Is the use of military force ever morally justified?
Q: I recently read Pope Francis’ interview from his flight back from South Korea, and I am confused about something he said about the situation in Iraq: “It is licit to stop the unjust aggressor.” In saying this, isn’t the pope going against what the church teaches, that killing is always a sin? The pope seems to be contradicting what we believe as Catholics.
A: Thank you for your question! It is a good one and on many people’s minds these days: For Catholics, can the use of military force ever be seen as licit or just?
Pope Francis was responding to a question regarding the U.S. military response to ISIS’ military aggression in Iraq. Pope Francis was asked, “Do you approve of the U.S. bombing in Iraq?” He said, “In these cases where there is unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor. I underscore the verb ‘stop’; I don’t say bomb, make war — stop him. The means by which he may be stopped should be evaluated.”
Many have taken this to mean that Pope Francis was somehow going against the church’s commitment to peace in the world and approving of war. While in a sense he was condoning war in some cases, he was most certainly not going against church teaching. He was, in fact, applying it.
Obliged to work for peace
Through our baptisms, each of us has been commissioned to help build a peaceful and just world and to help bring about the kingdom of God here on earth. We do this by first seeking to create peace in our hearts and then working outward in concentric circles to our families, friends, places of work and ultimately the world. This includes avoiding war and not breaking the fifth commandment.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.” (CCC 2308) But while we seek peace, there are times when military action cannot be avoided. When the pope said “it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” he meant that the church does foresee times when military action is called for, as with the situation in Iraq.
Underneath the surface of Pope Francis’ answer is what is called “just war” doctrine. This is the set of principles (first formulated by St. Augustine and further developed by St. Thomas Aquinas) that the church uses to figure out when conflict is just (licit) and when it is unjust (illicit).
Four strict conditions for war
The church teaches that governments and people cannot be denied the right to a lawful self-defense if, and only if, all peaceful efforts have failed. According to just war doctrine, defense by military force is morally legitimate only when four strict conditions are met:
First, the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain. Second, all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective. Third, there must be serious prospects of success. And lastly, the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders more serious than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. (see CCC 2309)
These are the traditional elements that make up just war doctrine. The responsibility for applying these principles to real-world and real-time situations belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good, such as national governments.
In his answer, Pope Francis was supporting the use of violence and military force if, and only if, the situation passes the test of just war doctrine.
May God’s blessings be with you today and always!
In a Sept. 29 address to the United Nations, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin expanded on Pope Francis’ comments, arguing that “it is both licit and urgent to stop aggression through multilateral action and a proportionate use of force.” Read his full address.
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