Just War, Pacifism and Catholic Tradition

The discussion of Michael J. Iafrate’s (anti) Memorial Day post has developed into a general war of dueling opinions on such topics as nationalism and patriotism in the life of the Catholic citizen, as well as the legitimacy of war (or the used of armed force) within Catholic tradition and especially in contemporary times.

Distinction between “Violence” and a Legitimate Use of Force?

In “They Shed Their Own Blood” (Vox Nova 5/30/2007), Nate Wildermuth (The Lamb and the Dragon), adopts a stance of absolute pacifism and enlists John Paul II and Pope Benedict in the ranks:

Benedict claims that Christ’s victory on the cross isn’t merely a cosmic realignment of spiritual scales that allows us to get into heaven while condemning us to hell on earth. No. Christ’s victory defeats evil in this world. Christ’s love defeats violence in this world – individually, socially, and yes – even politically.

War and violence – killing – have never and will never purchase freedom or peace. While condoning violence as an ultimately futile form of self-defense, the Church always has and always will proclaim that true freedom and true peace come through Christ and Christ’s love alone.

A glaring problem with the absolute condemnation of violence is the notable neglect (failure) to acknowledge a legitimate use of force. Katerina (Evangelical Catholicism) muses in the combox:

As Pope Benedict XVI says in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, violence can never be considered part of or an expression of love.

I don’t know how you can even try to marry violence to Christian charity.

prompting Michael Denton (For the Greater Glory) to ask the obvious:

It would probably also help me if you or Nate would define “violence.” Are you using the defintion as “any act of aggression or force against another person” or do you have a more narrow definition?

No “Just War” Possible in Reality?

Extolling the virtues of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, Tim Heugerich (Catholics for Democracy) replies:

George Weigel represents an different view on war than is currently the Church’s teaching. If you agree with his position, that’s fine, but realize that it’s contradicted by the Vatican and the U.S. Bishops. (I also think it’s wrong, shaped by an America-first perspective.)

Which I have to wonder is truly the case, given that Weigel’s recognition that armed force can be used for good or evil has a correlation in a document by the U.S. Catholic Bishops:

Our conference’s approach, as outlined in The Challenge of Peace, can be summarized in this way:

1. In situations of conflict, our constant commitment ought to be, as far as possible, to strive for justice through nonviolent means.

2. But, when sustained attempts at nonviolent action fail to protect the innocent against fundamental injustice, then legitimate political authorities are permitted as a last resort to employ limited force to rescue the innocent and establish justice.

Despite areas of convergence between a nonviolent ethic and a just-war ethic, however, we acknowledge the diverse perspectives within our Church on the validity of the use of force. Many believe just-war thinking remains valid because it recognizes that force may be necessary in a sinful world, even as it restrains war by placing strict moral limits on when, why and how this force may be used. Others object in principle to the use of force, and these principled objections to the just-war tradition are sometimes joined with other criticisms that just-war criteria have been ineffective in preventing unjust acts of war in recent decades and that these criteria cannot be satisfied under the conditions of modern warfare.

Likewise, there are diverse points of view within the Catholic community on the moral meaning and efficacy of a total commitment to nonviolence in an unjust world. Clearly some believe that a full commitment to nonviolence best reflects the Gospel commitment to peace. Others argue that such an approach ignores the reality of grave evil in the world and avoids the moral responsibility to actively resist and confront injustice with military force if other means fail. Both the just-war and nonviolent traditions offer significant moral insight, but continue to face difficult tests in a world marked by so much violence and injustice. Acknowledging this diversity of opinion, we reaffirm the Church’s traditional teaching on the ethical conditions for the use of force by public authority.

(Source: The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace: A Reflection of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on the Tenth Anniversary of The Challenge of Peace November 17, 1993.

Interesting thing about that particular document, observed just war historian James Turner Johnson, is that while the Bishops of 1993 asserted that “when sustained attempts at nonviolent action fail to protect the innocent against fundamental injustice, legitimate political authorities are permitted as a last resort to employ limited force to rescue the innocent and establish justice”, this criteria played no part in the USCCB’s deliberations in 2002-2003 (Using Military Force Against the Saddam Hussein Regime: the Moral Issues Foreign Policy Research Institute. December 4, 2002).

In Is War Just?, Morning’s Minion conveys his agreement with Cardinal Ratzinger’s then-speculation in 2003 that “given the new weapons that make possible destruction 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.” (Zenit News Service May 2, 2003).

But again, this speculation was made by the same author who had a direct hand in editing the formal Catechism of the Catholic Church, which left the just war criteria intact and recognized that

“Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility. ” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC 2265

As I noted in Pope Benedict, Modern Weaponry and Civilian Casualties Just War? June 18, 2005, this observation, simply because it was uttered by the Prefect of the CDF, is not in itself impervious to reasoned criticism, by those far more competent on such matters than I).

* * *

Michael Denton has already responded to Nate Wildermuth’s post with Onward Christian Soldiers! – A Discussion on War & Violence in Catholicism, by For the Greater Glory May 30, 2007.

I have to admit that part of me finds posting on this topic a little tedious, simply because they seem to be revisiting subjects and questions I’ve blogged about since, well, 2002. I’m sure it will likely bore a few of my regular readers as well (“oh, great, another ‘just war’ post). So I’ll take the liberty of linking to a few key posts and articles which may serve as impetus for further discussion both here and on Vox Nova.

