On our continuing journey down Being Frank's memory lane, and in light of the Government yesterday saying it will send troops to the Middle East to assist in the fight against ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State — and the NZ Bishops supporting that decision — this post from EyeWitness in October 2006 examines the Catholic understanding on war.
Something that has always vaguely puzzled me is how come war “heroes” are regarded as such even though they killed people in war. Are you allowed to kill people in war as a special exception to the commandment “thou shall not kill?”
Customary International Law and the Geneva Conventions certainly say the killing of a combatant by another combatant in an international armed conflict is not murder, and is legal. It’s an odd concept really that at international law we have all these rules about how we might kill each other and conduct wars against each other. The use of force is illegal unless in self defence. Fundamentally, you must always distinguish between civilians and combatants once you're at war. If you are going to kill civilians (collateral damage) the military advantage or military necessity must outweigh the loss of innocent life. You can use certain weapons but not others that cause unnecessary or superfluous suffering. Not that you would notice that countries have agreed to any rules at all if you watch the news!
So are we justified as Catholics in going to war? The catechism of the Catholic Church states on legitimate defence that:
2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. "The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not."65
2264 Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one's own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow:
If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one's own life than of another's.66
2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.
The theory of “Just War” is thought to have been first developed by St Augustine. He writes of the right of rulers to declare a just war to maintain peace. St Thomas thought a sovereign has the lawful right of recourse to “the sword” to defend its people against internal strife by punishing those that do evil for the common good, justified by St Paul in verse 4 of Chapter 13 in the letter to the Romans. Moral theologians have taught that “only an injury so grave that it outweighs the risks and losses of war is a justification for making war”. The second Vatican Council justified “the right of a nation to defend itself by a discriminate and proportionate use of force as a last resort”.
Modern age warfare with its massive destruction capabilities has come along since the era of the bible. It’s quite scary what we can do to each other. Obviously we should avoid war if at all possible, but could we have stood back and let Hitler kill so many people because we didn’t want to use armed force? Would the Iraq war have been justified if it had turned out they really did have nuclear weapons and were a threat to world peace and security? Would you feel justified pulling the trigger of a gun and killing another human being?
Or is this all a little heavy for a Sunday afternoon!!