Just War, Once More

Among the riper comments:

“[Weigel's] justification was obviously bereft of any spiritual or scriptural underpinnings.”

“Don't look now but the Fascists have returned… Should the Church be associated with…[Weigel's] right-wing, war hungry message?”

“I was shocked and appalled to read the column by George Weigel…it seems to me that he is making the case for `the end justifies the means'….”

“I am dumbfounded by the false logic and unproven assumptions you use…. Perhaps now that we have made Iraq safe for people like you, you would care to take a trip over and stand on a street corner…Without armed guards. Waving an American flag. And while we are at it, what makes you believe the Iraqis want a democratic form of government? Did anyone in your office ask them?”

“…you are a victim of the `Judas effect.' You have twisted the teaching of the Church to support your personal view of the world.”


In late April, after I keynoted a Rome conference on the future of Catholic thinking about world politics, a reporter asked what I thought about the response to my writing on Iraq and just war these past eighteen months. I told her that I'd be grateful if my critics would at least assume that people who made, and make, the judgment that the Iraq War met the standards of a just war are morally serious and morally responsible. If only one side credits the moral seriousness of its opponents in a debate, what kind of dialogue is possible?

I also said that the comments I'd received illustrated the sad truth of something I'd been saying for years: that there has been a “great forgetting” of the just war tradition in U.S. Catholic life. Some Catholics assume that modern weaponry has made the just war tradition obsolete; others seem to think it's a short, simple step from the Sermon on the Mount to formulating foreign policy; still others imagine that the just war tradition provides a crisp, standardized product, like Nabisco produces Oreos. None of these assumptions has anything to do with the way the Catholic Church thinks normatively about war, its limits, and its possible service to the common good.

So let's try again: The just war tradition is a method of moral reasoning that tries to relate the proportionate and discriminate use of armed force to securing peace — and the justice, freedom, order, and security that are the component parts of peace. It's not a question of “peace” being here and the just war tradition there. The two go together. Indeed, any use of force that isn't ordered to public goods — peace, security, freedom, order, justice — is, by its nature, not morally justifiable; it's brigandage, or piracy, or plain old-fashioned mayhem. War, in the just war tradition, is a moral term, and its moral justification derives from its capacity to advance the cause of the peace of order.

The just war tradition isn't algebra. It's not a question of lining everything up neatly on both sides of the equation in order to obtain the right answer. The just war tradition is more like calculus: it's an art as much as a science, and it asks us to use our moral imaginations as well as our logical skills. The tradition is also a developing body of thought; contemporary formulations of it must be in constant conversation across the generations and centuries with the old masters of moral reasoning.

As the Spanish will likely learn, a pacifism whose policy outcome is the appeasement of evil offers no respite from today's world disorder. Nor is the answer a crude Realpolitik in which might determines right. Between those extremes is the Catholic tradition of moral reason, and moral reasoning about world politics for serious Catholics means engaging the just war tradition. If the forgetting continues, the Terrible Simplifiers will make things more dangerous for the peace they, and the rest of us, seek.

George Weigel is author of the bestselling book The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church. His latest book is Letters to a Young Catholic.

This column has been made available to Catholic Exchange courtesy of the Denver Catholic Register.

George Weigel


George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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