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The Church's Just War Theory - Part 2


While the criteria for waging a just war are reasonable, our modern methods of warfare complicate their application, especially in the areas of proportionality, discrimination, and due proportion.


Last week, Straight Answers addressed the issue of just war theory. While the criteria for waging a just war are reasonable, our modern methods of warfare complicate their application, especially in the areas of proportionality (that the good achieved by waging war must not be outweighed by the harm), discrimination (that armed forces ought to fight armed forces and strive not to bring harm to noncombatants), and due proportion (that combatants use only those means necessary to achieve their objectives and show mercy to all once combat has ceased). Given these parameters, we can address the glaring issues of an embargo and germ warfare.

To prevent war, a nation (or an organization like the United Nations) may impose an embargo or issue sanctions against a government in hopes of moving that government to a peaceful resolution of a situation., Such a sanction presumes that the government would desire to pursue the best course of action for the welfare of its people and thereby "give in" rather than let its citizens suffer. If the government did not concede, the sanction would move the people to rise against the government.

Sadly, we have seen how prolonged embargoes do not really hurt the government, but the innocent people. In countries under embargo, no one sees starving leaders without proper medical care or housing; sadly, the innocent victims are the ones suffering. Worse, the recalcitrant government twists the meaning of the sanction to its own benefit, so that the people consider the imposer of the sanction as the unjust aggressor, and the government and country as the victim. Starving people do not see the global issue. Therefore, embargoes must be carefully monitored and evaluated as to the effectiveness.

For this reason, our Holy Father, during his recent visit to Cuba, called for the lifting of the long-standing embargo imposed by the United States. He stated, "The Cuban people therefore cannot be denied the contacts with other peoples necessary for economic, social and cultural development, especially when the imposed isolation strikes the population indiscriminately, making it ever more difficult for the weakest to enjoy the bare essentials of decent living, things such as food, health and education. All can and should take practical steps to bring about changes in this regard" (address on Jan. 25, 1998). Of course, the question remains whether the government would use resources to sustain the welfare of the people or to reinforce its aggressive actions. Nevertheless, the use of an embargo — whether against Cuba or Iraq — must fall within the parameters of due proportion and discrimination.

The development of weapons of mass destruction has further complicated warfare. The Second Vatican Council recognized, "The development of armaments by modern science has immeasurably magnified the horrors and wickedness of war. Warfare conducted with these weapons can inflict immense and indiscriminate havoc which goes far beyond the bounds of legitimate defense" ("Gaudium et Spes," #80). The Council fathers still had fresh in their minds the ravages of World War II. For example, the Nazis purposefully dropped the "buzz bombs" on London, leveling entire city blocks and killing citizens with the intent of breaking morale. In response, the Allies dropped incendiary bombs ("fire bombs") on Hamburg on July 27, 1943, killing 45,000, and then again on Dresden on Feb. 14, 1945, killing 135,000; in each instance, the time lapse was just twenty-four hours. The atomic bomb exploded at Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, killing about 80,000 people and injuring more than 70,000 others.

During the cold war, the technology of warfare "advanced," and continues to do so, so that armaments — whether nuclear, biological or chemical — have the capability of even greater destruction than anything witnessed during World War II. For example, the Office of Technology Assessment in a 1993 study concluded that a single airplane releasing by aerosol 100 kilograms of anthrax spores — a dormant phase of a bacillus that multiplies rapidly in the body, producing toxins and rapid hemorrhaging — on a clear, calm night over the Washington metropolitan area could kill between one and three million people. Obviously, adherence to the criteria of proportionality, discrimination and due proportion is harder than ever.

While affirming the right of a country to defend itself, the Catholic Church condemns indiscriminate "total war": the state of war between two parties does not justify or make fair the use of any means to wage the war. Vatican Council II therefore asserted, "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation" ("Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, #80). Unfortunately, war will always involve the loss of innocent life or the destruction of non-military property; however, the purposeful intent to commit such actions or to wage indiscriminate warfare is not morally justifiable.

To prevent the occurrence of such warfare, the Vatican Council proposed the following means: First, the community of nations ought to alleviate any arms race which not only consumes so many resources which could be used to alleviate the causes of war by also easily creates the "first strike mentality" or the "Mutually Assured Destruction" strategy. Second, international agreements should be ratified and enforced which would equitably work to reduce armaments, build trust among nations, and establish channels for resolving conflicts peacefully. Third, the community of nations should work together to eliminate conditions which jeopardize peace and thereby may cause war, such as poverty, ignorance or substandard living conditions. Fortunately, we have seen greater progress in these areas either through the efforts of the United Nations or individual countries.

Moreover, governments must be vigilant in protecting their citizens and in working together to eliminate these means of destruction. War is not simply waged between countries. The enemy is not always known. Battles have given way to acts of terrorism. An evil person with some political agenda could obtain or produce a weapon of mass destruction which could then be used against an innocent population without notice. How ironically sad it is to think that during the cold war, we had greater stability — the United States was pitted against the Soviet Union and each side knew the sites of missile silos and the number of warheads — whereas today some megalomaniac dictator or Timothy McVeigh-type person could use a weapon of mass destruction indiscriminately.

Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers." Sometimes "making peace" may well include fighting evil, even if it means the sacrifice of life. Most importantly, the world community must eliminate the evils which prompt acts of war, and destroy the weapons of mass destruction which will lead to our own mutual destruction.



Saunders, Rev. William. "The Church's Just War Theory (Part 2)" Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.

The Author

saunders1saundersFather William Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope parish in Potomac Falls, Virginia. He is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns, and Straight Answers II.

Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald
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