“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9
It is hard to talk openly about war being just or unjust while your own country happens to be in the middle of one (or two, or five). But, hey, if Christianity were easy, everyone would be doing it.
War is a tricky thing because, though most of the humanity’s dark history is filled with unjust and evil wars, every single one of those wars had people cheering them on, justifying them with all sorts of clever rationalizations and emotionally charged propaganda.
That means we Catholics need to be on our 'A' game when it comes to this whole “Just War” idea, so that we are not caught on the wrong side of God’s desire for peace and thirst for justice.
3 Things to Remember
When you contemplate war, think about these three things. First, the Church hates war and has almost always used her authority to limit and restrict it. Hates it!
Second, though we hate it, the Church is not pacifist. Pacifism rejects all forms of violence, even in self-defense. Good Catholics can be personally pacifist, like Dorothy Day, and are seen as heroic witnesses to charity (see CCC 2306), but, as a whole the Church says that you can legitimately protect your own life and those you are responsible for from an unjust attacker using even lethal force, like in war.
The third thing you need to remember is this: the West, including America, fosters the “culture of death”, which means that no matter what political side you belong to, Right or Left, death is probably a part of the party platform in one way or another. We have to be wise enough to see through the hype and the hate into the Gospel of Life.
The Doctrine, in Six Parts
What is called the “Just War Doctrine” of the Catholic Church has been developed and refined by the greatest minds in Church history, saints like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, who are super-geniuses. From their minds to our Catechism, we have a powerful little formula for determining whether it is just or not to go to war.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church keeps all six criteria, but summarizes them in a slightly different manner, combining some and putting others in different areas. Below I list the traditional six criteria, with quotes from the Catechism to supplement them.
Here is the deal– all six criteria for a just war must be met. If we are off by 1, it is just not just!
1. There must be a just cause. The Catechism says “the damage inflicted… must be certain, lasting, and grave” (CCC 2309). As Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton says, “The only defensible war is a war of defense.”
2. There must be the right intentions when one declares war on another, like to repel an unjust attack, or to right a grave injustice. It would be wrong to use an attack as an excuse to plunder a country. And always, the aim is not domination but peace, which is “tranquilly of order” and “not merely the absence of war” or the “balance of power between adversaries” (CCC 2304).
3. It can only be declared by competent authority. “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. …Those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility” (CCC 2265).
4. It must be the last resort. This can be a tricky one because many a politician will exclaim “They left us with no other choice!” For the Church “all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective” (CCC 2309). Diplomacy is hard work, but is essential to foster peace.
5. It must be proportionate. This means the waging of war must have greater benefits than the other evils that come with war. Thus a nuclear war is always disproportionate. The Catechism says “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition” (CCC 2309).
6. There must be a reasonable chance of success. No nation can ask for the blood of its sons and daughters in a futile war. Success has to be defined and understood so that the war can stop once its goal is reached. And also, a war that is seen as hopeless makes people desperate, and could cause horribly disproportionate means to try and achieve victory (suicide attacks, nukes).
One More Distinction: Declaring War vs. Actually Waging War
The Catholic Church makes one more distinction here that we need to briefly cover: Right to go to war (jus ad bellum) and Right conduct in war (jus in bella). You can meet all the above criteria, rightfully declare war, and then go off and commit all sorts of evils, rendering your war unjust! Though war may be declared rightly, an “anything goes” mentality is evil and corrupts the justice of your war.
A Host of Evils
“War” said Pope John Paul II, “is always a defeat for humanity.” What I described above are the just and prudent criteria needed for that lawful authority to rightly declare war. But simply because a nation can go to war, that does not mean that it should. A king, chief, or president can have all of these satisfied and still decide that war is not worth it. The truth is, war rarely is worth it.
Even just wars take a terrible toll on everyone- innocents die, lies are accepted, hatred, vengeance, racism, and ignorance spreads like wildfire, and poverty, homelessness, and starvation wait around every corner for civilians caught in the middle.
This does not even mention the lingering torment war veterans suffer, with young American veterans today committing suicide 2 to 4 times higher than any other age group, equaling 18 suicides a day, every day. Yes, war is always a defeat for humanity and its evil repercussions remain long after the battle.
Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers” because peace never just happens. It must be made, forged through the patience, mercy, diplomacy, and healing between enemies. And every single Catholic who wishes to be a child of God must be a peacemaker.
Try to be a peacemaker tomorrow at home or at school, and you will quickly experience the next Beatitude, “Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness sake…” Pope John Paul II did, and was attacked from both the Left and the Right, but he knew the Gospel of Life was bigger and better.
A common bumper sticker around town says, “You can’t be both Catholic and Pro-Abortion”. I agree wholly, and would follow it up with, “You can’t be both pro-life and pro-war.”