What do Peace and justice Catholics know about war? Turns out not much.

Peace and Justice Catholics as they are called, are deeply concerned about “excessive militarism” they generally oppose American military action, and by and large were opposed to the American Invasion of Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan.  They will often cite the fact that Blessed Pope John Paul II was clearly opposed to the war in Iraq, and that if a Catholic supported it, well you were as much a “dissenter” as someone on the left who supported abortion. This was one of the usual arguments issued by those Catholics who supported Obama. Lets leave aside for a moment the puzzling fact that those same Catholics have no issue with Obama’s penchant for killing people with drones (some of whom might be terrorists and well… some of whom maybe are not.) I am not saying that the drone attacks are wrong, (that is a separate discussion). I just note its curious how the peace and justice crowd which is ordinarily pacifist in inclination seems OK with military action taken by a fellow leftist. Still I digress. Let’s think about peace and justice.

It should be obvious that pacifism per se is ruled out for a Catholic. Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly allow for self defense, as it says:

 “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 self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”

The Catechism describes the condition for a “just war” like so:

—the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

—all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

—there must be serious prospects of success;

—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.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

Now let’s apply the criteria to the Iraq invasion as the arguments existed at the time: The supporters of the war made the argument that Saddam Hussein was causing grave damage to the community of nations by ignoring UN resolutions regarding the ban on manufacture of weapons of mass destruction, Not allowing UN inspectors to evaluate Iraq for compliance, supporting terrorists and fomenting discord in the Middle East.  It was felt that other means to stop him had failed or were too harmful to the civilian population, such as economic sanctions, and it was felt that with modern precision guided munitions etc collateral damage could be kept to a minimum and ridding Iraq of a dictator would justify the evils and disorders everyone knew about.

The opponents of the war disputed the accuracy of the above assessment, mostly by disagreeing with the level of the threat Iraq posed or arguing that other options were still available.

Note however neither side disputed the principles themselves. To dissent one would have to dispute the principles. The actual facts in dispute, for example how much of a threat Saddam was, depend on the assessment of intelligence data available at the time, and mostly on the analysis of data not available to the Bishops or most lay Catholics. In fact as all of the policy experts advising the political leadership at the time admit, the actual facts, as with any complex situation, were difficult to assess and admitted of multiple interpretations. The magisterium is not given any special power to assess these kinds of military intelligence facts. Therefore neither the Bishops nor the Pope can pronounce definitively in most cases on whether a given war is “just”. Of course a war of naked aggression, like the Nazi invasion of Poland, may be obviously unjust, but in most cases there are claims and counterclaims that belligerent nations make, and the facts needed to sort out the claims are not immediately available to the magisterium. Individual Bishops or even the Pope can certainly render an opinion but it does not carry magisterial protection from error and may carry no more weight than then the arguments for the position itself. The Bishops can not invoke their teaching authority. Thus a Catholic may disagree without dissenting. Indeed classic moral theology would have more than justified attacking Iraq. The text book written by Fr. John McHugh and Charles Callahan “War and the Catholic Moral Principles” cited the motive of helping to free innocents terrorized by their governments as sufficient cause to justify force, so simply to liberate Iraq from a brutal dictator was adequate to justify the war morally.

A moment’s reflection would show this must be true. If a war was certainly unjust, then to kill someone as a soldier in the war is not justified. It is in fact murder. ( It may not be that the solider is subjectively guilty as he is not necessarily aware the war is unjust, but while not formal sin, it is at least materially sinful.) This is also mentioned in the same classic moral textbook.

Now soldiers as a practical matter are usually morally allowed to assume that the war is just if already serving in the military, since it is presumed that the political leadership whose responsibility is to the common good have better access to information than the individual soldier. (If a senior officer however with access to intelligence data etc. came to the conclusion that the war was certainly unjust they would be obliged not to fight.) The same text book notes a war cannot have two unjust sides. If America was fighting an unjust war than those fighting back… were acting in self defense. Do the peace Catholics wish to assert this?

What should be clear from all this is that unless the “Peace and justice” crowd wishes to assert that the Iraq war was certainly unjust, and the soldiers fighting in it committing sin, then those who supported it were not dissenting. This is not to say that one could not argue that as a matter of policy it was unwise. (One could argue that it was too risky etc or that it seemed there was not a clear exit strategy) This is not the same as stating it was certainly unjust. Frankly for most of us without expertise and access to intelligence data, we lacked sufficient knowledge to have an informed opinion and we were justified in trusting the opinion of the elected leadership. The charitable assumption even if you felt the war unwise is to acknowledge the Bush administration thought it the best course of action and even if the made a tragic misjudgement it was not immoral.

In any case there is no obligation to “agree” with the Pope beyond agreeing with the principles to apply. The actual facts then determine the result of the application of the just war principles. Facts about military intelligence are not subject to magisterial authority any more than facts about biochemistry, automotive engineering or football strategy. All of these disciplines have their own areas of expertise and few Bishops are well schooled in them.

Contrast this to dissent from pro-abortion politicians and those who support them. Abortion is the killing of an innocent human being in utero, it is wrong in and of itself as a matter of principle; no set of facts justifies a direct abortion. It is an unspeakable crime according to Vatican II. As such the state has a grave moral obligation to protect the unborn child from this crime. To ignore this is not to argue about facts, but about the principle itself. As such this really is dissent and is categorically different than arguments about the Iraq war or any other war for that matter. The morality of any given war depends on a unique set of facts and how they are interpreted. The morality of abortion does not depend on this, because it is intrinsically wrong of its nature. War can be not only not wrong but morally required.

It should be noted that the state has an obligation to go to war at times, as the catechism notes:

 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.

So the peace crowd is simply wrong. Conservatives who supported the war did not dissent. They merely disagreed with the assessment of the facts as viewed by Blessed Pope John Paul II. 

Oh, for the record. it was my feeling at the time, that we did not have as citizens access to the intelligence data the Bush administration had, and so would have to withhold judgment as to the wisdom of the war. I would regard it now as having been a mistake, but we will never know if Bush’s dream of a politically secure and democratic Iraq was possible since Obama abandoned the effort. Now it appears that Iraq will become a Iranian client state. Time will tell. Still none of this affects the moral analysis above.

If the peace and justice crowd is wrong on peace they are completely adrift when it comes to justice. That will be discussed in our next post.

Now a prayer for those still serving in the military


O God, I beg Thee, watch over those exposed to the dangers of a soldier’s, sailor’s, or airman’s life. Give them such strong faith that no human respect may ever lead them to deny it or fear to practice it. Strengthen them by Thy grace against the influence of bad examples so that, being preserved from vice and by serving Thee faithfully, they may be ready to meet death, if it should come to them on land, at sea, or in the air.

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, inspire them with sorrow for sin and grant them pardon. Mary, Immaculate Mother of God, protect them. Amen.

Our Lady of Victory, we humbly beg thee to protect all our armed forces everywhere and to give them unflinching courage age to defend our country with honor and dignity. Guard our churches, our homes, our schools, our hospitals, our factories, our buildings, and all therein from harm and peril. Protect our land from enemies within and without. Grant us an early peace and victory founded upon justice. Instill into the hearts and minds of men everywhere, a firm purpose to live forever in peace and good will toward all. Amen.