War Is Not The Answer!

—Yard sign, Winter 2002-2003

Among true worshipers of God those wars are looked on as peacemaking which are waged neither from aggrandizement nor cruelty but with the object of securing peace, of repressing evil and supporting the good.

—St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II, IIae, 40.1

Since the mind of man runneth not to the contrary, the instruction of the Catholic Church on war and peace has been conveyed through the idea of the just war. Until recently at least, the venerable tradition has dominated theological speculation within virtually all Christian sects and strongly influenced other religious traditions as well. Many of its tenets have made their way into positive law and into the curricula of Western war colleges, especially in the United States. Despite some defections of late, particularly among mainline Protestant thinkers, one would be hard-pressed to name another Christian social teaching that has endured largely unchanged or to greater effect over so long a period.

The just-war concept traces its roots to ancient Hebraic and Stoic thought, but its specifically Christian lineage begins with St. Augustine’s argument in Book XIX of The City of God. Augustine there considers the conditions under which a Christian might resort to force. While it is clearly better for a Christian to suffer injury than to requite evil with evil, he says, the moral responsibility of rulers, who must see to the safety and security of their subjects, is broader than that of the individual citizen. Pacifism may be a desirable and, in certain circumstances, a compelling individual Christian response to violence or the threat of violence, but it cannot suffice as the governing moral criterion for a magistrate, who owes a duty in charity and justice to his subjects to protect them against the designs of evil men. Because rulers are also subject to the moral law, their war-making must be guided by its proper end—not peace per se but tranquilitas ordinis, the peace that springs from the just ordering of human affairs. How then to cabin the private use of force and justify its public use while yet constraining the passions that give rise to it? Is it possible to legitimate war without giving license to self-serving or unbridled violence on the part of public authorities?

The just-war tradition, which emerges as the fully elaborated reflection on these questions, responds to those who see war as an ungovernable human passion and to those who see it as irredeemably immoral or unnecessary. A “realist” might argue that the idea of just war is simply convenient sophistry that arbitrarily exonerates certain kinds of violence. Much the same argument is advanced by pacifists, albeit for different reasons. In the end, the first critique reduces to the proposition that might makes right, while the second makes civil society a high-risk enterprise. The former cannot distinguish between a just ruler and a thug; the latter affirms the rightness of the tranquilitas ordinis but, by default, gives thugs free rein.

The idea of the just war is perhaps best understood as a kind of mean between the claims of realpolitik and those of pacifism. It seeks to temper the passions that lead to war and, by distinguishing just from unjust causes, directs them to the pursuit of noble ends—hence the dual requirement of a morally credible rationale both for the initiation of war (ius ad bellum) and for the manner of its execution (ius in bello).

Augustine’s argument was later amplified, most notably by St. Thomas Aquinas, who specified three criteria for the ius ad bellum: (1) Only legitimate public authority may declare war. (2) It may be waged only for a just cause (originally thought to encompass the rectification of wrongs, but now largely confined to self-defense). (3) It requires a right intention (the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil, as opposed to hatred, revenge, or the pursuit of glory and power). Later refinements of the Thomistic argument have elaborated four additional criteria, as set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: (4) The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain. (5) All other means for putting an end to it must be shown to be impractical or ineffective (often referred to as “last resort”). (6) There must be serious prospects of success. (7) The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders greater than the evil to be eliminated.

Once these conditions are satisfied, the ius in bello criteria of proportionality and discrimination must be considered. The former holds that only such force may be used as is necessary to vindicate the just cause, while the latter prohibits intentional infliction of harm upon non-combatants.

In the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom, to have listened to President Bush, or to his principal civilian and military advisors, was to learn how profoundly just-war thinking has influenced the leadership of the world’s most powerful nation. One may of course disagree with their conclusions, but one has to be impressed by the evident care they took to provide moral justification for their actions. Measured by any objective standard, Operation Iraqi Freedom plausibly met all the criteria for just war—which is different from saying that the relevant moral issues were not debatable. The central issue, however, was not whether American policy might receive the unanimous consent, say, of the College of Cardinals, but whether a serious, good faith effort was made to subject American policy to rigorous moral scrutiny. Just-war doctrine, rightly understood, is not some sort of moral multiple-choice test keyed to only one set of correct answers. The Catechism of the Catholic Church recognizes as much. After setting forth the specific criteria for just war, it declares: “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have the responsibility for the common good.”

