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 realities—in 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."
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.
The Church...has an 'axiom,' as the Pope calls it: 'Peace remains possible. And if peace is possible, it is also a duty!'
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.
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."
“The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.”
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 other—might 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."
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.
Today’s world is globalized. The times of isolationist states are over. Wars no longer affect only the clashing nations.
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!"
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.
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."
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...
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 justice—where "the law of force" is replaced by "the force of law"—and the civilization of love—where the international community becomes "a family of nations."
It is consistent with and analogous to his doctrine on the death penalty—a 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.