Earlier this year participants at a conference co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace called for the Pope to ditch the centuries-old just war tradition endorsed by the Catechism of the Catholic Church in favour of a “new framework that is consistent with Gospel nonviolence.”
The idea is not new. As far back as 1947, traditionalist firebrand Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani argued that “no conceivable cause could ever be sufficient justification for the evils, the slaughter, the destruction … which war today entails.” The apocalyptic potential of modern weaponry, he claimed, made the idea of “just” war obsolete.
The ongoing debacle in Iraq might seem to prove this argument right. Casualty estimates vary wildly, but it is beyond dispute that the vast majority of those killed since 2003 have been civilians. The website Iraq Body Count estimates that 55 per cent of civilian deaths during the first year of the war were caused by US/coalition forces – in spite of Western forces’ efforts to avoid harming civilians.
But rather than prompting us to abandon just war thinking in favour of abstract commitments to “nonviolence,” the horrors highlighted by the Chilcot Report remind us why we need it.
Just war theory does not exist to provide politicians with a ‘get out of hell free’ card for warmongering. It furnishes a stern set of restraints to bridle the ambitions of the bellicose. And it is precisely because it failed to meet criteria established by the just war tradition that the invasion of Iraq was immoral.
The stated “cause” for the war (Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction) was non-existent, and Chilcot states that then-Prime Minister Tony Blair presented this case to Parliament with a certainty not justified even by the shoddy intelligence that had been collected.
While just war theory says war must be a last resort, Chilcot concludes that “the UK chose to join the invasion of Iraq before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted.”
Just war theory dictates that military action must have a reasonable prospect of succeeding. But many predicted, even back in 2003, the carnage that has come to pass and the emergence of ISIS-like forces. Chilcot damns the planning for post-war Iraq as “wholly inadequate.” The list could go on.
The point is, it is only because of the just war tradition – and by measuring the Iraq war against the standards it provides – that we can articulate why the war was wrong in a way that enables us to learn the lessons needed to avoid similar moral errors in future.
Serious moral analysis of decisions to go to war requires more meaty principles than “peace” and “nonviolence” – principles like “discriminate between combatants and non-combatants; never deliberately target or unduly endanger civilians.” This sounds self-evident, but a glance at the history of warfare suggests it has not been evident at all to most people for most of history. It seems so to us because we have inherited a long tradition of thought to which we give the name “just war theory.” It is a testament to the thoroughgoing influence of that theory on international law that the invasion of Iraq has been dogged by enduring questions about legality as well as morality.
Christianity has a robust strain of pacifist thought and practice represented by figures like Francis of Assisi and Dorothy Day. The nonviolent commitment of these heroic Christians has a sacramental quality to it – a visible sign pointing towards the already-but-not-yet reality of God’s Kingdom in which nations “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks.”
But most Christians, for most of history, have not followed an ethic of total nonviolence, any more than most Christians have been celibate, or given up ownership of private property – though both marriage and property, like war, have no ultimate place in the Kingdom of God.
Some pacifist hardliners seek to transform this important witness into a bottom-line moral obligation to be imposed on the entire Church. Events like the publication of Chilcot – which should remind us of the important contribution just war theory continues to make to Western civilisation – often provide an opportunity for a feeding frenzy by pacifist rigorists.
Abstract appeals to nonviolence do nothing to provide guidance to Iraqi Christian militias facing down ISIS warlords, as to how they might defend their homes and families in line with their faith. They do nothing to help politicians make good ethical choices about when to send troops to war. On matters of war and peace, the Church cannot limit itself to providing guidance to those who follow counsels of perfection. It has a responsibility to assist people in a variety of situations, who are seeking God’s will amidst complex personal and political circumstances shaped by competing moral demands. In other words, the Church has a responsibility to get involved in the messy details of reality, “even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street” (or the trenches), as Pope Francis says in Amoris Laetitia.