This prudential aspect of the decision to disarm Saddam Hussein seems to have escaped the attention of diverse churchmen at home and abroad, who treated just-war criteria like a solution to an algebra problem, each and every step of which had to be executed in accordance with a pre-determined formula of which they, and they alone, were the exclusive proprietors. To take the noisiest example, the National Council of Churches took out full-page ads that questioned not only the factual predicates of the administration’s Iraqi policy but the president’s religious sincerity as well, arguing that no true Christian could possibly justify the forcible disarmament of the Iraqi regime. In so many words, the ads urged the president to do what Jesus would do, and mirabile dictu it turned out that what Jesus would do bore a striking resemblance to the editorial recommendations of the New York Times.

What surprised many observers was the extent to which similar, if somewhat less strident, versions of the same arguments were voiced by senior officials of the Roman Curia. Their number included Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Holy See’s Secretary of State; Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, Secretary for Relations with States; Archbishop Renato Martino, for many years the Vatican’s permanent observer at the United Nations and now head of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace; Cardinal Pio Laghi, former papal nuncio to the U.S., who was called from semi-retirement in February to undertake a special embassy to President Bush; and Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the omnipresent Vatican press spokesman.

Their criticisms, which were echoed by many bishops throughout the world, coincided with an unusually energetic display of diplomatic activity in opposition to war. Numerous prime ministers and foreign ministers were received by the pope even as special emissaries were dispatched by him to Washington, Baghdad, and other capitals. Meanwhile, editorial rants indistinguishable from those dominating the secular press of “Old Europe” appeared in the pages of quasi-official Vatican publications such as L’Osservatore Romano and La Civiltà Cattolica.

In contrast to many of these statements, those of John Paul II, while passionate in their appeals for peaceful resolution, were characteristically high-toned, profoundly spiritual, and free of political rhetoric. It is unlikely that the pope had particular knowledge of or gave specific approval to the rhetorical excesses of diverse Vatican representatives. The Roman Catholic Church, after all, is a very large and complicated organization whose convoluted bureaucratic customs give special meaning to the idea of plausible deniability. One must be wary about equating opinions of spokesmen, with or without portfolio, with the opinions of the pope, much less with the teaching of what comedian Mort Sahl once described as “the only ‘The Church.'”

Even so, the breadth and intensity of the Holy See’s diplomatic offensive were unusual and would not have occurred without the pope’s general approval. The Church’s position appears to have been animated by six interrelated concerns about the consequences of an American-led incursion into Iraq: (1) a significant increase in terrorist activity; (2) escalation into a broader “clash of civilizations” between Islam and Christianity; (3) possible retribution against the tiny, vulnerable Christian communities in the Middle East; (4) injury to the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” especially as it relates to protection of the Holy Land; (5) letting loose the dogs of pre-emptive or preventive war; and (6) legitimating American “unilateralism” at the expense of the United Nations. These are all serious concerns, but the Vatican was hardly alone in raising them. And in any event, does not their resolution properly fall within the realm of prudent statesmen? Interestingly, with the possible exception of the third item, we have every reason to believe that all were weighed and debated by the Bush Administration before deciding upon war.

The unusually harsh tone of certain curial officials was certainly notable, but more troubling than that was the extent to which their interpretation of just-war criteria reflected the influence of pacifist sentiment. This would be officially denied, of course, but it could be argued that the Church has already moved toward pacifism without explicitly saying so. Support for this proposition may be found in the preliminaries to the Gulf War of 1990-91, which was opposed by the Vatican on the ground that it appeared to entail excessive use of force. (One is tempted to ask whether the proportionality principle would have been satisfied if 200,000 rather than 500,000 troops had been deployed, or if only 10,000 rather than 20,000 air sorties had been planned, but let that pass.)

