Thursday, March 13, 2003


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A Just War Theory Primer


With an impending war in Iraq, I think it might be a good time to go over the Catholic just war theory that I studied in high school. This is especially relevent since the Pope has come out in opposition to a war in Iraq.


The just war theory goes all the way back to St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Hugo Grotius and can be found in such statements as The Challenge of Peace, a 1983 pastoral letter issued by Catholic bishops. The theory sets several conditions for a war to be just.


The original theory of St. Augustine had three criteria. War must have a just cause, that it be used for defense and not agression. War can only be fought to protect life. According to some, this rules out pre-emptive strikes.


Augustine also believed that war required legitimate authority. In his day, sanction came from the emperor. These days, some consider the United Nations to be a legitimate source of authority for wagging war.


Finally, Augustine believed that war requires a proper motive. In his belief, this was Christian love. For Augustine a war fought for a just cause, but improperly motivated (i.e. for financial gain) would not be a just war.


A just war must follow a principle of proportionality. The good resulting from the war must outweigh the damage that is necessarily a condition of any war. The level of a military response must be proportionate to the aggression that is being addressed. The latter is often interpreted as ruling out the use of nuclear weapons. Proportionality is a difficult thing. Assessment of the good that may come from a war is often based on hypothetical situations that may not come to pass and from an assumption that anything is better than the status quo.


A second principle of a just war is that non-combatants are not to be targeted. This poses difficulty in a modern technological era where destructive weapons cannot be wielded without a rational expectation of "collateral damage." One could say that a military force is required to absorb additional casualties in order to prevent civilian casualties.


War is to be a last resort. Taking lives is a sin. One should only resort to killing when all other options have been explored and discarded. So long as a non-military possibility exists, that possibility must be actively pursued as an alternative to war.


Because war is horrible, it should only be waged if there is a reasonable probability of success. One should not kill if it makes no difference. A futile war is not just.


I leave it to my readers to evaluate a war on Iraq in these terms.


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