Just War: Week 1, by Father Frank Schuele
“Catholic teaching begins in every case with a presumption against war and for peaceful settlement of disputes. In exceptional cases…some uses of force are permitted.”
That is from the authoritative U.S. bishops’ pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace. The just war Catholic doctrine sets out a series of strict criteria under which a nation might justify going to war. It then seeks to restrict and restrain the horror that is modern warfare, stating moral criteria for the just conduct of any war. Developed over the last sixteen centuries, it has been used by Pope John Paul II to urge President Bush not to go to war with Iraq and studied in depth by American service academy students as part of their ethics course—but is not well known by most educated Catholics in our nation.
In fact, nonviolence based on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and other teachings was the usual Christian response during the first three centuries. The barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire and the sack of Rome in 410 led to the charge by many Romans that the
Christians were responsible, since they had rejected the traditional Roman religion. Saint Augustine responded to this charge in The City of God, asserting that a Christian could join the army and serve honorably. “In his view war was both the result of sin and a tragic remedy for sin in the life of political societies. War arose from disordered ambitions, but it could also be used, in some cases at least, to restrain evil and protect the innocent.… Faced with the fact of attack on the innocent, the presumption that we do no harm, even to our enemy, yielded to the command of love understood as the need to restrain an enemy who would injure the innocent” (The Challenge of Peace). If armed violence was the only way to stop a terrible wrong, it was a necessary evil.
Saint Thomas Aquinas built a philosophical high fence around Augustine’s argument: a series of three conditions necessary to legitimate a people’s resorting to warfare (jus ad bellum). Three centuries later, a succession of Spanish and Portuguese theologians
added criteria for the just conduct of any war.
In 1983, the proliferation of new weaponry led the U.S. bishops to address the morality of nuclear war and the urgent need for the church to become a community of peacemakers. Active nonviolence remains a praiseworthy moral option for Catholics as individuals.
“We believe work to develop non-violent means of fending off aggression and resolving conflict best reflects the call of Jesus both to love and to justice.” But since states have the right to self-defense, we will look at the criteria for a just war today.