When does war accord with justice? When does it not? No philosophical system is better equipped to deal with these most profound of political questions than Catholicism. Long before the advent of "Catholic social teaching" — an unfortunate phrase that implies a chasm between individual morality and political systems — there were the political writings of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Late Scholastics. One jewel of these writings is the doctrine of Just War.
To pacifists the phrase Just War sounds like an absurdity.
How can mass killing and maiming, the very essence of war, ever accord with justice? In fact, there are times when it is necessary, just as self defense and defense of one’s family and community are morally necessary. But to meet the demands of justice, war and the tactics and weapons of war must first submit to moral examination.
To militarists too, the phrase Just War sounds highly suspicious. Why can’t nation states defend their interests around the globe through any means necessary? Because that way lies moral corruption and chaos. War is the health of the state and the state is the greatest earthly enemy that the faith has confronted in the long history of Christianity. God’s kingdom is not of this world, but states have shown a propensity to try to establish themselves as gods, especially in the modern era.
So there must be restraints on states, particularly on their power to make war. These restraints must be based on Christian moral teaching, and they must also be embodied in the legal structures of nations, including that of international law, a product of centuries of Catholic jurisprudence.
The desire to avoid war is a fundamental idea in the Christian view of politics, just as the romanticization of war is a pagan one that reflects a disregard for the sanctity of life.
What makes a just war? Every Catholic Encyclopedia spells it out. It must be defensive and never aggressive. It must be the last resort, undertaken after all possible means of negotiating a peace have been exhausted. It must be conducted by legitimate authority. The means used must be proportional to the actual threat. There must be a good chance of winning (no sending soldiers to their death for no purpose). After the fighting is over, there may be no acts of vengeance.
Finally, and extremely important in our own century: no military action can be undertaken that seriously threatens civilians (much less deliberately aims at them as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki). There’s a word for targeting civilians: murder. Wars are for soldiers, not non-combatants, and if all these conditions are met, war may be undertaken in good conscience (though no one can be obligated to participate).
Now for a test. What if Bill Clinton decides to bomb Iraq because Saddam Hussein doesn’t want Americans to be part of the UN inspection team? Would Clinton be justified in ordering a bombing? Clearly not. It would not be a defensive action; indeed what goes on in Iraq is none of our government’s business, unless its business is defined in messianic terms. Not all means of peace have been exhausted (indeed, the U.S.’s continued economic sanctions are warfare by another means), bombing would be disproportional (you don’t kill someone for allegedly insulting you), and innocent civilians would surely die.
Consider what the U.S. has been responsible for thus far in Iraq. Not only has the U.S. boycott kept food and medicine from getting into the country. Not only have the trade sanctions prevented average Iraqis from making any kind of life for themselves or even feeding their children. But the U.S. deliberately bombed sewage treatment plants around the country to poison the water supply with deadly bacteria. Credible estimates suggest that more than a million people, half of them children, have died of dysentery and other preventable diseases, as well as of malnutrition and starvation, since the end of the war.
By any standard of what constitutes a Just War, the hands of U.S. policy makers are unclean. That is precisely why John Paul II gave allocution after allocution in opposition to the prospect and the reality of the Gulf War. It wasn’t some vague attachment to the Arab world that animated these speeches, or some naive view of the intentions of Saddam Hussein. The Holy Father wasn’t just playing a role as a "man of peace," saying the kinds of things you expect to hear from a spiritual leader, and then can ignore. It was Catholic theology and ethical teaching, specifically as it applies to warfare, that was behind those statements so widely ignored or condemned in this country. After the carnage, all of it unnecessary, we know he was exactly right to warn of the disasters that the Gulf War would engender. The Pope has also been eloquent in criticizing the post-war sanctions as unjust measures aimed at innocent civilians.
Just War doctrine wasn’t so widely ignored at one point U.S. history. During the Civil War, Tom Woods of Columbia University has pointed out, Catholic newspapers in the North editorialized on behalf of the South, the region that fought with a just cause in mind, first for the principle of subsidiarity, and then to protect homes and property from invading Union troops. Slavery has long been discouraged by Catholic teaching, but Just War doctrine could not be violated to abolish it.
That is, the greater evil — war — could not be used to end a lesser evil. Slavery should have been discontinued, as it was in all other countries except Haiti, by peaceful means.
It was a Catholic sensibility that led Irish immigrants to massively resist the wartime draft in New York, and a Catholic sensibility that led a Catholic priest to become the Poet Laureate of the Confederate States of America.
As Murray Rothbard argued in The Costs of War (Transaction, 1997), the South was justified in resisting invasion, and its efforts in that cause entirely accorded with Just War doctrine. It’s no wonder Catholics here and abroad — for instance Lord Acton — took the Southern side. Acton’s moving letter to Robert E. Lee after Appomattox is a stirring defense of what Acton called the "Principles of Montgomery," named after the first capital of the Confederacy, and an accurate prediction of where Northern militarism and imperialism would lead America.
