Friday, May 22, 2009

Distorting the Just War Doctrine

Ok, now it's time to deal with something serious. Recently, this letter fell into my hands:

If you currently give money to Franciscan University, please reconsider doing so. Below is a letter-to-the-editor I wrote about the FUS commencement last weekend:The decision of Franciscan University to award an honorary doctorate toMichael Novak could not be more disturbing. Novak has been at the forefront of the attempt to blur Church teaching in order to advance a pro-war agenda which is opposed to it. As most people who are not hard-core partisans can now see, the Iraq war has been a disaster for the United States-over 85,000 casualties at a cost of over $600 billion, so far - and even more so for the poor Iraqis, with over a million Iraqi dead, over two million Iraqi refugees, and the rest forced live in a violent and chaotic country wrecked by policies which Novak has pushed for and continues to defend. Instead of holding Novak responsible for his failure of judgment, or accountable for his misrepresentation of Church just war teaching, Franciscan University honored him and gave him a platform to further spout his propaganda: the war was a "rescue" of the Iraqis, Novak said last Saturday.In 2003 Novak publically argued not only that the Iraq war was licit under Catholic just war teaching, but that it was "morally obligatory" under that teaching. There could not be more thorough misreading of Church teaching than the pabulum which Novak, masquerading as an intellectual who takes that teaching seriously, continues to peddle. Novak has admitted that the late Pope John Paul II opposed the Iraq War. Bizarrely, last year he even praised JPII and Pope Benedict for doing so.The reason: Novak wants to downplay his sharp disagreement with the considered judgments of both popes in order to make his pro-war positions seem as orthodox as possible, so that he can continue to reap honors andawards from those institutions, like Franciscan University, that make aneffort to take all the teachings of the Church seriously. As with abortion, unjust war takes innocent life, and if Iraq is an unjust war, it is just as much a life issue as abortion is. Public support for an unjust war is a grave matter. Honoring Michael Novak makes a mockery of the serious questions involved in the public responsibility of Catholics
to follow all the teachings of the Church on matters of human life.Unfortunately, unlike President Obama's address at Notre Dame, there were no protests of this shameful honoring of Novak. This only makes the scandal greater.

A personal note - I happen to know who wrote this missive, but in consideration of his privacy I will not disclose his identity. I'll simply refer to him as "Mr. Torquemada."
When I (and many "pro-war" Catholics like me) read views like Mr. Torquemada (and there are many) there are three responses that usually ensue:

  1. Grumble about it and go to bed. You're not a theologian, and you can't understand half of what he's saying anyway.

  2. Stew over it for a week and then start arguing with an innocent bystander (usually the spouse). You know what I mean. "Honey, can you believe this hoopla? I mean, he's so wrong! Let me tell you how..."

  3. Start thinking, "Well, if the Church is saying that it's an evil, horrible thing to give overthrow a mass murderer and a tyrant, then the Church is obviously out of touch."
The answer to No. 1 is that even theologians can engage in histrionics, hysteria, and emotion. The answer to No. 2 is that your spouse has more important things to worry about. The answer to No. 3 is to actually look at what the Church says.

(Before I go any further, I think it's only fair to provide a link to Novak's actual words. It's a column written by Novak back in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war - which is an important factor in understanding his position.)

Now, I'd like to examine the doctrine of Just War, as articulated in the Catechism. A caveat before I begin: I am not a theologian, nor do I claim to be. (Nor do I wish to be.) However, I am a Catholic, and a reasonably well-catechized one - and despite what Mr. T. may think, people like me I and Novak do actually care about what the Church says.

What I wish is to fully understand the Church's teachings, and to not be impeded by my own political likes or dislikes.

I would hope that Mr. Torquemada would want the same thing. But that's not the case. Since Mr. Torquemada claims to know the inner workings of Mr. Novak's heart and soul, he surely can't object if I speculate a little on his motives:

Mr. Torquemada dislikes the war in Iraq. He thinks it was stupid, pointless and horrifying. He also doesn't like President Bush.

He has heard of the Just War doctrine, as well as certain papal statements, and sees them as a bulwark to his views. In fact, he no longer recognizes them as his views - they are Church doctrine.

It follows, therefore, that those who disagree are no longer worthy opponents. So there's no need to listen to their arguments - or even their facts.

Additionally, if Mr. T wishes to vent his frustration in childish insults, slander, distortions and muckraking - well, now he has a moral sanction for it, don't he? So Mr. T, I am sure, felt no qualms whatsoever about insulting Novak ("pro-war....pseudo-intellectual") judging his motives ("The reason: Novak wants to downplay his sharp disagreement with the considered judgments of both popes in order to make his pro-war positions seem as orthodox as possible") and condemning both him and anyone who agrees with him.

