ANALYSIS – In his address to the Security Council of the United Nations in New York, during the 69th General Assembly of the Organization, Cardinal Parolin, Vatican Secretary of State, spoke of “proportionate use of force” as a means – among others – “to stop the aggression” of the Islamic State. Is that a call from the Vatican for a “Just War”?
It is always important to put things in their often larger context. Prior to speaking about the “proportional use of force”, Cardinal Parolin, in his speech, gave a long exposition on “new forms of terrorism,” its “transnational” nature, its roots, its dangers, more and more understood by the international legal system.
He stressed the importance of addressing this problem at its roots, e.g. recalling that “first and foremost, there is the path of promoting dialogue and understanding among cultures which is already implicitly contained in the Preamble and First Article of the Charter of the United Nations.”
However, the number two in the Vatican, did not rule out the possibility of an appeal to the proportionate use of force, decided internationally by the competent authorities, namely the Security Council. His insight displayed a good knowledge of international law regarding war.
The Italian Cardinal was finally able to say that “the Holy See strongly hopes that the international community assumes the responsibility of examining the best ways to stop aggression and prevent the perpetration of new and even more serious injustices.” Concluding that “even if the concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’ is implicit in the constitutional principles of the UN Charter and international humanitarian law, it does not specifically favor a recourse to arms.”
The intervention cannot be clearer than that, and only repeats what the Church has always said: the purpose of resisting aggression is always the search for peace.
It would be pretentious to wish that a single article would deal, in a comprehensive way, the broad topic of a “just war”. But what follows is a brief overview of the issue in the Bible, in theological tradition and in the magisterium of the Catholic Church.
What does the Bible say?
According to René Coste, a Catholic theologian and priest, “social theology proper to the Catholic Church, constantly recalls the Word of God, and give us guidance and the fundamental criteria, and refers us to our own responsibility.” He added that the Bible, as a revelation from God, “does not provide a direct answer to the real problems we face today with regard to war and peace.” An interpretation of the Word of God is therefore developed, and it is the Church that does this in its “magisterium”, that is to say, its official teaching. This will be the subject of the last point of this article.
Therefore in the Bible (Old and New Testament), violence is not the first recommended remedy. This is even truer for the New Testament, which reveals the life and teaching of Jesus and his Apostles, and which praises peacemakers as blessed (Mt 5: 9).
However, it is also true, and found repeatedly in the Old Testament, that God’s people fought wars supported by God Himself.
Jesus was “non-violent”. The evangelical episodes showing this are many. It is love that prevails.
“It (the commandment of Love) is however, as all evangelical ethics, subjected to the supreme regulation of the command of charity. Are there not situations in a world of violence and sin, where it is reasonable to estimate that the real love of neighbor asks us to use violence, in order to effectively defend against an unjust attacker?” continues the Sulpician theologian. This question is legitimate, especially when we know that St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, has already given an answer when he spoke about civil authority, saying that “it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer.” (Romans 13: 4)
Theological tradition since Constantine (3rd– 4th century)
It is with Constantine that Christianity became the state religion, and the question of the war therefore was arose differently. Several bishops went so far as to praise the role of soldier.
St. Augustine (4th – 5th century)
Later, Saint Augustine said that Christians should be pacifists. This is a personal philosophical position. Nevertheless, he argues that to not prevent serious harm that could be stopped would be a sin. Defense of others or self-defense can be a necessity, especially when the defense is rendered lawful by a legitimate authority.
In fact, the pursuit of peace must include the option of fighting to keep it in the long term. A “just war” is not preemptive, it is a defensive war to restore peace.
St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century)
Thomas Aquinas, some centuries later, used the authority of Augustine’s arguments with the intention of defining conditions in which war could be just.
The current Magisterium of the Catholic Church
The Church does not support war a priori but actively encourages all peace efforts. However, in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2309, the principles of “self-defense” with use of violence reflect the principles of what was once called the “just war”. These principles are reflected in the social doctrine of the Church that gives strict rules.
The Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965)
In its pastoral constitution, Gaudium et Spes “On the Church in the Modern World,” the Second Vatican Council addressed the issue of the war in paragraphs 79 – 82.
It seems that the Council Fathers sensed the threat of terrorism to the point of saying: “In many causes the use of terrorism is regarded as a new way to wage war.” (§ 79/1).
In cases where the use of violence seems inevitable, the Council called to distinguish the reason for the war: “to undertake military action for the just defense of the people, and something else again to seek the subjugation of other nations. Nor, by the same token, does the mere fact that war has unhappily begun mean that all is fair between the warring parties.” (§ 79/4).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992)
The Catechism takes paragraphs of the Constitution, Gaudium et Spes, and adds some important details. It specifies, for example, that “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 modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.” (§2309).
The Catechism clearly reminds, at the end of the paragraph, that “these are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine, and that “evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good” (end §2309). We estimate that those who have this charge are public authorities at national and international levels.
Thus, the intervention of Cardinal Parolin before the Security Council of the United Nations has exhibited and recalled the Catholic Church’s doctrinal viewpoint. And in the face of the serious threat of the Islamic State, the use of violence seems legitimate, according to the principle of “self-defense”, a principle of “just war”, provided it meets the above-mentioned requirements of “proportionate use of force.”
By: Firas Abedrabbo- LPJ