An Assessment of the Catholic application of just war theory to the U.S. Iraqi Conflict
“Can We Agree to Disagree?”
As readers may recall, the issue of proper discernment in areas of prudential judgement has been the subject of discussion on this blog, especially concerning the application of Catholic social doctrine in economic matters, or statements on the use of military force (as in the debate over the U.S.-Iraqi conflict).
This subject was visited in March of last year by Jimmy Akin in the excellent article “War and Capital Punishment: Can We Agree to Disagree?”, This Rock Vol. 16, No. 3 (March 2005).
. . . there are situations where war and the death penalty are moral (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2309, 2267). It is left to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for such matters to determine whether the conditions in a particular case warrant their use. Consequently, to disagree with the Pope on these issues is to disagree with his prudential judgment, not with Church doctrine.
Even though in his position the pope is not charged with decisions about waging war or executing criminals, deference is certainly due to his prudential judgment. But to disagree with his prudential judgment in a particular case does not amount to dissent from Church teaching and does not trigger the provisions of canon law (e.g., CIC 915) that would result in Communion being withheld.
Jimmy begins his article with a citation from Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion — General Principles, the June 2004 communique by Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), initially a confidential memo to Cardinal McCarrick and later leaked to the press (its authenticity confirmed by the Holy See).
The purpose of the memo was to address the response of Catholic leaders to “pro-choice Catholic” legislators, whose obstinate public refusal to submit to Church teaching on abortion, euthanasia and human cloning was a source of persistent scandal. In the course of doing so, Ratzinger briefly addressed what might be called the “seamless garment” approach, and the common rejoinder that Communion should be withheld not only from politicians who dissent from the Church on abortion, but also those who dissent on matters of capital punishment and the war. On the contrary, said Ratzinger:
“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
How far does this “legitimate diversity of opinion” go? — According to Jimmy, Ratzinger’s recognition of such is predicated on the Church’s assertion that the prudential judgment of those responsible for the decision to use military force rests with the leaders of state, rather than the Church. “Though the pontiff can counsel political leaders on such decisions,” says Jimmy, “it is beyond his mandate to make such decisions, and his opinions in this area do not decisively govern the state’s actions.”
At the same time, disagreement between Catholics (and with the Pope) on matters of war is not to be construed as “anything goes,” but is itself constrained to the criteria of the Catholic Just War Tradition. While there has been no definitive formulation of this criteria, according to Jimmy, it has been conveyed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church [Sections 2309-2314], howbeit in a format that some have judged to be less than adequate:
The Catechism [is not] an exhaustive, technical survey of Catholic teaching. In keeping with the nature of a catechism, it teaches in summary fashion and leaves things out. Some have noted that the Catechism’s formulation of the just-war conditions does not include all of the considerations that the Church has brought to bear on this question.
Nevertheless, the conditions enumerated in the Catechism represent an important formulation of the Church’s just-war doctrine, which is theologically certain, though not definitively phrased. As a result, a fundamental disagreement with these criteria would amount to dissent from Catholic doctrine.
“A politician might quibble with the Catechism’s phrasing of the circumstances or urge something from historical Catholic just-war teaching that the Catechism omits,” says Akin, “to go beyond this and to disagree fundamentally with the criteria would be to go beyond legitimate diversity of opinion and into dissent.”
The points that Jimmy raises in this article are important ones, and worth considering. To this day, it remains a hotly debated issue whether Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus, Michael Novak, George Weigel, Deal Hudson, and others who supported the Bush administration in the U.S.-Iraqi conflict were themselves simply disagreeing over the application of Catholic Just War doctrine, or “disagreeing fundamentally with the criteria” and, in so doing, “going beyond legitimate diversity of opinion into dissent.”
A Matter of Prudential Judgement?
For example, the Catholic writer Russell Shaw — himself a vocal critic against the Bush administration, rose to the defense of Hudson, Novak, and Weigel in an editorial Iraq, Weigel and the Pope (CatholicExchange.com March 31, 2003). “Although I disagreed with them — indeed, perhaps because I disagreed,” said Shaw, “I feel obliged to say that dissenters they most emphatically are not.”
Given the limits of human knowledge, even prudential judgments by prudent people can be mistaken. In the present instance, the pope and Catholics who differed with him — conscientious and informed people like Novak, Weigel and Hudson — based their stands on an assessment of likely consequences of different courses of action. Since the assessments of what was more or less likely to happen in the future were different, so were the conclusions about what course of action to take.
