It was a bold move. With numerous Vatican officials and Pope John Paul II himself vigorously voicing criticism of a possible war with Iraq, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See and former Republican national chairman, Jim Nicholson, invited Michael Novak of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington to Rome to argue the case for “preventive war” against Iraq. Nicholson’s invitation was an audacious countermove to months of Vatican resistance to the Bush administration’s military policy.
“If we knew on Sept. 10 what was going to happen on Sept. 11,” asked Nicholson, “would we not have been justified in taking some action against that?” Just War, the ambassador argued, must be understood in “the context of the age in which we are operating—the almost instantaneous speed in delivery of weapons and the massive destructive power of them.”
The concept of preventive war itself provoked the Holy See’s opposition on the theoretical level; the looming war with Iraq, the first and paradigmatic application of that concept, aroused church opposition on the political level. The dispute over policy is also a dispute over the body of ideas known as Just War. At stake is the direction Catholic teaching on peace and war has taken since the Second Vatican Council and how it evolves in response to the war against terror.
Prior to Sept. 11, 2001, official Catholic teaching on the Just War had already evolved as a composite of nonviolent and just-war elements. This was a departure from post-Reformation Catholicism, when the Just War alone was the formal Catholic stance. The change, which had begun at Vatican II, accelerated as a result of the successful nonviolent revolutions in Eastern Europe that brought an end to Communist rule in 1989. Reflecting on those events in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus, Pope John Paul II offered praise for the nonviolent activists who toppled the Communist regimes that had ruled Eastern Europe and voiced his opposition to war as a means for resolving conflict.
In 1993 the U.S. Catholic bishops, in The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, summarized the status of Catholic teaching this way:
1) In situations of conflict, our constant commitment ought to be, as far as possible, to strive for justice through nonviolent means.
2) But when sustained attempts at nonviolent action fail to protect the innocent against fundamental injustice, then legitimate political authorities are permitted as a last resort to employ limited force to rescue the innocent and establish justice.
The Critique of Current Teaching
For several years, this hybrid Catholic position has come under attack from just-war theorists with conservative political leanings. In particular, they have attacked the notion that the Just War and nonviolence share in common “a strong presumption against war,” a formula taken from the U.S. bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter, The Challenge of Peace. Professor James Turner Johnson of Rutgers University, in his book Morality and Contemporary Warfare (1999), voiced the most sustained criticism of the presumption against force, objecting that it is an innovation that impedes the restoration of justice.
The antipathy to force, however, is as old as St. Augustine, the patron of Christian just-war theorists, who wrote, “It is a higher glory still to stay war itself with a word than to slay men with the sword, and to maintain peace by peace, not by war.” The church’s acceptance of nonviolence is joined to a conviction that Christians—and all people of good will—are obligated to resist grave public evil. It is not a question of avoiding violence at all costs, but rather of resisting evil as far as possible by nonviolent means, resorting to force “out of necessity” only when nonviolent measures fail. The duty of resisting evil distinguishes the Catholic approach to nonviolence from the nonresistant pacifism of those for whom violence is a signal evil, always to be avoided.
The Scope of the Ius ad Bellum
Another point of contention between official Catholic teaching on war and its hawkish critics is the content of the ius ad bellum, the rules governing the resort to war. St. Augustine had originally specified three such norms: just cause, legitimate authority and right intention. Over the centuries, in response to the historical experience of war, moral theologians added several rules to Augustine’s three.
A standard like “last resort,” for example, was intended to curb war-making by demanding the exploration of alternatives to war. Principles like those of proportionality and prospect of success aimed at reducing the damage done by war and preventing useless, protracted conflict. Think of the Thirty Years War or, in our own time, the last 40 years in Colombia or the period from the 1970’s to the early 1990’s in Afghanistan. In each case indecisive conflict was waged for decades, leading to the death and maiming of noncombatants and the wasting of their countries.
For critics, these long-established principles restrict the options open to policy makers and military planners. The hierarchy’s current application of the principles, the critics believe, demonstrates that Catholic just-war ethics has been infected by an inordinate revulsion at the deadliness of modern warfare. They would prefer to revert to the Augustinian triad (just cause, legitimate authority and right intention). But in fact, they seldom discuss right intention—they presume political leaders know best—and by proper authority they mean the nation-state, never the United Nations, which they scorn. In effect, they rely solely on the principle of just cause. But just cause alone does not make a just war. In just war theory, the function of a set of criteria is to point out that other conditions in addition to just cause must be met before a war is judged to be moral.
After Sept. 11, moralists of the permissive school—as I call them for their willingness to justify most government policies—reasoned that the war on terror warranted disregard of what they termed the “limiting principles” among the ad bellum rules, norms like last resort and proportionality, in favor of the “legitimating” ones, like just cause and proper authority. Professor Johnson’s position, for example, is that the limiting principles are an obstacle to government’s taking action to fulfill its clear duty to repress evil and restore justice.
Preventive War and Just Cause
In the last year, the gulf between the Catholic hierarchy (and mainline Catholic just-war theorists) and their critics has widened, first over the president’s National Security Strategy and then over the prospect of war with Iraq. The administration made pre-emption and prevention the cornerstone of its military policy in the war on terror. The United States, in the words of the N.S.S., asserts its prerogative “to exercise its right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively.” In especially threatening circumstances, it will attack first “to forestall or prevent hostile acts” (see Maryann Cusimano Love, “Real Prevention: Alternatives to Force,” America, 1/20). In a further move, bound to antagonize allies as well as adversaries, it also declared that it would brook no competitors, asserting U.S. dominance over all potential rivals, a position directly at odds with the Augustinian notion of right intention, which excludes the libido dominandi, the lust for power.
