At age 16, Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was drafted into Hitler’s military. He was assigned to an anti-aircraft unit outside of Munich that targeted Allied bombers, a job Ratzinger described as bringing “many an unpleasantness, particularly for so nonmilitary a person as myself.” In the last stages of the war, he was transferred to an infantry unit where he carried an unloaded gun and saw no combat.
Coming from an anti-Nazi family, the young Joseph Ratzinger considered Hitler’s war to be criminal and hoped for a quick Allied victory. With German forces in collapse after Hitler’s death, he deserted and headed home. Captured by American soldiers, he spent a few weeks in a prisoner of war camp and was released, going on to lead a full life as a priest, theologian, bishop, cardinal, pope and now pope emeritus.
The Catholic tradition has long recognized the possibility of a just war, and for many no better proof exists than the one waged to stop the Nazi regime in World War II. According to the just war theory, the young Joseph Ratzinger was a legitimate target in that conflict. As long as he was serving in the German forces during the war, it was morally acceptable to try to kill him. As such, his case illustrates a serious but often overlooked problem at the heart of Catholic ethics related to the just war tradition.
One of the most powerful moral principles in Catholic doctrine is the absolute prohibition against the intentional killing of an innocent person. Calling this principle “universally valid” for “each and everyone, always and everywhere,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church deems its violation gravely immoral “under any circumstance.”
This moral principle is the foundation of the Catholic Church’s radically countercultural witness on behalf of the unborn. Because the unborn are innocent persons, any direct and deliberate abortion is morally impermissible. Even pro-life politicians often make exceptions in the cases of rape or incest, and almost always when the life of the mother is endangered, but while these may be intensely painful reasons to seek abortions, they do not override the moral prohibition on deliberately killing the innocent. Catholic teaching upholds this principle without exception, even if this stance strikes mainstream society as extreme moral inflexibility in the face of heartbreaking situations.
The principle also applies to war. Catholic doctrine does not consider armed conflict to lie outside the realm of normal moral analysis, so it is always wrong to intentionally kill the innocent there as well. The most frequent application of this principle to situations of war relates to civilian casualties. For example, was it morally acceptable to bomb Dresden during World War II? In Catholic thinking, however, this principle is rarely applied to the killing of soldiers. Hence the question: Was it morally acceptable to try to kill Joseph Ratzinger during World War II?
The central question is: If it is always wrong to kill the innocent intentionally, what justifies killing ordinary soldiers in a just war? The earliest answer was that such killing served a punitive purpose. The offense that justifies the war also justifies killing the soldiers on the unjust side. They are incriminated by the moral guilt of their side, the guilt that makes the war itself necessary. This was the view of St. Augustine, and largely adopted by St. Thomas Aquinas. While it is wrong to intentionally kill the innocent, enemy soldiers are not innocent. They share in the collective guilt of their nation that brought on the war, or at the very least they knowingly participate in the war as unjust aggressors.
Just war theory is divided into jus ad bellum principles, which address when it is right to go to war, and jus in bello principles, which address right conduct within war once it is underway. Augustine and Aquinas focus primarily on ad bellum considerations like just cause and competent authority. Augustine, for example, pays little attention to distinctions between killing soldiers and civilians in a just war. It is only with the later rise of fully formed in bello principles, developed within and adopted by Catholic teaching over the last several centuries, that the weakness of the punitive justification becomes clear.
The principle of discrimination—that soldiers may be killed in warfare but civilians must be spared direct attack—is based on the claim that most civilians do not bear guilt for the war. Ordinary persons going about their lives far from the centers of power cannot be blamed and killed for the wrongdoing of their leaders. They did not cause the war and are usually merely trying to survive it. Therefore, civilians are separated from the wrongdoing that justified the war in the first place; they are innocent and cannot be deliberately killed.
The problem is that the same is true of many soldiers. Most soldiers have no say in when or where their national leaders start wars. They have joined the military for a variety of reasons—patriotism, family tradition, to feed their children—unconnected to the particular wars in which they eventually find themselves. And plenty of soldiers have little choice at all. Slavery, conscription and the press gang have filled military ranks for as long as warfare has existed. Children have always been among these involuntary soldiers, something also true today. So as a boy forced into military service toward the end of a war he did nothing to start and by a regime he deeply opposed, Joseph Ratzinger was in a situation that was in no way unusual. While he made it home alive, many like him have not.
The foundation of the jus in bello structure is the separation of soldiers from the offense that initially justifies the war. Ordinary combatants on both sides are not responsible for its larger causes. This distinction is the reason it is wrong to kill soldiers, even those on the unjust side, once they are wounded or have surrendered; they have done nothing to deserve it. It is why, even as the Vatican condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 as unjustified, the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace refused to condemn U.S. soldiers who participated, saying, “The responsibility is not theirs, it is of those who send them.”
