Ethics & Public Policy Center

Iraq and just war, one more time

Published in The Catholic Difference on June 9, 2004



Judging from the torrent of e-mail I’ve received since my column several weeks ago on Iraq and the just war tradition, a lot of Catholics really don’t understand what that venerable tradition of Christian moral reflection is, how it functions, and what it can – and cannot – do.

Among the riper comments I’ve received:

“[Weigel’s] justification was..obviously bereft of any spiritual or scriptural underpinnings.”

“Don’t look now but the Fascists have returned…Should the Church be associated with and helping [Weigel and others] spread their right-wing, war hungry message?”

“I was shocked and appalled to read the column by George Weigel…it seems to me that he is making the case for ‘the end justifies the means…’”

“I am dumbfounded by the false logic and unproven assumptions you use…Perhaps now that we have made Iraq safe for people like you, you would care to take a trip over and stand on a street corner…Without armed guards. Waving an American flag. And while we are at it, what makes you believe the Iraqis want a democratic form of government? Did anyone in your office ask them?”

“Weigel’s piece…argues the Republican position as though quoted from their public relations campaign.”

And so forth and so on.

In late April, after I keynoted a Rome conference on the future of Catholic international relations theory, a reporter asked what I thought about the response to my writing on Iraq and just war over the past fifteen months. I told her that I’d be happier if my critics would at least assume that people who made, and make, the judgment that the liberation of Iraq met the standards of a just war are morally serious and morally responsible. If only one side credits the moral seriousness of its opponents in a debate, what kind of ongoing dialogue is possible?

I also said that the comments I’d received further illustrated the sad truth of something I’d been saying for years: that there has been a “great forgetting” of the just war tradition in U.S. Catholic life. Some Catholics assume that modern weaponry has made the classic tradition obsolete; some seem to think it’s a short, simple step from the Sermon on the Mount to formulating foreign policy; others imagine that the just war tradition provides a crisp, standardized product, like Dunkin’ Donuts produces crullers. None of these assumptions has anything to do with the way the Catholic Church thinks normatively about war, its limits, and its possible service to the common good.

So let’s try again: The just war tradition is a method of moral reasoning that tries to relate the proportionate and discriminate use of armed force to securing peace – and the justice, freedom, order, and security that are the components parts of peace. It’s not a question of “peace” being here and the just war tradition there. The two go together. Indeed, any use of force that isn’t ordered to public goods – peace, security, freedom, order, justice – is, by its nature, not morally justifiable; it’s brigandage, or piracy, or plain old-fashioned mayhem. War, in the just war tradition, is a moral term, and its moral justification derives from its capacity to advance the cause of the peace of order.

The just war tradition isn’t algebra. It’s not question of lining everything up neatly on both sides of the equation, and thus getting the right answer. The just war tradition is more like calculus: it’s an art as much as a science, and it asks us to use our moral imaginations as well as our logical skills. The tradition is also a developing body of thought, and contemporary formulations of it must be in constant conversation across the generations and centuries with the old masters of moral reasoning.

As the Spanish will soon learn, a pacifism whose policy outcome is the appeasement of evil offers no answer to today’s world disorder. Neither is a crude Realpolitik in which might automatically makes right. Moral reasoning about world politics for serious Catholics involves engaging the just war tradition. The time of forgetting must end, or the Terrible Simplifiers will make things even more dangerous for the peace they, and the rest of us, seek.

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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