September 2014 Print

Just War: Catholic Doctrine and Some Modern Problems


by Fr. Juan Carlos Iscara, SSPX

“Virtual” War

One of the indispensable conditions for a war to be just is that it be exercised with restraint. Modern “smart” weapons and “push-button warfare” threaten to end all restraint in the conduct of war by shielding one side from the realities of the horror of war. Kosovo provides a striking example; the objectives of the “international coalition” were achieved without a single NATO combat casualty. This raises serious questions about the nature of modern warfare. Classically, the moral justification of war is legitimate self-defense (in the broad sense, which includes the redressing of past injustices), in which there is a basic equality of risk in killing or being killed. The legitimacy of self-defense ends when one can kill with impunity. A war risks ceasing to be just when, for the soldier fighting at a distance, seeing the effects of his actions on a computer screen, death and destruction have little more reality than an arcade game.1

One facet of this shielding of one side from the horrors of warfare is the refusal by many governments even to use the term “war.” The United States serves as a prime example: since the Korean “conflict,” all constitutional procedures for war have been bypassed. Vietnam, Panama, Haiti, Somalia, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, etc., have all seen “police actions” or co-ordinated operations of the “international community,” but, by a linguistic subterfuge, there has been no “war” since World War II. This subterfuge is necessary, since the constitution states that war must be declared in order to be legitimate. The modern world does not fight wars, but it engages in “strikes,” “coercive diplomacy,” and “humanitarian interventions.”2 The media play a central part in this linguistic chicanery, with their frequent touting of “human rights,” “democracy,” “freedom,” etc.

Role of International Bodies

As technology has made the world apparently much smaller, and as financial interdependence has united many nations more closely by the strings of a common purse, the idea of stronger international cooperation or even of the fusion of all nations in a “One World” government has become commonplace in contemporary political discussion and planning. What must be thought of the idea of an international government? The answer to such a question is not at all as simple and straightforward as it may seem at first glance, and, although the questions of the existence of international law and the relationship between such law and national sovereignty are beyond the scope of the present article, it will be worthwhile to examine briefly the two possible concrete realizations of an international government.

The goal of many of the world’s decision-makers is the realization of the ideal of a single world state. The idea is attractive in its simplicity, because wars result from quarrels between states. With only one state, there could be no more wars—a millennial realm of peace, perfect and secure life, would be thus ushered in! The radical flaw of this ideal is that such everlasting peace is to be built without Christ.

For a Catholic, peace is not only, and not even primarily, a community of nations without wars. The source of peace is the Redemption, the restoration of the true order between God and men, the reconciliation with God and the rest of the soul, thus received again in communion with God—that is “the peace that the world cannot give.” Secondarily, therefore, peace is the order of justice in charity in the world—justice and charity rooted and founded in Christ.3

Moreover, serious political obstacles remain in the way of the realization of such an ideal. One such obstacle is the stubborn refusal by those who still have any sense of nationality to yield this sense in the face of “one-world” tendencies. The American national sense has proven surprisingly strong in the face of United Nations’ efforts to control the spread of mass-destruction weapons, to give just one example.4 Robert Wright, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, issued a stern warning to Americans holding obstinately to such “backward tendencies” when he wrote:

“To remain attached to national sovereignty at all costs is not just wrong, it is impossible. If governments do not respond with new forms of international organization, civilization as we know it could be over. The question is not whether we should relinquish our national sovereignty. The question is only how, either cautiously and systematically, or chaotically and catastrophically.”5

There are several good reasons to oppose such an ideal of international government. Not the least of these is the conflict such an ideal must wage with man’s natural inclinations to true patriotism and true nationalism. The ideal of political citizenship in the universal is chimerical.6 Another contrary argument is that states, like other “organisms,” have a certain definite size beyond which they cannot grow if they wish to survive. Despite the fact that this natural limit may vary, and that it is arguably increased by improved means of communication (the “world-wide web” is being used as an instrument for globalization), the true political unity necessary for the maintenance of a healthy state seems impossible beyond a certain limited extension.

