Because of the Church’s Position on War II

Because of the Church’s Position on War II November 27, 2009

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.

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  • EPG

    Webster – Thank you for this. One of the concerns I have about Catholicism is what I see as an excessive tilt toward the pacifist side of the equation, particularly in response to real danger out there in the world. So, your post prompts the following questions, for which I don’t expect a ready or pat answer, because they are in fact difficult:You note that the just war doctrine requires that “the war must be, first of all, defensive, ‘legitimately’ so . . . “To what extent may a war be “pre-emptive,” in response to an imminent threat? How imminent must the threat be? Although there are many who hold the view that the Bush administration lied about the intelligence regarding the existence of WMD’s in Iraq, I’m not persuaded that this is the case. But we don’t have to resolve the factual dispute. Let’s assume a hypothetical in which the regime in Iraq did have WMD’s, and we had confidence that they intended to use them? Would that be “legitimately defensive?” What about Iran? We know the regime there is actively developing nukes. We know their president has repeatedly threatened Israel. As a moral matter, does Israel have to wait for the first strike to attempt to take them out? Looking at history, would an occupation of the Rhineland in the late thirties have been justifiable? What about military action against Germany in response to its annexation of the Sudetenland? Was the American Civil War sufficiently “defensive” in nature to justify the Federal Government’s action against the southern states who attempted to secede? “The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain”This requirement would not have disqualified the invasion of Afghanistan after September, 2001, would it? After all, the Taliban regime actively harbored those who planned and executed the attacks, and, in all likelihood, would have been likely to continue if left in place. “[T]here must be serious prospects of success . . .”This one always struck me as interesting . . . Poland had no prospect of success against the German blitzkrieg. Should the Poles have laid down their arms? In other contexts, how does one measure the prospect for success? How does one define success? In Afghanistan, for example, success included toppling the Taliban. We did that fairly easily. But if success also includes making sure that there is a sufficient degree of order to prevent the country from being used as a site for jihadist training camps, how do we measure either success or the prospect for success?There is much, much more I could add, but I am supposed to be working today . . . Best wishes.

  • Kneeling Catholic

    YIMC—-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,….—Here's the problem…'just war' and 'pacifism' are mutually contradictory because the former holds governments *may* wage and individuals may participate in a war under certain conditions and strictures while the latter holds they 'may not* under any circumstances. Agreed? or how are you defining pacifism? If the Church says we are to adhere to two mutually contradictory moralities, then she is not guiding us at all. She is confusing us.k.c.

  • Webster Bull

    Kneeling Catholic, Thanks for your continuing attention to this topic. I am dashing around on Friday but will do my best to address your questions when I post on St. John Chrysostom's homily Saturday and, Sunday, on a person who defines Catholic pacifism, Dorothy Day. Sunday will be the 29th anniversary of her death, so it's a good time to honor her. Maybe others have comments on this?

  • Webster Bull

    EPG, And I am supposed to be visiting a sick friend. So check in again over the weekend, when I hope to take up some of these very good questions. WB

  • Frank

    This is one of those times when I can truthfully say that this entire discussion is way above my paygrade! As someone who was called from an early age to the vocation of warrior and defender, I welcomed the opportunity to serve and be ready to defend our country. It was a priviledge to do so.When the call comes down and says go, someone has to be ready to go. Thankfully I was able to be in that group.

  • Webster Bull

    Yes, thankfully, you were in that group. I agree. The key words being "defender" and "defense" of our country. The Catechism (which is what's at issue here, not my views, nor yours) does not take issue with young "defenders." The Catechism seems to be asking, (a) when is aggression wrongly justified as "defense"? (b) where does that spill over into "evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated"? and (c) is there a middle ground somewhere, between, say, the Beatitudes and Shock and Awe. That's something I think St. John Chrysostom addresses. To be continued.

  • Anonymous

    I certainly am not smart enough to know all the nuences and answers to this. The only thing I feel fairly certain about is that evil if not destroyed will continue to grow and get stronger.

  • Thank you for updating us on Just War Theory, Webster. Keep up the good work i.e "Because…" theme

  • Thank you EPG! I agree with you about Bush's intelligance reports, and the war 'qualifications' per sey. I'm not sure I agree with you Webster on the wars not being justifiable. 3000 killed is certainly justifieable. Persecution, justifiable. Maybe it's just the conservatism coming out and sorry for not agreeing but, it's a new time, one previously untrod, where militant people have to be forcibally stopped. Some peace talks just never will work.I'm a very young Catholic and I certainly don't have everything straightened out to the point of understanding(my,um,long term goal…:) but I just can not see all of the preresqusites panning out in any war. Not any more. I can see B16's viewpoints and where they come from but at the same time I have to keeep in mind that there are situations that demand a certain amount of consideration.

  • Francesco

    What many people are failing to take into account is this: when does war cease being a means to end evil, and become an evil in and of itself? Certainly, it is when the criteria for a "Just War" provided by the Catholic Church are violated. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It is evident to the natural reason of man, and has been made known through the Church by the will of God who created the Church just for this purpose. In my opinion, to support the secular authorities in a blatantly unjust and immoral escapade such as a war of aggression is to act contrary to, and against God by violating the clear and simple laws of morality which he has created. We all know the end which comes to those who fight against God.There are problems throughout the world, especially in countries that have descended into tyranny and anarchy, much like the United States is doing now because of the great many moral evils it has committed in the past few decades. That doesn't mean that, when hostility is encountered, war is the best solution. Many times (if not most), it will not only escalate the situation, making it much worse, but it has sprung from war and violence to begin with. Where there is desperation born of hunger, privation of basic necessities, generations of war, and unrestrained violence and lust, it should be countered by kindness and charity not as in handouts or concessions, but in helping to rid these areas of its essential problems so that the symptoms of the underlying moral evils can then be healed. To attack it with more war or violence while yelling "Just War" against the teachings of the Catholic Church and basic human decency may make us feel self-righteous, but that feeling will be nothing compared to the privation of God's grace in this world and in the next.

  • Webster Bull

    Ashley, thanks for your comment. I think what's remarkable about the Catholic Church's position(s) on war, and I'll be posting about this again later on Tuesday 12/1, is that the Church forces us to think for ourselves about individual conflicts and ask: Is going to war "just"? (It also gives us the option of saying, with Dorothy Day, that NO war is just.) We have to remain "vigilant," where war is concerned. We have to exercise our free will and make judgments. What I tried to show, in point 4 above, is that I think differently about each of three conflicts since Vietnam: one just, one unjust, one stupid. I may be wrong about one or more of these, but this is the result of my own thinking, which has been guided in part by the Catechism. It is my judgment.

  • Webster Bull

    Francesco, I agree with you fundamentally about just war (though not about the US "descending into tyranny and anarchy," which is over the top). I think my friend and co-blogger Frank, a retired Marine, may have a more nuanced point of view, so I'll encourage him to write a comment here when he has time.Webster

  • Francesco: Welcome to this discussion! I would simply point out that since the "Manifest Destiny" days , at least, the Republic of the United States has not descended to the levels of annexing Canada or Mexico or other "land grab" types of conflicts. Germany saying they needed "living space" for example. The U.S. makes mistakes (Banana Wars anyone?) and yet it has not been because of megalomaniacal (sheesh!) Empire building desires. At least IMHO.Respectfully,