To disagree with the pope in this manner is not dissent. It’s not as if Pope John Paul II had taught a definitive moral principle (e.g., direct attacks on noncombatants are ruled out) which the disagreeing Catholics rejected. They agreed with the principle. They disagreed about something contingent and by no means certain: what the future outcome of complex, competing scenarios was likely to be.
The editors of This Rock (Karl Keating’s monthly apologetics periodical) took a similar defence of Weigel, Novak and company:
First the death penalty. Now just war theory. The Pope and bishops offer a prudential judgment about the justice of war with Iraq and some prominent Catholics—Fr. James Schall and George Weigel, for instance—respectfully disagree. Immediately the cries of “cafeteria Catholicism” go up; liberal dissenters from the Church’s teaching on issues like homosexual practice and abortion say, “See! So-called ‘orthodox’ Catholics dissent from the Church’s teaching just as much as we do”—as though in Catholic teaching all that is not forbidden is compulsory.
Uh, not quite. Here’s what the American bishop said about their attempt to read the current world situation in light of just war theory:
“We offer not definitive conclusions, but rather our serious concerns and questions in the hope of helping all of us to reach sound moral judgments. People of good will may differ on how to apply just war norms in particular cases, especially when events are moving rapidly and the facts are not altogether clear.”
The bishops make it clear that they are not binding the conscience of anybody believer to their opinion, precisely because the possession of specialized knowledge (such as classified intelligence) makes all the difference in the world in assessing the situation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes it clear that, among other things, “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good” (CCC 2309). That means Caesar in the first place, not the bishops, since it is Caesar who is in charge of the public good.
This does not mean, of course, that Caesar is not to abide by just war teaching. Nor does it mean that he has no obligation to pay attention to the input of the bishops in forming his response to military threats. But it is to say that Catholics who are forming their consciences on the matter of war with Iraq are not bound to march in lockstep with the bishops in their opinions. There is no dogma being promulgated here, only a prudential judgment.
(As Though All That Is Not Forbidden Is Compulsory This Rock Vol. 14, No. 5. May-June 2003).
Other authors have disagreed. Mark and Louise Zwick (Houston Catholic Worker) presume Weigel and Neuhaus to be, in the words of the Zwicks, “attempting to develop a new philosophy of just war which would include preemptive strikes against other nations, what might be called a ‘preventive war.'” (“Pope John Paul II calls War a Defeat for Humanity: Neoconservative Iraq Just War Theories Rejected” Houston Catholic Worker Vol. XXIII, No. 4, July-August 2003).
In At Odds with the Pope: Legitimate Authority and Just Wars Commonweal May 23, 2003), William Cavanaugh questions whether the moral authority to go to war properly belongs to the State, asking: “Has the church really handed over its moral decision making on war to the leaders of the secular nation-state?” For Cavanaugh,
The passage in question from the Catechism lays an obligation on civil authorities to consider moral truth, and not merely reasons of state, in deciding issues of lethal force. It nowhere limits the church’s own competence in these matters. The Code of Canon Law (747,2) makes this plain: “The church has the right always and everywhere to proclaim moral principles, even in respect of the social order, and to make judgments about any human matter in so far as this is required by fundamental human rights or the salvation of souls” . . . For the church to defer to the nation-state in making moral judgments on war would be to court disaster.
Lately, another Catholic voice and periodical has gone much, much further in its rebuke of Neuhaus, Novak, Weigel and company; but before we turn to him, I would like to examine these papal pronouncements (by John Paul II and Benedict XVI) on this issue and their differing interpretations.
The Popes and the War
As one might expect, the various sayings of John Paul II and our present Pope are frequently appealed to by both sides in this debate. Just as those supportive of the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq appeal to Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2004 recognition of “a diversity of opinion” in matters of war, anti-war Catholics have laid claim to numerous statements by the present Pope and his predecessor. Regarding war itself, perhaps no phrase is more cited by John Paul II than his January 2000 World Day of Peace address:
The twentieth century bequeaths to us above all else a warning: wars are often the cause of further wars because they fuel deep hatreds, create situations of injustice and trample upon people’s dignity and rights…. War is a defeat for humanity. Only in peace and through peace can respect for human dignity and its inalienable rights be guaranteed.