There's only one problem. The Catholic Church hasn't condemned Novak. Nor has she declared that supporting the Iraq War is a "grave matter." Nor, for that matter, has she declared that the Iraq war is unjust. It very well may be. That's not the point. It's not for Mr. Torquemada to decide - nor for me.

This happens all the time with Catholics, and not just on this issue. And although those who engage in this sort of behavior may experience a rise in their self-esteem, it does no good - not to themselves or to their opponents. I believe the cure is to go back and read the Catechism, and to fully realize the implications of this teaching.

Just War is dealt with in Paragraphs 2307 to 2317, and the core paragraph is 2309:

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 modem 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.

Now, I have perused this section many, many times over the years (again, we "pro-War" Catholics" do care about these things) and for a long time it seemed to make no sense to me.

This is why: the words state plainly that ALL the conditions for a just war have to be met, and at the same time. Lasting, grave, certain damage....serious prospect of succes...the effects can't be worse than the cause.

But... what war, throughout all of history, has definitively, without question, met these criteria? I can't think of any. Can you? Consider..

  • The Revolutionary War...was there a serious prospect of success for the Americans?
  • The Civil War...was the damage caused by Southern Succession "lasting, grave and certain"?
  • World War II - The Nazi's killed 6 million Jews. The total deaths from the war 50-70 million. Doesn't look proportionate to me.

Using these criteria, any of these wars could be considered "unjust." In fact, I hold that you could take any war, in all of human history, and find a way to label it "unjust".

If Mr. Torquemada was consistent in his views, he would have to hold that:

  1. Warmakers like Washington, Lincoln and FDR are on the same level as mass murderers.
  2. Those who supported these wars were in grave sin.
  3. It would have been better if these wars had never been fought.

My point is this: it just doesn't make sense. Sure, it's great in the heat of an argument - but...honestly! It jars terribly with common sense, and with conscience. We all just know that it was a noble thing to fight the Nazi's, and a cowardly dishonorable thing to permit the murder of the Jews. We all know that the end of slavery in America was worth the blood shed at Antietam, Shiloh and Gettysburgh. And only the most jaded and cynical person could look back at the story of Washington, Hamilton, Lafayette, Greene and Knox (and the noncombatants - Jefferson, Franklin, etc) without feeling a certain stir of the blood, a certain admiration for their courage and self-sacrifice. Not to mention, of course, the freedom and prosperity that we all enjoy as a result.

In short, we all know that sometimes War is, in fact, the answer.

Or, as Dennis Prager once put it: "Auschwitz was liberated by soldiers, not by peace activists."

For a long time my consideration of the Just War teaching was tainted by this feeling - the feeling that my Church's teaching was disconnected from common sense and common conscience. I couldn't articulate it or make a reasoned argument. It just...seemed...wrong.

The good news, of course, is that the Church is considerably more wise than Mr. Torquemada.

The Church warns against war, and strongly urges those in authority to examine the principles of a Just War. BUT..the Church does not go back after a war is over and pronounce excommunications and anathemas on those who began it. As far as I know, the Church has never, as a matter of doctrine, declared any war "unjust" - in fact, it leaves the decision to those in authority, as stated in the final sentence :

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

Since Mr. Torquemada compares supporting an "unjust war" (his words, NOT the Church's) to supporting abortion, let's look at the Catechism's words on abortion (Par.2270-72):

Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception...This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable...Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense.

Notice how clear and unequivocal the language is here. Note, also, the striking absence of the words: "Formal cooperation in an unjust war constitutes a grave offense". For that matter, notice the absense of the phrase "unjust war." Do a search of the Catechism (just the Catechism, mind you) for it - it ain't there.

In fact, Mr. T's statement that "Public support for an unjust war is a grave matter," although it may sound all Catechism-ishy, is his own opinion, nothing more. And since he's giving the impression that it's Church doctrine, this seems to me to be a wee bit misleading - the same thing he condemns Novak for.

Thus, Mr. Torquemada's whole argument is based on false premises. Let's pretend, though, that they are true - that as Catholics, we are morally bound to judge each war and condemn or condone it on the Just War principle. Let's see what happens.

The Iraq war was waged against the Baathist government of Saddam Hussein. It was won swiftly and completely.

After that, another war broke out against U.S. and Coalition forces, waged by a conglomeration of Islamic extremists, Iraqi nationalists, and Baathist insurgents. These insurgents engage in a mixture of random bombings of civilians, focused murder of their opponents, and attempts to inflame local partisanship.

