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March 27, 2008
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A Year After Iraq: Catholic Just War Doctrine

The recent anniversary of the US-led Iraq invasion reminds us that, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has said, the just war doctrine needs to be updated to take account of new realities.

Pope John Paul II at the United Nations


The Catholic just-war doctrine was developed throughout the centuries, when tribes and nations had to defend themselves alone from the invasion of other tribes and nations. Times have changed.

But as the recent anniversary of the U.S.-led Iraq invasion reminds us, we now deal with weapons of mass destruction, terrorist groups' suicidal attacks and globalization. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has said the just-war doctrine needs to be updated to take account of new realitiesin fact, that the doctrine might see an evolution in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to be released in one or two years.

What might this evolution look like? We can see the seeds of the doctrine's needed update in recent statements by Pope John Paul II.

Just Cause and Last Resort

As the Catechism explains, "the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain."

The Church...has an 'axiom,' as the Pope calls it: 'Peace remains possible. And if peace is possible, it is also a duty!'
In the last decades mankind perfected the ways to massacre and terrorize entire peoples. Think of 20th-century lagers and gulags, mass starvations, genocides, atomic bombs, nuclear and biological weapons. Think of 21st-century suicidal attacks in the United States, Israel and Iraq. Before such crimes, the Pope and the Holy See do not take a pacifist position. They appealed to the international community for some (military) action before the genocides in Rwanda, Burundi and Bosnia. They never disagreed with the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan.

Modern atrocities might justify the use of force - but "all other means of putting an end to it [the aggressor's damage] must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective" (Catechism, No. 2309).

The Holy Father's warning on these questions is clear: Be alert not to yield to the temptation of hastily using force.

As John Paul noted in his message for the 2004 World Day of Peace, today "men and women, in the face of the tragedies that continue to afflict humanity, are tempted to yield to fatalism, as if peace were an unattainable ideal." The Church, however, has an "axiom," as the Pope calls it: "Peace remains possible. And if peace is possible, it is also a duty!"

War is not our fate. "We must not be resigned, as though war were inevitable," the Pope said to the Sant'Egidio Catholic movement on March 8, 2003. "I think that when it is a question of peace, it is never too late to dialogue," he remarked three days earlier to a group of Polish pilgrims.

This "axiom" is supported by a fact: The world today has more diplomatic resources than in previous ages. We are obliged to use them all before engaging in war.

“The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”
So said the Pope on March 16, 2003, while a meeting in preparation for the invasion of Iraq took place in the Azores Islands between the United States, Britain, Spain and Portugal. "I would also like to remind the member countries of the United Nations and in particular those that make up the Security Council," he said, "that the use of force represents the last recourse, after having exhausted every other peaceful solution, in keeping with the well-known principles of the U.N. charter itself."

He added: "I say to all: There is still time to negotiate; there is still room for peace; it is never too late to come to an understanding and to continue discussions. To reflect on one's duties, to engage in energetic negotiations does not mean to be humiliated but to work with responsibility for peace."

Force as a last resort must also take into account mankind's possibility of enhancing world peace. Through political and educational means the international community can promote the respect of human rights. "There will be no peace on earth while the oppression of peoples, injustices and economic imbalances, which still exist, endure," John Paul said in his March 5 homily at the 2003 Ash Wednesday Mass.

Consequently, the fight against terrorism "cannot be limited solely to repressive and punitive operations," as the Pope wrote in his World Day of Peace Message. It "must be conducted also on the political and educational levels: on the one hand, by eliminating the underlying causes of situations of injustice that frequently drive people to more desperate and violent acts; and, on the other hand, by insisting on an education inspired by respect for human life in every situation: The unity of the human race is a more powerful reality than any contingent divisions separating individuals and people."

In short, certain attacks may be legitimately counterattacked by force, whenever the temptation to violence is overcome, all the diplomatic means have been exhausted and the respect of human rights are in the agenda.

Success and Proportionality

"There must be a serious prospect of success," the Catechism states. Victory in traditional warfare—two armies facing each othermight be easily predictable for a military superpower.

But warfare has changed.