Upon close examination, many of Pope Benedict XVI’s statements on war (whether on the Iraqi conflict or war in general) appear to take their cue directly from the witness and thought of his predecessor.
On one hand, Cardinal Martino’s March 2003 proclamation that “there is no such thing as just war” in the National Catholic Register (“I think with modern weaponry, there is no proportionality between the offense and the reply. . . . War is so destructive now. It is not just a fight between one person and another”) provoked a furious rebuttal from George Weigel (“No Just War Possible?” The Catholic Difference April 2, 2003). Yet, less then a decade earlier William L. Portier drew similar conclusions upon evaluating the response of John Paul II to the 1991 Gulf war (“Are we really serious when we ask God to deliver us from war? The Catechism and the challenge of Pope John Paul II” (Communio Spring 1996):
Before and during the 1991 Gulf War, much to the consternation of policy makers and moral theologians on both the right and left in the U.S., Pope John Paul II was resolute in his refusal to be drawn into the widespread discussion of the just cause and conduct of what he referred to as the “so-called ‘Gulf War.”‘ Amid debate about whether the U.N. resort to arms in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait met the conditions for a just war, the pope, a near-solitary voice on the international scene, focused instead on the futility of such calculations in the face of modern weapons and the human suffering they cause.
Portier goes on to note the pope’s “striking refusal to discuss international conflict in a framework that distinguishes, as a matter of course, between total war and limited war” and a marked distancing from the just war tradition as normally construed:
The pope seems clearly, in the words of Bryan Hehir, to be
tightening “the moral barriers against the use of force.” If he has not abandoned “just-war” theory (as the editorial of 6 July 1991 urged), he has made the evaluation of its conditions
sufficiently rigorous to move the use of military force close to the periphery of moral discussion. The consternation of both pacifists and proponents of just-war theory at the pope’s recent
statements might be a sign that he has begun to think with the “entirely new mind” urged in Gaudium et Spes (n. 80). Indeed, we could interpret recent papal pronouncements on international conflict as an ongoing attempt to carry forward the project outlined in Chapter V of Gaudium et Spes. While leaving the door open a crack for the serious possibility of “humanitarian intervention,” the pope seems possessed at the same time of a profound evangelical skepticism about using military force as a means of securing justice. . . .
On the one hand, because of his insistence on the legitimacy of self-defense, the pope cannot be called a pacifist. (It might be difficult to construe every “legitimate defense by military force” as the kind of “police” action some pacifists would support.) On the other hand, he has drawn the restrictions on the use of military force with sufficient rigor that proponents of just-war theory, if they wish to take him seriously, must reexamine their assumptions and reorient their discussion about war.
Second to JPII’s blanket condemnation of war, the two most popular citations from the “peace” movement appear to be a line from Cardinal Ratzinger, circa September 22, 2002: “The concept of a ‘preventive war’ does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church” (Cardinal Ratzinger Says Unilateral Attack on Iraq Not Justified Zenit News Service), and, in a May 2, 2003 interview with Zenit News, the rather pointed dismissal of the Catholic Just War tradition, which as we can see follows the precedent of John Paul II:
“There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq. To say nothing of the fact that, given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a “just war.”
Both quotations by Benedict XVI are cited in Benedict XVI: A New Peace Pope by Michael Griffin of the Catholic Peace Fellowship. May 2003.
It is worth noting that Cardinal Ratzinger’s comment on preventive war in the September 22, 2002 was in fact preceded by his acknowledgement that “political questions are not within his competence” — it is interesting that this acknowledgement is usually left out of citations by the anti-war movement, and we will be discussing this further later on.
The statements from Martino and John Paul II prompted Michael McGurn of the Wall Street Journal to lament:
What we have lost here is a tremendous teaching opportunity. And if the Vatican’s problem is, as Archbishop Martino suggests and the pope’s own words at times imply, not simply Iraq but a larger discomfort with just war in a modern world, it raises even more questions. Namely, how President Bush can be held in breach of moral criteria that (a) are in the process of being radically revised and (b) really can’t be met anyhow.
(War No More? How much of a pacifist is the pope? Wall Street Journal March 2003).
