Sodom and Gomorrah and Collateral Damage

While Catholic moral theology forbids absolutely the direct or intentional killing of the innocent, it does not prohibit all actions that result in the deaths of innocents. Under the doctrine of the double effect (also known as the principle of side effects), an action resulting in the deaths of innocents may nevertheless be justifiable so long as those deaths are not intended either as a means or as an end, and as long as the good that results from this action outweighs the bad. For this reason, Catholic moralists have typically said that some level of collateral damage (that is, unintentional killing of the innocent) can be permissible in war.

Exactly how much collateral damage can be tolerated in a military action is, of course, no easy question. Judging the consequences of an action means speculating about the future, something we humans are not terribly good at. One cannot give a set number or ratio below which civilian casualties in a military operation are acceptable and above which it is not, as too much depends on the particular circumstances of the individual case. Certainly I thank God that I am not in the position of having to make such decisions, weighing the near certainly of a small number of civilian casualties against the probability or possibility of a much greater number of deaths. Nevertheless, as I consider things like the incident yesterday in Somalia, my mind cannot help but return to the story in Genesis of Abraham pleading with God to spare the innocent of Sodom and Gomorrah:

Then the LORD said: “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave, that I must go down and see whether or not their actions fully correspond to the cry against them that comes to me. I mean to find out”….

Then Abraham drew nearer to him and said: “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city; would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it for the sake of the fifty innocent people within it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to make the innocent die with the guilty, so that the innocent and the guilty would be treated alike! Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?”

The LORD replied, “If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Abraham spoke up again: “See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes!What if there are five less than fifty innocent people? Will you destroy the whole city because of those five?”

“I will not destroy it,” he answered, “if I find forty-five there.”

But Abraham persisted, saying, “What if only forty are found there?”

He replied, “I will forebear doing it for the sake of the forty.”

Then he said, “Let not my Lord grow impatient if I go on. What if only thirty are found there?”

He replied, “I will forebear doing it if I can find but thirty there.”

Still he went on, “Since I have thus dared to speak to my Lord, what if there are no more than twenty?”

“I will not destroy it,” he answered, “for the sake of the twenty.”

But he still persisted: “Please, let not my Lord grow angry if I speak up this last time. What if there are at least ten there?”

“For the sake of those ten,” he replied, “I will not destroy it.” – Genesis 18:20-32.

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  • Kyle R. Cupp

    Interesting association.

    Personally, I’ve always found the term collateral damage to be dehumanizing.

  • Henry Karlson


    I think the first thing one needs to do about “military operations” is figure out if they are permissible outside of “war.” Second, if they are, do they need to be justified under just war principles or are they their own little situation? These questions, I think, need to be asked not only of operations during the Bush administration, but also the Clinton administration.

    Now, we know just war theory allows for unintended causalties — however, it is more than that, there are issues of proportionality and issues of whether or not one is working against those unintended deaths or if one is rash and carefree about them. If one is not working to limit those deaths the best one can, then there is an element of culpability implicit in your action.

    We need to question the initial objective and determine if they are valid in this instance. Are assassination attempts valid military objectives? For that, in my opinion, is exactly what is intended in this instance. And if it is not, then double-effect does not allow for it, since the act itself has to be morally good.

  • M.Z. Forrest

    If one were to claim we were on a messianic mission, one may be able to cite Sodom and Gomorrah. Since we aren’t even giving the pretense that we are on a mission from God, I think the analogy fails.

  • Blackadder


    I would think that, if being on a messianic mission had any effect on the calculation at all, it would make civilian causalities more acceptable, not less.

  • Matt


    I see no principle against limiting warfare to individual airstrikes or commando operations. Frankly, I see them as actually being the best form of warfare given that they are able to limit many of the evil side effects of a broader military campaign. Why wouldn’t it be acceptable, in the general sense?

    I think pursuing limited military actions is a noble goal, and it tends to force the nation to evaluate the justness and effect of every single action. Just comparing this strike with any of the dozens of strikes that take place daily in Iraq, we are not discussing the particular justness of each of those, because it’s not feasible to do so.

    A lot of people on this blog seem to be under the misunderstanding that we, with a more conservative viewpoint are blindly exhorting any and every action the government takes. That is just not the case, we are trying to evaluate each action in it’s proper context and by objectively applying the principles the Church provides for us. It is very difficult to do this with the rants of pacifists who ignore Catholic teaching and consider all military action immoral (opposing all military action is a valid position, declaring it all immoral is opposition to Catholic teaching), as well as those who apply unreasonable and untraditional standards to what is a good or neutral act.

    God Bless,


  • digbydolben

    Before this gets going to the extent it did at the Somali post, I think everyone tempted to respond here should take a breather and go over to Taki and read this post:

    and pay particular attention to the last comment:

    I agree that a strict criterion should apply to both just war and interpersonal conflict. Obviously, the neocon Catholics have done their best to justify an outrageously lax reading of Church teaching–including provision for pre-emptive attack based on suspicion. Conversely, liberals encourage a scrupulosity, which effectively forbids nations from defending themselves or enforcing reasonable limits on immigration. Laxity was the error of the Renaissance popes; scrupulosity was Luther’s. One is no better than the other.

    The real problem with much of the moralizing going on here is its utter lack of HUMILITY, in my opinion: neither the nationalists nor the pacifists seem to understand that what causes the most killing is PRIDE (“pride” in one’s “country,” “pride” in one’s “cause,” etc.)

    To wit: the argument that bombing from the air (and NECESSARILY involving more “collateral damage”) is somehow “nobler,” more “protective” of human life than striving valiantly on a battlefield of equal advantages, to achieve a campaign’s “just cause.” The Church’s “just war theory” was conceived in an era when most warriors would have been filled with self-loathing even by the THOUGHT of massacring innocent civilians from the air, and now we justify it by the threat of “terrorism”–as if the armed forces of countries that are massacring civilians aren’t equally guilty of “terrorism.”

    This reminds me of the “collateral damage” of the innocent children of the Branch Davidians in Waco, when the FBI claimed that the attack on the Davidian compound was “justified” because it would have taken another million dollars worth of fence-sitting to “starve the terrorists” out. Anybody ever think of cordoning off the “civilian targets” and letting the “civilians” inside decide what to do with the “terrorists,” and whether to go on “sheltering” them? (“Oh, no,” I can hear the nationalists muttering, “that would waste OUR military’s assets and materiel. Got to get in there and WASTE those ‘terrorists’ first!”–the PRIDE, the PRIDE is what is killing innocent women and children, as well as traditional Catholic morality!)

    And EVERYONE–absolutely EVERYONE–on both sides of these issues, is guilty of that pride.

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