The opponents in this war did not constitute a state - and furthermore, they were the instigators of this new conflict, which would, I believe, be defined as a rebellion. So let's see what the Catechism says about rebellion, in Paragraph 2243:

Armed resistance to oppression by political authority is not legitimate, unless all the following conditions are met: 1) there is certain, grave, and prolonged violation of fundamental rights; 2) all other means of redress have been exhausted; 3) such resistance will not provoke worse disorders; 4) there is well-founded hope of success; and 5) it is impossible to reasonably to foresee any better solution.

Note again how clear and unequivocal this language is. Also note that the Iraqi insurgents don't even come close to fulfilling these requirements.

So, if we are to carry Mr. Torquemada's views to their fullest conclusion, we should not only condemn the original Iraq war. We should condemn the Iraqi insurgents as well, and support the fight against them. We should, simply, judge all wars equally. It's only fair. But Mr. T doesn't do that. The reason, I leave to you.

One side note - I cannot let Mr. Torquemada's ignorance of the facts of the Iraq War go without comment. There have been around 5,000 U.S. casualties, not 85,000. There have not been "millions" of Iraqi deaths. The number of 1,000,000+ deaths comes from a single poll that has been greatly disputed - all other estimates (from pro- and anti- war sources alike) estimate from 80,000 - 90,000 - about ten times less. (The wikipedia article on this is a good resource, and includes links to the original information.) From these observations, we can glean that perhaps facts aren't that important to Mr. T, unless they confirm his preconceptions.

Finally...Mr. Torquemada and those in his camp will doubtless inform me that both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have criticized this war. I know this. Everyone does. My response is simply this: after pondering these issues for a long time, I believe that they are wrong.

Mr. T may believe I am a fool for thinking this. He is free to do so. But that is just my opinion, and (I say this with all sincerity) I could be wrong. I am able to admit this because, unlike Mr. T, I understand the difference between my opinions and the teachings of the Church.


  1. Hi John, I saw you at Joe’s ordination last Friday; I was very sorry not to be able to say hi and catch up.
    Here are my responses to your post:
    Nowhere in my letter do I claim to know Michael Novak's heart and soul. His words speak for themselves. Instead of being a man and disputing the merits of the popes’ statements on Iraq, he backhandedly praises them for being in sharp disagreement with his own positions. It is clear he is concerned with his reputation as a Catholic intellectual loyal to the church and pope, which would suffer if he entered into open disagreement with their considered views.
    By the way, nowhere am I claiming that those who support the Iraq war are bad Catholics, or not faithful to the Church, or oppose the pope. This is not a matter of orthodoxy for the typical layman. For Novak, however, it is a different matter. He cannot hide behind ignorance. He is a public opinion leader who claims to represent the Catholic viewpoint in political life. Most people who are thickheaded enough to still support the Iraq war do so out of ignorance and moral confusion. Simply put, they supported Bush (in large part because he was ostensibly pro-life) and they don’t want to admit they made a mistake. This is understandable and forgivable. Not everyone can be expected to hold enlightened political views on every topic. People don’t have the time to become informed on every issue, even very important matters like the worst foreign policy mistake in a generation. It is, however, morally confused to stick obstinately to your views about a policy even when the results of that policy are so terrifically anti-life. With Novak, this moral confusion is what he is trying to push as the proper viewpoint of a faithful Catholic. It is seriously wrong, evil even I would say, for him to do this; however, it is not the same for the ordinary person who is misled.
    As far as my motives go, I cheered President Bush at his first inauguration, and to say I have been disappointed by his presidency is an understatement. I do insult Novak, who deserves every syllable of it, just the same as Catholics for Choice do. If you are going to twist Church teaching into its opposite, those who are faithful to the Church should denounce you.
    You first say that you “care what the Church teaches.” Unlike others who claim the same thing, you actually try to square the language of that teaching with the Iraq war policy. And not surprisingly, you can’t. But instead of admitting it, you then argue that the teaching condemns all war. It seems like you want to jettison Church teaching because it comes to the wrong conclusion on a policy you are attached to. Your own words are the best argument for my position.
    As far as your attempt at disputing statistics goes, please get basic definitions straight: “casualties” means killed or injured. The sources the numbers were reputable and also conservative. For instance, we have spent $600 billion on the war, so far, but economists have estimated the total costs above $3 trillion. ( An estimated 1.3 million Iraqis have died violent deaths as a result of the invasion. ( There have been over 100,000 American casualties estimated due to the Iraq war. (

  2. Hi again, John. Here's some videos of the ordination you might be interested in:

    I'm sorry again we didn't get to chat; that was very disappointing.

    All the best!