On at least two occasions in recent years, John Paul seemed to go out of his way to deny that the Church was pacifist; but the mere fact that he felt it necessary to say so only served to underscore the widespread inference that the Church is moving along that path. The truth seems to be that while the Church continues to embrace traditional just-war criteria, its understanding of those criteria and how they ought to be applied is being reexamined. (Archbishop Martino, for example, strongly implied that just-war principles are being modified in a manner analogous to the Church’s recent reevaluation of the morality of capital punishment.)

It is possible, of course, to read too much into recent Vatican pronouncements; it may be that they merely reflect particular fears about the propensity toward violence in the Middle East and the potential for escalation into wider conflict. It may be, in short, that there is no pacifist turn. On the other hand, the Church’s position on Iraq seems to have deeper roots, which trace to major Church pronouncements on war and peace during the 1960s. Conspicuous among these are John XXIII’s much-cited 1963 encyclical, Pacem in terris, and Gaudium et spes, the 1965 declaration issued by the Second Vatican Council. Although these documents addressed multiple issues, both were centrally concerned with the threat to peace posed by modern technology, particularly nuclear weapons. Both documents questioned whether it any longer made sense to speak of just war if indeed war might lead to annihilation of a considerable portion of the human race.

The twofold practical thrust of Pacem in terris and Gaudium et spes was a) that nuclear disarmament was not only a moral desideratum but a moral necessity, and b) that a serious effort to disarm would sooner or later require a critical reevaluation of the nation-state structure—in the direction of some new form of international governance. While neither document made specific policy recommendations on either point, both coincided with and gave moral support to two major items on the liberal internationalist agenda—arms control in the mold of what later became the SALT negotiations, and the campaign to expand the authority of the United Nations.

That these propositions involved highly debatable moral and policy issues did not deter religious figures, within and without the Catholic Church, from embracing them with doctrinal fervor. During the 1970s and ’80s, for example, arms control became a major enthusiasm of the U.S. Catholic bishops, as well as other national episcopal conferences, who had much to say on the subject. Had President Reagan followed their recommendations, we might still be negotiating with the masters of the Kremlin. It was precisely Reagan’s departure from the traditional “nuclear-disarmament” model so favored by his predecessors (and by the bishops) that brought the USSR to its knees. Other factors were in play to be sure, but insofar as U.S. nuclear strategy was concerned (e.g., SDI and the decision to install Pershing missiles in Europe), it was Reagan’s courageous statesmanship rather than the moral instruction of the bishops that brought the Cold War to an end.

Concerning the role of the U.N., which figures so prominently in contemporary Vatican statements, one can perhaps understand the fears animating those who decry American “unilateralism”; but, on the record, its structure and history provide scant hope that it could possibly bear the expanded authority that many religious figures would thrust upon it in the name of advancing peace. Its peacekeeping efforts, such as they are, depend decisively on the active involvement of the United States, and absent that support, amount to almost nothing. Its internal structure, particularly the Security Council, reflects the status of forces in 1945, which is why (as the Iraqi confrontation shows to a fare-thee-well) it cannot effectively advance the cause of peace in 2003.

While various Vatican spokesmen were lamenting the failure of the U.S. to seek an 18th (!) U.N. resolution before seeking to disarm Saddam, President Bush acted, bringing the first taste of freedom to millions of Iraqis who had suffered under the tyrant’s boot. What U.N., one wonders, were these well-placed bishops thinking about? The U.N. whose European members stood idly by while 300,000 people were “ethnically cleansed” on their doorstep in the Balkans? The U.N. whose “peacekeepers” were only a short distance away but did nothing when 10,000 human beings were slaughtered within a few days at Sbrenica? The U.N. that looked the other way while Rwanda was turned into a charnel house? The U.N. whose disarmament commission was, until recently, headed by Iraq? Whose human rights commission is chaired by Libya? The U.N. that would not bring itself to enforce any of its own resolutions purporting to discipline Saddam? The U.N. that annually pocketed a billion dollars (or more) for administering the “oil-for-food” program while Saddam grew rich and his subjects starved? To place any hope for international peace in the United Nations as currently constituted is an idea too preposterous to be entertained by anyone wishing to be considered a thoughtful moral commentator.

