The West and Iran: Catholic Wisdom in Uncertain Times

COMMENTARY: The just-war tradition has much wisdom to offer in this moment of heightened tension between the United States and Iran.

President Donald Trump speaks about the situation with Iran in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington, D.C., Jan. 8, 2020.
President Donald Trump speaks about the situation with Iran in the Grand Foyer of the White House in Washington, D.C., Jan. 8, 2020. (photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/via Getty Images)

We live in an age best described as post-Christian. The moral and anthropological truth of the Judeo-Christian tradition is no longer generally accepted in our society.

Walker Percy described our age as “demented” because of its loss of confidence both in faith and reason:

 “The present age is demented. It is possessed by a sense of dislocation, a loss of personal identity, an alternating sentimentality and rage which, in an individual patient, could be characterized as dementia.”

Pope Francis confirmed Dr. Percy’s diagnosis in his recent address to the Curia:

“Christendom no longer exists. Today we are not the ones who produce culture, nor are we the first or the most listened to. … [Christianity], especially in Europe, but also in a large part of the West, is no longer an obvious premise of our common life, but, rather, it is often denied, derided, marginalized or ridiculed.”

The loss of Christian vision is evident everywhere: There is rampant consumerism and materialism, self-centeredness and individualism, relativism and nihilism. These false ideologies lead to numerous social pathologies: abortion, murder, euthanasia, suicide, drug addiction, despair, divorce, sexual abuse, disregard for the poor, crippling isolation and disabling loneliness.

Fortunately, there are still some “echoes” of the Judeo-Christian moral vision generally accepted today. One area where this is seen is in the ethics of war and peace. Here, at least, a remnant of a workable ethic is still generally agreed upon (if not always acted upon). Perhaps the wisdom found here may serve as a steppingstone toward rebuilding a holistic vision of a just and caring society.

In particular, the just-war tradition has much wisdom to offer in this moment of heightened tension between the U.S. and Iran.

Generally, President Donald Trump, in his actions (but, sadly, not always in his rhetoric), has respected the tenets of the just-war tradition. He has generally refrained from the use of deadly force when other options (such as dialogue, sanctions and embargoes) have been available. While he has blustered about major attacks (on North Korea and Iran, for example), he has shown restraint and pivoted toward other options (sometimes at the last moment).

When force has been used, it has usually been proportionate to the actual threat (think ISIS in Syria, for example). Many in the military have been frustrated by the way Trump makes decisions (the decision to leave Syria, for example), but generally the president has kept his campaign promise to de-escalate U.S. military commitments in the Middle East and beyond.

In light of this history, many see his most recent action as more problematic and even reckless. Other administrations have had the opportunity to attack Gen. Qassem Soleimani and have chosen not to, despite the unanimous opinion that he is directly responsible for ongoing unjust aggression against the Iranian people, the U.S. and allied forces, and numerous other innocents throughout the region. However, if what the administration has shared is true, given the increase in direct attacks on shipping in the Persian Gulf and U.S. bases and personnel in the region, and Trump’s clear warning (and a red line, if you will) about the consequences of any American casualties, one can make a strong argument that it was justified to interrupt ongoing, imminent action against actual innocents by disrupting the command, control and communication of this unjust aggression personified by Soleimani. One could surmise that his action was a proportionate and necessary response to Iranian escalation of hostility in the Gulf of Iraq and that further restraint or appeasement would only embolden Iranian aggression.

However one interprets the president’s orders, now is the time for all to revisit the wisdom of the just-war traditions where the following lessons could be learned.

  1. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was unjust. St. John Paul II tried valiantly to stave off the ill-conceived invasion of Iraq under President George W. Bush, knowing full well that the probability of success judged by the standard “postwar return to the tranquility of order” (a more just outcome) was highly improbable. The chaos that ensued (with its devastating effect on Christians throughout the region) was foreseeable by those who had “eyes to see and ears to hear.” We ignore just-war theory and moral truth at our own peril.
  2. The use of the armed forces should be governed by the proper authority. In the U.S., the proper authority for the use of the armed forces lies with Congress. Congress, in a bipartisan act of utter cowardice, has abdicated its proper role in our representative republic in their refusal to seriously re-engage in meaningful discussion and action since authorizing a broad use of force after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Like in many areas, Congress’ refusal to engage in actual problem-solving (think immigration reform, criminal-justice reform, health-care reform, infrastructure repair, deficit control, gun control, environmental issues, all of which need comprehensive, bipartisan, workable solutions) has led to drift and more and more governance by administrative fiat or worse, judicial overreach. It is time for Congress, the people’s representatives, to do their constitutional duty and have serious debate about and oversight of the use of force. Our military deserves this basic service.

  1. Serious fundamental questions must be asked and properly answered about the use of our armed forces around the world. For each of our current commitments (in Afghanistan, Iraq, North Africa, etc.), each of the criteria of the just-war theory should be examined, especially the question of the “probability of success.” Just-war theory demands a just cause that is actually achievable. We must know clearly when “victory” has been achieved and that it is achievable. God does not require us to do the useless and futile. Often to attempt to do so is an immoral waste of time, treasure and, in this case, precious human lives.
  2. Alternatives to the use of force might be available. Every pope of the modern era has reminded us that war is always a defeat for humanity. While sometimes war is forced upon us, it is never to be sought and is always a last resort. Humanity needs, especially at this time, to strengthen the nonviolent alternatives to conflict resolution between nations and peoples. The willingness of people — even enemies — to dialogue and accompany each other in a path of nonviolent negotiation must be encouraged and modeled in our age. St. Paul VI, at the United Nations in 1965, was unafraid to remind the world of the words of President John Kennedy: “Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind.”
  3. Religious and cultural sites are not usually legitimate targets. To directly attack cultural sites or threaten to do so is seriously wrong and in violation of numerous treaties that we have signed and ratified (the Geneva Conventions of 1949, as modified in 1977; The Hague Treaty of 1954, etc.).
  4. Prayer is important. Prayer changes things. It changes people, their hearts and their minds. The civil-rights movement in the U.S., the falling of the Iron Curtain, and the end to apartheid in South Africa were all primarily spiritual victories grounded in prayer before they were political victories in history. Pope Francis and the U.S. bishops have called all Catholics and people of goodwill to respond to the current crisis with prayer, fasting, sacrifice and the willingness to seek a genuine, just and lasting peace together. May we all heed this call to be peacemakers: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9).

Msgr. Stuart Swetland is the president of Donnelly College. A 1981 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he served six years as a line officer in the U.S. Navy.

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