In Whither the ‘Just War’? (America Vol. 188 No. 10. March 24, 2003), Drew Christiansen, S.J. pondered the serious implications of the idea that the just war had “gone the way of the death penalty”:
Just war would be admitted in principle, but hardly ever in practice. Absent the institution of effective alternative conflict-resolution mechanisms and a standby U.N. force, official Catholic teaching would have become functionally pacifist, just as critics like George Weigel have argued for some time. If this were true, much would change for Catholics, from military service to conscientious objection and military chaplaincy. The salience of the church’s use of just-war criteria to prevent and limit war would also be greatly reduced, as would its ability to provide moral commentary on the formation of military policy and the actual conduct of war.
While we can’t go into a greater discussion of the issue at this time, I will add that the appeal to the indiscriminate destructiveness of modern military technology as a rationale for the illegitimacy of just war criteria has been questioned by just war scholar James Turner Johnson and discussed in two posts: “Shock & Awe, Civilian Casualties and Questionable Statistics” Just War? June 17, 2005, and “Pope Benedict, Modern Weaponry and Civilian Casualties” June 18, 2005).
Suffice to say Pope Benedict’s statements on the war will likely cause as much “consternation of policy makers and moral theologians” as those of his predecessor.
Dale Vree vs. “Cafeteria Catholicism” of Pro-War Catholics
In the latest issue of The New Oxford Review (“Another Outbreak of Mater, Si; Magistra, No “ May 2006), editor Dale Vree appears to have thrown down the gauntlet and gone a step further, equating those who disagree with the Pope on the war with “pick-and-choose” Catholics. While he does not mention Neuhaus, Novak or Weigel by name, given the frequent criticisms of Catholic “neoconservatives” by the NOR, one can venture a guess as to who Vree is referring to.
The pronouncements of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, says Vree, are not merely “prudential” judgements, but “have to do with doctrine and morals. War is precisely about morals.” (Strange, as if to suggest that Catholics had up to this point excluded doctrine and morals from the debate over the war?)
Vree proceeds to make his case that the invasion of Iraq was a preventive war, not a pre-emptive war (“an attack initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent,” according to the Department of Defense’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms).
In the invasion of Iraq, there was no “incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack [was] imminent.” A preventive war is an attack initiated on the basis of the possibility of an attack by a potential foe sometime in the future. Since there is no incontrovertible or certain evidence that an imminent attack is planned by the adversary, it is not self-defense. All just wars must be for self-defense, or as the Catechism says, “legitimate defense” (#2309). One of the criteria of a just war is that “the damage inflicted . . . must be lasting, grave, and certain” (Catechism, #2309; italics added). Another criterion of a just war is that it be a last resort: “all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective” (#2309). Both criteria rule out preventive wars. (And all criteria of a just war must be met; if not, it’s an unjust war.)
According to Vree, Catholics should judge that the war in Iraq was not a morally legitimate one. Even if it was not formally condemned in an encyclical (“we’re not aware of any encyclical that said a particular war was unjust, and there wouldn’t have been time to write an encyclical anyway”), by virtue of the fact that the Holy See applied Just War Doctrine to this particular war and deemed it unsatisfactory, condemnation of the war stands as “a teaching of the Ordinary Magisterium” to which all Catholics should render “loyal submission of the will and intellect” (Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium, #25).
As if this were not enough, Vree goes on to suggest — “in a roundabout way” — how the condemnation of the invasion of Iraq is infallible [even though it isn’t]. In much the same manner as the Church has infallibly condemned the direct and volunary killing of a human being by abortion and euthanasia, so does Vree assert that our soldiers stand condemned according to their participation in an unjust war:
So, what about unjust wars? In a just war, killing soldiers and killing civilians who get in the way of military targets (collateral damage) is not murder, whereas killing civilians on purpose is murder. But in an unjust war, killing soldiers, killing civilians who get in the way of military targets, and killing civilians on purpose are all murder. An unjust war is the “direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being,” and is in the higher category of infallible teaching. So, yes, the prohibition against unjust wars is infallible. An unjust war is murder, just as abortion is murder.
Shades of Bishop Botean?
In their March 19, 2003 Statement on War with Iraq, USCCB President Bishop Wilton D. Gregory expressed his serious reservations about the decision of the Bush administration and allied nations to go to war, expressing the fear that “The decisions being made about Iraq and the war on terrorism could have historic implications for the use of force, the legitimacy of international institutions, and the role of the United States in the world.” At the same time, he also acknowledged the role of conscience and the responsibility of President Bush:
People of good will may and do disagree on how to interpret just war teaching and how to apply just war norms to the controverted facts of this case. We understand and respect the difficult moral choices that must be made by our President and others who bear the responsibility of making these grave decisions involving our nation’s and the world’s security (Catechism #2309).
