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ANALYSIS: Is ‘Just War’ doctrine another victim of the Syrian conflict?

St. Augustine

(RNS) Even as the world’s powers grasped for a last-minute resolution to the crisis in Syria, it remained an open question whether any amount of diplomacy could prevent the conflict from claiming at least one more victim: the classic Christian teaching known as the “just war” tradition.

The central problem is not that the just war doctrine is being dismissed or condemned, but that it is loved too much. Indeed, both sides in the debate over punishing the Syrian regime for using chemical weapons are citing just war theory, but are reaching diametrically opposed conclusions.

Nicholas Hahn III, a Catholic writer, declared Tuesday (Sept. 10) in the conservative journal First Things that “a classical reading of the just war tradition renders robust intervention in Syria a morally desirable act of charity.”

At the same time, the Catholic editor of that same magazine, R.R. Reno, has been writing forcefully against intervention and even labeled the administration’s arguments for military strikes “morally sloppy.”

A similar contrast could be found at the liberal National Catholic Reporter, which published an editorial blasting “the bankruptcy of the military strike idea.”

That in turn drew a sharp rejoinder from one of its own columnists, Michael Sean Winters, who said NCR’s position was based on “myths” that have muddled clear moral thinking on the Catholic left. “When Congress votes … on the authorization of force, if they do not support President Obama they are, de facto, supporting (Syrian) President Assad,” wrote Winters, calling Assad an “evil man.”

And so it has gone for weeks now, with the divides seeming to grow wider by the day. The splits are most obvious within the Catholic Church, which over the centuries developed the most clearly articulated just war doctrine. But Protestants of varying hues are also citing just war principles and reaching starkly different conclusions.

“The friends of the just war idea are sometimes worse than its foes,” said James Turner Johnson, a professor of religious ethics at Rutgers University and a leading expert on just war theory.

‘Violence in a limited way’

The just war doctrine was first articulated by St. Augustine in the fifth century to provide a moral rationale that, as Duke University theologian Stanley Hauerwas put it, “enables Christians to use violence in a limited way to secure tolerable order.”

St. Augustine

Justus van Gent (fl. 1460–1480) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

St. Augustine

Eight centuries later, the systematic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas elaborated the basic principles of the theory that continue to be invoked by both religious and secular moralists. The just war doctrine was also embraced by the Protestant reformer Martin Luther and used by the 20th-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr as a framework for his notion of “Christian realism” — a tradition President Obama often relies on.

Today, different sources will render the just war formula in slightly different ways, but the basic conditions of the doctrine remain the same:

  • To justify military action there must be a “just cause,” such as self-defense or protecting innocent life, and a “just authority” — a legitimate, sovereign entity — to wage the war.
  • The warring power must also have a “right intention” — doing the right thing for the right reason, rather than for revenge or personal gain.
  • The decision to go to war must be a last resort, and there must be a “probability of success” in achieving a clearly articulated outcome.
  • There must be a commitment to “proportionality” in conducting the war — inflicting the least amount of harm necessary to secure peace, and avoiding violence against noncombatants, or what we today call “collateral damage.”

Given the number of conditions and the complexity of the Syrian civil war, it is not surprising that commentators can reach different conclusions, or will grind their teeth in frustration over the high bar of meeting all the just war conditions while arguing that doing nothing is not a good moral option.

Yet there are several other factors that are complicating the usual moral calculus, and threatening to undermine just war theory itself.

Complicating factors

One is that some leading Christian voices have increasingly moved toward a de facto pacifism that stands against war under any circumstance. “In contrast to pacifism, it is often assumed that just war reflection is ‘realistic,’” Hauerwas, a leading exponent of this view, wrote this month.

“It is by no means clear, however, if advocates of just war have provided an adequate account of what kind of conditions are necessary for just war to be a realistic alternative for the military policy of a nation.”

The Catholic hierarchy in recent years has also seemed to migrate in the pacifist direction, an evolution highlighted by Pope Francis’ high-profile campaign against any military action in Syria. “The sweeping language of such criticism by the pontiff moves the Roman Catholic Church dramatically further in what now seems to be an accelerating arc in its opposition to warfare,” Catholic University’s Stephen Schneck wrote in The Washington Post.

The problem with that shift is twofold. First, it supplants traditional just war doctrine with the relatively new concept of “just peacemaking,” which is not as clearly articulated nor as readily applicable to real-world circumstances.

Second, many anti-war Christians have also embraced the emerging principle of the “Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P, which cites an imperative to intervene to protect innocents in harm’s way. But even that can put moralists in a bind because it demands that something be done to thwart violence even if all the classic just war conditions are not met.

Critics say conservatives have also contributed to the confusion by overemphasizing the notion of “pre-emption” as a form of self-defense — the principle that was used to justify the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, an action that proved to have violated most every other just war condition.

In addition, some neocons and theocons who cited just war theory in supporting President George W. Bush’s push to invade Iraq are now invoking just war theory to oppose President Obama’s plans for more limited actions against Syria — an apparent contradiction that does just war theory no favors.

The upshot is that there is now a “chaotic just war discourse,” as Johnson put it, that leaves even its champions wondering “whether the success of just war reasoning hasn’t in fact been very problematic for it.”

Yet Johnson also sees no real alternative. Just war is now an integral part of Western culture, and can provide the best framework for working through the thorniest moral dilemmas.

“For me the question is how you use these ideas once you pull them out and deploy them,” he said. “I just think there’s a tremendous amount of confusion in the current debate.”