According to jus in bello principles, the only thing that justifies punishing soldiers for actions in war is the violation of international humanitarian law—massacring civilians or shooting prisoners, for example. And this law applies to those on the just and unjust sides equally. A soldier on the just side of a war can be guilty of war crimes and rightly punished, while a solider on the unjust side can fight justly and be immune from punishment. It is wrong to punish ordinary soldiers like Joseph Ratzinger for merely being on the wrong side of a just war.
This line of thought, then, is the problem with the punitive justification. If we really thought Joseph Ratzinger and others like him were guilty enough to justify a punishment of death for their actions in the war, why would this guilt suddenly disappear once they surrendered, were wounded or the war ended? It would be like saying bank robbers can be punished for their theft only during a robbery; after the robbery, or if they surrender to police during the robbery, they are suddenly immune from punishment. If the young Joseph Ratzinger was innocent of anything that warranted execution after the war, let alone lesser punishments like imprisonment, restitution or even ineligibility to become supreme pontiff of the universal church, then there was no punitive warrant to kill him in the first place.
This problem is why almost no modern versions of just war theory use punitive justifications. There are too many cases like that of the young Joseph Ratzinger to make it tenable. If not punishment for moral guilt, what can justify killing such soldiers? The leading alternative theory is self-defense. If a person breaks into my house and attacks my family, my use of force against him is not justified as punishment. That is the job of the criminal justice system after the attack. Instead, what justifies my resort to violence is the immediate need to prevent a grave threat to innocent lives.
Many modern accounts of just war theory draw a similar conclusion about warfare. The material threat posed by soldiers explains why it is permissible to kill them, as well as why this becomes impermissible once they are wounded or captured and no longer pose such a threat. Here the justification for trying to kill the soldier Ratzinger during World War II is preventative rather than punitive. It was the material threat he represented that made killing him acceptable, just as the end of the threat at the war’s close made it right to let him return home without blame or punishment.
Going back to Aquinas, Catholic doctrine allows for killing in self-defense. It is permissible to use force against attackers, though only as much as is necessary to repel them. Under the principle of double effect, the intent of such force is to stop the aggression or give victims a chance to escape, not to deliberately kill aggressors, even though sometimes they may die as a result. A jogger who hits an attacker in the head with a rock and escapes to call the police does not intend his death, even if the attacker ultimately dies from the blow. In “The Gospel of Life” (1995) Pope John Paul II stated that when the force necessary for self-defense results in the unintentional death of the attacker, “the fatal outcome is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about, even though he may not be morally responsible because of a lack of the use of reason.” It is the action of the aggressor who initiates an unjustified attack, even if he may be delusional and not fully aware of what he is doing, that justifies the use of self-defensive force against him, even force that may result in his death.
There are two important limitations here. First, legitimate self-defense hinges on a fundamental moral inequality: the difference between an innocent victim, meaning someone who is not properly subject to attack, and a non-innocent attacker, meaning someone whose unwarranted aggression initiates the conflict. Only one party to the conflict, the innocent victim, may justly use violence. Otherwise, the principle would be meaningless because all parties could claim self-defense once a conflict is underway. Murderers could kill their victims in self-defense once these victims start fighting back, or criminals could plead self-defense after killing police during a shootout.
Second, the danger to innocent life posed by the attacker must be immediate. Aggressors are people who behave aggressively, who are active and imminent threats. It is wrong to kill people we think may attack us at some point in the future. Fear of later aggression is no justification for planting bombs in their cars or shooting them in their sleep.
Both of these limitations undermine preventative justifications for killing soldiers like Joseph Ratzinger in World War II. Start with the moral inequality requirement. Since jus in bello principles clearly separate ordinary soldiers from the larger causes of the conflict, we cannot hold each and every German soldier responsible for German military aggression, especially those, like Joseph Ratzinger, who were conscripted well after the beginning of the war and did not participate in the invasions of other countries. Instead, the just war framework holds ordinary soldiers on both sides to a common set of rules, one of which is the permission to kill each other without blame, regardless of side. Unlike murderers when their victims resist, or criminals pursued by police, enemy soldiers do get to shoot back, which is why Joseph Ratzinger was not put on trial for being part of an anti-aircraft crew that targeted Allied pilots.
Soldiers are obviously in a very different relationship with one another than the innocent victims and non-innocent attackers envisioned in the principle of self-defense, a principle that depends for its very meaning on only one side being morally permitted to use violence. In war, ordinary soldiers on both sides actively try to kill each other. Unlike a jogger assaulted in a park or a sleeping homeowner attacked at night, soldiers both initiate and respond to acts of lethal aggression. Because both sides represent threats to the other, both are permitted to kill the other in self-defense. So the problem with killing in war, even in a war fought for a just cause, is that it forces large groups of people—who are morally innocent of the wrongdoing that started the war—to nonetheless set about trying to kill each other, all acting in self-defense. Ancient gladiator spectacles also featured innocent people who fought to the death in self-defense, which is exactly what made the nature of their killing so wrong.