Today we must also predict whether success over possible terrorist attacks and clashes between groups can be prospected. Four days before the Iraq war, the Pope asked political leaders to negotiate "in the face of tremendous consequences that an international military operation would have for the population of Iraq and the balance of the entire Middle East, already sorely tried, as well as for the extremisms that could ensue."

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, warned of a Vietnam-like quagmire in Iraq, while papal envoy Cardinal Pio Laghi asked President Bush whether he realized that in Iraq he would unleash "the disorder, the conflicts between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds."

Success in war has become more vaporous—it takes more than defeating an army.

This just-war principle mingles with the fourth one: "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."

Today’s world is globalized. The times of isolationist states are over. Wars no longer affect only the clashing nations.
The Holy Father has offered several considerations in this regard. First, war "always brings mourning and grave consequences for all," he said last year on March 2. "War itself is an attack on human life, since it brings in its wake suffering and death," he told the Vatican diplomatic corps on Jan. 13, 2003. Today's warfare, inevitably, causes many innocent victims, destruction, irreparable sorrow as well as new conflicts and divisions.

In a globalized world, war, as John Paul noted in St. Peter's Square on March 23 and April 20, 2003, "threatens the fate of humanity" and "the orderly development of the human family. May God grant that we be free from the peril of a tragic clash between cultures and religions."

As an adventure without return, "war cannot be an adequate means to solve completely the problems between nations. It has never been and it will never be!" the Pope exclaimed on Jan. 17, 1991, the first day of the first Gulf War. "Violence and arms can never resolve the problems of men," he repeated last year to the Italian Catholic television channel Telepace.

Such a realistic understanding of war comes, in part, from man's deep experience. "I belong to that generation that lived through World War II and, thanks be to God, survived it," the Holy Father said, departing from written remarks four days before the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. "I have the duty to say to all young people, to those who are younger than me, who have not had this experience: 'No more war!' as Paul VI said during his first visit to the United Nations. We must do everything possible!"

Right Authority

Finally, "the evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good."

In previous ages, with the lack of an international body to settle discrepancies among states, national public authorities had the right and the duty to provide for the necessary means to secure their own people's security and freedom.

John Paul’s update of the traditional just-war doctrine should be viewed in the context of his theology of love as self-giving, which implies the moral obligation to build the civilization of justice...
Today's world is globalized. The times of isolationist states are over. Wars no longer affect only the clashing nations. That's why international law has formulated "universal principles that are prior to and superior to the internal law of states and that take into account the unity and the common vocation of the human family," the Holy Father said in this year's World Day of Peace Message. "International law is a primary means for pursuing peace: For a long time international law has been a law of war and peace. I believe it is called more and more to become exclusively a law of peace, conceived in justice and solidarity."

States already established an authority to safeguard international law.

"The task of watching over global peace and security and with encouraging the efforts of states to preserve and guarantee these fundamental goods of humanity," we read in the same message, "was entrusted by governments to an organization established for this purpose—the United Nations organization—with a Security Council invested with broad discretionary power. Pivotal to the system was the prohibition of the use of force."

John Paul is well aware of this organization's "limitations and delays." Since 1995 he has been arguing for improvements to make it "a moral center," "a family of nations."

"While there is need for a reform that would enable the United Nations organization to function effectively for the pursuit of its own stated ends," the Pope said Feb. 21 to Osman Durak, the new Turkish ambassador to the Holy See, "this international body still represents the most suitable agency for confronting the grave challenges facing the human family of the 21st century." Thirteen days earlier he had noted to Julian Robert Hunte, the president of the U.N. General Assembly: "The Holy See considers the United Nations organization a significant means for promoting the universal common good."

John Paul's update of the traditional just-war doctrine should be viewed in the context of his theology of love as self-giving, which implies the moral obligation to build the civilization of justicewhere "the law of force" is replaced by "the force of law"—and the civilization of lovewhere the international community becomes "a family of nations."

It is consistent with and analogous to his doctrine on the death penaltya punishment that "ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent (The Gospel of Life, No. 56).

In a time when wars are more deadly, pointless and planetary; in a world with advanced diplomacy, with political and educational ways to enhance world peace; and with the existence of the United Nations the cases of legitimate use of force should be rarer—"in cases of absolute necessity: In other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society."

