As we witness the sheer horror of modern warfare in Gaza and Ukraine, and see the widespread suffering, death, devastation, and destruction on our television screens, any right-minded person is forced to confront the question: Is modern warfare ever justified?
The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
– 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.
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.
Pope Francis on Warfare
On March 16th, 2022, in the context of the ongoing Ukrainian war, Pope Francis stated:
There was a time, even in our Churches, when people spoke of a holy war or a just war. Today we cannot speak in this manner. A Christian awareness of the importance of peace has developed. Wars are always unjust since it is the people of God who pay. Our hearts cannot but weep before the children and women killed, along with all the victims of war. War is never the way.
Speaking during his November 22nd general audience, Pope Francis referred to the Israel-Hamas war as “terrorism,” and repeated his pleas for prayer and for peace-making efforts. He asked for efforts to be made on behalf of peace and urged the faithful to pray for peace and an end to war.
May the Lord put his and there, may the Lord help us to resolve problems and not go forward with the passions that ultimately kill everyone. We pray for the Palestinian people, we pray for the Israeli people, for peace to come.
In the October 2020 papal encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Francis writes:
At issue is whether the development of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and the enormous and growing possibilities offered by new technologies, have granted war an uncontrollable destructive power over great numbers of innocent civilians. The truth is that “never has humanity had such power over itself, yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely.” We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a “just war.” – “Never again war!”
In footnote 247, the pope cites the ‘Just War Teaching’ of St. Augustine and states it is a teaching that “we no longer uphold in our own day.”
Pope Francis’ argument rests on the condition of proportionality as well on reliance on an international body to enforce peace. Even so, should a nation have a just cause, the threat exists that the death and destruction of modern weapons means that this will be out of proportion to any good that may come, even in a country that seeks to defend itself from unjust attack.
Pope Francis’ Position is Not Without Support
Other recent popes have expressed similar reservations.
Pope Pius XII delivered a speech on in 1953, he addressed the Eighth Congress of the World Medical Association, he affirmed that, in principle, nations have a right to defend against unjust attack. However, based on the condition of proportionality,
Pius wrote in Note 2:
Mutual goodwill always permits one to avoid war as the ultimate means of settling disputes among nations. Just a few days ago, We again expressed the desire that any war not justified by the absolute necessity to defend oneself against a grave injustice affecting the community, and capable of being prevented only by granting a free hand in international relations to brutality and unscrupulous conduct, should be condemned on an international level. Therefore, defense against any injustice whatever is not sufficient reason for a nation to have recourse to the violent method of war. When the harm wrought by war is not comparable to that caused by tolerating injustice, one may be obliged to suffer injustice.
Pope John XXIII also came close to condemning all wars in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris. He writes:
We acknowledge that this conviction owes its origin chiefly to the terrifying destructive force of modern weapons. It arises from fear of the ghastly and catastrophic consequences of their use. Thus, in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.
In his address to the Vatican diplomatic corps in January of that year, St. John Paul II, called for “respect for law” as a “certain requirement” if humanity was not to “sink into the abyss.”
Life within society – particularly international life – presupposes common and inviolable principles whose goal is to guarantee the security and the freedom of individual citizens and of nations.
These rules of conduct are the foundation of national and international stability. Today political leaders have at hand highly relevant texts and institutions. It is enough simply to put them into practice. The world would be totally different if people began to apply in a straightforward manner the agreements already signed!
War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations.”
St. John Paul referenced the charter of the United Nations and international law as precluding war “even when it is a matter of ensuring the common good,” except as the very last option and in accordance with very strict conditions.
Pope Francis’ more recent repudiation of Just War Teaching is not based solely on a failure of modern warfare to fulfil the condition of proportionality. Rather, in Fratelli tutti, he stated all wars are unjust because:
It is the people of God who pay. Our hearts cannot but weep before the children and women killed, along with all the victims of war.
War can easily be chosen by invoking all sorts of allegedly humanitarian, defensive, or precautionary excuses, and even resorting to the manipulation of information. In recent decades, every single war has been ostensibly ‘justified.’ The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of the possibility of legitimate defense by means of military force, which involves demonstrating that certain ‘rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy’ have been met.
Yet it is easy to fall into an overly broad interpretation of this potential right. In this way, some would also wrongly justify even ‘preventive’ attacks or acts of war that can hardly avoid entailing evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.
The pope drew attention to weapons of mass destruction, nuclear, chemical, and biological, which have changed completely the destructive potential of conflict in recent decades:
However, the encyclical did not exclude just self-defense. In another section addressing “legitimate conflict and forgiveness,” Pope Francis writes:
We are called to love everyone, without exception; at the same time, loving an oppressor does not mean allowing him to keep oppressing us, or letting him think that what he does is acceptable.
On the contrary true love for an oppressor means seeking ways to make him cease his oppression; it means stripping him of a power that he does not know how to use, and that diminishes his own humanity and that of others. Forgiveness does not entail allowing oppressors to keep trampling on their own dignity and that of others, or letting criminals continue their wrongdoing.
And he argued that such international authorities do now exist:
There is a need to ensure the uncontested rule of law and tireless recourse to negotiation, mediation, and arbitration, as proposed by the Charter of the United Nations, which constitutes truly a fundamental juridical norm.
The seventy-five years since the establishment of the United Nations and the experience of the first twenty years of this millennium have shown that the full application of international norms proves truly effective, and that failure to comply with them is detrimental.
The Charter of the United Nations, when observed and applied with transparency and sincerity, is an obligatory reference point of justice and a channel of peace. Here there can be no room for disguising false intentions or placing the partisan interests of one country or group above the global common good.
Conclusions and Questions
Pope Francis is right that we should have the gravest sense of compassion for the innocent victims of war. And if innocent men, women, and children are deliberately targeted as part of an overall war strategy, such action is evil. And, it is true that there are nearly always occasions of unjust actions such as the direct or indiscriminate targeting of non-combatants.
However, does the undeniable fact that war causes suffering and deaths of innocent men, women and children mean that the condition of proportionality is always unsatisfied? Does the suffering that citizens are forced to bear in modern warfare negate the ethical right of a nation state to militarily defend its citizens?
Certainly the argument that all wars are unjust as they lead to horrific evils caused by the capacity of modern weapons, and potentially atomic warfare, and thus fail the condition of proportionality, is powerful.
The international community may have established institutions and norms meaning that war is now a criminal act, its resistance a matter of moral self-defense by the victims, and the intervention of the international community. However, in both Ukraine and Gaza, international law and the United Nations have both proven inadequate. And what nation would surrender its right to defend itself to an international body dominated by the geopolitical concerns of a few super powers?
Read The Latin Right’s writing here.