Home Uncategorized Is it time to revisit the just-war doctrine?

Is it time to revisit the just-war doctrine?


Catholic News Service

How do we defend ourselves and our nations from attacks? When is it OK to fight back, if ever? These have been questions asked since the earliest days of Christianity.

U.S. President George W. Bush listens as Pope John Paul II makes a point at the end of their meeting at the Vatican June 4, 2004. It was their first meeting since the Iraq war had begun. The pope told Bush he was deeply concerned about the "grave unrest" in Iraq. (CNS photo/Reuters)
U.S. President George W. Bush listens as Pope John Paul II makes a point at the end of their meeting at the Vatican June 4, 2004. It was their first meeting since the Iraq war had begun. The pope told Bush he was deeply concerned about the “grave unrest” in Iraq. (CNS photo/Reuters)

One attempt to answer these is what’s known in Catholic circles as the just-war doctrine. Much of it is explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which stresses that four conditions must be met to justify use of military force:

  • “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.”

These exist in a section called “Avoiding War,” found in No. 2307 to No. 2317 of the catechism.

In April 2016, at a conference sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International, a Catholic peace organization, those who attended publicly rejected the doctrine and said there is no such thing as war that can be justified. Some reports have said that they asked the pope to address the issue.

Over the years, many government leaders, and many Catholics, have diverged in interpreting this church teaching.

The Second Vatican Council’s 1965 Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (“Gaudium et Spes”) said that “as long as the danger of war remains and there is no competent and sufficiently powerful authority at the international level, governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted.”

The Vatican has spoken out in moments when it looks as if all means of peaceful resolution have not been explored.

In 2003, St. John Paul II took issue with the U.S. government’s decisions to use military force in Iraq and said that it amounted to a “defeat for humanity.” Just days before the U.S. began bombing the forces of Saddam Hussein in March 2003, the pope asserted that all options and efforts to negotiate peace had not been exhausted.

Pope Benedict XVI also expressed similar viewpoints, both as pope and prior to that as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In 2003, he, too, contended that unleashing a war against Iraq was not justified, in part because “proportion between the possible positive consequences and the sure negative effect of the conflict was not guaranteed.”

He continued, saying that, “on the contrary, it seems clear that the negative consequences will be greater than anything positive that might be obtained.”

Those words are worth considering in light of the terrorist activity that continues to plague and unsettle the world. It is hard to ignore, especially when it reaches our doorstep.

Once again, we ask ourselves the question: When is it OK to fight back, if ever?

The thinking behind the just-war doctrine that we still consult during these moments comes largely from St. Augustine’s letter to Boniface, written in 418. It has been the basis for much of the Catholic just-war teaching for 1,600 years.

Boniface was a leader of Roman Empire forces in northern Africa, which soon would be attacked by barbarian “vandals” from Europe.

In his letter, Augustine stressed that “peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace.”

He added that “peace is not sought in order to the kindling of war, but war is waged in order that peace may be obtained. Even in waging a war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker, that, by conquering those whom you attack, you may lead them back to the advantages of peace.”

Augustine emphasized that “mercy is due to the vanquished or captive.” Like many seeking peace before and since, Augustine cited the teachings of Jesus, which tell us to avoid retaliation and love our enemies (Matthew 5:38-44), which throughout the ages has prompted mixed response.

Indeed, the complexity of issues we face in today’s world make Jesus’ words admittedly challenging to follow, as the U.S. bishops noted in a 1983 pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.”

“In exceptional cases, determined by the moral principles of the just-war tradition, some uses of force are permitted,” the bishops stated. “Every nation has a right and duty to defend itself against unjust aggression.”

But “offensive war of any kind is not morally justifiable,” they added, concluding that the quest for peace is always our aim as followers of Jesus.

“Peacemaking is not an optional commitment,” they said. “It is a requirement of our faith. We are called to be peacemakers, not by some movement of the moment, but by our Lord Jesus.

“The content and context of our peacemaking is set not by some political agenda or ideological program but by the teaching of his church.”


Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.