Is a "just war" possible?

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By William J. Byron, S.J.


Considered in the light of Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence, isn’t the concept of “just war” an oxymoron?
- B.B., SOUTH DAKOTA


In 1983 the bishops of the United States issued a peace pastoral that laid out “some principles, norms, and premises” from Catholic teaching, including Gaudium et Spes, the Second Vatican Council’s famous document on the Church in the modern world, which states: “All those who enter the military service in loyalty to their country should look upon themselves as the custodians of the security and freedom of their fellow countrymen; and when they carry out their duty properly, they are contributing to the maintenance of peace” (79).

On conscientious objection the bishops wrote: “It seems just that laws should make humane provision for the case of conscientious objectors.”

And on the question of nonviolence, you will read in No. 78 of that same document these words: “We cannot fail to express our admiration for all who forgo the use of violence to vindicate their rights and resort to other means of defense … provided it can be done without harm to the rights and duties of others in the community.”

Although this leaves a lot unsaid, those brief statements serve to put the teaching Church on record as being in support of nonviolence and military service, as well as endorsing conscientious refusal to participate in such service.

The moral theory of the “just war” doctrine begins with the presumption that all Christians are bound to love their neighbor. So in their 1983 pastoral letter, the bishops ask: “How is it possible to move from these presumptions to the idea of a justifiable use of lethal force?” And here is their answer:

“Historically and theologically the clearest answer to the question is found in St. Augustine. In his view, war was both the result of sin and a tragic remedy for sin in the life of political societies. ...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,” say the bishops.

Over time, this Augustinian premise developed into a Catholic doctrine of a right of self-defense. Is a pre-emptive strike an act of self-defense? If not, can it be just? Another question that must be asked of any given conflict: Is this war necessary? If it is not, it can hardly be called just.

Pope John XXIII stated his position clearly in Pacem in Terris: “In this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice” (127). The phrase “just war” is not an oxymoron, at least not yet. Raising the question, however, suggests the importance of controlling weapons technology, safeguarding noncombatants, eliminating torture, and applying effective diplomacy as an alternative to war. CD

William J. Byron, S.J.

Readers are welcome to send questions to Father Byron at Catholic Digest, P.O. Box 6015, New London, CT 06320, or to send e-mail to him.