“[t]hose who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace” (#2310). . . .
Earlier that month, Bishop John Michael Botean of the Romanian Catholic Diocese of Saint George in Canton, OH, issued a rather more provocative and far-reaching statement against participation in the war with Iraq. In a Lenten message to his flock, he declared:
. . . for the sake of your salvation as well as my own, that any direct participation and support of this war against the people of Iraq is objectively grave evil, a matter of mortal sin. Beyond a reasonable doubt this war is morally incompatible with the Person and Way of Jesus Christ. With moral certainty I say to you it does not meet even the minimal standards of the Catholic just war theory.
Botean’s statement in turn prompted a number of responses, including that of Mark Brumley (Brumley Responds to Botean, Envoy Encore March 21, 2003) and canon lawyer Edward N. Peters (Bishop Boteans’ Lenten Message In the Light of the Law March 18, 2003):
“The eparch’s statement is unprecedented for its clarity and starkness; it simply must be read to appreciate this point, though fair-minded readers can admit that it is not a peacenik, blame-America-first harangue, but is instead a reasoned (though, I think, wrongly) exercise of conscience. It cannot be issued, however, and then forgotten. If Bishop Botean is correct, his argumentation would seem to apply to all Catholics, and only an inexcusable lack of pastoral solicitude on the part of other Eastern and Latin bishops could account for them not following suit immediately. If, on the other hand, Bishop Botean is wrong, then he has placed his faithful in a profound and direct conflict of conscience between their ecclesiastical and civil leaders, which, I suggest only an inexcusable lack of pastoral solicitude would suffer them to remain in.
If we overlook the dripping sarcasm that has become the distinctive trademark of the New Oxford Review, we can see that Vree and Botean are of like mind, striking the same notes, arriving at the same conclusions. And so we are left with the question: how should one understand disagreement with the Pope on the matter of war — and not just any war, but this war?
Examining Vree in light of Cardinal Ratzinger
Now, there are several points made by Cardinal Ratzinger / Pope Benedict XVI which seem to me to call into question Vree’s interpretation:
First, while expressing his opinion on the war in September 2002, and his preference that “the United Nations . . . should make the final decision,” the Cardinal nevertheless acknowledged, as reported by Zenit, “that political questions are not within his competence.” In so doing, Ratzinger expresses both his personal judgement and — in his characteristically careful manner — reinforces the understanding that the judgement to use military force necessarily rests upon those leaders entrusted with the responsibility and temporal authority to do so.
Likewise, in a subsequent interview with Zenit News in May 2, 2003, articulating the position of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger again stated [italics mine]:
“Of course, [The Pope] did not impose this position as a doctrine of the Church but as the appeal of a conscience enlightened by faith. The Holy Father’s judgment is also convincing from the rational point of view: There were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq.”
Again, it would appear that Pope John Paul II’s statements on the war reflect his prudential judgement — while they invite our consideration as faithful Catholics, they should not be construed as a “non-negotiable” mandate requiring obedience.
It would seem that Dale Vree’s criticism of Catholics who supported the war in Iraq would apply just as readily to Catholics who differed with the prudential judgement of the Pope on the application of the death penalty. On this point, it is worth noting that canon lawyer R. Michael Dunnigan, Avery Cardinal Dulles, and Fr. George Rutler have all arrived at similar conclusions with respect to papal statements on the death penalty and how they are to be properly interpreted.
Karl Keating addressed this very issue in his monthly e-letter Must Catholics Oppose Capital Punishment? March 2, 2004. After presenting the views of Dunnigan, Dulles and Rutler, he argues that the Church “does not mandate opposition to the death penalty, nor does she mandate support for it:
Must Catholics adopt a particular view regarding the use (or non-use) or capital punishment? In short: no.
They are free to endorse, as a political policy, the complete abolition of capital punishment, and they are free to endorse the use of capital punishment, even beyond the very narrow limits given in the prudential judgment in section 2267. Contrary to what some people claim, there has been no revolution in Church teaching on the matter.