The same could not be said about reservations concerning the use of preemptive military force, which are serious. A number of senior Vatican officials argued pointedly that the just-war tradition recognizes no such concept. It is true that the idea is not literally specified among just-war criteria; but considering the ends toward which the tradition is directed, a plausible, even compelling argument says that under carefully delineated conditions, preemptive force may be not only morally defensible but desirable.

And it may also be argued that the regime of Saddam Hussein presented precisely the paradigmatic case. Consider: (1) Operation Iraqi Freedom was in fact not a preemptive war at all, but merely the continuation of hostilities that began with Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. The 1991 agreement forced Iraqi forces to withdraw from Kuwait, but war continued, albeit in muted form. (2) Saddam adamantly refused to comply with the peace terms he signed in 1991, and thumbed his nose at 17 U.N. resolutions that found him in violation of those terms. (3) He systematically engaged in multiple other documented violations of international law. (4) He directed a regime conspicuous for its barbaric cruelty, one that used rape, torture, and murder as routine instruments of policy. (5) He twice invaded other countries and gave every indication that he would do so again whenever an inviting opportunity presented itself. (6) Undisputed evidence indicated that he had not only acquired weapons of mass destruction, but had used them against his own citizens. (7) Reliable evidence indicated that he had retained such weapons and was actively engaged in an effort to produce or procure others, including nuclear weapons. (8) Reliable evidence indicated that he was harboring international terrorists and had entered into agreements with them to advance their mutual interests.

The true casus belli in Iraq had nothing to do with any American quest for empire, and everything to do with the tyrannical impulses of Saddam Hussein’s soul. The oldest political wisdom of the West teaches that when such impulses cannot be tamed from within, they must be forcibly constrained (if at all possible) from without. One would have thought that the Catholic Church, as a potent institutional repository of ancient wisdom, might have had something important to say about that understanding, which lies at the very heart of the just-war tradition. In the event, it did not, and that has to be marked as a very great failure.

Nothing was so disappointing in pre-war Vatican statements as their curious silence about the unrelieved barbarity of Saddam Hussein’s regime, notwithstanding that it grievously oppressed (indeed murdered) millons of innocent people and threatened the good order of the world. That silence was no doubt dictated by prudential concerns, but, at the very least, an equivalent prudence might have dictated a benevolent silence about U.S. intentions. Vatican officials instead indulged repeated criticisms of American policy, and in so doing wandered precipitously close to the border of moral equivalency. They did not mean to do so, of course, and would be repelled by the very thought that they had.

Nevertheless, their animadversions against what they perceived to be undue American muscularity caused them to fret endlessly about the legal formalism of just-war principles and virtually not at all about their substance.

The case for American intervention was certainly debatable on prudential grounds, but no one knew that better than the president himself. No doubt he would say that the only risks greater than those flowing from intervention would be the risks of not intervening. That, too, is certainly debatable, but the question is who is better equipped to render such a decision—the President of the United States or a dozen clerics? And who would have borne the responsibility had Saddam acquired nuclear weapons (as we have every reason to beleve he was attempting to do)? Had Saddam’s regime been allowed to survive in possession of weapons of mass destruction, which bishop armed with what argument could have persuaded him not to use them? The unvarnished truth of the matter is that Saddam’s regime presented a clear and present danger to the preservation of peace, not only in the Mideast but in the larger world. The further truth is that the United States is the only force that stands between half the world and its descent into barbarism or tyranny. That so many senior officials of the Curia could have blinded themselves to those facts is very troubling. When the Vatican’s foreign minister begins to sound more like Dominique de Villepin than he does St. Augustine, we have a great deal to worry about indeed.

As for the future of the just-war tradition, this much needs to be said: A just-war teaching that is incapable of dealing effectively and decisively with the likes of Saddam Hussein is a teaching that will not long command the attention of serious statesmen interested in preserving peace. If it fails to accommodate just-war principles to the threat of Islamic terrorism, the Catholic Church will yield the international stage to well-meant or cowardly pacifists on the one hand, and on the other to men who think that talk of tranquilitas ordinis is so much pious twaddle. That is precisely the dilemma that just war was designed to prevent. The Church could provide no better service than to reconsider the ways in which the time-honored principles of the grand tradition can be brought to bear on the most pressing problem now facing the world.