What is Just War?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraphs 2302-2317, authoritatively teaches what constitutes the just defense of a nation against an aggressor. Called the Just War Doctrine, it was first enunciated by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD). Over the centuries it was taught by Doctors of the Church, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, and formally embraced by the Magisterium, which has also adapted it to the situation of modern warfare. The following explanation of Just War Doctrine follows the schema given in the Catechism.
Righteous versus Unrighteous Anger (2302-3)
Anger is a desire for revenge. Anger is the passion (emotion) by which a man reacts to evil, real or apparent, and seeks vindication of his rights, that is, justice. By itself the passion is neither moral or immoral, but becomes so by reason or its being ordered or disordered – that is, reasonable according to the circumstances. An ordered anger is directed to a legitimate object, and, with an appropriate degree of vehemence. An inordinate anger is directed either to an illegitimate object, or, with an unreasonable vehemence. As St. Thomas Aquinas notes, vice may be by defect, as well as excess. So, the presence of evil should provoke a righteous anger, which if absent constitutes a sinful insensibility.
Consider the just anger of the Lord to the presence in the Temple of the money-changers and the action He took (John 2:13-17). Provoked by this offense against His Father, Jesus formed whips and drove them from the Temple. Righteous anger, and the acts which flow from it, intend the correction of vice (both for the good of the individual sinner and the common good), the restoring of the order of justice disturbed by sin, and the restraint of further evil.
On the other hand, unjust anger seeks to do evil to another for its own sake, the harm to body or soul that it entails. While one may desire, and employ, physical force for the sake of correction, restraint of evil and restoring justice, even if it entails injury and death, one may never desire it for its own sake. To desire some slight injury for an evil motive would be venially sinful. To desire grave injury or death would be gravely sinful. A Christian may never, of course, desire the damnation of the evil doer. Charity requires that we will the good, especially the ultimate good, salvation, for every human being. Unfortunately, the entertainment media often promotes an image of anger and vengeance which is closer to blood lust than to justice.
Peace – the Work of Justice and the Tranquility of Order (2304-6)
Whether it is justice within society, or the interior justice of holiness, peace is its fruit. Righteous anger, and the means it employs, should not knowingly produce less justice and less peace than existed before evil intervened. Human prudence, however, is fallible. It cannot necessarily predict the ploys of the adversary, both human and demonic. In addition, fallen human nature is inclined to sin, and thus prone to respond with excess to provocation. Thus, even virtue and a well-formed conscience can fail to produce the desired result of justice and peace. Great restraint must be shown, therefore, in the use of violence to achieve justice. In addition to the efforts of those who work assiduously for peace, “the peacemakers”, society needs the example of those who renounce violence altogether. Their “witness to the gravity of the physical and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and death” should serve to restrain the use of even justified force. Such conscientious objection is a valuable service to society. As the Catechismmakes clear, it must be accompanied by the willingness to serve in other capacities (cf. 2311), however.
Just War (2307-17)
All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.Despite this admonition of the Church, it sometimes becomes necessary to use force to obtain the end of justice. This is the right, and the duty, of those who have responsibilities for others, such as civil leaders and police forces. While individuals may renounce all violence those who must preserve justice may not do so, though it should be the last resort, “once all peace efforts have failed.” [Cf. Vatican II, Gaudium et spes 79, 4]
As with all moral acts the use of force to obtain justice must comply with three conditions to be morally good. First, the act must be good in itself. The use of force to obtain justice is morally licit in itself. Second, it must be done with a good intention, which as noted earlier must be to correct vice, to restore justice or to restrain evil, and not to inflict evil for its own sake. Thirdly, it must be appropriate in the circumstances. An act which may otherwise be good and well motivated can be sinful by reason of imprudent judgment and execution.
In this regard Just War doctrine gives certain conditions for the legitimate exercise of force, all of which must be met:
- “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 modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition” [CCC 2309].
The responsibility for determining whether these conditions are met belongs to “the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” The Church’s role consists in enunciating clearly the principles, in forming the consciences of men and in insisting on the moral exercise of just war.
The Church greatly respects those who have dedicated their lives to the defense of their nation. “If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace. [Cf. Gaudium et spes79, 5]” However, she cautions combatants that not everything is licit in war. Actions which are forbidden, and which constitute morally unlawful orders that may not be followed, include:
– attacks against, and mistreatment of, non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners;
– genocide, whether of a people, nation or ethnic minorities;
– indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants.
Given the modern means of warfare, especially nuclear, biological and chemical, these crimes against humanity must be especially guarded against.
In the end it is not enough to wage war to achieve justice without treating the underlying causes. “Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust, and pride raging among men and nations constantly threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders contributes to building up peace and avoiding war” [CCC 2317]. The Church has no illusions that true justice and peace can be attained before the Coming of the Lord. It is the duty of men of good will to work towards it, nonetheless. In the words of the spiritual dictum, we should work as if everything depended upon our efforts, and pray as if everything depended upon God.
Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL
Colin B. Donovan, STL
Colin Donovan is Vice President for Theology at EWTN and host of the Friday edition of Open Line (3-5 pm ET) on the EWTN Global Catholic Radio Network. He moderates, as well, the EWTN Theology Roundtable, a monthly series on EWTN television. In addition, he co-hosted, with author Desmond Birch, Last Things: In Time and Eternity, a series on Eschatology and the End Times (EWTN Religious Catalogue item HDLT).
A layman, Mr. Donovan has the Licentiate in Sacred Theology, with a specialization in moral theology, from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome, where he wrote on the Donation of the Spouses in Marriage. He earned the B.Th. from the Seminary of Christ the King in Mission, BC, Canada, and the BA in Biological Science from Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. Prior to coming to EWTN in 1995, he taught Theology at Aquinas College in Nashville, as well as served in the U.S. Navy as a shipboard Communications Officer.
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