Why Doesn’t the Catholic Church Follow the Just War Doctrine?
In contrast with pure pacifism (the belief that war, even in self-defense, is always wrong), the official teaching of the Catholic Church conforms to the Just War doctrine.
The Just War doctrine originated in the writings of the non-Christian Roman writer, Cicero (c. 60 BCE), and was later taken up by St. Augustine (c. 300 CE), Thomas Aquinas,(c. 1260 CE) and Hugo Grotius (c. 1640), among others. A succinct exposition of Just War doctrine is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Section 2309). There it is summarized as four conditions, all of which must be met for a war to be just:
- 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 Catechism adds that the gravity of a decision to wage war demands not just superficial but “rigorous” consideration of these criteria.
Despite the clarity of these points, and their prominent inclusion in the Catechism, it is sadly the case that, in practice, the Catholic Church all but entirely ignores them.
That fact notwithstanding, let us ourselves use these points to evaluate the justness of the Afghanistan War:
1. Lasting, grave, and certain damage
The Afghanistan War commenced following terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001. These attacks certainly produced “grave” damage, but not necessarily lasting damage. Force might have been justified to the extent necessary to neutralize the ability of Al Qaeda to conduct further U.S. attacks. However the war continues now as, at best, a misguided exercise in nation-building and geopolitical engineering, and, at worst, a means of profiting private corporations.
2. Other means exhausted
The United States has made no serious effort to negotiate with the Taliban. This cannot be justified as simply ‘not negotiating with terrorists.’ The Taliban never attacked the United States. Rather, the United States intervened in Afghanistan with the express goal of removing the Taliban regime from power.
Neither has serious consideration been given to offering extensive financial aid to Afghanistan as an alternative to war. Our national security is promoted far more by spending $100 billion on schools and hospitals than $1 trillion on bombs.
Or could not the threat of terrorist aggression be eliminated by insisting that the state of Israel treat the Palestinian people more justly – beginning with ending illegal West Bank settlement?
3. Serious prospect of success
No country in the world has shown a more complete invulnerability to military subjugation than Afghanistan. The Russian experience with Afghanistan in the 1980s alone should have been a sufficient lesson. It is inconceivable that any competent (i.e., trained in tactics, logistics, and history) American military strategist ever believed a war was winnable in Afghanistan.
4. No greater evils and disorders produced
The Afghanistan War has wrecked the economy of the U.S. and the morale of its citizens. Overseas opposition to the war has drawn countless recruits to Al Qaeda and kindred terrorist groups. Clearly the war has done more harm than good.
It is plainly evident, then, that the requirements for a just war are not met, both collectively and with respect to each individual point.
More fundamentally, although the Catechism affirms that these points must receive rigorous deliberation, they receive no consideration at all . There is no national review of the principles – not even a debate in Congress. Nor is there discussion of the principles by Christians themselves.
Before any war commences – excepting those where immediate self-defense is required – these points should be deliberated by every member of the clergy. They should be read aloud to every congregation, and the faithful asked to meditate upon them, and to pray for guidance and right choice. This is never done, and that alone is a grave and deplorable abrogation of moral duty.
We might see a permanent end to war if American Catholics opposed unjust war with even half the energy with which they oppose abortion.
Why is the Catholic Church so hesitant to follow its own Catechism here? Is it because the physical institutions of the Church are too tied to war-loving governments, and to money generally? Perhaps, but what could account for indifference at the local level?
I once asked a priest why he deviated in his sermons from the plain ethical teachings of the Bible. He replied, “If I did what you suggest, my church would be empty.”
But what is the advantage of filling a church with people who seek darkness instead of light? Shall religion, the most noble of human traditions, become indeed a mere opiate of the masses?
We have singled out the Catholic Church here for illustrative purposes only. Most other American Christian denominations — except perhaps Quakers — have shown a similar lack of resolve in this issue.
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