Movie Recommendation: The Chorus
Amy Welborn on Ss. Monica and Augustine

Sunday Night Journal — August 27, 2006

A Fit Instrument?

Thus, in this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair the violation of justice.

–John XXIII, Pacem in Terris (1963)

At least as far back as Pacem in Terris, and as recently as certain remarks made by Pope Benedict, the argument has been made that the huge and undiscriminating destructive capacity of modern weaponry has made it impossible for any war at all to be licit. Some say this is a necessary development of just war teaching, some say it’s a departure from it, at least as the teaching has been stated at times in the past. I’m no theologian and can’t discuss the pros and cons of those views. But anyone can describe the lay of the land as we presently see it.

The argument for extending the just war teaching to forbid any war that might actually occur in our time is that it has become impossible to meet the proportionality requirement of that teaching, the requirement that the good to be achieved be proportionate to the harm to be done, and in particular that non-combatant casualties must be incidental and unintentional and not excessive. “Excessive” may be, obviously, difficult to determine, but no one can reasonably maintain that civilian casualties greater by a factor of five or ten than military ones is not excessive.

Ignoring the quibbling side roads into which these definitions can lead, is it not obvious to any Christian that the vast carnage involved in modern warfare is an abomination before God? And, indeed, setting aside the reference to God, any reasonable person would surely agree that it is an abomination. I’m not addressing the assertion that precision weaponry has made these objections obsolete, partly because it appears that they don’t necessarily make all that much difference—“collateral damage is somewhat reduced”.

The belief that it’s wrong to kill the innocent is hardly a specifically Christian one. Even those who claim justification for doing it generally feel obliged to defend their view on the grounds that the other side did it first, as when Osama bin Laden calculates the number of American non-combatants who can justly be killed as recompense for injuries done to Muslims.

An argument for pacifism-in-practice arises from the contemplation of such vast horror and injustice: if war cannot be conducted without producing it, war cannot be conducted at all. Even though there remains an abstract right of self-defense, it cannot be exercised if doing so would involve committing grave sin.

At least from the Catholic point of view, the logic of this is irrefutable. It’s an elementary principle of Catholic morality that one may not do evil in order that good may come. (Catholic moral theologians sometimes seem to stretch this rather far in analyzing hard cases which a common-sense view would simply describe as a choice between two evils, but the distinction between allowing and actively willing is an important one.)

But just as the logic is irrefutable, so is it morally certain that no state will pay much attention to a teaching that says it cannot defend itself. Not only would it require national suicide for the state, and quite possibly the surrender of its own non-combatants to murder and other brutalities, but it would implicitly cede governance of the world to the most ruthlessly violent.

Supposing there were such a thing as a state that regarded the moral guidance of the Catholic magisterium as authoritative: that state would accept the principle that war could not be waged for anything except the gravest reasons of self-defense, but it would insist on retaining that latter option. It would take very seriously the obligation to protect its own citizens, and as a means of obtaining moral permission to do so, it would probably take refuge in the part of the practical pacifist argument that regards disproportionate non-combatant casualties as intrinsic to war, perhaps saying something like “We don’t accept the assertion that we are unable to defend ourselves except by practicing indiscriminate slaughter. We think we can. And if we find it necessary to defend ourselves, we will do our very best to avoid civilian casualties, but defend ourselves we will.”

Now of course even that position, taken seriously, would render many or most wars illicit. But I wonder if it would really reduce their actual occurrence, because states do go to war most often in the belief that they are mortally threatened. In short, an opening does remain in the practical-pacifist logic—the assertion that such-and-such a course of action must always produce such-and-such a concrete result—and human nature assures that a great deal of traffic will probably move through it.

Moral reasoning and admonishment alone can only do so much. What, then, can the Church—what can Christians—do? Given that the carnage is unacceptable, what actions can we take that would limit it? I know there are a lot of people thinking about this, and they’ve proposed a lot of solutions. Some of them seem quixotic to me, as I’m somewhat fatalistically cynical about mankind, but maybe they will bear fruit.

Here’s a thought—a discomfiting, in fact dreadful thought—and only a thought, which I haven’t considered at length or at all thoroughly, so don’t expect me to be able to defend it. Perhaps in the end literal self-sacrifice might be required of some. To issue from a position of security a moral precept, however compelling and authoritative, that might require martyrdom of the recipient inevitably smacks of “binding heavy burdens and laying them on other men’s shoulders.” The example of Our Lord points the way: he never asked of his disciples any suffering which he himself was not willing to undergo.

Imagine the heavenly counterpart of the hellish suicide bomber. Imagine a cadre of witnesses ready to accept martyrdom by entering war zones (or potential war zones), having no physical power to protect the innocent but standing alongside them and saying “If you kill them, you must kill me, too.” Harmless as doves, some of them would die, and the spiritual effect of such sacrifice would surely be great. But, wise as serpents, they would serve, in a world where vivid images and stories have an immeasurable impact on the way people think and behave, as a means of inducing revulsion for slaughter. In the recent (and not really concluded) war between Israel and Hezbollah, for instance, could such a witness have made a difference?

I think there have been attempts to do this kind of thing, but from what I’ve read they didn’t seem entirely serious—more like media events than a firm intention to interpose oneself. To be effective, such nonviolent tactics would have to be very serious indeed. And a plea, in the name of God and humanity, for the two parties to find some other way of settling a dispute must be addressed to both parties. The great weakness of Western peace movements is that they apply their efforts almost exclusively to their own side, which is generally the one where just war principles are already at least somewhat respected and which is very unlikely to punish them in any serious way. And so their gestures often seem just that: at worst just a self-affirmation of the protestor’s moral superiority, at best a rebuke to only one of two warring parties, and not likely to be very effective. A one-sided protest may even encourage an aggressor.

But a peace movement whose members were willing to put their own lives on the line, as ordinary soldiers do every day (which is probably one reason why most people have more respect for soldiers than for war protesters), could not fail to win the respect of all.

No, to answer the obvious question, I’m not ready to volunteer for such a war. Maybe later, when I have fewer responsibilities. Besides, I can think of a lot of reasons why it might not help very much—it might not be of much use in a Cold War sort of situation, for instance. Maybe it’s a foolish idea. But it does seem Christian.


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