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Peace and the just use of force

In light of the escalation of tensions between the United States and North Korea, Stephen M. Colecchi, director of the U.S. bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace, answered these questions about Catholic Church teaching and war.
 
Q: Does the Catholic Church have any formal criteria for when war is justified?
A: Yes. Over the centuries, since the time of St. Augustine, the Catholic Church has developed a "just-war tradition" that allows for defense. It may be helpful to refer to the "just use of force," since modern wars are so much more destructive due to modern weaponry. We have a prior obligation "to work for the avoidance of war" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2308). The use of force must always be a "last resort."
 
The catechism teaches: "The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time: 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. These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the 'just-war' doctrine" (2309).
 
Q: According to the Church, are there limits to what is acceptable once war has been declared?
A: Absolutely, the tradition rejects "total war," in which anything goes. The Church lifts up the principles of proportionality and discrimination. The use of armed force must not bring about greater evils than legitimate defense requires, and the use of force must not indiscriminately kill combatants and civilians alike. "Noncombatants, wounded soldiers and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely" (2313).
 
Q: Why doesn't the Church just say that war is wrong?
A: Pope Francis captured the essence of the Church's teaching on war. "War always marks the failure of peace, it is always a defeat for humanity. Let the words of Blessed Pope Paul VI resound again: '... War never again, never again war!'" (Sept. 7, 2016).
 
We must build peace. In the famous words of Blessed Pope Paul VI, "If we want peace, we must work for justice." In a fallen world in which violence occurs, "'governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed'" (Catechism, 2308). At the same time, we should not underestimate the power of nonviolence and nonviolent resistance to evil. Pope Francis dedicated his Jan. 1, 2017, World Day of Peace Message to "Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace," a profound challenge in our day.
 
Q: How does the Church's teaching about war apply to nuclear weapons?
A: The use of nuclear weapons is morally problematic due to their disproportionate and indiscriminate destructive power. The Church today is working for a world without nuclear weapons. Quoting the Second Vatican Council, the catechism teaches: "'Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.' A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons -- especially atomic, biological or chemical weapons -- to commit such crimes" (2314).
 
Q: Is a government allowed to unleash a pre-emptive military or nuclear strike when it fears attack on itself or an ally is imminent?
A: This question is both simple and complex. The simple part concerns a pre-emptive nuclear strike. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, quoting Vatican II, declares: "(T)he magisterium has made a moral evaluation of the phenomenon of deterrence. 'The accumulation of arms strikes many as a paradoxically suitable way of deterring potential adversaries from war. ... This method of deterrence gives rise to strong moral reservations. The arms race does not ensure peace. Far from eliminating the causes of war, it risks aggravating them.' Policies of nuclear deterrence, typical of the Cold War period, must be replaced with concrete measures of disarmament based on dialogue and multilateral negotiations" (508). The first use of nuclear weapons is highly problematic. As far back as the 1983 Peace Pastoral, the U.S. bishops raised serious moral questions regarding a first use of nuclear weapons.
 
The more complex question is the use of pre-emptive conventional forces. "Fear" of attack is not enough. There must be concrete evidence of an imminent threat. The "the damage inflicted by the aggressor ... must be lasting, grave and certain" (Catechism, 2309). Given human frailty, e.g. the failures of intelligence prior to the Iraq war, prudence would suggest that we be reticent to launch a pre-emptive attack. It is certainly unjust to launch a "preventive" attack against a gathering or vague threat. As then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now retired Pope Benedict XVI, noted before the Iraq war, the "concept of a 'preventive war' does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church." We must always remember that we have an obligation "to work for the avoidance of war" (Catechism, 2308).
 
 
  • Published in Nation

U.S. bishops call for pursuit of peace

In a letter issued yesterday congratulating Secretary Rex Tillerson on his confirmation as Secretary of State, Bishop Oscar Cantú, chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), called on the Secretary to work for peace in Israel and Palestine.

Bishop Cantú, who recently participated in a solidarity visit to Israel and Palestine, enclosed a joint communiqué by bishops from Europe, Canada, South Africa and the United States. The bishop notes that “2017 marks the fiftieth anniversary of a crippling occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, crippling for both peoples.”  Quoting the joint communiqué of the bishops, he goes on to state that “[t]he occupation violates ‘the human dignity of both Palestinians and Israelis.’  Settlement expansion on occupied Palestinian lands undermines a two-state solution, destroying the homes and the livelihoods of Palestinians as well as the long-term security and future of Israelis.”

Decrying “egregious injustices and random acts of violence,” Bishop Cantú expressed the opposition of U.S. and international bishops to Israeli settlement expansion and confiscation of Palestinian lands. In addition, he implored the Secretary to maintain the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv. He wrote, “Moving the embassy to Jerusalem would erode the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution, and is a threat to pursuing peace and ending conflict. Its impact would incite and destabilize the area, compromising U.S. security. As Pope Francis declares, ‘the two-state solution must become a reality and not merely a dream.’”

Bishop Cantú called on Secretary Tillerson to work “to end fifty years of occupation and build a brighter future for both Israelis and Palestinians.” He concluded, “[T]he United States has always provided leadership and support to the peace process. We continue to profess hope for a diplomatic solution that respects the human dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians and advances justice and peace for all.”

Read the full text of the bishops’ joint communiqué and Bishop Cantú’s letter to Secretary Rex Tillerson.
  • Published in Nation
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