In World War I, Catholic Irish and German immigrants were widely considered traitorous to the cause of the American empire. Why? Because they refused to back a global war in the name of the god "democracy," especially when the subtext of that war was the supposed theological mandate to overthrow of the last surviving monarchies (particularly, the Catholic Habsburgs). Catholics suffered vicious treatment at the hands of the Wilson administration, headed by a life-long Catholic hater. They were jailed on the slightest suspicion of insufficient war-patriotism, and forced to recite a pledge to the U.S. flag — authored by a socialist New York minister — that declared the union to be indivisible by order of God.
It wasn’t some mystical loyalty to the "old country" that led Catholics — both in the pews and in the hierarchy — to oppose entry into World War I. It was the reality that this country wasn’t being attacked or threatened, despite the Lusitania trick, and therefore the war failed the very first tenet of Just War doctrine: a war must be defensive.
It was a morally based opposition inspired by an Augustinian and Thomist philosophical legacy; this anti-war Catholicism confronted a wild-eyed, pro-war, post-millennial form of Protestant Progressivism, embodied in the mind of Woodrow Wilson. It had also been embodied in the mind of Lincoln, who thrilled to the chilling "Battle Hymn of the Republic," in which Our Lord is depicted as joyously killing Southerners through His chosen instrument, the Northern Army.
In the inter-war period, however, there was a just war, because it was eminently defensive. American Catholics prayed for the forces of Francisco Franco as they defended Spain against the monstrous central government. Of course, Franklin D. Roosevelt and his ally Stalin supported the Communists. To this day, the U.S. government and its mouthpieces like the New York Times still herald the appropriately named Lincoln Brigade of New York Communists who went to Spain to help kill priests and nuns.
But as World War II approached, it is no surprise that Catholic priests, intellectuals, and politicians led the movement for non-intervention. By the same token, notes Patrick Allitt (Catholic Intellectuals, 1993), in contrast to those cheering on all aspects of the war, "Catholic journals in the war years never waxed effusive about the Soviet Union, Stalin, or communism, despite the Grand Alliance." Once again accused of subversion (Italians were particularly targeted, and even put in concentration camps), Catholics had to prove their loyalty to the U.S. state by putting the flag of the federal government in every parish. It remains to this day, to "balance" the banner of the Vicar of Christ.
The tendency of American Catholics to oppose American adventures abroad remained a constant theme until the onset of the Cold War. Despite moral qualms associated with raising up an imperial military bureaucracy to threaten nuclear war on a global scale, it was deemed necessary because of the sheer scale and degree of evil of the foe: atheistic communism. Whether or not that was the right decision, or carried out in a proper way, it clearly took a threat on this level for Catholics to set aside their traditional concerns about the uses and abuses of the military power.
Indeed, even as against communism, Catholics were initially strong supporters of the efforts of Senator Joseph McCarthy to rid our own government of communists, not fight a global crusade under the command of anti-Christian social democrats.
Even at the height of the Cold War, John XXIII and the U.S. Bishops raised moral concerns about the use of nuclear weapons. As the Pope and the Bishops pointed out, a nuclear bomb might rightly be regarded as intrinsically evil because it cannot discriminate between soldiers and civilians. In fact, these weapons were designed to wipe out entire cities and could potentially extinguish life on the planet. This is a terrifying and even demonic tool.
With the Cold War over, and the U.S. government still on the global rampage with troops in 100 countries, it is again time to put the spotlight on the doctrine of the Just War. Catholics have a moral responsibility to light the way out of this century of war and destructionism into a time of peaceful cooperation among nations. This is why John Paul II has been such a consistent voice for peace, and why so many Catholics have joined the effort to rein in the messianic ambitions of the new godless threat, our very own government.
There is no threat from abroad that compares with the danger that the federal government represents to our property, our families, our schools, our parishes, and the peaceful practice of our faith. It is not only a danger to us, but to everyone around the world who desires to live in peace.
What is the financial force behind the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction? What is the institutional force behind the continued subsidization of abortion and birth control here and around the world? Whose military bases are surrounded by nude bars and prostitution, at home and abroad? Which government continues to prop up and subsidize anti-Christian regimes abroad and promote policies, as in Bosnia, that bring about wars against Christian peoples?
The culprit is not in Bagdad, but in Washington, D.C. That is why every American Catholic has a moral obligation to be aware of the danger the U.S. imperium represents, to resist its encroachments so far as he is able, and to pray for its end. As a first step, the sanctions on the people of Iraq must be lifted.
This article first ran in The Wanderer.