Catholics and the Military in the Age of the Apostles (001 - 100 A.D.)


---The Italian Cohort and St. Cornelius

The New Testament on Just War
---St. John the Baptist and the Soliders
---Jesus and the Centurion
---Jesus on the Right of Armed Defense
---St. Paul and the Armed Guards
---St. Paul on the Ruler's Sword
---The Book of Hebrews on Good Warriors
---The Book of Revelation on Just War

Catholics in the Military

The Italian Cohort and St. Cornelius

Acts 10:1-2, 22, 48 -- “At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God. ... [He was] well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation… And [Peter] commanded [him] to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

The Italian Cohort is the only regiment of the Roman army that I am aware of where we have solid data of at least one Catholic soldier belonging to it in the Age of the Apostles. One interesting feature of this passage is that it lays stress on St. Cornelius’ piety even before he became a Catholic. This is evidence that one can be devout and pious, in the mind of God, even while being a soldier, and that this was regarded in the Church of this age as being perfectly compatible with being a Christian.

The New Testament on Just War

St. John the Baptist and the Soldiers

Luke 3:14 -- “Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.’ ”

This is perhaps the earliest indication in the New Testament that Christians can justly serve in the military. St. John the Baptist tells some disciples to accept their wages as soldiers, and therefore he implies that they may remain soldiers. He could not do that if being a soldier was evil.

Jesus and the Centurion

Luke 7:2-9 -- “Now a centurion had a slave who was dear to him, who was sick and at the point of death. … When [Jesus] was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying to him, ‘Lord...say the word, and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, “Go,” and he goes; and to another, “Come,” and he comes; and to my slave, “Do this,” and he does it.’ When Jesus heard this he marveled at him, and turned and said to the multitude that followed him, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ ”

This passage comes at a point in Luke’s gospel where Jesus is forming a community of disciples. I think this community of Jesus’ disciples was an early stage in the development of the Catholic Church. A very significant person in this community was this centurion. His experience as a soldier informed his faith, because he made a favorable comparison between the authority he saw in Jesus and the authority he wielded over other soldiers. Jesus praises the centurion for his faith, and to me this indicates that Jesus was okay with at least one of His disciples being in the military.

Jesus on the Right of Armed Defense

Luke 22:35-38 -- “[Before now] I sent you out with no purse or bag or sandals… But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was reckoned with transgressors’; for what is written about me has its fulfilment.” And they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.” And he said to them, “It is enough.”

This passage can be used to defend the right to armed defense, which is an important foundation of the just war doctrine. Jesus sends the apostles on a journey and tells them to take two swords. That is the same as telling them to be armed. There is evidence that this was for the purpose of defending one another in case the Apostles were noticed by robbers. Thus, the right to armed defense is defensible from the teaching of Jesus.

This is significant in the history of the doctrine of just war because one of the principles of just war is that it ought to be fought for the purpose of defending against an unjust attack. The same reason that gives small communities the right to armed defense gives large communities the right to armed defense. Nations who arm themselves for the purpose of defending people in case there is an unjust attack are simply a larger example of the principle at work in this passage.

St. Paul and the Armed Guards

Acts 23:12-31 -- “When it was day, the Jews made a plot and bound themselves by an oath neither to eat nor drink till they had killed Paul. There were more than forty who made this conspiracy. … Now the son of Paul’s sister heard of their ambush; so he went and entered the barracks and told Paul. And Paul called one of the centurions… [The tribune] called two [more] centurions and said, ‘At the third hour of the night get ready two hundred soldiers with seventy horsemen and two hundred spearmen to go as far as Caesarea. Also provide mounts for Paul to ride, and bring him safely to Felix the governor.’ ”

In this passage St. Paul appears to respond to a plot against his life by securing himself with an armed guard. A Jewish coalition was trying to kill him, he informed the Roman centurion who was keeping him imprisoned, and then St. Paul was provided with an armed guard. This seems to be what St. Paul wanted, as the messenger he sent to notify the guard told the guard, “do not yield” to the Jewish militia -- verse 21.

This supports the right of armed defense, which is an important foundation of the just war doctrine. If St. Paul could legitimately obtain an armed guard to secure his safe journey to Caesarea, then it seems to follow that it is not wrong to arm yourself against a possible unjust assault. If a group of people do that, then you’ve got a militia. If a militia has someone appointed to organize their decisions about where to go, then they are an army.

St. Paul on the Ruler’s Sword

Romans 13:4 -- “[The ruler] does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.”

In this passage St. Paul teaches that the State has the right to use the sword, at least under certain conditions. This justifies several of the principles of the just war doctrine.

For one, this implies that the government has a right to arm itself to defend its people, because the sword is a form of bearing arms. For another, the use of the sword in this passage is reactionary, the evildoer acted first. This is one place where the first principle of just war is supported: a just war ought to be defensive. As a result, this passage is one of the passages traditionally used by Catholic thinkers to conclude that some wars can be just.

The Book of Hebrews on Good Warriors

Hebrews 11:32-39 - “[T]ime would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice...escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, [and] put foreign armies to flight. ...[T]he world was not worthy [of them]...[for they were] well attested by their faith.”

The Book of Hebrews praises good warriors from the Old Testament specifically for their virtue in war. This implies that war can be waged virtuously. Also, the author indicates two things about their faith: it was shown in their warfare and it prefigures New Testament faith. From this, we can conclude that the New Testament isn't opposed to warfare. Some Old Testament wars and warriors are given as examples to follow. It seems to follow that there can be noble wars and warriors among Christians.

The Book of Revelation on Just War

Revelation 19:11 -- “Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in justice he judges and makes war.”

There are several reasons why this passage informs the just war tradition. For one, Jesus is portrayed as a warrior in these verses: “he judges and makes war.” For another, the warfare He wages fits with the Crusading/Just War tradition: the Antichrist is persecuting the Church, and Jesus rides in with the host of heaven to liberate the Church.

For these reasons and others, I think that the Book of Revelation’s imagery here informs the just war tradition, particularly the language. The phrase “in justice...[he] makes war” seems to put together in advance the two words “justice” and “war” that combine to create the terminology of the just war tradition.


  1. Thank you so much for putting together this wonderful assembly of passages! This article is a true treasure.

    1. You're welcome! Also check out this page, which has more examples of just war doctrine and practice from other parts of Church History:

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.