Just war, or just another war?

HuntzViewpointsBOXA danger in publishing a summary of faith is that the summary itself becomes the substitute for the faith. Summaries are intended to be outlines on basic ideas; they are not intended to be an exhaustive treatment of every topic in the tradition. Within the Catholic tradition this problem exists in the areas of Catholic social doctrine where the issues are complex and the teaching on these topics is enormous. Let us look at one example to prove the point: the just war theory, where the Catechism states:

2309 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.

Leaving aside the language that highlights the reluctance of going to war, the passage is preceded by a number of paragraphs obliging all Catholics to peace-making and the path of non-violence. Recourse to war is an exception to the rule of non-violence, not the rule itself. The Church in no place commands her children to acts of physical violence against another person. A more thorough presentation of the topic is found in The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which prefaces the just war theory with numerous papal teachings on peace, including this paragraph:

496. Violence is never a proper response…. the Church proclaims “that violence is evil, that violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems, that violence is unworthy of man. Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings.” The contemporary world too needs the witness of unarmed prophets, who are often the objects of ridicule. “Those who renounce violence and bloodshed and, in order to safeguard human rights, make use of those means of defense available to the weakest, bear witness to evangelical charity… They bear legitimate witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risk of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death.”

The recourse to violence is further cautioned by recognizing the horrors of modern warfare. Additionally, both texts repeat the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that it is entirely just and proper to allow the right of citizens for conscientious objection to war and allowing for other forms of community service (cf. Gaudium et Spes #79). This recognition further highlights the fact that resorting to the violence of war is not a moral obligation, but an exception to the moral obligation to work for peace and to employ non-violent means.

The doctrine of the Second Vatican Council radically changed the Church’s posture on the position of warfare. As Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) noted:

The Council moved away from the static morality of the just war toward a dynamic morality of emergency… Therefore, the attempt must be made to approach as closely as possible what is morally desirable. Thus we can at least assert moral demands, even though we cannot achieve our ultimate moral objectives. (Ratzinger, Theological Highlights of Vatican II, p. 241)

How are we to achieve the ultimate moral objective? Certainly a great effort must be made in the area of international diplomacy as an immediate response to present dangers. Education in non-violence and conflict resolution are also essential in order for violence to be averted. The future holy father noticed another pedagogical approach at work in the magisterium of the Church:

The Council does not presume to set timeless norms for questions so complex in their technological, political, and historical ramifications. Rather, it stirs up a feeling of inadequacy about the merely licit. It sees the licit as no more than a very temporary concession in a history that finds man still in progress and still very far from doing what he ought to do, very far from doing what is genuinely right….The whole of human action is shown to be abysmally deficient when we begin to confess our moral attitude in this matter, and actually in all other matters as well, is far from what it should be. We recognize that the small righteousness we manage to build up in ourselves is nothing but an emergency morality in the midst of our radical unrighteousness. (ibid., p. 243)

The recourse to violence, then, is not the norm of human action, but a great deficiency in what is actually expected of humankind, i.e. the path of non-violence. However, many Christian moralists spend a great deal of time justifying the use of violence and very little time upholding the principle of non-violence to which we are called.

Granted, there is a concession made to the idea of a just war, but the criteria for such is quite rigorous, and yet it seems that every war manages to meet the criteria of just war according to many Christian moralists. As Erasmus noted centuries ago:

Some princes deceive themselves as follows: ‘Some wars are entirely just, and I have just cause for starting one.’ First, I will suspend judgment on whether any war is entirely just; but who is there who does not think his cause just? Amid so many shifts and changes in human affairs, amid the making and breaking of so many agreements and treaties, how could anyone not find a pretext, if any sort of pretext is enough to start a war? (Erasmus, The Education of a Christian Prince, p. 104)

We see the pretext for war repeatedly, and how quickly we follow the drumbeats of war, forgetting our obligation to work for peace at all costs. Erasmus noted the horrors and abominations of war in the 16th century. How greater the evils modern warfare brings that could be added to this description:

For it has never proved possible to terminate a single war. One war is linked to another, and drags along with it an interminable and inextricable chain of ills. These ills are so many that their number can barely be comprehended, they are so atrocious that even an utterly wicked man cannot make right of them. Yet these are the natural consequences of any war, however just. Furthermore, the grounds for starting a war are sometimes false, not infrequently contrived, and for the most part doubtful. Then the outcome of any battle is always uncertain, and finally, no victory is bloodless, and the fighting is always at the expense of the man who had least to gain by winning. So that I am led to declare boldly that the god-fearing prince will be far more astute to maintain peace, however, unfair, than to embark on even the most advantageous war; for such a war will be preceded, accompanied, and followed by such an ocean of ills, so vast a swamp of wickedness, and so black a plague of immorality. (ibid., p. 139)

May all Christians say in unison by our words and actions the words Pope Paul VI proclaimed to the United Nations and that Pope John Paul II re-echoed in 2003: “No more war. Never again!”

Jude Huntz is Chancellor of the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.



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November 27, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph