War Drums

Deal W. Hudson is publisher and editor of CRISIS Magazine, a Catholic monthly published in Washington, DC. You can reach him at hudson@crisismagazine.com.

The Vatican has come out against war in the Middle East, and their UN observer, Archbishop Renato Martino, has called an attack on Iraq “unilateralism, pure and simple,” a move that raises serious moral and legal problems.

Bishop Wilton Gregory and the Administrative Committee of the USCCB agreed with Martino. In his letter to President Bush last month, Gregory reiterated that he found it “difficult to justify extending the war on terrorism to Iraq, absent clear and adequate evidence of Iraqi involvement in the attacks of September 11th or of an imminent attack of a grave nature.” The letter goes on to question the legitimacy of war on Iraq based on some of the principles of the Just War theory, and states that any action taken by the United States against Iraq should first be sanctioned by the UN Security Council.

Needless to say, this is a difficult issue. Do these statements constitute the final word on this matter for Catholics? Can faithful Catholics disagree and still remain in good standing with their conscience and the Church? How do we balance these conflicting interests?

For Catholics who are still trying to make up their minds, we wanted to open a discussion on the issue to help us all make an informed decision. First, however, a couple clarifications need to be made.

First, if you're worried about the bishops' insistence that the UN must approve a strike against Iraq, don't be. It's certainly prudential for the US to seek the judgment of other nations in our actions, but whether the UN finally approves has little bearing on the just nature of the war. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and other Just War theorists certainly didn't have the United Nations — or any one-world-government schema — in mind when they laid forth the basic principles for determining whether a war is just.

And really, it seems pretty ridiculous to trust the UN to be an authority in matters of ethics or morals. After all, this is the same group that has long been a supporter of “family planning,” population control, and other such anti-Catholic positions. The Church has never sought their advice on these issues, so trusting them now to determine whether this war is “just” is nonsensical.

But this brings me to another concern: If the bishops tell us that the US should seek UN approval in a war on Iraq, or that this war is unjust, isn't it our responsibility as faithful Catholics to agree with them?


Now, I know what you're thinking — no one has been louder than me in insisting that we must be faithful and respectful to the hierarchy of the Church. After all, isn't that why I dislike Voice of the Faithful, because they pose a challenge to the Church's teachings?

This is certainly true. We must always be respectful of the hierarchy, and we are bound by the Church's moral judgments. It's the bishops' job to teach, and it's our job as lay Catholics to listen. However, this issue of Just War is a prudential judgment on which Catholics can disagree and still remain in perfectly good standing with the Church.

Let me explain what I mean by a “prudential judgment.” A quick way of defining it is applying right reason or moral imperatives to everyday situations. The Church and its leaders are always indispensable in helping us form our moral framework for making these kinds of decisions. Sometimes, the decision is clear: Abortion, for example, is a direct affront to the Church's teaching on the sanctity of human life. There can be no room for debate on how we as Catholics must act, given this truth.

However, other problems allow for more diversity of opinion. In the case of war with Iraq, Catholics have a grave responsibility to consider the facts carefully, and with respect for the Church's teaching. But the Church ISN'T unilaterally opposed to war. If it were, we wouldn't have a Just War theory at all. And here's the rub: Because there are so many different factors operating here, legitimate disagreement can arise between thoughtful Catholics as to how the theory should be applied.

In the affairs of public policy, the bishops are operating with no more authority than the average lay Catholic, and oftentimes with less understanding of the situation. Twenty years ago, when CRISIS was just getting started, the magazine objected to a different letter of the bishops — this time, one that called for full nuclear disarmament as a response to the Cold War. But it was through the wise leadership of President Reagan, NOT the opinion of the bishops, that the Cold War was won in 1989. Where would we be had we followed the advice of the bishops on a political issue that they barely understood?

In the end, we all have a responsibility to proceed with caution using the Church's teachings as our guide. Of course, this isn't always easy. In the case of the current war debate, the bishops have said that an attack on Iraq doesn't meet “the traditional just war criteria of just cause, right authority, probability of success, proportionality and noncombatant immunity.”

But Catholic scholar George Weigel says that this is a backwards approach to Just War. There are actually two separate sets of moral criteria that must be met if a war is just. First, the ius ad bellum, or “war decision law,” must be addressed. The criteria, as Weigel outlines them, are as follows: “Is the cause a just one? Will the war be conducted by a responsible public authority? Is there a 'right intention' (which, among other things, precludes acts of vengeance or reprisal)? Is the contemplated action 'proportionate:' is it appropriate to the goal (or just cause); is the good to be accomplished likely to be greater than the evil that would be suffered if nothing were done, or if the use of armed force were avoided for the sake of other types of measures? Have other remedies been tried and found wanting or are other remedies prima facie unlikely to be effective? Is there a reasonable chance of success?”

Only AFTER these questions are answered positively can one address the ius in bello, or “war-conduct” issues. Weigel lists these as including “'proportionality,' which requires the use of no more force than necessary to vindicate the just cause; and 'discrimination,' or what we today call 'non-combatant immunity.'”

Weigel explains that, oftentimes, Catholic thinkers have inverted the war-decision and the war-conduct questions, placing all the emphasis on the latter. However, the war-conduct questions deal only with our “conduct” in war, as the title implies. It assumes that we've already “decided” that the war is just, using the war-decision questions.

Reversing the process — as some of the bishops have done — turns the whole thing on its head.

Another common concern is that a preemptive strike against Iraq goes against the very foundation of Just War theory, because it would make us the aggressors, and a Just War is always defensive.

Weigel answers this concern as well by pointing out that “when a vicious regime that has not hesitated to use chemical weapons against its own people and against a neighboring country, a regime that has no concept of the rule of law and that flagrantly violates its international obligations, works feverishly to obtain and deploy further weapons of mass destruction, I think a compelling moral case can be made that this is a matter of an 'aggression under way.' …It surely makes no moral sense to say that the US or the international community can only respond with armed force when an Iraqi missile carrying a weapon of mass destruction has been launched, or is being readied for launch.”

In the end, there's still much room for debate. Some scholars think that the Just War theory must be expanded to meet the needs of the modern world where terrorism plays an increasingly large role. Others see little need for strict adherence to Just War principles to begin with. After all, it isn't Church dogma, and therefore leaves room for interpretation.

But whatever decision you ultimately come to, you can rest assured that faithful Catholics can hold different opinions on the matter and still remain in line with Church teaching.

This week, I meet with top White House officials to discuss the Catholic perspective on the possibility of war with Iraq. I encourage you to consider the facts carefully and thoughtfully, and let me know your opinion on the matter so that I can give the President and his advisers a balanced reflection of Catholic opinion.

I pray that, in the end, our country will come to a just conclusion on the problem of war in our day.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage