Military Action Is Acceptable, Within Limits
NEW YORK, 22 SEPT. 2001 (ZENIT).
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 have brought home how fragile peace
is—and how terrible the tragedy when innocent lives are lost.
One consequence is the strength of public opinion in the United
States, and other countries, in favor of military action to combat the
threat posed by terrorism. Would this be morally justified?
Traditional Church teaching on the concept of a just war divided
judgment into two areas: when it is justified to use force, "jus ad
bellum"; and the principles guiding the use of force, "jus in
For a war to be justifiable, a number of criteria need to be
satisfied: that there be a just cause; that the action be initiated by a
legitimate authority; that it be guided by the right intention; that the
results of any action not produce more evil than the good sought; that
it is the last resort; that there is a reasonable chance of success;
that the eventual outcome be the establishment of peace.
Once a proposed military action has met these requirements there are
also limits on what is legitimate in the resulting action. There should
be a proportionality in the means used, avoiding force that is in excess
of that needed to achieve the ends of the conflict. Care must also be
taken to avoid damage or death to innocent parties.
This last stipulation has acquired more force in recent times given the
experience of massive destruction caused by the wars of the 20th
century. Additionally, the threat of weapons of mass destruction—nuclear,
chemical and biological—has led to greater reluctance on the part of
the Church to countenance the use of force.
For example, John XXIII in the 1963 encyclical "Pacem in Terris,"
Nos. 126-9, emphasized negotiations instead of the use of force. The
threat of nuclear arms motivated the Pope to declare, "It is
contrary to reason to hold that war is now a suitable way to restore
rights which have been violated."
The Second Vatican Council's document "The Church in the Modern
World" also highlighted the destructive nature of modern warfare,
Nos. 79-80. It also warned about the use of terrorism as a new method
used to wage conflicts. However, while encouraging the peaceful
negotiation of conflicts, Vatican II did not rule out the use of armed
force: "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 defense, once all peace
efforts have failed."
The council went on to condemn total warfare that involves the wholesale
destruction of cities and civilian centers, judging it to be "a
crime against God and man."
In summarizing the teaching of the Church on the use of force, the
Catechism, in No. 2309, notes that the power of modern armaments weighs
heavily in determining if the use of force produces more evils and
disorders than the evil to be eliminated. It also condemns the
indiscriminate use of force and the validity of the moral law during a
But the Catechism also says of those who serve in the armed forces:
"If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to
the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace," No.
Can war be justified?
Some argue that the destructiveness of modern warfare, which has led to
the reluctance of recent Church teaching to endorse the use of force,
implies that there is an inherent presumption against war. According to
this point of view it is very difficult to justify any type of armed
action to resolve problems.
However, others, such as American scholar James Turner Johnson, author
of several works on just-war theory, argue that even if some modern
Church teaching on war does include a presumption against war, this is a
result of a prudential judgment. Johnson considers that by its nature a
judgment of this type is contingent on the particular circumstances and
therefore resorting to force cannot be ruled out categorically. So while
modern popes have emphasized the importance of a peaceful resolution of
injustices, this does not mean that military action can never be
In fact, John Paul II, in his 1982 message for the World Day of Peace,
stated that "Christians, even as they strive to resist and prevent
every form of warfare, have no hesitation in recalling that in the name
of an elementary requirement of justice, people have a right and even a
duty to protect their existence and freedom by proportionate means
against an unjust aggressor," No. 12.
How to respond to terrorism
There can be no doubt as to the immorality of terrorist actions. The
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its 1986
"Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation," No. 79,
stated, "One can never approve—whether perpetrated by established
power or insurgents—crimes such as reprisals against the general
population, torture or methods of terrorism."
In the general audience held the day after the attacks in the United
States, John Paul II declared: "In the face of such unspeakable
horror we cannot but be deeply disturbed. I add my voice to all the
voices raised in these hours to express indignant condemnation, and I
strongly reiterate that the ways of violence will never lead to genuine
solutions to humanity's problems."
Last Sunday, however, the Pope also exhorted the United States "not
to give in to the temptation of hatred and violence" in the wake of
the terrorist attacks and he appealed to "the beloved American
people" to respond with "justice."
Fighting with "justice" the threat posed by terrorism is not
an easy task. Identifying and eliminating terrorists is very different
from a conventional military action. Not the least of problems is
finding Osama bin Laden and his followers in the midst of Afghanistan.
Many analysts stress the difficulty of any large-scale military action
in Afghanistan and point out that after a long conflict the Russian army
was forced to retreat. Moreover, the problem arises of how to proceed
without harming the civilian population, already the victim of decades
of warfare and dependent on international food aid that is now in danger
of being cut off due to the imminent threat of conflict.
And even if bin Laden were to be caught or killed, there is no guarantee
that this would put an end to matters. By all accounts his organization
has a very loose cell-like structure and would continue to function even
without his direction.
Experience with extremist groups in Northern Ireland and the Basque
region of Spain show how difficult it is to stamp out terrorism.
Moreover, other countries hostile to the West in the Middle East could
easily take the place of Afghanistan in offering refuge to terrorist
groups intent on continuing hostilities.
All signs indicate that the battle against terrorism won't be won easily—or