Pacifist Fight to End the Just War Theory

· Morality

It is reported that at a Vatican conference, one is considering a change in the teaching that a war may be fought if it is for a just reason.

While we can respect the opinions of those religions, such as that of the Religious Society of Friends, a.k.a. Quakers, who have anti-bellicosity as the cornerstone of their faith, to argue against a “just war theory” is fallacious.

First of all, to state the obvious,  the theory under discussion is not one clothed in scientific terms, and as such, cannot be disproved. It would be better to call it “the just war concept”.  It only need to be in conformity with traditional moral teaching.

The second fallacy is to suggest, based on what the “theory” teaches, that there can be no just grounds for a war.  Would these people want to have all military people, and their enablers, behind bars, for advocating injustice? The notion is fanatical – and such zealots would not hesitate to have those with the power of arrest, whether police or not, considered on a level superior to the military, even if dressed in paramilitary garb.

Finally, perhaps redundant to our first point, the “theory”  would best be called a doctrine.  It would be most strange that the Catholic Church, an institution which claims to base its teaching not just on the Bible, but on tradition, would want to nullify a teaching incorporated into its Catechism of 1989 in Paragraph 2309.

At the time of this writing, it was not clear if the aforementioned Church would take a new position, but it certainly seemed to take under its wings a group advocating the change.

Without repeating what can easily be found elsewhere, let us look into the just war doctrine  a little more deeply, considering, for the present, quotations from Roman Catholics, the Church of England; Spain, the United States;  clerics, jurists, and journalists.  All the following have been found on-line in Google Books.  Because of excessively large URLs, links are not made to the actual pages involved.

We will not follow the apparent teachings of the time of Bartoleme Las Casas [Catholic World, Vol. 6, New York, Catholic Publication House, 1868, p. 845] when our source claims that “Every war undertaken by a civilized nation, and declared in the usual forms, with the solemn religious ceremonies, was held to be a just war.  it was an appeal to the God of armies, as an umpire or judge; it was the ordeal by battle. When a victory was won, it was held by he victors a divine decision in their favor; the vanquished were deemed criminals before high heaven; and as punishment they were put to death.”

An Anglican Bishop, William Beveridge, realated, “‘For the Fathers,’ saith Basil, ‘accounted slaughters in war to be no murders, as I think excusing such who strive for temperance and piety’…” On the same page, it is made clear that the discussion is about lawful war. [Ecclesia Anglicana Ecclesia Catholica: Or the Doctrine of the Church of England, Volumen 2, William Beveridge (Bp. of St. Asaph), University Press, 1840,  p. 426.]

More learned, American jurist James Kent (1763-1847), in part paralleled the Catholic doctrine in writing “We must act according to the dictates of a well-informed judgment, resting upon a careful and diligent examination of the facts, and every pacific mode of redress is to be tried faithfully and perseveringly, before the nation resorts to arms.” [“Lecture III, Of the Law of Nations” in Commentaries on American Law, Volumen 1James Kent, O. Halsted, 1826, p. 47.]

That idea, with some extension, worked as far as the Nuremberg Trials, we might say, but it is not just war theory as taught in books on morality. Further, it says nothing about one of the parties not recognizing the Christian God’s decision. No doubt though, a competing religion would consider their God to have favoured any of their victories.

American journalist Frank Moore (1828–1904), one-time Assistent-Secretary of the Legation in Paris stated “… the object of a just war is to suppress injustice and compel justice …” [The Rebellion Record, Supplement, First Vol., “Documents”,  G. P. Putnam, 1864,  p. 61].

A defect of the theory is noted by John Penford Thomas in A Treatise of Universal Jurisprudence. He implicitly accepts righteous wars in saying, “Morally, a just war only can give good title to possessions.” A problem, however, is correctly pointed out, what we now call “victors’ justice”. “But as the power declaring was is necessarily the party competent to determine its justice, the principle, although it exist in theory, can scarcely be applied to the affairs of nations. The justice of the war is confided to the breast of the war makers; …” [“On International Law”, Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1828,   p. 423].  The humanity expressed in the associated pages predates, and perhaps exceeds that which was to be shown by the Geneva Conventions.

