Viva Cristo Rey! That cry of “Long Live Christ the King” was the last phrase on the lips of Blessed José Sánchez del Río as he was martyred. His recitation of the Cristeros battle cry affirmed his commitment to Christ and the rightness of the Catholic forces’ fight against government persecution.
As we approach Blessed José’s canonization on October 16, it is worth reflecting on his story in light of our own situation as Catholics today. Undoubtedly many in the coming weeks will connect his story with the struggle to freely practice our faith in an increasingly hostile world. I have a different focus in mind: how Blessed José’s story demonstrates that some things are worth fighting to defend.
It wasn’t my work as a theologian that led me to reflect on Blessed José’s canonization. It was my experience as a father. When we recite a brief litany of saints as part of our nightly prayers, Blessed José is one of the favorite intercessors for our two boys. While the girls tend toward Thérèse, Clare, and Bernadette, the boys consistently invoke the prayers of Blessed José along with Saints Michael and George. Of course, the common thread between the Cristeros fighter, archangel, and Roman soldier is their bearing of arms in defense of the innocent.
Someday they may be drawn to the sort of radical simplicity embodied by St. Francis, or the intellectual virtues of St. Augustine. But for now, the bravery of Blessed José and St. George attracts my sons and in the process they are taught how strength should be channeled toward good ends in the service of others. As they grow into teens and young men that will be a vital lesson. And yet, for many proponents of Catholic pacifism, my sons’ desire to be like St. George or Blessed José is a tendency toward sin and incompatible with true Christianity.
There have always been some in the Church, like St. Francis, who have given up the right to use force out of a desire to radically emulate Christ and anticipate the full realization of His Kingdom. Much like celibacy, such a sacrifice can be a powerful witness. But, many outspoken pacifists are proposing something quite different today. “We believe there is no such thing as a ‘just war.’” That statement would recast pacifism as an obligation for all Catholics. And it is not just violence in war that is rejected; these voices call for their understanding of Catholic nonviolence to be integrated into all aspects of Catholic life and practice.
Reasonably, the Church will not, and cannot, begin teaching that all use of force is sinful. Just war theory has been the consistent teaching of the ordinary magisterium for centuries. But, that brings us back to the impending canonization of Blessed José and two important questions for the pacifists.
First, how could the all-pacific position possibly be reconciled with the canonization of Blessed José? If there is no “just war,” how can the Church canonize a soldier who died with his army’s battle cry on his lips? Canonization may not mean a person is free from sin, but it would be ludicrous for the Church to declare someone a saint when his cause is rooted in something that is “always immoral.”
Second, what should I tell my sons — that the use of force is always corrupt and sinful? Should I discourage their devotion to their favorite saints? If I tell them that their natural desire to be strong or to fight for justice is inevitably corrupt and incompatible with their faith, I am setting up a conflict between their understanding of their faith and their conscience. And, when their conscience tells them that there are times when force and war are indeed just, they will either compartmentalize their faith or reject it. Either way, great damage would be done.
None of this is to deny the truly tragic nature of war. Many wars are unjust, and every war produces innocent suffering. In our modern world we see the poignant images reflecting that on a daily basis. As Catholics, we ought to do everything we can to minimize that suffering and seek non-violent means of confronting evil whenever possible.
Just war theory has always demanded as much, and that is crucially different from claiming that war can never be just. On behalf of my sons and their faith, I will resist that false teaching — nonviolently of course.