In any case, at present, real power is not located in the UN, but remains in the state-members that form it, particularly in the superpowers forming the Security Council, and in groups of states formed around a common purpose. To be subject of the jus ad bellum, the UN lacks sovereignty, cohesion in its policies and decisions, and an effective chain of command for the military forces placed in the midst of a conflict (as has been shown in Kosovo).7

The other possible concrete realization of an international government, and the more reasonable of the two, is the idea of a community of nations. This would be a federation of sovereign states that work closely together in the common interest. Such a federation, to be viable at all, would necessarily be based upon the model of the unity and integrity of the Church. It would thus have to be based on the natural law, even on God and Christ.8 For this type of co-operation to take place, a higher juridical unity would have to be established, on the temporal plane of international institutions. There should be no mistake, however, that the unity of states, languages, customs, civilizations, interests, etc., can only be achieved with reference to a common spiritual truth, that is, in the common faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.

It should not come as a revelation that such a true international union is unlikely to be realized in the concrete contemporary situation, if the examples of the European Union or the United Nations are the basis of judgment. Having rejected Christ, the modern world still tries to achieve unity and everlasting peace on its own terms. But it is an attempt doomed to ever-recurring failure.

Even more appalling, however, is the way in which the architects of the New World Order have enlisted the aid of the Church, acknowledging her experience in the field of unifying widely diverse peoples in a common aim. The secularist one-world advocates have brought the Conciliar Church into the constitution of a “movement of spiritual animation of the universal democracy,”9 and modern churchmen have dutifully complied, creating their own doctrine of unity without Christ, on the principle of “human dignity”—a secularist religion for a secularized world, of which the meetings of Assisi are but the founding stages.

Closing Reflections

Two final reminders of what our attitude as Catholics should be in times of war: First, we, as Catholics, should never talk of war in terms of freedom or democracy, but always in terms of justice. Our Lord blessed those “who hunger and thirst after justice” and those who are persecuted “for justice’ sake.” Of such is the kingdom of heaven, not of those who desire freedom above all, a liberty so elevated and absolute that it will necessarily attempt to free itself from dependence on God. In war, a nation that fights for freedom, without reference to justice, divorced as it were from the strict observance of the moral law, has no right to war, because it does not know why it wants to be free, or why it wants anyone else to be free. Catholics, in opposition to the spirit of the world, should think first and primarily in terms of justice. Whenever there is justice, there is true freedom. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.”

Secondly, since the God of Justice is also the God of Love, it follows that although a war may be justified, it cannot be waged in a spirit of hatred. Because we have been truly injured, we tend to disguise the hatred for our enemies as love for justice. It is precisely because it is so easy to separate in this manner justice and charity that the Church cautions us in time of war: the condemnation of injustice cannot be separated from the appeal for charity and prayer. Justice may demand resistance to the aggressor’s physical assault, but charity demands prayer for his conversion, for his repentance from this onslaught against the justice of God.

As an English Catholic newspaper put it during WWII:

“Our Lord tells us not to fear those who can kill the body, and afterwards can do no more, but rather to fear him who has the power to send our body and our soul into the fire of hell. An immediate application of these words to our present situation is that we should not allow our enemy to induce us to fall into sin. It is the supreme issue for us in this war as in everything. The sins to which the enemy is most likely to tempt us are these three: sins of intemperance, sins of doubt, and sins of hate. Sins of intemperance, as when men depressed by war seek distraction in corporeal excess. Sins of doubt, as when men begin to question the goodness of God who allows such evil to befall them. And sins of hate, when men deny the enemy their charity. The important thing for us in these temporal incidents is to be on the side of Christ and of His charity. It is by no means enough that our cause should be just. For one could fight on the right side of this sense and yet defeat its righteous purpose by admitting a decline of temperance or trust or charity....”10

Selections from the article “Just War,” which originally appeared in The Angelus, July 2002.

1 Michael Ignatieff, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (New York: Picador, 2001), 161-162.

2 Ibid., 177.

3 See Heinrich A. Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought (St. Louis: Herder, 1955), 646-647.

4 Some ethicists have also pointed out that, after the horrific attack on September 11, there is no moral obligation for the United States to be held hostage to the veto power of the most timorous members of an international body, or of a military coalition. See “In a Time of War,” First Things, December 2001, p. 13.

5 The New York Times, Oct. 24, 2001.

6 “In a Time of War,” First Things, Dec. 2001, p. 14.

7 See James Turner Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare (New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 1984), 58-61.

8 Pius XII, Allocution to the Sacred College of Cardinals, Feb. 20, 1946.

9 Fr. Georges de Nantes is the creator of the term.

10 The Tablet (London), Aug. 3, 1940, pp. 97-98.