The Catholic Case Against a U.S. Military Strike on Syria

As President Obama awaits congressional approval of his plan to deter future use of WMDs, Catholic scholars explain why Church leaders oppose U.S. intervention.

WASHINGTON — Over the past week, Pope Francis has condemned the use of chemical weapons, but also rejected a proposed U.S. military strike on Syria that President Barack Obama has said will deter future use of weapons of mass destruction by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The president announced his plan to punish Assad after he reviewed video images of what appeared to be the horrific aftermath of an Aug. 21 poison gas attack that killed 1,400 Syrian civilians, including 400 children.

But Pope Francis, backed up by Syrian and U.S. Church leaders, has argued that military intervention could fuel an escalation of violence, and he called instead for a political settlement to the civil war and the prosecution of those responsible for using chemical weapons.

The Pope’s strong opposition to the proposed military action, say experts, highlights the Church’s present judgment that a policy of military deterrence is incompatible with Catholic moral doctrine, anchored in the just-war principles developed by St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine and refined over the centuries.

To fulfill all the moral criteria for a “just war,” the proposed military intervention must be initiated by a legitimate authority only after non-violent solutions, such as diplomacy and economic sanctions, have been exhausted.

The cause must be just, and the outcome must have a likelihood of success. The use of force must be limited to achieving victory, rather than obliteration of the enemy, and non-combatants must be protected.

The White House, when defending its plan for military intervention in Syria, has presented the limited strikes on Syrian government targets as an effort to “deter” and “punish” Assad’s reported use of WMDs on civilians, without the goal of removing him from office.

Although the White House has not explicitly cited just-war criteria, when Catholic ethicists employ just-war principles to evaluate Obama’s plan, they must grapple with morally problematic elements of deterrence, while also considering whether issues like the probability of the mission’s success and use of force as a “last resort” have been addressed.


Just-War Theory Applied

“Punishing another nation was once considered a just reason for going to war or for using deadly force. You will find it in the writing of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, for example,” said Msgr. Stuart Swetland, an expert on Catholic ethics at Mount St. Mary’s University.

“But because that position was so often abused, most moralists and ethicists recognized that it is imprudent to allow one nation to punish another.”

The president has stated that the “limited” military strike is not designed to produce “regime change,” and it will not include any “boots on the ground” involving U.S. military personnel.

Yet the narrow scope of this plan, and the lack of detail about its specific goals, has fueled doubts about whether it will end the use of WMDs, and thus fulfill requirements that the cause be just and likely to succeed.

“The only legitimate reason for going to war is the protection of innocent life from aggression. This type of humanitarian intervention in Syria would require a much greater commitment than the administration is willing to make,” Msgr. Swetland told the Register.

Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, a visiting scholar at Boston College who has advised the U.S. bishops on peace and justice issues, echoed that point in a recent interview.

“There’s no objective for success right now. They’d do much better to try to work long term for support of the elements of the rebellion that the U.S. wants to support, and we should work strenuously to build up the capacity to respond and build up the responsibility to protect (vulnerable populations), which we can’t do now,” said Father Christiansen.

Church leaders in Syria, the Vatican and in the U.S. have raised similar questions about the proposed military strike, with Pope Francis introducing a six-point plan designed to secure a political settlement and humanitarian assistance.


Weighing Deterrence as Just Cause

Experts on Catholic moral doctrine and the just-war tradition report that, while the Holy See once tolerated the U.S. policy of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War, it has since become increasingly explicit in its opposition to the use of military action, even when it is designed to deter a great evil.

“The Catechism of the Catholic Church excludes ‘punishing wrongdoing’ as a legitimate cause for war,” said Msgr. Swetland. Further, “our modern charters, conventions and treaties, such as the U.N. Charter, do not allow this type of unilateral action.”

A key moral problem for the Church, he said, is that “deterrence policy threatens violence.”

And Catholic ethicists who oppose deterrence as a just cause for war often point to two key encyclicals written by Blessed John Paul lI: Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) and Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life).

Both documents “focus on the importance of intention in the moral act, brought into question the moral analysis underling deterrence theory,” Msgr. Swetland said.

