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When war is — and isn’t — ‘just’

As the United States move closer to war with Iraq, the questions to ask are: Do we have just cause? And do we have the right to declare this war unilaterally?

By Russell Shaw


"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." — Mt 5:9

The Gospel message is one of reconciliation and peace. Jesus came to establish a new covenant of love, uniting God with human beings and human beings with one another.

Yet hostility and conflict have been part of the human story almost from the start. They belong to the legacy of sin, with war a central part of it. In the Book of Revelation, war is depicted as a grievous affliction symbolized by a bright red horse and a rider bearing a huge sword. His mission is "to take peace away from the earth, so that people would slaughter one another" (Rv 6:4).

Even so, Catholic teaching recognizes the right of nations to defend themselves against unjust aggression and protect essential human rights. "As long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed," said the Second Vatican Council’s "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" (Gaudium et Spes, no. 79).

The key point is that acts of self-defense be "lawful." What does that mean? How should people of conscience think about war?

As the tempo of war drums quickened in anticipation of a U.S. military assault on Iraq, that question became urgent. Many found help in the just-war theory.

Just-war thinking is not an attempt to legitimize war. It is intended to prevent proposed military adventures by subjecting them to careful moral analysis and to limit the violence of warfare when it does occur.

Pobably few wars have measured up to the rigorous just-war standards. Today, considering the destructiveness of modern warfare, some sincere people question whether just-war thinking is relevant at all. Others subscribe to nonviolence and pacifism. But the principles of just-war theory are grounded in natural law and remain as valid an approach to evaluating war’s morality as any yet devised or likely ever to be.

Just-war theory traces its origins to St. Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430), the most important Christian thinker of ancient times. It has been developed and refined by other philosophers and theologians since then.

Seven criteria usually are identified for determining the moral rightness or wrongness of a war.

To war, or not to war?

Five of the criteria pertain to the decision whether or not to go to war. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church points out, "the gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy" (no. 2309).

• First, there must be a just cause — resistance to unjust aggression or defense of essential human rights.

• Second, the decision to go to war must be made by a legitimate source of authority with responsibility for the common good.

• Third, war must be a last resort — all peaceful means of settling the conflict must have been tried and have failed.

• Fourth, a right intention must underlie the decision to go to war — revenge or hatred cannot be the motivation.

• Fifth, there must be a good chance of success, with benefits that outweigh the harm.

Rules of engagement

Two other moral criteria concern how war is waged.

• Proportionality. The force used must be reasonable in light of the legitimate military objective in view. Doing more harm than necessary is not allowed.

• Discrimination. Sometimes called the principle of noncombatant immunity, this rules out direct attacks on civilians who are not involved in waging war — for example, the deliberate obliteration bombing of cities that occurred during World War II.

The principle of discrimination is especially important because of the enormous destructive power of modern war. The council taught: "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation" (Gaudiem et Spes, no. 80).

Asking the right questions

Just-war principles apply to the situation with Iraq. But this crisis also raised some difficult new questions.

One is "pre-emption" — striking the first blow to prevent the other side from striking first. President George W. Bush has argued that "anticipatory action" in self-defense is necessary and justified.

In a letter to the president on Sept. 13 on behalf of the 60-member administrative committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, USCCB president Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., said, "A pre-emptive, unilateral use of force is difficult to justify at this time."

But, he noted, "people of good will may apply ethical principles and come to different prudential judgments, depending upon their assessment of the facts at hand and other issues." His statement echoed the teaching of the Catechism (see no. 2309), which says that, ultimately, it is civil authorities who have the responsibility to evaluate the facts and make a prudent judgment about the necessity of war.

Tyrants are bad, but. . .

Of particular concern in the Iraq situation are questions of just cause and legitimate authority.

Just cause. Just-war criteria require that war be a last resort in resisting unjust aggression. On such grounds, Church leaders generally approved the U.S. military response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks — a response directed against the al Qaeda terrorist organization and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that supported and protected it.

In the absence of conclusive evidence linking Iraq to the events of 9/11, it is an open question whether attacking Iraq can be justified on the same grounds. Clearly, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq has chemical and biological weapons and is seeking nuclear arms. Is this unjust aggression in and of itself?

The United States also made it clear it wants a regime change in Iraq — Saddam must go. Saddam is a tyrant who has oppressed his own people and threatened international stability. But it is a novel doctrine that one state has the right to attack another simply to force a change of regime.

Legitimate authority. As sovereign entities, nations have a right to act unilaterally for just reasons. In today’s interdependent world, though, the international common good and commitments to act within the framework of international bodies such as the United Nations argue against unilaterally going to war in most circumstances.