Peace is possible and a duty. If the world listens to the Holy Father, history could know the 21st century as the last century of wars.

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April 8, 2004

Legionary Father ALFONSO AGUILAR teaches at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome. He can be reached at aaguilar@legionaries.org.

This article appeared in the March 28th issue of the National Catholic Register. Copyright 2004, National Catholic Register. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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READER COMMENTS
07.06.04   lumiland says:
I want to start out by saying that I pray everyday for the end to the maddness in the Middle East, The Sudan and many other parts of the world. I pray for the end to the oppression that people feel as a result of an economic system that holds many down.However, I can't get out of my mind the hundreds of Kurds, men, women, and children dead in the streets after the regime of Saddam Hussen used WMD's. I can't get out of my mind the vision of this maddman killing in cold blood people who opposed his way of life. Finally I can't get out of my mind watching the Twin Towers collapse in the wake of a cruel and inhuman way of thinking. I know also that it has been said that Saddam had not collaborated for 9-11 to take place, but he did have ties to these terrorists groups. That much we are certain. Now couple this with repeated violations of UN resolutions, defying UN inspectors, and kicking them out of his country not once but twice. How is it possible to look seriously at the Just War Doctrine and not apply it in the case of Iraq? I am truly afraid that had we not gone into Iraq we would be witnessing far worse in the world. I join with you and everyone who wants to see peace in this world but we will never have peace with people like Saddam Hussen in power. You are right when you say that "the United States cannot be the avenging angel of world democracy," but we do need to take a stand against anyone or any regime that would work to supress the God given rights of every human being on this planet.

05.13.04   Jonathan Kinsman says:
Tom:War can be Man at his collective worst: evil and without purpose. War can also prevent greater death and destruction, and, prolong a belief (Christianity) that others seek to wipe off the face of our earth.I can understand the Holy Father (who am I to judge him) but I need a little clarification on his two points for avoiding war: first, address the "underlying causes of situations of injustices" that leads some people to violent acts, and; two, as a Judeo-Christian nation we should be "insisting on education inspired by respect for human life in every situation."Sounds great but not sensical nor practical.Vietnam may have been a "quagmire" (a debatable point) but the ultimate historical fact is that (along with the space race, the arms race and the information revolution) it sent the USSR on the road to economic ruin and thus a "velvet" revolution. (but not with hundreds of deaths I might add).Islamic fundamentalists, indeed all Islamists, do not want to coexist with Christians or Jews. There want us to convert or they will kill us.I would rather go there to Southwest Asia and battle the forces of Evil (yes, an evil who adherents yell "God is Great" before beheading Wall Street Journalists and contract workers for electrical projects)then pacifively wait to see if they bring their "underlying causes of...injustice" to me and my family.I am a soldier. And I am a Catholic. If I sin in this, I alone am responsible. But I will not sit and watch the fourth attempt by Islamic terrorists (remember the Crusades? Vienna? Constantinople?) to take over Western culture and destroy our way of life.Forget the WMDs, forget the connection or lack thereof to 9/11.All one has to remember is the hatred their faith (a faith that believes Jesus to be a mere man) has for non-believers.WWII is a good analogy. Did Nazi Germany attack us?"Peace to Men of Good Will"Jonathan

05.13.04   alexander caughey says:
Hi Tom, Your view is just as valid as mine until the day arrives when either you or I will be proven right in our view of the future. When that day arrives, I hope that your understanding of the world is correct, for then I can buy you a beer or even two, so that we can both understand that there is no shame in being wrong but deep distress if I am proven right, for then we will have understood that our efforts were not enough.

05.13.04   Tom Breen says:
I don't even know where to begin disagreeing with your reply. The Iraq War is a perfect illustration of why Catholic just war doctrine is not only theologically sound, but practically sound as well: Had the United States listened to Pope John Paul II, we wouldn't be in this terrible quagmire right now.The United States is not the avenging angel of world democracy. We cannot "liberate" everyone on earth who lives under a dictatorship. Among other things, this would mean going to war with US friends and trading partners, some of whom have nuclear weapons.As for Roosevelt and Churchill, I think it would be helpful if in public discussion of the Iraq War we stopped referring to World War II. The analogies are false and don't help clarify anything. Neville Chamberlain, not Winston Churchill, went to war with Nazi Germany when Hitler attacked Britain's military ally, Poland. Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan when that country's military attacked one of our military installations. The government of Iraq never attacked either the United States or Britain. Under the laws adopted for the Nuremburg war crimes trials, then, the governments of the US and Britain are guilty of waging a war of aggression.