The immediacy requirement of self-defense is also a problem. From the classic formulations by Francisco de Vitoria, O.P., and Francisco Suárez, S.J., to the influential modern formulation by Michael Walzer (see his Just and Unjust Wars), just war theory permits targeting enemy soldiers not only when they are engaged in acts of aggression, but at any time. (The Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church explicitly prohibit targeting civilians or wounded and captured combatants, but they do not distinguish between soldiers engaged in actual combat and those who are not.) For the just war theory, bombing cooks and company clerks who go about their work is as legitimate as shooting infantry troops who charge your trench. Snipers may kill unsuspecting enemies bathing in a river. Navy ships may launch missiles that incinerate troops as they watch a film in a recreation area, troops who will never see or be in a position to threaten the faraway sailors who kill them with the press of a button. The whole point of effective warfare is to kill as many enemy soldiers as possible when they are not a threat to your troops—from a distance, with superior technology, using surprise.
The young Joseph Ratzinger, a boy forced into a war he did not support, was considered a legitimate target any time he was in uniform. For the just war theory, it was morally permissible to bomb, shoot, stab or otherwise kill this boy while he lay in his barracks, next to his unloaded gun, as he slept, thought of his family or read his Bible and prayed for the end of the war. Joseph Ratzinger never traveled to Russia or Texas or England to break into someone’s home and attack its occupants, yet if self-defense justified Allied soldiers from Smolensk or Dallas or Leeds in traveling to Germany to try to kill this sleeping boy with the unloaded gun, then it has gone well beyond its much narrower meaning in Catholic teaching.
Searching for Answers
It is a testament to the intractability of the dilemma within Catholic just war theory about killing innocent soldiers that some thinkers have embraced a desperate escape. If it is always wrong to kill innocent persons intentionally, and neither punishment nor prevention gets around the problem of innocence, the only other option is intentionality. Some enemy soldiers may be innocent, but as long as we do not kill them on purpose, the dilemma is solved. Otherwise sensible Catholic philosophers like Germain Grisez and John Finnis embrace this argument. Professor Grisez, for example, acknowledges that many soldiers on the enemy side will be innocent, but claims that a soldier may shoot directly at them or even bomb entire encampments full of them with the intention of lessening the enemy’s power rather than actually killing anyone.
Of course, the idea that soldiers do not intentionally try to kill each other in warfare is a triumph of abstract theory over reality. This situation is different from hitting a nighttime intruder over the head with a heavy object and fleeing the house with one’s family, not knowing whether the blow killed him. Scholars like Dave Grossman and Joanna Bourke, who study the actual experiences of soldiers in war, clearly show that soldiers deliberately kill. The training of soldiers is explicit about this intention; their weapons are specifically designed for the job, and when interviewed they are forthright about their intentions. Their task, which many loathe, is to actively search out enemy soldiers and do their best to kill them. In his memoir about fighting in Iraq, Chris Kyle, a U.S. sniper who killed over 150 people, was clear about his intent: “My job was killing.” Even if considered just, war is the large-scale, carefully planned, deliberate killing of enemy combatants.
The failure of both punitive and preventative justifications for killing innocent soldiers has led an increasing number of secular just war accounts to excuse such killing by appeals either to convention (it is a consensual practice that nations have simply developed over time) or to an alternative morality (war has a moral code unique to itself). These accounts essentially conclude that soldiers can kill each other because they are soldiers, and a just war would be impossible if they could not. Even though the intentional killing of the innocent is usually wrong, wars constitute an exception because of their unique nature and the dire consequences of not waging them when necessary.
This path is obviously closed to Catholic ethics. The prohibition on the intentional killing of innocent persons does not allow exceptions. It is as wrong to deliberately kill the innocent in warfare as in any other circumstance. Which brings us back to abortion. Ethicists have tried many ways to reconcile direct abortion with the wrongness of killing the innocent: the taking of innocent life is wrong, but abortion involves only potential life; the intent is not to kill the unborn child, but to eliminate unwanted pregnancies; self-defense justifies abortion when the unborn child threatens the life or liberty of the mother (a claim that, like the preventative case for killing soldiers in war, owes much to the work of the philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson). But because none of these attempts succeed, the Catholic position remains one of consistent opposition. While this stance strikes many as unduly harsh and reckless, it flows from the importance the tradition attaches to protecting innocent life.
Perhaps the time has come for a similarly radical witness on warfare. Even though there remain compelling reasons to fight wars, just as there can be compelling reasons for abortion, the reasons in both cases simply cannot override the exceptionless prohibition against the deliberate killing of the innocent. Even just wars butcher shocking numbers of innocent soldiers caught up in them. Some readers of America probably considered one or both U.S. wars against Iraq justified, but no one can deny that both wars included the deliberate killing of conscripted Iraqi boys, themselves victims of the regime, who were sitting in their barracks or trenches and who never saw the bombs coming. They, like the 16-year-old Joseph Ratzinger asleep in his bunk, did not deserve to be killed any more than unborn children in the womb. The circumstances that make war or abortion seem necessary, no matter how grave, still do not change the wrongness of the killing. While this analysis may commit Catholic ethics to a position on war that most people might consider extreme and dangerous, moral consistency may well require it.