In our article Moral or Ethical Systems for the Correct Formation of Conscience, we see that if ideas of right and wrong are correctly formed, one avoids both the permissive and restrictive. This is also seen in a work entitled, La moral universal o Los Deberes del hombre fundados en la naturaleza, Vol 2. Rhetorically, it is asked, (and we translate) “What then, in truth, is war (outside of the case of a just and necessary defense) but the most cruel violation of the sacrosant rights of justice and humanity?” [no author, trans. D.M.D.M, Madrid: García & Compañía, 1812, p. 6].  But the source which we have previously praised, James Kent’s, would have an individual only following probabiliorism when resolving the doubt about participating in a war: “If the justice of the war was even doubtful, or not known affirmatively to be unjust, the vassal was bound to assist …” [p. 43].  In our litigious times, the “vassal” might get off, but not at the time when the principle applied.

The Spaniards, before Columbus set out, had their own version of a Fatwa, as can be seen in this, our translation from Teorïa de las cortes o grandes juntas nacionales de los reinos de Leon y Castilla: “The nobles and the clergy voted “that the war which the lord our king wished to wage is holy and just and very necessary in [both] God’s service and his, and that everyone is ready to do render all help and services of which one is capable.” [2nd part, Fancisco Martinez Marina, Madrid, 1813, pp.234-5].

We have limited ourselves to material which anyone using a computer is capable of accessing, and in the case of foreign languages, one can verify through appropriate software the correctness of our translation.

We wish to make the following observations:

It is as reasonable for a country to exercise self-defense as it is for any individual.

That there are victims in the aggressor country is as logical as it would be for the individual aggressor to be killed accidentally in a fight using no more than the necessary amount of violence, something difficult to calculate.

This discussion is pure fluff.  It concerns at most about 100,000 Catholic seminarians (calculated from statistics here), assuming 4 years of study, and that all would be subjected to the new teaching, but 2 years are common, so it would concern even less potential priests.  These priests would then have to be in a position to suggest, or not, the doctrine to the head of a state or to someone in the armed forces, who would be Catholic to even bother listening to such advice.  This leaves us with almost 200 countries, many of which are island nations, never in a position to wage a war.  We are left with some nominallly Catholic countries in Latin America, not even a handful in Europe, the Philippines, Poland, and an occasional country with a Roman Catholic at the helm, but not necessarily practising.

It makes this writer wonder why a discussion about something which would in the end have had so little impact in world politics should become an article which would thus have so few readers!

We could ask, “Cui bono?”, but have already criticized such a question in a separate article.  It is, though, safe to say, for the moment, nobody.  In theory, society.   In other words, the anti-just war theory would be as useless as the just war theory, as suggested at the beginning of this article.  It is no “theory”, in that it cannot be disproved.  We might argue about the exact criteria for a just war, but to say that there is no criterion at all is suicidal in the modern world.  It would be necessary to go back into the Stone Age to prevent wars, for a Bronze Age battle is reported to have occurred around 1250 B.C. in Northern Europe, involving perhaps 4000 men.

Our defense of violence obeys no other principle than the preceding, in the overall context of what we believe to be moral behaviour. We do not sell arms, nor teach self-defence techniques, so obtain no economic benefit from our position.  We are not from a family of warriors, rather, the author’s father was demoted for pointing out in a certain conflict, “We haven’t won the war yet”.  Upon retreat, he observered to his officer, “What do you have to say now?”

Those observations are what we would call a species of Realpolitik in the private sphere.  Sometimes, such Realpolitik may be necessary on a national or international level.


© April 16-17, 2016, Paul Karl Moeller.

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