Tag Archives: war

Peace and the just war doctrine

The Church is both idealistic and realistic about war. On the one hand, “the Church [urges] prayer and action so that the divine goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war” (CCC #2307).

Peter Kreeft, Just War

Peter Kreeft

On the other hand, “insofar as men are sinners, the threat of war hangs over them and will so continue until the coming of Christ.” Therefore, “as long as the danger of war persists … governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense once all peace efforts have failed” (Gaudium et Spes #79). The same moral standards apply to collective self-defense by nations as to self-defense by individuals.

No war is just in itself. War is a sinful and barbaric invention. It is murder on a mass scale. But the choice to go to war can be just, if it is necessary self-defense. The aim of a just war (that is, a just “going to war”) is peace. The aim is not taking lives but saving lives: the lives of the innocent victims of aggression. The end that makes a war just can only be peace.

The “traditional elements enumerated in what is called the ‘just war’ doctrine” are the following “strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force” (CCC #2309). Defense: As implied above, a just war cannot be aggressive, but only defensive, a response to aggression. (Interestingly, the Quran teaches the same doctrine to Muslims: “Allah hates the aggressor.”) Grave damage: “The damage inflicted by the aggressor … must be lasting, grave and certain.” Last resort: “All other means of putting an end to [this grave damage] must have been shown to be… ineffective.” Hope for peace: “There must be serious prospects of success” and the ultimate aim and intention must be not war but peace.

Not graver evils: “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. Rules of war: It’s not true that all’s fair in love and war. The mere fact that war has broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.

There has been a tradition in the Church of principled Christian pacifism, as well as a tradition of “just war.” Church doctrine does not pronounce in a final and authoritative way on all moral questions, leaving many up to prudential human judgement. Pacifism — the refusal to bear arms — is not a requirement for Christians, nor is it forbidden. It is an honorable opinion.

Therefore, “public authorities should make equitable provisions for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms; these are nonetheless obliged to serve … in some other way.” (CCC #2311).

PETER KREEFT is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. This column is reprinted with permission from his book “Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Beliefs Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church” (Ignatius Press, 2001).

Catechism 101

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:

Insofar as men are sinners, the threat of war hangs over them and will so continue until Christ comes again; but insofar as they can vanquish sin by coming together in charity, violence itself will be vanquished and these words will be fulfilled: They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2317

Hearts & minds

Winning the war on terror

When Operation Iraqi Freedom began in 2003, Florida Congressman Tom Rooney felt unsettled. He was a member of the U.S. Army JAG Corp stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. He was aware that Pope John Paul II and the U.S. bishops had opposed the war.

“It was a challenge to be a Catholic and an American, but it was especially a challenge as someone who wore the uniform,” said Rooney, now a member of Legatus’ Boca Raton Chapter.

He decided to seek spiritual direction from the head of the Archdiocese for the U.S. Military Services. The conversation quickly set his mind at ease.

“I would never disrespect my superiors in the Catholic faith, especially on matters of doctrine,”Rooney recounted. “Archbishop [Edwin] O’Brien reminded me that the Catechism says whenever your country sends you into battle— if history shows that conflict to be unjust — the final judgment will be on the leaders who sent us there.”

Just War

Rooney’s brother Brian, a Marine stationed in Iraq from 2004- 2005, went through a similar soul-searching experience. When he understood that the Catechism’s principle requirement for soldiers is that they do their duty faithfully, he was able to deploy with a clear conscience.

The Rooneys’ situation is fairly common. There are over 300,000 Catholics in all branches of the military — about 25% of the total forces, according to the Archdiocese for Military Services. They regularly come to their chaplains with questions about the Just War theory and appropriate conduct in war.

Marine chaplain Fr.Michael Barber, SJ, spent six months in Iraq. He gives spiritual counseling to Marines before they deploy and when they return.

“All of them say they are saving lives and doing something worthwhile,” he said. “They also develop relationships with Iraqis. Many come back with pictures of themselves surrounded by Iraqi children.”

Father Barber, chaplain of Legatus’ San Francisco Chapter, points out that some Catholics — lay people and bishops — disagree on issues of war. During the Cold War, for example, American bishops issued statements against nuclear war contradicting statements published by German bishops, he said. But the hierarchy’s commentaries on war — while important and worthy of respect — don’t hold the same weight as official Church teaching.

John Hillen, an international security expert and faithful Catholic, couldn’t agree more.

“The war on terror is complex and multifaceted, and Catholic Just War doctrine and theory is complex and subtle. Between those two moving targets, I absolutely do not see the opinion settled,” said Hillen, a former member of the U.S. Army’s Special Forces.

George Weigel, a noted Catholic thinker, says Just War theory should be developed further to take into account the war on terror’s circumstances because the adversary is not a nation state and terrorists do not play by rules — diplomatic or otherwise.

In a speech at the Faith and Reason Institute a week after 9/11, Weigel said, “I frankly cannot see how it makes moral sense to argue that we must first attempt to negotiate with people who regard negotiation as weakness, who think of the other as vermin to be exterminated and for whom acts of mass murder are deemed religiously praiseworthy.”

Experts note that elements of pacifism have crept into Catholic thinking on Just War over the past few decades. Presumptions that violence and war are never allowed was not the case when the theory was first articulated by St. Augustine and later by St. Thomas Aquinas.

“Just War theory of the past 350 years was largely promulgated around a set of rules and laws of warfare that don’t necessarily apply to a war against apocalyptic terrorists who make no distinction about civilians or tactics,” said Hillen. “We need to look at Just War theory in Augustine’s days when there was a similar confusion over legitimacy and the use of force in the highly unshaped political environment of his time.

Road ahead

Though many Church leaders voiced opposition to the Iraqi war in the early going, a more common refrain lately has been to decry the terrorist attacks — especially against Christians and Westerners. The Archbishop of Mosul, Farraj Rahho, was murdered last March. He was the highest ranking Chaldean Catholic clergyman to be murdered in the five-year war.

Since his election, Pope Benedict XVI has confined his remarks regarding the war on terror to prayers for peace in the Middle East and the safeguarding of rights for Christians living there.

As for Catholic servicemen and servicewomen on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, the war on terror has become a way to live out their Catholic faith. Brian Rooney, communications director for the Thomas More Law Center, recalls that he was a daily communicant in Iraq. Sunday Mass was packed and lapsed Catholics renewed their faith.

“When you look at history,” he said, “the Catholic Church has always defended the forces of Western Civilization against the forces of Islam. We have Charles Martel defeating Muslims in 732, the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and the Battle of Vienna in 1683. In each one of those battles, Western civilization would have been lost if the forces of Christendom had not prevailed. Today, America — a largely Christian country — is answering the call.”

When Rep. Tom Rooney reviews the war on terror, he says that winning will require the U.S. to improve intelligence, counterinsurgency and the use of Special Forces. The U.S. also needs to continue winning hearts and minds by reaching out to the Iraqi people — as well as Muslims of good will throughout the world.

“The war is absolutely not over,” he said. “I believe that the U.S. can do anything it puts its mind to, but this is a far-reaching challenge that President Obama will face.



All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. However, as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2308.

The causes and circumstances of these tragic events are different, but there should be a common sense of horror and condemnation for the explosion of such cruel and senseless violence. Let us ask the Lord to touch the hearts of those who delude themselves by thinking that this is the way to resolve local or international problems.

Pope Benedict XVI on violent attacks by militant Islamists in Nigeria and Mumbai, 11/30/08