The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in
paragraphs 2302-2317, authoritatively teaches what constitutes the just
defense of a nation against an aggressor. Called the Just War Doctrine,
it was first enunciated by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD). Over the
centuries it was taught by Doctors of the Church, such as St. Thomas
Aquinas, and formally embraced by the Magisterium, which has also
adapted it to the situation of modern warfare. The following explanation
of Just War Doctrine follows the schema given in the Catechism.
Righteous versus Unrighteous Anger (2302-3)
Anger is a desire for revenge. Anger is the
passion (emotion) by which a man reacts to evil, real or apparent, and
seeks vindication of his rights, that is, justice. By itself
the passion is neither moral or immoral, but becomes so by reason or its
being ordered or disordered - that is, reasonable according to the
circumstances. An ordered anger is directed to a legitimate object,
and, with an appropriate degree of vehemence. An
inordinate anger is directed either to an illegitimate object, or, with an
unreasonable vehemence. As St. Thomas Aquinas notes, vice may be by
defect, as well as excess. So, the presence of evil should
provoke a righteous anger, which if absent constitutes a sinful
Consider the just anger of the Lord to the presence in the
Temple of the money-changers and the action He took (John 2:13-17).
Provoked by this offense against His Father, Jesus formed whips and
drove them from the Temple. Righteous anger, and the acts which
flow from it, intend the correction of vice (both for the good of the individual
sinner and the common good), the restoring of the
order of justice disturbed by sin, and the restraint of further evil.
On the other hand, unjust anger seeks to do evil to another for its
own sake, the harm to body or soul that it entails. While one may
desire, and employ, physical force for the sake of correction, restraint
of evil and restoring justice, even if it entails injury and death, one
may never desire it for its own sake. To desire some slight injury for
an evil motive would be venially sinful. To desire grave injury or
death would be gravely sinful. A Christian may never, of course, desire
the damnation of the evil doer. Charity requires that we will the good,
especially the ultimate good, salvation, for every human being.
Unfortunately, the entertainment media often promotes an image of anger
and vengeance which is closer to blood lust than to justice.
Peace - the Work of Justice and the Tranquility of Order
Whether it is justice within society, or the
interior justice of holiness, peace is its fruit. Righteous anger,
and the means it employs, should not knowingly produce less justice and
less peace than existed before evil intervened. Human prudence, however,
is fallible. It cannot necessarily predict the ploys of the adversary,
both human and demonic. In addition, fallen human nature is inclined to
sin, and thus prone to respond with excess to provocation. Thus, even
virtue and a well-formed conscience can fail to produce the desired
result of justice and peace. Great restraint must be shown, therefore,
in the use of violence to achieve justice. In addition to the efforts of
those who work assiduously for peace, "the peacemakers",
society needs the example of those who renounce violence altogether.
Their "witness to the gravity of the physical
and moral risks of recourse to violence, with all its destruction and
death" should serve to restrain the use of even justified force.
Such conscientious objection is a valuable service to society. As
the Catechism makes clear, it must be accompanied by the willingness to
serve in other capacities (cf. 2311), however.
Just War (2307-17)
All citizens and all
governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war. Despite
this admonition of the Church, it sometimes becomes necessary to use force
to obtain the end of justice. This is the right, and the duty, of those
who have responsibilities for others, such as civil leaders and police
forces. While individuals may renounce all violence those who must
preserve justice may not do so, though it should be the last resort,
peace efforts have failed." [Cf. Vatican II, Gaudium et spes
As with all moral acts the use of force to obtain justice must comply
with three conditions to be morally good. First, the act must be good in
itself. The use of force to obtain justice is morally licit in itself.
Second, it must be done with a good intention, which as noted earlier
must be to correct vice, to restore justice or to restrain evil, and not
to inflict evil for its own sake. Thirdly, it must be appropriate in the
circumstances. An act which may otherwise be good and well motivated can
be sinful by reason of imprudent judgment and execution.
In this regard Just War doctrine gives certain conditions for the legitimate
exercise of force, all of which must be met:
"1. the damage inflicted by
the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting,
grave, and certain;
2. all other means of
putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or
3. there must be serious
prospects of success;
4. the use of arms must not
produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The
power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating
this condition" [CCC 2309].
The responsibility for determining whether
these conditions are met belongs to "the prudential judgment of those who
have responsibility for the common good." The Church's role
consists in enunciating clearly the principles, in forming the
consciences of men and in insisting on the moral exercise of just
The Church greatly respects those who have dedicated their lives to
the defense of their nation. "If
they carry out their duty
honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and
the maintenance of peace. [Cf. Gaudium et spes 79, 5]"
However, she cautions combatants that not everything is licit in war. Actions which are
forbidden, and which constitute morally unlawful orders that may not be followed,
- attacks against, and mistreatment of, non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners;
- genocide, whether of a people, nation or ethnic minorities;
- indiscriminate destruction
of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants.
Given the modern means of warfare, especially
nuclear, biological and chemical, these crimes against humanity must be
especially guarded against.
In the end it is not enough to wage war to achieve justice without
treating the underlying causes. "Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy,
distrust, and pride raging among men and nations constantly
threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders
contributes to building up peace and avoiding war" [CCC
2317]. The Church has no illusions that true justice and peace can be
attained before the Coming of the Lord. It is the duty of men of good
will to work towards it, nonetheless. In the words of the spiritual
should work as if everything depended upon our efforts, and pray as if
everything depended upon God.