Just War, in Theory and Praxis


The Holy Father recently brought into question the notion of a ‘just war’, which brings to mind a comment from a Catholic in a question-and-answer period after a talk years ago, who declared quite vociferously, ‘Just war is an oxymoron!’.

There is a kernel of truth there, for as soon as the dogs of war are unleashed, even in the most defensive of wars, ’tis difficult to maintain pure justice in the passions and the fog of what is often brutal conflict.

But it is a constant and traditional doctrine of the Church that there is such a thing as a ‘just war’, at least in approximated sense, and we should remind ourselves of its principles, drawn from Saints Augustine and Thomas, and summarized in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: (par. 2309)

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:
– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
– there must be serious prospects of success;
– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.
The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

As the Catechism says, there are ‘strict conditions’ for a just war, which are difficult to fully instantiate. But the moral life is about doing the best we can, while holding on to universal moral principles, often for dear life.

Two are most pertinent for what faces us now:

The first is proportionality, the last of those aforementioned requirements. Even in the most just of wars, we cannot bring about evils that dwarf the evil of what began the war itself. A nation may want to preserve its autonomy, but at what cost? And what does ‘success’ mean? National ruin, even suicide would be but a pyrrhic victory.

Such balancing of good and evil would also apply to the ‘annihilation of whole nations’ by the threat of nuclear war. Escalating any conflict to this level would be, in a word, insane. If the reader thought Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bad (and the destruction of these cities with all their inhabitants was truly evil, regardless of what commentators, even in the Catholic camp, claim), at least nine nations are now nuclear, with many thousands of thermonuclear devices, each of them hundreds or even thousands of times more powerful than those early primitive atomic ones, ready, armed and aimed.

Would that we could go back to bows, arrows and swords, in a mediaeval fighting match, and let a winner be declared after a limited skirmish, not involving civilians, women and children. But total war is the modus belli of our modern era, with little connection left to an objective moral order.

Mutually assured destruction may be morally fraught and fragile, but it’s what we’ve got at present. Of course, we should work towards a deeper and more lasting peace, which is not the absence of war, nor even the absence of arms, but, as Augustine says, the work of justice.

But we should keep in mind that perfect justice is impossible this side of eternity. We never get everything we want, nor even what we deserve. As the economist Thomas Sowell put it, we don’t have solutions, but only trade-offs, seeking the best deal we can with the cards we’re given, and the circumstances in which we find ourselves, some of them more difficult and constraining than others. At the end of the day, we must not only face reality, but submit to it, which is the foundation for truth.

War is always, in a mysterious and complex way, a scourge for our sins. As Our Lady of Fatima emphasized, repentance, conversion and prayer are the most effective means of minimizing its evil effects, and achieving what peace we might.

May the grace of the Holy Spirit enlighten and inform, even unwittingly, the minds and souls who have to make those difficult decisions which will determine the world’s future. Only so shall good counsel, humility and wisdom prevail over the force of arms. +