“Can you threaten to do what is always immoral to do? The answer is ‘no’ because any real threat involves the prior intention to carry out the act if the conditions are met.”

The Holy See’s tolerance of the U.S. military policy of deterrence shifted after the end of the Cold War.

“The conditions that prevailed during the Cold War, which gave a basis for the Church’s limited toleration of nuclear deterrence, no longer apply in a consistent and effective manner,” said Archbishop Celestino Miglione, then the Vatican’s representative to the United Nations, during a 2010 address.

The Holy See opposed U.S. military intervention in Iraq, designed to punish and reverse military aggression by Saddam Hussein, who invaded Kuwait in 1991 and later was deposed following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

“John Paul II was highly critical of [U.S. military intervention in] Iraq in 1991 as well as of Iraq in 2003. The movement away from punitive ends for war has gone on rather longer,” Jesuit Father John Langan, a senior research scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics and a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, told the Register.

“War is, I think, too blunt an instrument for measured punishment. Punishment will rarely have the character of urgent response intended to prevent great and imminent evils, which was normally thought to be the justification for overriding sovereignty and using force.”

However, some ethicists challenge recent efforts to present a military policy of deterrence as always wrong.

Robert Royal, president of the Washington-based Faith and Reason Institute, suggested that the danger posed by the Assad government’s use of WMDs may indeed offer justification for a U.S. strike under limited conditions. Thus, while Royal does not support Obama’s specific plan for a limited strike, he questioned the tendency of Church leaders to reject any military intervention.

“All popes should try to dissuade people from committing violence. But the Church is not pacifist,” Royal told the Register.

Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton and a leading Catholic public intellectual, made a similar point in a Sept. 6 column on The Wall Street Journal editorial page,"Would Bombing Syria Be is Just War?”

Referencing the arguments of the late Catholic scholar Jean Bethke Elshtain, who argued a decade ago that U.S. military force against terrorists and terrorist-supporting states was morally justified, George said, “Just-war theory says that, in the face of unjust aggression, nations sometimes have a duty to use military force.”

But he added that the U.S. was not obligated to police rogue nations, and just-war criteria must be met before any military action can be approved.

“These judgments in any particular case will depend on careful empirical assessments of the facts,” George wrote. “The sin, either way, is cynicism — defined here as the failure to treat politics, and war, as a morally serious business.”


Stakes Raised in Syria

Indeed, Pope Francis’ fresh effort to pave the way for a political settlement seemed designed to dispel the cynicism and passivity that have limited diplomatic engagement in Syria.

Syria is in the third year of a bloody civil war that has resulted in an estimated 100,000 deaths and 2 million refugees. Washington is increasingly worried that radical Islamist groups within the Syrian opposition will seek to fill the power vacuum, should Assad fall, and could gain control of WMDs.

Meanwhile, the plight of Syria’s embattled Christian minority has raised the stakes for Church leaders within the country and across the world. The role of radical Islamists within the rebel forces has fueled anxiety that Christians will be targeted if Assad loses the war.

“The Vatican faces a dilemma. On the one hand, it has a vital stake in the survival of Middle-Eastern Christianity; on the other hand, it cannot ignore vast killing of innocents in a lengthy succession of war crimes contrary to the just-war principle of civilian immunity and contrary to its advocacy for universal human rights,” Father Christiansen told the Register.

But Msgr. Swetland pointed out that the Holy See’s approach did not preclude justice for the victims of chemical-weapons attacks.

“We should take this to the World Court, and [the Assad regime] should be treated like criminals if they are indeed responsible for this,” said Msgr. Swetland.

Thus he expressed the hope that, when Congress debates whether to authorize the president’s plan for deterring the use of WMDs, lawmakers will take time to consider another path for meeting this objection and set aside military intervention as a true last resort.

And to those who insist that only war-making can defend innocent life, he noted the passionate appeals of Syria’s Christian leaders, who continue to implore the West to seek peaceful alternatives.

“I say we have to listen to those who have ‘boots on the ground,’” Msgr. Swetland said.

“It is a fundamental moral principle — ‘First, do no harm.’ Just-war tradition is about bringing about a more tranquil order, and Christians there say it [military intervention] won’t lead to a more tranquil order.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.