Current events call for a reflection on the theory of a ‘just war’

Do unto others
Bill Scholl is the archdiocesan consultant for social justice. You can email him at: socialjustice@ archkck.org.

by Bill Scholl

In Catholicism, there is a perennial tension between war and peace.

On one hand, we worship the “Lord God of hosts” at Mass. The word “hosts” comes from the Hebrew, “sabaoth” which means “armies,” and we hear in the Old Testament God calling his people to fight wars.

Yet, as disciples of Jesus, we strive to conform ourselves to the beatitudes through loving our enemies and turning the other cheek.

Christ, the commander of a heavenly army, in possession of every power, established and grew his church not by shedding the blood of others, but by shedding his own blood. And his apostles, the first bishops, followed his example.

This war/peace tension arises from two core principles of Catholic social teaching: all human life is sacred, and it is our responsibility to love our neighbor by protecting them from harm.

How do those with the responsibility to protect people confront an unjust aggressor who seeks to destroy human life? 

Over the millennia, many notable Christian thinkers, starting with St. Augustine, have grappled with this dilemma by developing “just war” theory. The recent targeted killing of an Iranian and escalation of conflict calls for a review of moral principles for legitimate use of force.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church lists four conditions for a just act of war. These are seen in the context of the Fifth Commandment: You shall not kill. 

“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. At one and the same time:

1. the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain;

2. all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

3. there must be serious prospects of success;

4. 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” (2309).

Certainly, Catholics will apply these principles differently in debating the legitimacy of U.S. actions in current international conflicts with Iran.

War always has a way of sending the law of unintended consequences into overdrive, with innocent people suffering. Fighting fire with fire can work, but it comes with the possibility of just making a bigger fire.

So, let us pray for our leaders who must gravely consider when and how to use force and let us hold them accountable for the consequences. Ultimately, the end of war is to bring about peace.

As Pope St. Paul VI taught, “If you want peace, work for justice.”

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