Issues for Catholic Voters (2012 edition) – War
War (Chapter IX)
“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” (CCC 2308).
In both 2004 and 2008 there was a loud complaint made by some Catholics against President George W. Bush and the Republican Party for the war in Iraq. When President Obama committed the United States to a war in Afghanistan in 2009 those Catholics who complained about Iraq were silent. Thus, in the 2012 presidential election, it’s doubtful war will be made much of an issue by Catholics.
Catholics who complain that this or that war is against “Catholic teaching” often imply no war can be justified. The Church, however, has never taught pacifism as an option for those in charge of the common good, only for individuals in certain circumstances. Military servicemen, for example, serve with honor and “contribute to the common good of the nation” (CCC 2310). Just as a person is entitled to self-defense, so too is a government responsible for protecting its people. The most powerful of all protective methods is to wage war against those who pose legitimate and significant threats. In certain cases, war can be a moral duty.
When war threatens, Catholics are obliged to apply these criteria in shaping their opinions on whether or not conflict is justified. It’s entirely appropriate for Catholics, lay and religious alike, to voice their opinions on the justness of a potential or actual conflict. Yet these opinions are prudential in nature.
Not all wars are just, according to Church teaching. Therefore, all Catholics and political leaders must consider carefully their reasons for going to war, the process by which they arrived at their decisions, and all probable outcomes. As a guide, the Church has delineated specific criteria for a “just-war.”
According to the Catechism, the four conditions for a “just-war” are 1) “the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain”; 2) “all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective”; 3) “there must be serious prospects of success”; and 4) “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated” (CCC 2309).
Note that these considerations apply to more than the reasons for war but also to the way a war is fought and its outcome. With the development of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, the human cost of war has multiplied many times over. The potential for vast destruction of innocent life is ominous, thus, a nation’s response to an aggressor must be proportionate and limited.
Those who offer their opinions on war do not always have the data needed to fully inform their prudential judgments. While the published opinions of bishops or priests inform the decisions of political leaders and Catholic citizens, their opinions are not binding, except in certain circumstances such as that of Nazi Germany where the regime itself was morally indefensible. Ultimately, the authorities responsible for the common good of the U.S. citizens are the President and the Congress, who must use the vast resources at their disposal to make wise and honest choices. The Catechism recognizes those with the responsibility for determining whether these conditions are met belongs to “the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” In other words, it is the responsibility of the President and the Congress. 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.
Voting the Principles
If we want to ensure that the United States goes to war rarely and in a just manner, all Catholics should consider their elected officials in light of the principles listed in the Catechism. Political candidates should be willing to defend the country against aggression, but they should demonstrate an even greater inclination toward peace. Candidates should also be prepared to take decisive and proportionate actions in the face of credible and imminent threats.
The Church alludes to the option of “international authority” in avoiding the decision to go to war. The only such authority at the present time is the United Nations, a deliberative body whose various actions are empowered by the agreement of its member nations. Despite this influence, the U.N. has only unambiguously authorized two of the many wars since its founding: the Korean conflict and the first Persian Gulf War. The Bush administration understood UN Resolution 1441 authorizing military action in Iraq, although that has been disputed. Nonetheless, the UN is an important player in the deliberative process, since it represents the only stage upon which all nations participate diplomatically in avoiding war through non-violent means.
1. States have the right to engage in war in self-defense but should first exhaust all peaceful solutions.
2. Duly-elected political leaders of a nation have the responsibility of deciding whether a war is just or not.
3. Just war is waged within defined moral boundaries in regard to its targets, goals, and its outcomes.
4. Political leadership must have both the inclination toward peace and the capacity for decisive action if war is just and necessary.
By Deal Hudson, President of Catholic Advocate and author of Onward Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States