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • If the RC hierarchy, any Christian denomination outside the “peace church” traditions, and/or theologians generally are pacifist, it’s news to pacifists (even or perhaps especially to the theologically-trained among that tribe…)

    I think the foregoing also slightly mischaracterizes the historical role of just war within the Catholic tradition. Doctrine determines sacramental practice, not the other way around (“lex orandi, lex credendi”). Just war tradition did not function in the early church to say that there were certain virtuous wars where Christians were permitted to kill without sinning. If you killed in a just war, you needed to confess it as a sin and do penance for the act just as you would with any other act of homicide, but just war criteria lessened the personal imputability of the sin and therefore the penance. In the actual sacramental life of the Church, homicide was a material sin and just war considerations functioned only to determine the degree of subjective imputability for the objectively wrong action. Do a little digging in historical theology for some of the research underlying this:

    I think it’s sound. The earliest canons of the Church do _not_ allow soldiers who have killed in battle to receive the Eucharist without doing penance for that sin.

  • It would be much simpler to say that self-defense is justified when one is attacked by another and the one being attacked has done no wrong.

    If wrongs by the one being attacked are in the mind of the attacker, as in the case of Bashar al-Assad, as in the case of Hitler against other European nations, as in the case of the Japanese attack against our fleet in Pearl Harbor–and all of their atrocious attacks against many of their neighbors in the Far East, defense and even retaliation to prevent more of the same would be justified, at least in the minds of those being attacked.

    The same held true for the United States as a result of 9/11, but that was expanded with lies by the Bush/Cheney administration to expand as justification for their military invasion of Iraq.

    I think Nicholas Hahn is guilty of double-talk when he refers to a “morally desirable act of charity.” Charity by whom? Charity toward whom? Charity as a reaction to what action? What is charitable about destruction, murder?

    I don’t think the term “charity” should be substituted for justified self-defense or joining others in self-defense because they are unable to defend themselves against atrocities. We must decide whether we’re going to join one or the other, for example, in the Syrian Civil War.

    Whenever we get into thought and discussion about faith and morals, especially those “based on myths,” we are always going to end up with troublesome disagreements. Myth is a substitute for known reality. Argument based on myth cannot usually be sustained by logic because myth is not logic. Myth was an invented explanation about unknown things before the human race grew older, discovered scientific realism, and continued to expand that kind of knowledge.

    “Muddled clear moral thinking” in no way represents the thinking or the desired action of the “Catholic left” as claimed by Sean Winters. Rather, it is”muddled clear” thinking on his part to even accuse the “Catholic left” of that. Winters’ bias is clear, like most who disagree with the middle or the left for any reason. The so-called “Catholic left,” whoever they are, presumably all those who disagree with Winters or his camp, are guilty of “muddled clear … thinking” about everything in Winters’ mind.

    We can forget Augustine. We can forget Thomas Aquinas–as most Catholic seminaries did for a long time after Vatican II. They lived in a different age, colored more by myth as reality. Sharper philosophy and almost all of science as we know it, didn’t even exist. That is why even the ideas of Jesus must be adjusted to what we know better now as–never presuming to equate ourselves with the almighty, infinite “God.” Presuming to know God and speak for God is the real atheism.

    It is usually claimed that there has been only one “infallible” declaration by a pope since that ides was forced on the bishops who eventually voted for it under the pressure of Pio Nono in Vatican I. That is wrong. Even the declaration of infallibility was a presumed, infallible declaration. The reason it has only been practiced once since it’s original declaration–by Pius XII in his declaration of the Assumption–is because it was so presumptuous, so monarchical, so unfounded.

    It is time to quit trying to “count the number of angels who can stand on the head of a pin,” stop fussing with the presumed idea of a “justified war” and confine ourselves to the describing the plain evil of those who attack others because they disagree with them and want them out of their way. Often, both sides can be at fault, but usually one more than the other.

    The gassing of soldiers by the Germans in World War I and the Jews by Hitler in World War II, Hitler’s invasions of other European countries leading up to and during that war, agent orange, the unwarranted destruction in New York, Pennsylvania, and at the Pentagon twelve years ago today, and the inhumane al-Assad’s use of saran gas last month are real incidents we can measure and discuss. We do not need to get into the fine points of moral philosophy. People did evil against innocent people. It’s as simple as that.

  • It is true, the Church for the last 1600 years has clung to the theory that violence may be justifiable under strict conditions.

    However the standards of Just War Theory are not taught at Seminary, nor are they preached from the pulpit, nor do the so-called Military Chaplains instruct those Catholic men and (even more sadly) women in the Armed Forces, who are most in need of it.

    The truth is that Just War Theory is a Theory. It is also a bogus Theory, and in practice has been proven to be fallacious. Scripture experts are unanimous that Christ completely rejected violence, and Church Historians confirm, that until Constantine, the Church condemned violence and enmity unilaterally.

    The fact that modern Church authors refer to great Saints and great minds post-Constantine, to their efforts to justify the theory of Just War is an excellent example of how the post-Constantinan Church clings on to this issue with all it’s might. Despite the fact that Popes have been calling for Peace for years.

    The more fundamental issue, is while Pope Francis, and the Popes before him for centuries have been calling for peace, there is an institutionalised and enshrined licence for violence and enmity in a theory, the theory of Just War. I explain in an article on my blog, how the theory undermines both Gospel and Papal teaching, and what is needed in-fact is for the Pope to condemn the theory.

  • I’d like to hear you say more about your claim that just peacemaking is “not as clearly articulated nor as readily applicable to real-world circumstances.”

    The ten practices, clearly articulated in several volumes by dozens of scholars, have been observed over time as successful strategies for averting or ending violent conflict, in real-world circumstances. And supported by just war theorists and pacifists, alike.

    If we’re talking “last resort,” we have to talk about what we tried first. Just Peacemaking is what we do first.