05.04.04   alexander caughey says:
If war is to be considered as a last resort then how should we consider the crime of dictatorship?It is very easy to condemn those who would support a war of liberation against regimes of harsh treatment of its citizens but what of the victims, yes, the countless millions who suffer under the inhuman pressure of regimes, that are totally dedicated to the wellbeing and pleasure of its ruling elite.Torture of untold thousands in prisons of unspeakable conditions and unbearable examples of the most appalling techniques in torture that the most destitute of human minds can create. Welcome to Nazi Germany; Stalin's Soviet Union; Togo's Japan; Pol Pots Cambodia. There is a widespread rumour that war and its horrible repercussions, is for those who would support a willingness to witness wholesale slaughter and destruction. Could Churchill and Roosevelt be in this category? War is never considered lightly by the government of a democratic nation, for the consequences of a war going wrong, would entail the loss of power by those who elect to wage war.Consider Winston Churchill, who waged war on Nazi Germany. He surrendered power when his people voted against him, in the United Kingdom general election of 1945. His reward, from his people, for his choice to fight the powers of darkness and dare to win. Can the masses ever be satisfied?Can the masses ever be fair?That George Bush and Tony Blair should ever risk losing their positions, for waging war, when the ideal alternative is to ignore the reality of dictatorship and instability in a region of primary importance for the safe working of the Western world, would suggest a dereliction of responsibility to wards those of the human race in need of help and liberation.That war is a last resort, is for those who consider war a tragedy, a contemplation of a reality that the sane human would prefer to avoid. That there are those who consider the reality of dictatorship and its attendant miseries a reality to confront, might perhaps open the eyes of those whose daily life revolves around the advantages of a free society, where man's rights are respected and not violated.It is so easy to enjoy the fruits of democracy when the problems of the afflicted, suffering in dictatorships, are so very far away.That the rewards for liberating a people, living in terror, are to be counted in terms of votes or lack thereof, would suggest that the liberated masses of the West do not consider the peoples of the world of oppression, a subject of time and worthwhile discussion and action. That those who live the life of freedom of expression should spend their lives talking from the view of their fireside, free from fear of the secret police, might suggest that they are reluctant to view life as a struggle to live in freedom of expression to say what they think and mean.Yes, what about Zimbabwe; North Korea; Cuba? Every problem has its solution and its time.They are all different and the human race has its priorities and oil dictates when the world of liberation will act to guarantee its supply of its lifeblood. For those who carry placards telling us its all about oil, then let them understand that our lives, in the developed world, would collapse should its oil supply be interrupted. Consider the consequences, or would it be a nightmare impossible to contemplate?That those, in the privileged atmosphere of their grand offices, should deign to pass judgement on those whose political future is likely to be shortened, by waging war, for the sake of those in slavery and for those of us who depend on oil for our lifeblood of daily existence, might suggest that these self same pontificators of rational living, are privy to the realities of living the life of existence. Try thinking likewise, when the oil stops running and the dictators start delivering their suitcases of nuclear destruction to the cities of western decadence, high on ignoring the realities of living in a world of ease of destruction; by the forces of hate and vengeance, to wards of those of us who dare to live and enjoy the fruits of democratic living.The debate on a just war will always feature in the halls of religious persuasion, by those who are remote from the daily life of the common man, living under the daily pressure of their academic freedom.The media will always and rightly speak its mind on what is going wrong and wrongly, ignore what is going right. Bad news will always sell newspapers and air time, whereas, progress in the development of the democratic process is ignored. Balance is a matter of perspective and when the perspective is weighted in favour of the problems rather than the beneficial results, then we might expect a vision of reality that verges on fantasy and not on results.

04.08.04   Godspy says:
The recent anniversary of the US-led Iraq invasion reminds us that, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has said, the just war doctrine needs to be updated to take account of new realities.

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