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War through the eyes of the Good Samaritan
Thirty years ago, the Catholic bishops of the United States issued a pastoral letter on war and peace. Titled The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, it examined U.S. foreign and military policy in the light of Catholic social teaching. The Challenge of Peace acknowledged the presence of foreign threats to world peace and justice, but criticized the frequency and ease with which the United States used military force to project its will upon other nations. It echoed the Second Vatican Council in decrying the massive amounts of money devoted to armaments while the poor of the world suffered. And it called upon the United States and the Soviet Union to dramatically reduce their nuclear arsenals, so that the world would nevermore face the threat of nuclear annihilation. Most importantly, The Challenge of Peace proclaimed that war is inescapably a moral question; if left unexplored, it can erode the soul of a society that seeks, through military power, to ennoble the world.
We are in the midst of the longest period of major warfare in our nation’s history. The conflict in Iraq has ended with a fragile peace in a deeply divided society. The war in Afghanistan continues in its 12th year, with a U.S. withdrawal planned for 2014 that the most optimistic observers think will leave that nation utterly divided or in collapse. It is vital that, as a nation, we contemplate the role war will play in our national life in coming years.
Such an examination must proceed from a profound respect for the service that America’s military men and women render to our country and to the world. It must also accept as a given that evil exists in the world and is to be resisted. On these and other related matters, Catholic teaching on war and peace has much to say.
There is, to be sure, no unified Catholic tradition on the issue of war and peace. As the U.S. bishops noted in 1983, the tradition of the Church is “a long and complex one, reaching from the Sermon on the Mount to the statements of [the modern popes]. Its development cannot be sketched in a straight line and it seldom gives a simple answer.”
Two strands of teaching have been most prominent. The first is the pacifist tradition, and the second is the just war tradition, which became the foundation for modern international law on warfare.
Pacifism dominated the theological and pastoral life of early Christianity. As writers such as Tertullian (ca. 160–220) asked rhetorically, How could the Jesus who counseled love of enemies ever sanction the systematic taking of human life? Granted, service in the military was objectionable in part because it required worship of the emperor. But, as St. Cyprian (d. 258) of Carthage noted approvingly, Christians “do not even fight against those who are attacking since it is not granted to the innocent to kill even the aggressor, but promptly to deliver up their souls and blood.”
From these early Christians to Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) to Dorothy Day (1897–1980), heroic men and women have embraced pacifism as the only truly Christ-like response to war. Their witness has not been passive, however. They confronted evil and sought to redress its effects, and many pacifists have made personal sacrifices to protect the rights of others.
So, how can the parable of the Good Samaritan, which requires strenuous love of the stranger, ever be reconciled with killing the stranger? St. Augustine confronted this question when, as bishop of Hippo in North Africa, he was the leader of a Christian society facing the onslaught of the Vandals. Augustine read the same gospels as the early fathers of the Church who formed the pacifist tradition, but came to a radically different conclusion. As Paul Ramsey, the great Protestant theologian, has noted, Augustine turned the parable of the Good Samaritan on its head. He asked, What if the good Samaritan had been coming down the road 20 minutes earlier, when the man by the side of the road was being beaten? What would have been the Samaritan’s obligation then? He would have been obligated to intervene, Augustine concluded, with force if necessary, to drive off the robbers. So too, war is necessary at times to defend the lives and fundamental rights of peoples.
From this assertion—that the call to love not only tolerates a recourse to war, but sometimes demands it—Augustine fashioned what came to be the just war tradition, a teaching on the ethics of warfare that has been refined over 16 centuries and now stands as the central framework for evaluating the morality of war in western culture. The tradition has two main elements: the jus ad bellum (the conditions that need to be present before a nation can morally resort to war) and the jus in bello (the limits placed upon actions in war).
Under the jus ad bellum, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, there are four conditions that must be fulfilled clearly and simultaneously before a decision can be made morally to go to war. First, there must be a just cause, rooted in the defense of a nation or community against “lasting, grave, and certain” attack. Second, war must be a last resort, all other realistic avenues of redress having been exhausted before a decision is made to fight. Third, there must be a genuine prospect of success. And fourth, the use of arms must not produce evils graver than the evil that is to be combated.
The moral code for fighting once war has begun, the jus in bello, holds that acts of war cannot be directed against civilians and that efforts must be undertaken to minimize civilian casualties. Every act must be likely to yield a good result‚Äîone greater than the harm it causes.
Taken together, the elements of Catholic just war teaching are meant to embody countervailing convictions: War is an enormously evil element of human existence that is all too alluring; and, in very limited circumstances, it constitutes a morally legitimate and even obligatory avenue for the defense of nations and peoples. The Catechism of the Catholic Church resolves this tension by teaching that, while pacifism is a heroic and praiseworthy stance and must be recognized as a legitimate choice of individual citizens, the obligation of nations to defend their people against deadly evil makes the just war framework the more appropriate for shaping societal decisions.