While expressing respect for the "values, judgment and interests" of others, Bush said the United States was "prepared to act apart when our interests and unique responsibilities require." Here, too, there is significant disagreement. Bishop Gregory cited the bishops’ conviction that "some form of international sanction, preferably by the U.N. Security Council," is needed to wage just war on Iraq.

Rethinking war

Wrestling with questions like these, people of conscience see a pressing need for what the council called "a completely fresh reappraisal of war" (Gaudium et Spes, no. 80).

"If peace is to be established," the council said, "the first condition is to root out the causes of discord among men which lead to wars" (no. 83).

At the conclusion of the solemn Day of Prayer for Peace, which Pope John Paul II observed with 200 other world religious leaders in Assisi, the city of St. Francis, last Jan. 24, the Pope offered this prayer — a prayer in which all people of good will can join:

"Violence never again! War never again! Terrorism never again! In the name of God, may every religion bring upon the earth justice and peace, forgiveness and life, love!"

— Shaw (rshaw@osv.com) is Our Sunday Visitor’s Washington correspondent


War and peace — and wisdom to know the difference

"We hoped for peace and a time of healing, but it was no use; terror came instead" (Jer 8:15)

When I entered graduate school at Notre Dame University in 1973, political-science students were required to take a course in Greek political theory. The woman who sat next to me during that course was Condoleezza Rice, now President Bush’s national security adviser. There, she and I absorbed Aristotle’s lesson that ethics and politics are two sides of the same coin: Justice without charity is austere; charity without justice is utopian. The statesman’s task is to be just and magnanimous by having wisdom.

Whatever their beliefs about a war in Iraq, Catholics should understand the twin traditions of Church teaching about war. Pacifism is a conscientious Christian witness that there are security decisions governments may not morally make. Just-war theory may not dismiss pacifism as mere reverie, although pacifism is historically subject to what Msgr. Ronald Knox once called "enthusiasm" — expecting too much, perhaps from tyrants unwilling to give it. Just-war proponents tell pacifists that their theory is often deficient in justice.

Just-war theory, similarly, is a treasured teaching of the Church and testifies that there are security decisions governments must sometimes make and that Christian soldiers who carry out their duties properly are honorable (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2310). Pacifists may not dismiss just-war theory as mere militarism, although just wars are historically subject to excess — excusing too much and tending to believe that the ends justify the means. Pacifism tells just-war proponents that their theory is often deficient in charity.

Pacifism tells us that we cannot eliminate evil by doing evil. Just-war theory tells us that protecting the innocent, even at the cost of life, is praiseworthy. Pacifists worry about our worshiping the false god of the state, and just-war theorists worry about our failing to fulfill our duties as citizens (see 1 Pt 2:13-14). The Church tells us that governments can impose upon citizens the burdens of national defense (see Catechism, no. 2265), but also that we must not obey the civil authorities if they order what is immoral (see no. 2242).

Just-war tradition is a method of moral reasoning — not a checklist. We need the political acumen of virtuous leaders, so we pray that our leaders, like Solomon, may turn to God and ask for "an understanding heart . . . to distinguish right from wrong," because the question about whether to employ military force "belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good" (no. 2309).

The American bishops, in 1993, in "The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace," listed several conflicts in which intervention was a responsibility of the international community. Pope John Paul II has said that humanitarian intervention is "obligatory where the survival of populations and entire ethnic groups is seriously compromised. This is a duty for nations and the international community." In the face of genocide, the Pope has told us, governments "no longer have a right to indifference." The Church teaches us that there is such a thing as remorseless war. But there is also remorseless peace, a pitiless peace, a false peace.

So in a world of Hitlers and Saddams, there are times when wise leaders may merge charity and justice in the form of limited military action.

I was debating about just war one time in Vermont. I thought I had no allies in the audience until an elderly man stood and said, "I am a musician, and I would like to tell you what is the sweetest music I have ever heard." (One person in the whole audience agrees with me, and he’s probably a nut, I fleetingly thought!)

But what he said was stunning. In 1945, as a young Jewish boy in a Nazi concentration camp, one day he heard the rumble in the distance of U.S. Army tanks. That sound was the most beautiful, he said, for it meant that he would grow to be a man.

May I offer this corollary to Reinhold Niebuhr’s "Serenity Prayer": "O God of perfect love and justice, give us the forbearance to refrain from war whenever we ought to; the courage to wage just war whenever we should; and sufficient wisdom to know the difference." » James Toner (oursunvis@osv.com) is the Coors Chair of Character Development at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo.

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