Cardinal Ratzinger made this same point in Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles, cited by Jimmy Akin, and which recognizes
“[I]f a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war,” says Ratzinger, “he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace. . . it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
The expected rejoinder is that here, Ratzinger is only granting permissibility to take up arms “to repel an aggressor” and speaking within the context of the just war tradition. But the question of who constituted the aggressor in the U.S. Iraq conflict is one of the many questions that are undoubtedly open to debate, the answer to which is by no means certain (“War of Aggression”? Just War? October 12, 2005).
For these reasons, it would appear that Vree’s conclusion concerning the implications of JPII’s pronouncements is contradicted by none other than Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI.
James Turner Johnson’s Case for Pre-emptive War
Dale Vree’s criticism of Catholics supportive of the overthrow of the Baathist regime — or, in his words, those who “can only think in nationalistic terms”, “consider it patriotic to support whatever wars their nation fights” and are no better than “cafeteria-Catholics” — is largely contingent on the notion that the just war tradition excludes any form of pre-emptive action. While this is ideally a subject for further discussion and may exceed the central topic of this post, I would like to note that James Turner Johnson (a historian and one of the foremost authorities of the just war tradition, religious or secular) has made a good case to the contrary. In The War to Oust Saddam Hussein: The Context, The Debate, The War and the Future, he points out that “the idea that preemption is sometimes justified is far from new,” citing as an example Hugo Grotius: “if my assailant siezes a weapon with an obvious intent on killing me.” A later version of this test would be the amassment of an army on one’s borders, or mobilization of an enemy’s forces. And, “while the Israeli air strike against Egyptian/Syrian air power in the 1967 Middle East war was roundly criticized . . . in the aftermath a consensus seems to have formed that preparation for invasion can be signaled . . . by the clear preparation for an air strike, with obvious intent to attack.” [p. 52]
Regarding the arguments put forth by the Bush administration — that, coupled with evidence of intent, the possession of WMD’s by an enemy serves to justify preemptive use of force, Johnson concludes:
Had their in fact been such weapons, I believe this would have become a new standard test of when preemption is justified. That Iraq did not in fact have these weapons does not dispose of the argument: Is the concrete effort to obtain such weapons itself evidence of malicious intent that justifies the use of force to cancel out that effort?
As Johnson notes, this is an especially pertinent question in the case of North Korea or Iran, the latter involved in a furious drive to attain nuclear power under the guise of legitimacy while vowing the wholesale eradication of the nation of Israel.
According to Johnson, “A moralist working within the just war tradition may make clear that there must be justification, but is going beyond this role to pass judgement on the facts of the case so that premption is presented as morally impossible.” Furthermore:
Moral discussion of the question of preemption is complicated — distorted — by the assumptions of the Westphalian system of international order as incorporated into positive international law, where there is a tendency to regard first use of force across an international border as always wrong and second use as always justified. This version of the aggressor-defender distinction does not well fit the case of threats [WMD’s] that, if carried through, have the capacity to annihilate a significant part of the population of the state or even, in the case of a relatively small state, to wipe it out entirely. . . .
For my part, I have gradually moved to the position that there is a serious case for preemption when an avowed enemy has WMD, and all other means of dealing with this threat offer no hope of removing it. . . . [however], given the lack of agreement on clear guidelines for thinking about preemption, it is wrong to focus so exclusively on preemption when thinking about the justification of using armed force against Saddam Hussein.
The Conspicuous Absence of “Humanitarian Intervention”
Contrary historical revisionism of Barbara Boxer, the threat of WMD’s were not the only reason many Christians were in conscience compelled to support the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Professor Johnson has also observed that the issue of humanitarian intervention is conspicuously absent from much of the 2002-2003 anti-war debate, including that of the USCCB:
In 1993 the USCCB declared humanitarian intervention a duty in cases of gross human rights violations [The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace NCCB, Nov. 7, 1993], and observed that claims of sovereignty by those engaged in such violations have no absolute status in Catholic teaching, and accepted use of force as a form that intervention might take. Such voices were not heard in the debate over using force against Saddam Hussein
Dr Johnson inquires:
Were the rights of Iraqis less important than those of Bosnians, Kosovars, and Rwandans? Or did the fact that the U.S. had national interest reasons for moving against Hussein mean that any use of force in this case was immoral? — the moral debate in 2002-2003 failed to address this missing dimension in the just war debate.
