The Just War Doctrine

(In recent years, every time that the government either goes to war or threatens to, an appeal is made to the Just War Doctrine of the Catholic Church. Whether or not any particular war does, in fact, conform to the conditions of a just war, must be debated. In order to do so, it is necessary to know and be fully informed about the teaching and the tradition)

One of the themes that runs through the U.S. Bishops’ pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, is “the presumption against war and for peaceful settlement of disputes.” The Just War Doctrine is based on the same presumption and was not established to justify or support any particular conflict. It was developed to discourage conflicts, by creating criteria that would be increasingly difficult to meet, thereby encouraging negotiation and peaceful conflict resolution. That is why much of the current appeal to the Just War Doctrine is disingenuous: all of the conditions must be met for a war to be considered just. It is for this reason that the following presentation is made. Unless we know what the tradition is and on what principles it has been based, we will not be able to join the dialogue, and we run the risk of allowing our tradition to be high-jacked, distorted and misapplied.

In the Catholic tradition, there are seven conditions established to determine whether or not a particular war is justified. St. Augustine originated these norms that were later defined by St. Thomas Aquinas and synthesized by a number of other theologians, most notably Francisco Suarez.

While there are many theologians who have difficulty with the very concept of a just war, the practical problem lies in meeting the seven conditions. As Pope John XXIII declared in his encyclical letter Pacem in Terris, “… it is contrary to reason to hold that war is now a suitable way to restore rights which have been violated” (#127). So, let’s take a look at these seven conditions.

1) The war must be declared by a legitimate public authority possessing the power to do so.
2) A real injury must have been suffered.
3) There must be a reasonable hope of success.
4) Every possible means of settlement must have been exhausted.
5) The nation waging war must do so for a humanitarian reason, not for selfish ones.
6) Only legitimate and moral means may be used in prosecuting the war.
7) The good to be achieved must outweigh the harm done (proportionality).
The war must be declared by a legitimate public authority possessing the power to do so. In the modern world, not all governments are legitimate authorities. Catholic social teaching affirms the right of all peoples to self-determination. Although democracy can take different forms, it is clear that the people must have some say regarding who is to govern them. Therefore, governments that are not validated by the will of the people, such as those that are established by military coup, or those that deny the right of the people to vote in free elections, are not legitimate, and consequently cannot declare war.

A real injury must have been suffered. Aggression by one country toward another usually results in a real injury. This injury may include but is not restricted to invasion, unprovoked attack, unjust killing of another country’s citizens or, in today’s technological age, destruction of a nation’s cyberspace infrastructure.

There must be a real hope of success. Even if the aggrieved nation has suffered a real injury, there must be a reasonable hope that they can conquer the aggressor in a conflict. The alternative to such success is an unending cycle of violence and the depression of the human spirit as a result of failure. An unsuccessful venture into war would visit upon the nations much more destruction than the original injury itself.

Every possible means of settlement must have been exhausted. There is a tendency in the human spirit to strike out quickly in retaliation for a wrong committed. While understandable, it is not acceptable--particularly in the world of international relations. Nor is it acceptable simply to calculate the most effective and efficient timing for retaliation. It is the duty of legitimate public authority to comprehensively seek a peaceful resolution to a given conflict, indeed to use every possible method to achieve peace. For this reason, Pope John XXIII in Pacem in Terris called upon nations to resolve their conflicts not “by recourse to arms, but by negotiation.”

The nation waging war must do so for a humanitarian reason, not for a selfish one. In this regard, a war would not be justified if its goal were retaliation, or defending a legitimate national pride. Even defending a privileged country’s lifestyle would be a suspect reason to engage in war. A just war must be waged for the human betterment of a particular society or the larger world community. Such humanitarian reasons might include rescuing people unjustly invaded or oppressed.

Only legitimate and moral means may be used in prosecuting the war. This may be the most difficult of all the conditions necessary to determine whether a war is just. This condition is underscored in the document from the Second Vatican Council entitled Gaudium et Spes. In #80 of that document, the bishops state the following: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation.” Most, if not all, of the conflicts of the 20th Century have failed the Just War Doctrine at least on this one condition. It is true that a war that is unjust at its outset cannot become just during its prosecution. Equally true is that a war that meets the criteria to be called just at its inception might become unjust during its prosecution. During World War II, for example, the German assault on London, the Allied bombing of Dresden, and the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were all violations of this condition, rendering World War II an unjust conflict, irrespective of the initial goals and lofty rhetoric of the politicians.

The good to be achieved must outweigh the harm done (proportionality). Loss of life, injury, destruction of property, damage to the environment, economic costs, the resultant balance of power and possible instability in a given region all must be factored into the equation. It is impossible to calculate with absolute accuracy just how much damage will be done at the beginning of a conflict, especially given the tendency for violence to escalate. For this reason alone, it may impossible to justify war in the modern era, for the conditions justifying war must be met both before and during the conflict.

Applying and adhering to the Just War Doctrine may seem tedious and time consuming. However, as Rod Lurie has stated, “Principles only mean something if you stick by them when they’re inconvenient.”

In the modern world, determining the legitimacy of governments can be complex and somewhat ambiguous. Again turning to Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris, he speaks of the law of God written on the hearts of all people. The Pope sees that law as teaching how “on the one hand individual men and States, and on the other hand the community of all peoples, should act towards each other, the establishment of such a community being urgently demanded today by the requirements of universal common good.”  Where might we turn for the legitimizing of governments?

As Pope Paul VI called the United Nations the last hope for peace, so also the U.S. Bishops “regret the apparent unwillingness of some to see in the United Nations organization the potential for world order which exists and to encourage its development. Clearly there is no other international organization possessing the moral currency to mediate disputes between nations.

In the complex world of international relations the grievance or cause of any government should be presented to and legitimated by the United Nations. If war is unavoidable in the modern world, then given the principles of the Just War Doctrine, it seems that the United Nations should be the arbiter and ultimate declarer of such war.