First, let me come clean about a few things:
1. I have never been in a fistfight. I “learned to box” in third grade and, in my only bout, was knocked out by Stevie Walker. I feel obliged to add that Stevie Walker went on to win the tournament; so while I was whipped (b-a-d), I was whipped by the best.
2. I did not fight in the only war for which I would have qualified by age or health, the Vietnam War. My number in the draft lottery was 3, meaning that if I my status had been 1-A, I would have had a draft probability of 100 percent. I was not drafted for a combination of reasons, beginning with, I entered college in the fall of 1969 (status 1-S). I did not run from the war (emigrate to Canada), but I did protest the war—along with millions of other kids my age.
3. My father served in World War II, and I am proud of him for that. I have a number of friends, including Ferde and Frank, who have served with distinction in the military. I am proud of them as my friends, partly for that. Father Barnes was a Navy chaplain, and everyone knows he is a righteous dude.
4. I have had mixed feelings about the two-and-a-half wars launched since Vietnam. On balance, I thought the Gulf War launched by Bush 41 was “just,” as defined by Catholic Church doctrine. (See below.) I thought the Iraq War launched by Bush 43 was in no sense “just”: not defensive (though justified as such), founded on lies (“failures of intelligence”?), and devastating to the civilian population of Iraq. I think the Afghan War, now being escalated by Obama 44, is just plain stupid. The Russians couldn’t win in Afghanistan, and they’re next door and they’re nastier. There’s no provision in Catholic doctrine for stupid.
I’m open to attack on any one of these four points (fire away), but none of them is my point. They are only table-setters.
I want to come back eventually to the homily by St. John Chrysostom from today’s Office of Readings that I quoted in the first post in this series. But one thing at a time. For right now, what is the Church’s position on war?
The teaching occurs in the Catechism under a discussion of the Fifth Commandment, Thou Shalt Not Kill (CCC 2258–2330). Matters also covered by this concise discussion in the Catechism are abortion, euthanasia, and suicide. All of these, plus war, are prohibited by the Fifth Commandment, and arguably by Christ throughout the Gospels. Which is why it is so hard to vote these days, or why Ferde claims that, on occasion, given the choice between a pro-war Republican and a pro-abortion Democrat, he has entered a vote for Donald Duck. Donald may be annoying, but he doesn’t kill either unborn babies or innocent children in Baghdad (or wherever our “smart” weapons are imperfectly targeted).
The Catechism is clear when pushed to the wall on war (CCC 2309). The war must be, first of all, defensive, “legitimately” so, and given that, the following conditions must hold.
1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
3. there must be serious prospects of success;
4. 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.
Furthermore, while Church doctrine allows that such a just war may exist and may be fought, it does not reject pacifism as a viable response to war. It leaves the decision of going to war to civil authorities, but, by upholding both pacifism and just-war doctrine, it also effectively leaves the moral decision about participating in war to the Catholic conscience.
Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have leaned closer to the pacifist position in recent years, in part because weaponry has become so devastating that it is often impossible to violate the terms of condition # 4 above. Witness “shock and awe.” The allied bombardment of Baghdad was out of proportion with the objective of putting Saddam out of business. The civilian casualties there are only the most obvious “evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”
To end this post on a personal note—
Why does this make me proud to be a Catholic? Because I think that the Church is wise to be cautious about adhering to a strictly pacifist position, although in the past it has sometimes erred on the side of supporting “just” wars that were unjust. (The First Crusade may have been launched from a just position, but the Fourth?!) Here as elsewhere, the Church has adopted an inclusive position of both/and, while individual popes, bishops, and priests have made their personal positions clearer.
Benedict XVI is one of these. In 2003, he told the Catholic magazine 30 Days, “We must begin asking ourselves whether as things stand, with new weapons that cause destruction that goes well beyond the groups involved in the fight, it is still licit to allow that a ‘just war’ might exist.”
Next up: St. John Chrysostom and Bernard of Clairvaux.