In his excellent examination of various approaches to war within Christianity (War and the Eclipse of Moral Reasoning, Aquinas-Luther Conference October 24-26, 2002), Dr. Philip Blosser discussed the use of moral reasoning and the recognition that the duty of “love to neighbor” might very well compel one nation to rise to the defense of another — as in repelling Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in the first Iraq war, and in responding to Saddam’s persistent aggression against his own people:
Among the other things Christians concluded, over the years, was that they had to ask what Jesus required of them when turning the other cheek would mean failing to defend one’s neighbor or capitulating to the “evil peace” of a repressive aggressor. This was the beginning of the tradition of moral reasoning that began the arduous work of formulating the conditions under which war came to be regarded as sometimes justifiable, sometimes even a duty of love to neighbor and God, as a means of defending or restoring the just peace of a rightly ordered political community. The task of establishing and preserving such a peace was understood, not as a sinful undertaking to sully one’s hands, but as a vocation eminently worthy of the Christian in the interim between Christ’s Resurrection and Second Advent.
(For further discussion of this aspect of the debate, see The Little-Discussed Question of Humanitarian Intervention Just War January 9, 2004).
Conflicting Readings of the Just War Tradition
In The War to Oust Saddam Hussein: The Context, The Debate, The War and the Future, Johnson addresses the “uses and misuses of just war thinking in recent American debate.” According to Johnson, “the recent recovery of the idea of just war and its use in debate . . . has produced an even greater variety of versions of the just war idea. Claims made on behalf of appeals to the idea of just war vary accordingly.”
A target of Johnson’s severe criticism and close scrutiny is Bishop Wilton Gregory’s letter to President Bush (and the subsequent position of the US Catholic Bishops), reliant as they are upon “a moral presumption against the use of armed force” — “an idea that is unique to them and never appeared in Catholic doctrine — or the broader just war tradition — prior to the American bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter Challenge of Peace.” The prevalent interpretation of the just war tradition by the U.S. Bishops, and by many of those who oppose the war, is at variance with what is classically conceived as the just war tradition:
The U.S. Catholic Bishops described just war tradition as beginning with a ‘presumption against war’ and represented the jus ad bellum criteria as guidance for determining whether this presumption should be overruled in particular cases or not. The classical just war tradition, by contrast, had thought of the use of force as morally neutral, good where a war was determined to be just justum bellum, a use of force by the sovereign authority of a political community for a just cause, rather narrowly defined, and with a right intention, defined negatively as the avoidance of a number of wrong motives, including self-aggrandizement, theft, bullying, and action out of hatred of the other simply for being the other, and defined positively as intended to establish and restore peace. To cast the idea of just war as beginning with a general presumption against war was to make it into something different than what the classical idea had been. . . . [p. 26-27]
As the bishops have developed and applied a ‘presumption against war’ in various contexts since 1983, they have transformed the traditional just war categories from moral concerns to guide the practice of statecraft into a series of moral obstacles that, as described and interpreted, are arguments against the use of moral force’s ever being justifiable. The regular advancing of worst-case scenarios as unbiased moral advice underscores the opposition to uses of armed force as such and distorts the application of just war reasoning. The result is functional pacifism, despite the claim that this is what the just war idea requires. [p. 49]
As James Turner Johnson demonstrates in The War to Oust Saddam Hussein, the very application of “just war” criteria varies considerably depending on the party doing so, with the USCCB and some within the Vatican employing a hermeneutic (legitimizing a strictly defensive war to the exclusion of any other) that is clearly at odds with classical just war theory. Dr. Edward Feser (contributor to the blog Right Reason) demonstrated this as well in a three-part presentation, appealing to pre-Vatican II manuals on ethics and moral theology “to show that the war in Iraq is, to repeat, at the very least defensible from the point of view of traditional just war theory, and thus on the basis of premises that paleoconservatives themselves must regard as reasonable.” (“Paleoconservatism and the war in Iraq” Right Reason Part I | Part II | Part III March 2006).
Those who are familiar with George Weigel’s many editorials on this subject will certainly recognize the influence of Professor Johnson. I think it is unfortunate that Professor Johnson’s numerous writings on this subject have rarely played a part in the discussions of the Iraq war I have witnessed between Catholics, the notable exception being the correspondence section of First Things magazine.
If a critical engagement of Prof. Johnson’s book is too much to hope for by Vree or the Zwicks, a condensed version of his position can be found in Just War, As It Was and Is (First Things 149. January 2005: 14-24).
