Is war always unjust?

Cristiana de Magistris has explained well the nature of Christian peace (Voice of the Family Digest, 26 Nov), which is the Church’s moral imperative and a precept of divine law. Peace, however, is not the mere absence of war but is founded on the order established by God; and only the state which promotes or at least respects this order can enjoy political and social tranquility.

So, for the sake of achieving peace, it is no use appealing to a purely human idea of brotherhood among men. Often, indeed, this leads to the opposite result. The twentieth century — the bloodiest in history — began under the banner of the myths of peace and universal brotherhood. But as the First World War broke out, Benedict XV was already warning: 

“Never perhaps was there more talking about the brotherhood of men than there is today… But in reality never was there less brotherly activity amongst men than at the present moment.”

Encyclical Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, 1 November 1914

Nor is entrusting the realisation of peace to human instruments sufficient for attaining it. Pius XI, in the encyclical Caritate Christi Compulsi  (3 May 1932), cautioned that neither “peace treaties, nor the most solemn pacts, nor international meetings or conferences, nor even the noblest and most disinterested efforts of any statesman, will be enough, unless in the first place are recognised the sacred rights of natural and divine law”.

If all among them are brothers, St James asks the first Christians, why the wars and contentions? To this question the same Apostle replies, “are they not hence, from your concupiscences, which war in your members?” (Js 4:1). All disorder, individual and collective, comes from disordered passions, which include all the impulses to sin which exist in man as a result of Original Sin and the threefold concupiscence denounced by the Gospel — concupiscence of the flesh, concupiscence of the eyes and the pride of life (1 Jn 2:16). These profound tendencies are the root of wars, revolutions and every social cataclysm. The Magisterium of the Church teaches that the deep and true causes of war are not political or economic but rather spiritual and moral in nature, and can be traced back to the violation of the natural and Christian order: in a word, to the abandonment of God’s law in individual, national and international life.

Pius XII, in the encyclical Summi Pontificatus (20 October 1939), teaches that:

“the radical and ultimate cause of the evils which We deplore in modern society is the denial and rejection of a universal norm of morality for individual and social life as well as for international relations; We mean the disregard, so common nowadays, and the forgetfulness of the natural law itself, which has its foundation in God, Almighty Creator and Father of all, supreme and absolute Lawgiver, all-wise and just Judge of human actions.”

Peace, John Paul II reaffirms, has its foundation in the “rational and moral order” of society, founded on God (Message for the World Day of Peace, 1 January 1982).

Relativism, which goes against natural and divine law, is the cause of all social tension and revolt. According to the relativist vision dominant today, there is in fact no universal moral norm; the only law is the self-determination of individuals and states. Once the natural order has been dismantled, the rule of law is replaced with that of force, or rather that of violence, because the precise distinction between force and violence is that of respect for the law and its transgression.

The use of force can be legitimate if law requires it. Not every war is in itself unjust, explains theologian Francisco Suárez (1548–1617), the “Eminent Doctor” who dedicates disputatio XIII of his treatise De caritate to this theme.

“War, strictly speaking, is neither intrinsically evil nor forbidden to Christians. This is a matter of faith and is expressed in Scripture, for in the Old Testament, wars waged by most holy men are praised (Gen 14:19–20): ‘Blessed be Abram … And blessed be God, by whose protection the enemies are in thy hands.’ There one also reads of Moses, Joshua, Samson, Gideon, David, the Maccabees, and others whom God often commanded to wage war against the enemies of the Hebrews; and Paul, in Hebrews 11:33, says that by faith the saints conquered kingdoms; the same is confirmed by further testimony from the Fathers, as found in Gratian (23, qq. 1 and 2), and likewise in Ambrose (On Duties, various chapters).”

Defensive warfare, the theologian distinguishes, is that which repels unjust aggression as it is being inflicted. Aggressive or offensive war, on the other hand, is that which is waged to redress an injustice already committed. The criterion of the distinction does not concern the justice or injustice of war, but the initiative of recourse to the use of force; in the first case, the initiative belongs to the perpetrator of the injustice and war is waged in self-defence; in the second, the initiative is taken by the one who has suffered injustice, who after trying by all other means to obtain reparation, resorts to force. Aggressive warfare is therefore not necessarily bad in itself “but can be honest and necessary”. On condition of resorting to it only when no other means can be used and the injury to be redressed is so serious as to require recourse to a means so fraught with consequences.

The Church has consistently taught the legitimacy of war waged for a just cause. Its traditional doctrine can be summarised in these terms: war in itself, as the use of force, is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad: it becomes good or bad, just or unjust according to the ends proposed. War is unlawful for those who wage it without a just cause and unduly; but it is lawful, and indeed, in some cases obligatory for those who wage it with just cause and in the proper manner. In particular, defensive warfare against an unjust aggressor is always lawful because peoples, like individuals, have the natural right to legitimate defence.

Today, faced with the dramatic reality of an armed conflict which is bloodying Europe, the key point is to establish whether there are spiritual and moral goods of such value as to deserve to be defended even at the cost of undergoing the horrors of modern warfare. Faced with a choice between legitimate goods that differ in quality, such as the material well-being of the people or its moral patrimony, the statesman will always have to put higher goods before lower ones, even at the cost of sacrificing the latter in a war. For Christian souls, in fact, war and death are not necessarily the greater evil. War, as Romano Amerio observed, is the greatest of evils only for those who adopt the irreligious viewpoint that sees the supreme good in life, and not in the transcendent end of life (Iota Unum, Ricciardi, Milan/Naples 1985, p. 379). For those who, on the contrary, affirm the primacy of the life of the spirit over that of matter, the proportion between the evils caused by war, and the good that it is meant to protect, will always be in favour of the good, provided that the right upheld and violated is important. The Christian can tolerate the existence of an evil but does not desire it; nor does he carry it out, even for serious reasons, in order to achieve the good. In the case of war, the end remains the good of peace; the means that he will choose to reach this end, even if they must proceed by way of arms, must always be good and just. Only in this case can a war call itself “just”, and aspire with justice to achieve peace: opus justitiae pax (Is 32:17).