This great article from Crisis Magazine rebuts the recent article claiming just war theory has run its course and should be dropped by making the proper case that just war theory is still valid within Catholic teaching for a very good reason; it is true.
In an essay that appeared recently on National Catholic Reporter online, Professor Terrence Rynne of Marquette University offered five reasons that support abandoning Catholic Just War Theory and toward what he calls a positive vision of peace:
◾Modern wars have made the just war theory obsolete;
◾The rise of a Christology “from below”;
◾A clearer understanding of how the New Testament relates to contemporary problems;
◾A renewed appreciation of the way the early church practiced Jesus’ teachings on peace;
◾The compelling, thrilling saga of nonviolent action over the 60 years since Gandhi.
In this essay I’m going to address what I consider to be the most important of these reasons—the changing character of war—to see if it really does demand abandoning a millennium-and-a-half old tradition of Just War in favor of a half-century old tradition of non-violence.
Professor Rynne’s argument is that war has evolved in ways that render two of the key traditional criteria of just war—discrimination and proportionality—“null and void.” Whereas during the First World War, he asserts, civilian deaths were a mere 10 percent of total fatalities, “in modern wars, such as the internal conflict in Syria or the U.S. invasion of Iraq, civilian deaths … range from 80 percent to 90 percent of all war casualties.” He concludes from this that, “by the very criteria of the just war theory, in our era there is no such thing as a justified war.” Modern wars have made just war theory obsolete.
What are we to make of this claim? Well, to begin with, one might ask why, of all the wars that have been fought since Ambrose and Augustine first articulated the basics of Catholic Just War Theory, the baseline for asserting that today’s wars are inherently disproportional and indiscriminate should be the First World War. Why not the Thirty years War (some German states suffered civilian fatalities approaching 40 percent of the total population)? Why not the Hundred Years War (under 200,000 battlefield fatalities out of a total of about 3,000,000 total war-related deaths)? As even a cursory review of wars fought between the years 500 and 2000 indicate, the First World War was a statistical outlier in terms of the proportion of civilian to military fatalities. When judged against most of the wars fought over the past millennium-and-a-half, today’s wars are not particularly indiscriminate or disproportional. Indeed, depending on who is fighting them they may be decidedly less so than ever before.
Perhaps more important, however, is the logically prior question raised by Professor Rynne’s argument: how, precisely, are proportionality and discrimination defined within the CJW tradition? I say logically prior because unless and until we come to a correct understanding of what those two criteria entail (and do not entail) we will have insufficient grounds upon which to assess the empirical claim that contemporary warfare has mutated to the point where it is inherently disproportionate and indiscriminate and, therefore, universally unjust. Let’s take the principle of proportionality first. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, this principle requires that “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated” (CCC 2309). With respect to jus ad bellum, this principle requires that the good expected when taking up arms be greater than the damage anticipated as a result of doing so. With respect to jus in bello, it means that the violence employed to achieve a just cause must not be excessive or needlessly harmful. The principle of discrimination, on the other hand, stipulates that “non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely” and that “every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation” (CCC 2314).
It is important to note, however, that while these principles are intended to limit the use of force, they are not intended to eliminate it. Proportionality is about limiting both the recourse to war and the degree of force actually employed in war. It is not about eliminating recourse to war altogether. Discrimination is about limiting non-combatant casualties. It is not about reducing non-combatant casualties to zero. The underlying logic at play here is the need to strike a balance between military necessity on the one hand and moral obligation on the other. Catholic just war theory recognizes this and provides us with a tool to strike that balance: the law of double effect. This law holds that an act—including an act of war—is just if it meets the following three conditions:
◾the act itself must not be intrinsically evil;
◾the evil effect must not be a desired end but an undesired side-effect of the act; and,
◾the good effect of the act must exceed the evil effect.