Armsbearing and the Clergy in the History and Canon Law of Western Christianity

New to paperback comes Professor Lawrence G. Duggan’s acclaimed study of the vexed relationship between clergy and warfare, Armsbearing and the Clergy in the History and Canon Law of Western Christianity. Here he ponders the origins of the belief that Christians must never fight or commit violence, and shows how threats and attacks saw even the clergy take up arms to fight.

Are Christians supposed to be pacifists?

Although this is a widespread notion these days, I have concluded from my work on this book that this belief is wrong. Jesus may have recommended non-violent resistance to his followers, but he never required it; martyrdom has always been the highest option, but never an obligation. Furthermore, he commanded his disciples to go forth and convert the whole world, which would of necessity have included soldiers, whose profession he never castigated and for whom he performed miracles. In fact, in sending forth the disciples, he commanded them to sell their cloaks and buy a sword if they did not have one (Luke 11:36). When he reproved Peter for cutting off the servant’s ear by observing that “those who live by the sword die by the sword,” he was noting a simple fact, not necessarily forbidding the use of arms. Besides, Jesus was much clearer and unrelenting in his condemnation of the rich, especially those who do not share with the poor, but this has never prevented Christians of all stripes from amassing, rejoicing in, and justifying riches.

Colossal head of Constantine (4th century), Capitoline museum, Rome

If in allowing and justifying violence Christians betrayed Christ, this began long before the Crusades. From the beginning bishops not only welcomed and baptized soldiers, but also rulers, who were often soldiers and inevitably ordered the death of thousands of others. The kings of Ethiopia, Syrian Osrhoene, and Armenia were all converted to Christianity before the Roman emperors did, beginning with Constantine in the early fourth century and culminating in the establishment of Christianity as the sole official religion of the Empire by 410.

Bishops and theologians like Ambrose and Augustine came to argue that Christians could serve in the military to defend the empire and their neighbors, provided they always acted rightly. The interdiction of arms henceforth applied only to the clergy and monks, but even their bishops often perforce commanded troops in the defense of the cities of the disintegrating Roman Empire. The ban was thus never total, and it disintegrated in the conditions of the 11th and 12th centuries, first with the repulse of a second wave of invaders of western Europe (Norseman, Saracens, and Magyars), then with the defense and recovery of eastern Christendom in the form of the Crusades and especially in the emergence and approval of the military religious orders beginning with the Templars and Hospitallers.

The single most important figure here was Pope Alexander III (1159-81), who not only approved five major Iberian military orders, but also accepted as applicable to the clergy the principle in Roman and natural law that all people have the right to repel violence with violence, including clerics and monks. That became the law of the Western Christian Church, and it has remained so down to the present. This book traces all these developments.


Lawrence G. Duggan is Professor of History at the University of Delaware and research fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Armsbearing and the Clergy in the History and Canon Law of Western Christianity
by Lawrence G. Duggan
Paperback / 9781783274000 / £14.99 or $19.46
Hardback / 9781843838654 / £45 or $74.25

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