The terrorists attacks in Paris were a terrible thing. That is undeniable. It also seems we cannot put off the task of opposing ISIS any longer. It seems nobody is debating these things. Even the Holy Father has condemned these attacks. So we’re all on the same page that what we are discussing. But I am seeing some of my fellow Catholics say things that seem to indicate that they think that the fact that these terrorists have done evil means we can do anything we want to them and it will be justified. We must realize that any military response to these terrorists requires us to behave according to our moral beliefs about war. That’s common sense. If we decide “anything goes,” then we really have nothing to say to the terrorists who already use “anything goes” as their tactic.
The Catholic Church has a lot to say on the topic of Just War:
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: (2243; 1897)
— 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.
Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 556.
The Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church, says something very similar:
500. A war of aggression is intrinsically immoral. In the tragic case where such a war breaks out, leaders of the State that has been attacked have the right and the duty to organize a defence even using the force of arms. To be licit, the use of force must correspond to certain strict conditions: “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”.
If this responsibility justifies the possession of sufficient means to exercise this right to defence, States still have the obligation to do everything possible “to ensure that the conditions of peace exist, not only within their own territory but throughout the world”. It is important to remember that “it is one thing to wage a war of self-defence; it is quite another to seek to impose domination on another nation. The possession of war potential does not justify the use of force for political or military objectives. Nor does the mere fact that war has unfortunately broken out mean that all is fair between the warring parties”.1052
Catholic Church, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2014).
As I see it, the damage caused by ISIS is certain, lasting and grave. Other means of preventing the evil do have been shown to be ineffective. The only debatable issue seems to be over whether we can have serious prospects of success (as opposed to a quagmire). If we’re going to do this, we need to be committed to doing it right, as opposed to leaving a land in ruins only to have to do it all over again in 10 years time.
But, even though we have what looks like a just cause for a war, in my opinion, we are not permitted to conduct that war in a way which produces evils worse than whatever is to be eliminated. We are not permitted to sow indiscriminate destruction with the intent of wiping out all the terrorist leaders and fighters. While accidental killing of the civilian may be unavoidable, we must conduct ourselves in such a way as to avoid it as much as possible. If it ever becomes the goal of the attack, or happens because we are indiscriminate on our part in carrying out the attack, the action is not justified, but is evil instead.
That means we have the responsibility to undertake any military action in such a way that we do not act to punish the innocent along with the guilty. While it seems to me, we have the just cause for starting a war, our obligation continues in our conduct at war and how we handle the post-war. We’re not free to turn these places into a wasteland or a nuclear slag pit and then go on our way, leaving the survivors to dig their own way out. We’re not free to target all Muslims or all Arabs for the sins of some. Our strategy has to have a just purpose for war, a just behavior in war and a just conclusion at the end of the war.
So let us be aware of this obligation as we speak out about this vile act of terrorism and call for our leaders to act. Let us make sure that our actions reflect our beliefs and do not assume that we are now free to use any and all means in response.
For the reader’s consideration, here is what St. Thomas Aquinas has had to say about Just War:
Whether it is Always Sinful to wage War?
We proceed thus to the First Article:—
Objection 1. It seems that it is always sinful to wage war. Because punishment is not inflicted except for sin. Now those who wage war are threatened by Our Lord with punishment, according to Matth. 26:52: All that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Therefore all wars are unlawful.
Obj. 2. Further, Whatever is contrary to a Divine precept is a sin. But war is contrary to a Divine precept, for it is written (Matth. 5:39): But I say to you not to resist evil; and (Rom. 12:19): Not revenging yourselves, my dearly beloved, but give place unto wrath. Therefore war is always sinful.
Obj. 3. Further, Nothing, except sin, is contrary to an act of virtue. But war is contrary to peace. Therefore war is always a sin.
Obj. 4. Further, The exercise of a lawful thing is itself lawful, as is evident in scientific exercises. But warlike exercises which take place in tournaments are forbidden by the Church, since those who are slain in these trials are deprived of ecclesiastical burial. Therefore it seems that war is a sin in itself.
On the contrary, Augustine says in a sermon on the son of the centurion (cf. Ep. ad Marccl., cxxxviii.): If the Christian Religion forbade war altogether, those who sought salutary advice in the Gospel would rather have been counselled to cast aside their arms, and to give up soldiering altogether. On the contrary, they were told: ‘Do violence to no man; … and be content with your pay.’* If he commanded them to be content with their pay, he did not forbid soldiering.
I answer that, In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Rom. 13:4): He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Ps. 81:4): Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner; and for this reason Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii.): The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority.
Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says (Q. X., super Jos.): A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.
Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (De Verb. Dom.*): True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandisement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good. For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii.): The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and suchlike things, all these are rightly condemned in war.
Reply Obj. 1. As Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii.): To take the sword is to arm oneself in order to take the life of anyone, without the command or permission of superior or lawful authority. On the other hand, to have recourse to the sword (as a private person) by the authority of the sovereign or judge, or (as a public person) through zeal for justice, and by the authority, so to speak, of God, is not to take the sword, but to use it as commissioned by another, wherefore it does not deserve punishment. And yet even those who make sinful use of the sword are not always slain with the sword, yet they always perish with their own sword, because, unless they repent, they are punished eternally for their sinful use of the sword.
Reply Obj. 2. Suchlike precepts, as Augustine observes (De Serm. Dom. in Monte i.), should always be borne in readiness of mind, so that we be ready to obey them, and, if necessary, to refrain from resistance or self-defence. Nevertheless it is necessary sometimes for a man to act otherwise for the common good, or for the good of those with whom he is fighting. Hence Augustine says (Ep. ad Marcellin.): Those whom we have to punish with a kindly severity, it is necessary to handle in many ways against their will. For when we are stripping a man of the lawlessness of sin, it is good for him to be vanquished, since nothing is more hopeless than the happiness of sinners, whence arises a guilty impunity, and an evil will, like an internal enemy.
Reply Obj. 3. Those who wage war justly aim at peace, and so they are not opposed to peace, except to the evil peace, which Our Lord came not to send upon earth (Matth. 10:34). Hence Augustine says (Ep. ad Bonif. clxxxix.): We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace. Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace.
Reply Obj. 4. Manly exercises in warlike feats of arms are not all forbidden, but those which are inordinate and perilous, and end in slaying or plundering. In olden times warlike exercises presented no such danger, and hence they were called exercises of arms or bloodless wars, as Jerome states in an epistle (cf. Veget.,—De Re Milit. i.).
(STh., II-II q.40 a.1)
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.).