Possible War with Iraq

If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806). This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.

What opposes God and those values is what we call “evil,” and we have the duty to confront evil. Jesus did — He confronted demons who possessed people and exorcized them. He confronted the sinner, called him to repentance, and forgave him. He confronted the dishonest money changers in the Temple, and expelled them. He confronted His enemies, but never returned hatred. On the cross, Jesus forgave those saying, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” While they thought His death was their victory, it was their defeat. In the vision of faith, Jesus conquered, offering the sacrifice for sin and rising to give us everlasting life. In all of these instances, Our Lord confronted and conquered evil, including sin and death, and made peace.

To have peace means a person or even a country must confront the forces of evil which seek to destroy peace. Therefore, making peace entails legitimate acts of self-defense, which may even result in the taking of the life of an unjust aggressor.

At first hearing, such language seems antithetical to Christianity since the Fifth Commandment states, “Thou shalt not kill.” However, the intent of the precept forbids the purposeful taking of human life (Catechism, no.2307). Each person has a duty to preserve his life, and therefore has a right to legitimate self-defense. Although an act of self-defense may have a two-fold effect — the preservation of the person's life and the unfortunate taking of the aggressor's life — the first effect is intended while the second is not (Catechism, no. 2263).

A country also has the right to self-defense. In preserving its own life, a state — citizens and their governments — must strive to avoid war and settle disputes peacefully and justly. Nevertheless, “governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed” (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, no. 79). Such a right does not entail a carte blanche permission for any and all acts of war. Rather, just war theory establishes moral parameters for the declaration and waging of war.

St. Augustine (d. 430) was the originator of the just war theory, which St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) later adapted and explicated in his Summa Theologiae. Since the Middle Ages, warfare has changed dramatically, as witnessed by World War II and the conflicts which have followed it. Therefore, we can expand St. Thomas' and St. Augustine's theory to the following principles: In preparing to wage a just war (ius ad bellum), a country must meet the following criteria:

(1) Just cause — The war must confront an unquestioned danger. St. Augustine, quoted by St. Thomas, said, “A just war is apt to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.” Moreover, “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain,” asserts the Catechism (no. 2309).

The criterion of just cause, however, has been complicated with the availability of weapons of mass destruction. Some moral theologians posit that if a country has such weapons, and has made known its intent to use such weapons, not for defense but in an act of aggression or terrorism, and such an intent is serious, then a pre-emptive strike by the threatened nation may be justified. With weapons of mass destruction, the attacked country may not be able to defend itself and correct the wrong after the fact; a pre-emptive strike may be the only way to stop the unjust aggressor or terrorist. This qualification of the just cause criterion is still debated.

(2) Proper authority — The legitimate authority must declare the war and must be acting on behalf of the people. In our system of government, Congress must empower the President with the authority to wage war on behalf of the American people.

(3) Right Intention — The reasons for declaring the war must actually be based on just objectives and not a masking of ulterior motives. St. Thomas taught that the right intention is essential “so that they intend the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil.” St. Augustine also noted, “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace or punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” An evil intention, such as to destroy a race or to absorb another nation, turns a legitimately declared war waged for just cause into a wrongful act. A war waged for a just cause but with the underlying intent of economic gain may be less than just.

(4) Last resort — All reasonable peaceful alternatives must have been exhausted or have been deemed impractical or ineffective. The contentious parties must strive to resolve their differences peacefully before engaging in war, e.g. through negotiation, mediation, or even embargoes. Here too we see the importance of an international mediating body, such as the United Nations, to pressure the contentious nations into peacefully resolving their differences. Here all parties must be forthright in their negotiations and desire peace.

(5) Proportionality — The good that is achieved by waging war must not be outweighed by the harm. What good is it to wage war if it leaves the country in total devastation with no one really being the “winner?” Modern means of warfare give great weight to this criterion.

(6) Probability of success — The achievement of the war's purpose must have a reasonable chance of success.

If a country can meet these criteria, then it may justly enter war. Moreover, a country could come to the assistance of another country who is not able to defend itself as long as these criteria are met.

However, the event of war does not entail that all means of waging war are licit; essentially, the “all is fair in love and war” rule is flawed. During war, the country must also meet criteria to insure justice is preserved (ius in bello):

(1) Discrimination — Armed forces ought to fight armed forces, and should strive not to harm noncombatants purposefully. Sadly, innocent people will always suffer and die in war because of mistake or accident. Moreover, armed forces should not wantonly destroy the enemy's countryside, cities, or economy simply for the sake of punishment, retaliation, or vengeance. This criterion is increasingly important with the development of nuclear, chemical, and biological weaponry. Responding to the horrors witnessed in World War II, Vatican II stated, “The development of armaments by modern science has immeasurably magnified the horrors and wickedness of war. Warfare conducted with these weapons can inflict immense and indiscriminate havoc which goes far beyond the bounds of legitimate defense…. Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 80).

(2) Due Proportion — Combatants must use only those means necessary to achieve their objectives. For example, no one needs to use nuclear missiles to settle a territorial fishing problem. Due proportion also involves mercy — towards civilians in general, towards combatants when the resistance stops (as in the case of surrender and prisoners of war), and towards all parties when the war is finished. Moreover, the victors must help the vanquished to rebuild with a stable government and economy so as to ensure a lasting peace.

These are the criteria for declaring and waging a just war. Given the present situation with Iraq, we need to ask the following questions: Is there a just cause, especially when considering a pre-emptive strike? Is the intention based on the actual objectives or is there an underlying intention, such as economic gain? Is this war a last resort, e.g. should the weapons inspectors be allowed to investigate first, should the United Nations apply greater pressure, should there first be a consensus with America’s allies? Can negotiations succeed when the leadership of Iraq has in the past thwarted weapons inspections and defied UN resolutions? Will the war result in a power vacuum with an even worse destabilized Mideast and with an even greater terrorist threat? These are legitimate questions that ought to be answered. Keep in mind that this author, who is neither working for the White House nor any intelligence or defense agency, in no way suggests answers to these questions and in no way draws a conclusion to this matter.

While these may be the “just criteria” for declaring and waging war, they still are wrenching. No good person wants war. Yet we — as an individual, community or nations — must confront and stop an evil. Only by confronting evil will there be peace. We need to pray that the Holy Spirit will guide the leaders of nations in this very difficult time to make decisions that will lead to a just and lasting peace.

Fr. William Saunders


Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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