In doing so, I prefer to bracket the specific discussion of the justification for the Iraq War (an ongoing and as yet unresolved debate that has been waged since 2002) and focus rather on the fundamental question of whether there is such a thing as “a legitimate use of force” or whether all armed force is reducable to violence:

  • “Force of Law, Law of Force”, by George Weigel. The Catholic Difference April 30, 2003:

    In classic Catholic thought, armed force is not intrinsically suspect, morally speaking. Classic Catholic thinking about world politics understands that armed force can be used for good or evil, depending on who’s using it, why, to what purposes, and how. Armed force is one instrument among the many available to prudent statecraft. Other instruments should be tried first. But the use of armed force under certain specific circumstances – defined by the just war tradition – can serve the rule of law, not wreck it.

    According to Weigel, war itself (the employment of armed force) is not understood as an evil but as a neutral moral category:

    . . . it is the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force for public ends by publicly accountable public authorities who have a moral obligation to defend those for whom they have assumed responsibility; and that “war” (bellum) must be rigorously distinguished from brigandage, piracy, terrorism, and other forms of duellum, the use of armed force by private persons for private ends.

    See also “Getting Just War Straight” (September 28, 2006), on rival notions of just war.

    (The best explication of Weigel’s thought on just war remains, IMHO, Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (Oxford University Press, 1989) — an analysis of “Catholic thought on war and peace” from St. Augustine to the 1980’s unfortunately in dire need of updating to reflect just war debate of the past two decades. Nonetheless, here is a summary / review from the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars).

  • “War and the Eclipse of Moral Reasoning”, by Dr. Philip Blosser. (New Oxford Review April 2003), an analysis of rival Christian philosophical-theological approaches to war. Highly recommended, but as his son I’m of course rather biased. 😉
  • Absolute Pacifism?, Fr. William Most. An examination of the early Fathers of the Church on the question of pacifism and service in the military. (EWTN)
  • When War Must Be The Answer, by James V. Schall. Policy Review December 2004 / January 2005:

    calm and reasonable case can and should be made for the possession and effective use of force in today’s world. It is irresponsible not to plan for the necessity of force in the face of real turmoils and enemies actually present in the world. No talk of peace, justice, truth, or virtue is complete without a clear understanding that certain individuals, movements, and nations must be met with measured force, however much we might prefer to deal with them peacefully or pleasantly. Without force, many will not talk seriously at all, and some not even then. Human, moral, and economic problems are greater today for the lack of adequate military force or, more often, for the failure to use it when necessary.

  • Toward a Proper Understanding of the Catholic Just War Tradition: An Assessment of the Catholic application of just war theory to the U.S. Iraqi Conflict – a survey of Catholic positions on the war in Iraq. May 18, 2006.
  • Just-War Theory, Catholic Morality, And The Response To International Terrorism”, by Mark S. Latkovic, provides an examination of the just-war theory in relation to the war on terrorism. The Catholic Faith (Ignatius Press, May/June 2002).
  • “Are we really serious when we ask God to deliver us from war? The Catechism and the challenge of Pope John Paul II”, by William L. Portier. Communio Spring 1996 – probably the best explication of John Paul II’s “new mind” on warfare and just war teaching. Portier concludes:

    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.

  • Whither “Just War”?, by Drew Christiansen, SJ. (America Vol. 188 No. 10. March 24, 2003), pondering the serious implications of the idea that the just war had “gone the way of the death penalty” and what it means for Catholics:

    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.

  • Essay on War, by Christopher Dawson. Inside the Vatican November 2004. “The 1937 selection comes out of the turbulent decade when Hitler was beating the drums of war and many in England, still in shock from the slaughter of 1914-1918, wanted peace at any price. Essentially, the essay argues against extreme pacifism and for a view of war that combines the prophetic Hebraic-Christian tradition with a close examination of history and of the impact of the new conditions in armaments and international relations.” It is interesting to note that even , Dawson offers criticism of the perspective that the savagery of “modern” weaponry has rendered the notion of just war absolete:

    Today, however, a new type of Catholic pacifist has emerged whose ideas approximate much more closely to absolute pacifism than to the traditional Catholic view.

    His attitude to the Just War is not unlike the old-fashioned Protestant’s attitude to miracles, that is, he does not deny its intrinsic possibility, but he thinks that it is something that does not occur nowadays. The Just War went with the picturesque trappings of war in the old style, like swords and cavalry and colored uniforms: it has been bombed out of existence by high explosives and poison gas.

    Now at first sight this view seems another example of the romantic fallacy which idealizes the past, as though wars were just when knights were bold, and ceased to be so when they ceased to be picturesque.

    It is true that the sufferings of modern war seem intolerable to us, but was there ever a time when they were tolerable to those who suffered from them? The German people, for example, suffered more both materially and morally during the Thirty Years War than they did even in 1918, and the sufferings of the soldiery itself, without anesthetics or antiseptics, without hospitals or ambulances, hardly bear thinking about.

    Moreover, the denial of the possibility of a just war under modern conditions would seem to reduce modern warfare to a sub-moral level, in which the justice or injustice of the particular issue goes by the board. It means not only that the aggressor is wrong to attack, but that his victim is also wrong in resisting the aggression. And it is surely difficult to believe that resistance to aggression becomes unjust merely because the aggressor is equipped with the latest mechanism of destruction.

    Dawson goes on to speculate that “The real case against modern war is that it is unnecessary and avoidable, that war between nations is as anomalous as private war had become by the end of the Middle Ages, and that the time has come when war can be banished from the world like slums or any other survival of barbarism.” Funny, that.

    As with Christ’s observation about the presence of the poor and downtrodden, I expect that so long as we live in a world fraught with sin and man’s capacity to commit evil and grave injustice, war will “always be with us.” So too, I imagine, the necessity of responding in grave situations with the use of force.

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