No just war possible?

Published April 2, 2003

The Catholic Difference

For sixteen years, Archbishop Renato Martino did important service for the Church at the United Nations, where he was the Holy See’s Permanent Observer. He vigorously defended the cause of life, fought off attempts to have the Holy See stripped of its position at the U.N., and made the Vatican delegation a real presence in U.N. affairs. In recognition of these accomplishments, Archbishop Martino was appointed president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace last year, on the death of the gentle Vietnamese martyr-confessor, Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan.

In the months prior to the current military intervention to enforce disarmament in Iraq, Archbishop Martino was a vocal proponent of a diplomatic solution to the conflict. That was surely his prerogative, and indeed his responsibility – although some will wonder whether his pre-war description of any possible military intervention as a “crime against peace that would cry out for God’s vengeance” was not over the top rhetorically (not least because it came almost simultaneously with reports that Osama bin Laden had issued a fatwa urging the revenge-murder of Americans all over the world).

In late March, however, Archbishop Martino’s comments on a possible intervention in Iraq moved beyond the prudential and engaged questions of doctrine. Indeed, the archbishop seemed to repeal fifteen hundred years of settled Catholic teaching with a single adverb. Here is the exchange, from the March 23-29 issue of the National Catholic Register:


Question: “Are you suggesting there is no such thing as a just war anymore?”


Archbishop Martino: “Absolutely. I think with modern weaponry, there is no proportionality between the offense and the reply. It makes much more damage. War is so destructive now. It is not just a fight between one person and another.”

The president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace is not the voice of the Church’s magisterium on matters of doctrine. Knowledgeable Vatican observers may wonder whether it is altogether appropriate for the president of Justice and Peace to take such a high-profile role in commenting on matters of international politics; articulating the Holy See’s position on these questions would seem to be the responsibility of the Vatican’s “foreign minister,” or Secretary for Relation with States. But many, indeed most, people are quite unaware of the nuances of the Vatican bureaucracy, and of the difference between the prudential judgments of Vatican officials and the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

Which is to say that many people, reading that interview with Archbishop Martino, drew the conclusion, not unreasonably, that the Catholic Church no longer believed a just war possible.

That is not the teaching of the Catholic Church. It is the personal opinion of Archbishop Martino. And, in all charity, it seems an opinion uninfluenced by pertinent facts.

The fact of the matter – vividly displayed in the 24/7 television coverage of the war against Saddam Hussein’s regime – is that precision guided munitions (“smart bombs”) make it far, far easier to observe the just war-conduct principles of proportionality (no more force than necessary to achieve a legitimate military objective) and discrimination (non-combatant immunity) than in the past. War can be less destructive, and force more precisely focused on legitimate targets and combatants, because of modern technology.

Moreover, war, as the just war tradition understands it, has never been “a fight between one person and another.” “War,” in the just war tradition, is the use of armed force for public goods by legitimate public authorities. That is what distinguishes war from piracy, brigandage, dueling, or just plain wickedness. Surely this is obvious to those familiar with the tradition.

Then there is the pastoral implication of the archbishop’s statement that a just war today is “absolutely” precluded: which is that the men and women of the armed forces are, de facto, in peril of their souls. That is certainly not the teaching of the Catholic Church, and it almost certainly isn’t what Archbishop Martino, a pastorally sensitive man, intended to imply. But it is precisely what is suggested by his use of “absolutely.”

Noble intentions notwithstanding, something is seriously awry here. It must be repaired, promptly, to safeguard the integrity of the Church’s doctrine, its theology, and its moral witness for peace.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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