Whither ‘Just War’? — Two Questions
In conclusion, there are two important questions that remain and will persist in the debate over the Iraqi war and its aftermath:
- George Weigel and James Turner Johnson, in their evaluation of both the American Catholic Church’s response to the war (as well as numerous voices from the Vatican), have criticised such contemporary Catholic approaches as “functionally pacifist.” Now that Benedict XVI himself has appeared to echo Cardinal Martino’s assertion that “there is no such thing as just war,” should we in fact discard this tradition as an inapplicable theory?
Or, rather, does the contemporary reality of terrorism (as in September 11, 2001) and the support of terrorism by “rogue states” (such as Iraq and others) call for a necessary evaluation and revision of this tradition? As one reader noted in a response to Drew Christiansen’s “Whither the Just War”:
“The just war criteria “imminent threat,” the closest relevant moral concept, does not help us respond to an attack like that of September 11, 2001 (or the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962). But just war theory cannot be abandoned because of this temporary conceptual defect. Serious moral reflection will generate over time a reasoned Christian response to this latest necessity.”
As Christiansen himself concluded: “One thing is clear: The tradition has evolved to the point where authoritative clarification is in order.”
- Are papal pronouncements on the war to be considered “prudential judgements,” about which Catholics can disagree and remain in good standing (much like they do with respect to the application of the death penalty or economic matters?)
Or do they in fact demand “loyal submission of the will and intellect,” as Dale Vree of the New Oxford Review asserts, such that those who disagree could be deemed no better than “cafeteria Catholics” who willfully and publicly dissent on contraception, abortion, gay marriage? Is Fr. Richard J. Neuhaus’ support of the war, for example, to be regarded as equivalent to the “pro-choice” posturing of Senator John Kerry?
Vree’s rejection of prudential judgement in “Another Outbreak of Mater, Si; Magistra, No “ (New Oxford Review May 2006) and suggestion that Catholic disagreement with the pope on the Iraq war is tantamount to heresy places him at odds not only with Karl Keating and Jimmy Akin, but even fellow anti-war Catholics like Russel Shaw, who recognized:
“To say that people who concluded that the preponderance of evidence pointed to the rightness of the war were dissenting from papal teaching was absurd. Pope John Paul also was expressing a prudential judgment in condemning the war, and, although he expressed it passionately and frequently, nothing he said suggested anything to the contrary.
In my opinion, the present position of Dale Vree and the New Oxford Review is symptomatic of just how confused this debate can become, absent any kind of authoritative clarification or correction.
To put it in the words of Jimmy Akin, “Can We Agree to Disagree?”
Related Articles & Links
- The Catholic Just War Tradition and the Iraq War – Since the beginning of the deliberations over the use of armed force against Saddam Hussein, I have attempted to compile various articles and essays from both sides (predominantly Catholic) on the question of the application of the Catholic Just War tradition.
- Iraq and the Moral Judgement, by Richard J. Neuhaus. First Things 156 (October 2005). “Herewith an interview I did with ZENIT, the Rome-based news service, on March 10, 2003, shortly before the invasion of Iraq. Following the interview, I offer reflections on how the situation appears two and a half years later.”
- A Spectrum of Opinion: Catholics and the War in Iraq, by Russell Shaw. Our Sunday Visitor February 1, 2004. Shaw is a superb model of those who have criticized the war and its supporters while recognizing the prudential nature of the discussion, and striving to keep his own essays free of the “ad hominem sniping, the anti-Americanism, and the other bits of nastiness that often colored the debate.”
- Preemptive War: What would Aquinas say?, Gregory M. Reichberg. Commonweal January 30, 2004 / Volume CXXXI, Number 2. A fair assessment of both sides of the debate, remarkably free of the usual polemics from the Catholic left.
- Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace, by George Weigel (Oxford University Press, 1987). This work is hands-down is the best I have read on American Catholic thought on just war reasoning and its present defects. (Here is a review from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly newsletter). It was written in the 80’s, so it ends with an evaluation of the Bishops 1983 pastoral “The Challenge of Peace”. In my opinion it should be republished — revised and updated with an evaluation of Catholic thought during Gulf wars I and II.
Related Articles on Dale Vree / New Oxford Review, by I. Shawn McElhinney (Rerum Novarum)