war, but admit that they alone—like a damned soul—carried the whole burden of the sins from which that war arose. The mistake which made possible this fatal auto-intoxication will not be made again. Nor will we once more identify the German people—however great Germany’s moral complicity—with Hitler and his totalitarianism. The Führer’s fundamental fraud, his glory as Antichrist, is to believe and to wish to be the incarnate Word of his people. Down with this false glory, this lie! He is not the incarnate Word of his people; he is their vampire.

Sane politics requires the distinctions of which I speak; they have a major political importance. They are difficult for the human mind to accept. If one were not helped in his acceptance of them by a Christian conception of life, who could, in practice, admit them—while at the same time detesting to the marrow of his bones the abominations of total war and the sacrifices to which a magnificent generation of youth, and many human beings dearer to him than life, are exposed? It is terribly manifest, how a sane and truly realistic politics needs, if it is to preserve its clear insight, that feeling, which Christianity gives, for common human misery and at the same time for moral realities and the requirements of justice.

Because they are waging a just war, the peoples who are fighting Germany must have an inflexible will, to make justice triumph. Because it is truly in their character as Christian peoples that Hitlerism hates them and that they are put to the test, they are themselves summoned to a fundamental purification and to a renewal of which we can scarcely imagine the magnitude.

Whoever observes their determination, quiet and without hatred, whoever ponders the heroism of Poland, sees these peoples going into a fiery furnace just as the Christian enters into the purifying night of the soul, where in the midst of great anguish insuperable hope is never disappointed.

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Published in the January 2024 issue: View Contents
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