Participants at a conference hosted by the Vatican called for the Catholic Church to renounce her just war doctrine and instead develop a new peacemaking framework “consistent with Gospel nonviolence.”

Count me among those who are less than enthusiastic about such a demand.

The Just War Theory (or teaching) is admittedly poorly named. For indeed, it role is not to justify war per se, but to rationally and reasonably limit recourse to it, and when it does come, limit the means and tactics used.

Perhaps as never before, the many nations are taking its claims more seriously;  more on that in a moment. But lets review the teaching, which is stated clearly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It distinguishes two aspects:

  1. Jus ad bellum – the criteria related to the right to go to war
  2. Jus in bello – once in war what limits must be observed in terms of tactics and military measures?

The Criteria to be met in order to regrettably enter a conflict with military retaliation is well summarized in the Catechism. The “right to go to war (jus ad bellum) requires the following:

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. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good. (# 2309).

Once a war is engaged, the Catechism states the norms that must be observed. The rights, the laws, in a declared war (jus in bello) are described in catechism as follows:

"The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties."

  • Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.
  • Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out.
  • Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.
  • "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. (CCC 2112 -1215)

These principles have been eminently helpful in assessing war and limiting its effects. Consider World War II. Although is arguably true that the US and her Allies had a right, a just cause to go to war, it is also arguable that, once in the war, we violated many norms of the Just War teaching. We indiscriminate tactics such as carpet bombing, and fire bombing. These methods did not distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, the materials of war and things needed for survival. The methods were severe in unprecedented ways. It will be granted that atrocities occurred on both sides and that, especially in Japan, it was not always easy to distinguish combatants and non-combatants.

Recently however, technologies largely inspired by and influenced by the notions of the Just War Teaching have come a long way in being more careful to target true combatants. This is done through smart-bomb technology, lasers, more precise radar, and satellite imagery.

I would argue that the Catholic and Christian teachings on so called “just war” have had a positive role in insisting on and urging the development of such technologies.

Thus, at the very time it is most influential and helpful, some are proposing the complete elimination of a teaching that goes back 1,500 years. And what do they argue we replace it with? The conference members are not even sure! They argue “for the Church to instead develop a new peacemaking framework “consistent with Gospel nonviolence.”

So we are supposed to scrap an ancient teachings that arguably has had good influence, for something that hasn’t even been developed yet?

Count me out of any enthusiasm regarding such a proposal.

I consider such a move rash and undisciplined. The conference group seems content to gather, issue their non placet (disagreement) with the Just War teaching, call for scrapping it, and then go home leaving a vacuum behind them. They offer no new vision, not even additions to the current teaching. Perhaps they left Rome thinking they had accomplished something? Count me among those who don’t think they did.

The Just War Teaching, provides important insights and reasonable principles that seek to limit the recourse to war and its effects. It has not always been well observed by nations, but it remains a clear and cautionary plea from the Church that balances the need for legitimate national defense with the awful reality of war and a reminder that we must limit recourse to it and tactics used therein. It is well rooted in Scripture and Tradition.

It is the best that we currently have. It would be rash to remove it without a credible and reasonable alternative.