Pre-emption—a military strike made in order to gain the advantage when an enemy attack is believed to be imminent—has been an accepted, though morally worrisome, military tactic for some years. The moral philosopher Michael Walzer, of the Institute for Advanced Studies, had argued in his Just and Unjust Wars (1977) that a nation might pre-empt a crippling attack by another if the attack were both imminent and grave. As proposed by the administration, preventive war, however, aims to block the acquisition or transfer of weapons of mass destruction when attack is neither imminent nor grave in the sense of threatening either the nation’s survival or a crippling blow to its defensive capacity.
From the point of view of Catholic just-war teaching, preventive war is a dangerous innovation. If the distinction between aggression and defensive war is blurred, then the world is threatened with a war of all against all. In Rome, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, dismissed the notion. Preventive war, he said, “does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” Likewise, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran, the Vatican foreign minister, declared, “No provision is made in the United Nations Charter for preventive war.” The U.S. bishops have also expressed concern over “proposals to expand dramatically the traditional limits on just cause to prevent uses of military force to overthrow threatening regimes or to deal with weapons of mass destruction.”
An a Fortiori Argument
Making the administration’s case for war, Michael Novak punted when it came to the White House’s own rationale for preventive war. Instead, he argued that war against Iraq would be an enforcement of the 1991 cease-fire agreement that had ended the Persian Gulf war. The new potential for the “asymmetrical warfare” demonstrated by Sept. 11, he contended, “threw the behavior of Saddam Hussein into an entirely new light, and enhanced the danger Saddam Hussein poses to the civilized world a hundredfold.”
War against Iraq, Novak reasoned, could be justified on traditional just-war grounds adapted to the new reality of asymmetrical warfare, as demonstrated by the events of 9/11. “The normal criteria watched for by just-war theorists were not literally present,” he added, “neither conventional military movements, nor visible signs of imminent attack, nor the authority of the hostile nation state. The horror of the damage was immense, just the same.” Like the administration, Novak makes no solid connection between Saddam and al Qaeda. He argues from the lesser to the greater case. If al Qaeda could kill 3,000 people with four captured airliners, what more damage could Saddam do with its quantities of biological and chemical weapons?
In fact, by making the a fortiori case against Iraq, Mr. Novak had made a concrete case for preventive war while avoiding the term. But he made an argument for war without examining the facts and neglecting expert judgment. Fact: During the gulf war, air raids destroyed no Scud missiles; after the war, inspectors found and destroyed hundreds of them. Expert (C.I.A.) opinion: Existing policies—which could be made more robust—have contained Saddam, and war could push him to use what weapons of mass destruction he possesses.
An Inapplicable Theory?
In his address to the diplomatic corps in January, Pope John Paul II declared that war “is always a defeat for humanity.” With respect to a war against Iraq, he added, “War is never just another means that one can choose to employ for settling differences between nations.” For proponents of the Just War, however, the most serious challenge came from Archbishop Renato Martino, the new president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The archbishop drew a comparison between the Just War and the death penalty. Recalling how the Catechism of the Catholic Church had to be revised to reflect accurately the church’s evolving position on retributive justice in light of society’s capacity to protect itself without capital punishment, Martino noted, “Modern society has to have, and it has, the means to avoid war.”
The notion that the Just War has gone the way of the death penalty would have serious implications. Just war would be admitted in principle, but hardly ever in practice. Absent the institution of effective alternative conflict-resolution mechanisms and a standby U.N. force, official Catholic teaching would have become functionally pacifist, just as critics like George Weigel have argued for some time. If this were true, much would change for Catholics, from military service to conscientious objection and military chaplaincy. The salience of the church’s use of just-war criteria to prevent and limit war would also be greatly reduced, as would its ability to provide moral commentary on the formation of military policy and the actual conduct of war.
Archbishop Martino is not the first Vatican voice to urge the church to discard the Just War as outmoded. As early as the First Vatican Council (1870) delegates circulated a petition against war. After the first gulf war, La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit journal that is regularly reviewed by the Vatican before publication, editorialized that it was time to abandon the Just War. Now as then, others in the Vatican have felt compelled to insist, as Joaquín Navarro-Vals, the head of the Vatican Press Office, did recently, that “the pope is not a pacifist.” The Just War has its defenders in the Vatican as well.
Whither Catholic Teaching?
Today Catholicism adheres to a rich theology of peace, of which the Just War is only part. With the 40th anniversary of Pacem in Terris, time has come to draw the various pieces of this teaching into a coherent teaching on peace and war. The positive elements of the teaching—the defense of human rights, the right to integral human development, support for international law and global institutions as well as the relatively new teaching on nonviolence and forgiveness—need clearer articulation, so they can serve as a platform for a positive pastoral program for peace.
There is special need to elaborate the still inchoate teaching on nonviolence and the teaching on world order, especially on the authority of international organizations, a part of the teaching that is often rejected by those wedded to the use of force. One thing is clear: The tradition has evolved to the point where authoritative clarification is in order. The long-awaited Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching, called for in 1997 by the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for America,may help illuminate some of these issues. In the meantime, the church’s teaching on peacemaking, nonviolence and Just War, though incomplete, can provide valuble help to Catholics and others as they grapple with the moral issues of war and peace.