There is a timeless and horrific truth about Catholic just war doctrine: we live in a fallen world and therefore may have to choose the lesser of various evils, including war. Just war doctrine makes it clear that “the evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgement of those who have responsibility for the common good” (CCC ¶ 2309). Essential to any “prudential judgement” is having as many facts and as much information as possible. In the United States of America, this boils down to the president and, depending on circumstances, members of Congress.
Let’s not kid ourselves: despite Twitter, we, the public, are not privy to the best information. Nor could or should we be.
What are the “conditions for legitimate defense by military force”?
- “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” (CCC ¶ 2309).
First, no matter who is in office, as Catholics it is our duty to pray for them. It is crucial that they be humbly obedient to God and exercise wisdom and prudence and charity - God’s authority - rather than falling for temptation and wielding earthly power.
Second, whether we speak of France facing a gathering English invasion in the 1600s or the United States threatened by a North Korean nuclear missile, the doctrine holds true. Today, however, the interpretation of these principles may not offer as many clear cut answers as we would like.
Take the first doctrine, for example. Must the aggressor inflict actual damage before this doctrine is met? Must the English slaughter hundreds or thousands in France before France can morally defend itself? Or may France attack the English forces as they land on the beach, before they shed any French blood? Could France attack the ships as they cross the English Channel, before they even land, or even as the English gather on English soil? Where is the boundary between defense and offense?
Turning to the third doctrine, is the French war “successful” if it stops this wave despite there being another wave and a leader and people clearly aggressive toward them? Again, where lies the boundary between defense and offense?
Must the U.S. allow North Korea to launch a nuclear missile, which we may or may not be able to stop before it kills millions immediately and harms or kills hundreds of millions over several generations? Or may we strategically attack to eliminate the threat, when the threat is in the control of a lunatic who says he is going to launch? These are not easy questions to answer, regardless of your politics.
Context matters. By definition we are speaking about war, and in war or even the threat of war, there is much that is unreasonable. A perfectly sound act of diplomacy, that may at first seem unreasonable, is to make clear we will use all means to prevent further aggression should aggression occur. In a nuclear age, this is no light threat. The art of negotiation, as someone once called it, can include being so convincingly willing to do what seems crazy that no one is willing to find out if it is a bluff. That is, in a fallen world where aggressors are often unreasonable, a perfectly unreasonable way of being perfectly reasonable.
In other words, bombastic pre-war-speak can be a well-thought out, unreasonable way to reason with an unreasonable aggressor and prevent war. It can also just be bombastic.
Pray for our leaders, that they may be humbly obedient to God’s Love and wisdom in exercising the Authority given them.