Enormous changes in the nature of warfare during the mid-20th century have led the Church to markedly refine its teaching on the moral legitimacy of war in the just war tradition. The adoption of strategic bombing has broadened the battlefield, so that a whole country and its people may be targeted. The development of weapons of mass destruction has raised the specter of unimaginable suffering; humanity is now capable of ending its own existence. There is a sobering calculation to be made that the next war may involve nuclear powers in conflict with one another.
Before this backdrop, Catholic moral teaching has strengthened its presumption against war. From the assertion by Pope John XXIII, in Pacem in Terris (1963), that “it is hardly possible to imagine that in an atomic era, war could be used as an instrument of justice”; to the clarion call of Paul VI, “No more war; war never again”; to Benedict XVI and his questioning of whether “amidst the current destructiveness of war it is even licit to admit of the possibility of a just war,” the popes of the modern era have demonstrated a desire to constrict the pathway to legitimate war.
At the same time, U.S. policy has been to expand the scope of war. In large part, this expansion has been a reaction to the trauma of September 11, 2001, an outcome of the heavy recognition that the United States is vulnerable to terrorist attack. But the policy has gone beyond necessity, embarking upon a course of perpetual war. Catholic teaching and U.S. foreign policy now run counter to each other in significant ways. Specifically:
Catholic teaching challenges the United States to reject the principle of preemptive war. Catholic social teaching holds that a nation may go to war only in response to tangible and serious aggression, not on speculation about possible attacks in future months or years. The adoption of preemption by America’s leaders in 2003 in Iraq was a serious departure in U.S. policy and is utterly incompatible with Catholic doctrine. As the United States grapples with the complex dilemmas involving Iran and North Korea, it should reject the notion of preemptive war as a legitimate option.
Catholic teaching challenges the United States to reject the use of war to transform the societies and political structures of other nations. Much of the momentum for launching the war in Iraq lay in the desire of American policymakers to make of Iraq an experiment in Middle East democracy. Similarly, the goal of establishing democracy in Afghanistan has been pivotal in extending the war in that devastated land.
Catholic teaching challenges the United States to curtail the expansion of drone warfare. Unmanned aerial systems constitute an alluring new tool of war. They have also proven effective against terrorists in civilian settings. But they break down the barrier between war and peace. Drones are relatively inexpensive. More than 75 nations already have non-weaponized drones, and the appeal of a weapon capable of killing anywhere with impunity is likely to produce a wholly new and insidious form of international warfare.
The expansionist potential inherent in drone warfare is exemplified by the shift from America’s original targeting policy, which limited drone kills to identified terrorists, to a policy of “signature strikes,” which target individuals solely on the basis of their movements and behaviors. National sovereignty rights in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have been violated repeatedly by U.S. drone patrols, giving rise to new resentments and breeding grounds for terrorism. The ethical judgment about drone warfare should be rendered not by envisioning a world where only the United States has armed drones, but rather by imagining a world where every nation has these weapons and uses them.
Catholic teaching challenges the United States to launch a renewed effort to reduce nuclear weapons stockpiles around the world and to end nuclear proliferation. In his World Day of Peace message in 2008, Pope Benedict wrote, “At a time when the process of nuclear non-proliferation is at a standstill, I feel bound to entreat those in authority to resume with greater determination negotiations for a progressive and mutually agreed dismantling of existing nuclear weapons.” Catholic social teaching demands that the United States make the radical mutual reduction of nuclear arsenals a priority. Indeed, a central goal of every Catholic treatment of war since l945 has been the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Catholic teaching challenges the United States to reduce its defense spending. For more than a century the Church has categorically condemned the link between enormous defense establishments and nations’ failure to address the needs of the poor. The United States spends more on defense than any other country on earth; in fact, it spends more on defense than the top 19 military powers in the world combined. As Paul VI noted in Gaudium et Spes in 1965: “As long as extravagant sums of money are poured into the development of new weapons, it is impossible to devote adequate aid in tackling the misery which prevails in the present day in the world. . . . The arms race is one of the greatest curses on the human race, and the harm it inflicts on the poor is more than can be endured.”
In examining the place of war in U.S. policy, it is vital that we raise the ethical questions. Of all nations, the United States views foreign policy not only through the calculus of national interest but also within a dream to ennoble the world. It is difficult for any nation to do this, it is harder still for the world’s most powerful nation.
Bishop Robert W. McElroy serves the archdiocese of San Francisco as an auxiliary bishop. His essay is drawn and adapted from a talk he delivered on March 18 in the Heights Room as part of the Church in the 21st Century Center’s Episcopal Visitor Program, which brings a high level member of the Church hierarchy to campus each semester.