Just War – when force is needed to protect innocents.
Is there such a thing as a “just war” anymore?
More specifically, do Catholic just-war principles — which originated in an age of hand-to-hand combat involving swords and spears — maintain relevance in a time of nuclear warheads, chemical weapons, and terrorism?
“Just-war theory is responsive in nature, so it does develop over time,” said Ronald Rychlak, professor at the University of Mississippi School of Law. “In some ways, it is driven by developments in warfare, but also by deeper thinking.”
Just-war doctrine, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls it, has indeed evolved over time to address new considerations and circumstances. Its fundamental principles, however, have remained a fixture in Church teaching over many centuries.
Justice and Peace
The Church’s just-war doctrine is rooted in Christ’s commandment to show love and mercy even to our enemies. e Church also has long acknowledged that situations exist in which nations can be morally justified in taking up arms to combat evil.
St. Augustine formulated the rudiments of these principles in the fifth century. He reasoned that for peace and order to reign among nations there must be peace and order within the souls of individual persons. Interior peace requires the virtue of justice, which encompasses all other virtues that bring order to the soul.
Because humanity is sinful, however, there will always be disordered souls inclined toward evil who threaten this peace. Because of this, nations may prudently use military force to restore justice. “Peace should be the object of your desire,” Augustine wrote. “War should be waged only as a necessity… that peace may be obtained.”
In waging just war, Augustine taught, nations must act as peacemakers, seeking to lead evildoers back toward peaceful coexistence and showing mercy to the conquered and captured. Even war must be motivated by love — for the enemy as well as its victims.
In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas said just war has “the object of securing peace, of repressing evil and supporting the good.” He proposed three conditions: Just war must be declared and waged by lawful authority, be truly necessary for achieving a just cause, and be conducted with the intention of restoring justice and peace.
Collectively these principles have formed the basis for just-war tradition ever since. In the years preceding the Second World War, Pope Pius XII — whom Rychlak defended against charges of inaction during the Holocaust in his book Hitler, the War, and the Pope — sought to prevent war through negotiations. Once fighting began, he tried to retain diplomatic relations so he could minister to people on all sides of the conflict.
But Pope Pius also collaborated with anti-Nazi conspirators and even participated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. “ at truly raises some interesting ethical questions, but it suggests that strict neutrality, pacifism, or conscientious objection are not mandated by his understanding of the Catholic Church,” said Rychlak.
In his 1948 Christmas message, Pope Pius framed war as sometimes a moral imperative:
Among (the) goods (of humanity) some are of such importance for society that it is perfectly lawful to defend them against unjust aggression. Their defense is even an obligation for the nations as a whole who have a duty not to abandon a nation that is attacked.
“In other words, public authorities have the duty to sometimes fight – to wage war,” Rychlak said.
The development of atomic weapons raised new moral questions. Considering the strategy of nuclear deterrence, some theologians debated whether just war was possible anymore. First Pope Pius and later the Second Vatican Council boldly condemned the use of armaments capable of widespread and indiscriminate destruction; the U.S. bishops’ 1983 peace pastoral reaffirmed just-war teaching (see sidebar) and urged world powers to work toward nuclear disarmament.
The Catechism: Peace not mere absence of war
The Catechism affirms that peace is not the mere absence of war, but rather “the work of justice and the fruit of charity.” It urges everyone to pray and work to avoid war.
It enumerates “strict conditions” for evaluating just war:
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
The Catechism further stipulates that the duty of evaluating just-war criteria “belongs to
the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” It calls for humane treatment of prisoners, the wounded and noncombatants, and supports allowances for conscientious objectors. It repeats the Council’s condemnation of indiscriminate destruction and describes genocide in particular as a mortal sin.
War and Peace
The evolution of warfare since World War II has led to further questions about just-war doctrine — with some calling it obsolete, and others suggesting it is too limiting.
In his message to a 2016 conference in Rome on “Nonviolence and Just Peace,” Pope Francis endorsed “active nonviolence” as the ideal alternative to armed conflict. At the same time, however, he noted that although the Council condemned war, it also supported a government’s right to mount an armed defense under just-war principles.
In other words, Pope Francis advocates for peace, just as all recent popes have done, Rychlak indicated.
“Do we really want a pope urging war? I don’t think so,” he said. “No matter how bad the situation, a pope would want peaceful resolution… I think every caring citizen would want a just peace over a just war. I think popes and other religious leaders should advocate for that, as Pope Francis is doing and as Pope Pius XII did prior to World War II.”
Some who challenge just-war doctrine claim it is too often used to justify rather than avoid war. Such a charge was heard after U.S. officials sought Vatican support on just- war grounds for its planned invasion of Iraq in 2003.
“Of course, just-war principles can be perverted and used to excuse war,” said Deacon James Toner, a former U.S. Army officer, military ethicist and author of Morals Under the Gun. “But the just-war principles are valuable, if not infallible, guides in statecraft.”
The present- day threats of terrorism and of rogue nations surface alarming new concerns. Easier delivery systems mean an enemy can launch weapons of mass destruction with scant warning. Some thinkers, like just-war ethicist George Weigel, believe there sometimes may be moral justification for a pre-emptive strike against such a dangerous regime.
Toner tends to agree: “Would anyone have reasonably opposed our ‘ rst strike’ had we had the intelligence data well in advance against the madmen who perpetrated 9/11?”
“Sometimes the only ethical avenue to take in the face of aggression is to stop it – and by military means if necessary,” Toner said. “There are times when we are morally justified – and morally obligated – to prevent or to stop evil.”
What matters for soldiers and civilians alike, he added, is “education in virtue, which means the ability to choose the right course of action even in moments of great difficulty.”
That would begin with the virtue of justice that St. Augustine and Church tradition sees as at the heart of just-war doctrine.
GERALD KORSON, a career Catholic editor and journalist, writes from Indiana.
The Challenge of Peace
In their 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response,” the Catholic bishops of the United States summarized the requirements for just war in six criteria:
- Just Cause: War must confront a “real and certain danger” that threatens innocent life or human rights
- Competent Authority: War must be declared “by those with responsibility for public order”
- Comparative Justice: The rights and values being threatened or violated must be critical enough to override the presumption against war
- Right Intention: War can only be conducted to satisfy the just cause and in pursuit of peace and reconciliation
- Last Resort: All peaceful alternatives to war must first be exhausted
- Probability of Success: Irrational use of force or futile resistance that does disproportionate harm should be avoided
- Proportionality: Inflicted damages and costs of war must be proportionate to the good expected to come from war