Blessed are the peacemakers

Things Old and New
By Ruth Powers

“Blessed are the Peacemakers, for they shall be called the Children of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

It seems that we cannot turn on the television or pick up a newspaper without being bombarded with news and images of violence and warfare throughout the world. This is certainly nothing new. War has been a part of human existence since the first two tribes of cavemen picked up rocks and sticks to throw at each other.

Ruth Powers

The Bible is full of stories of war; war that the Biblical authors at times indicated was commanded by God. With the coming of Jesus, he certainly taught that his followers were to be people of peace although he warned that others would take up arms against them; and the historical record shows that the earliest Christians were probably pacifists in response to Christ’s command. In fact, some of the early persecutions were sparked by Christians who refused to serve in the armies of Rome, thus appearing to be traitors to the emperor. This early attitude did not last, and by the Middle Ages the church itself fielded armies and went to war, sometimes on the flimsiest of pretexts.

As time passed and new methods of destruction in warfare developed, the church began to reclaim the earlier ideal that war was to be avoided, or at least only used as a last resort. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church the section dealing with avoiding war and Just War theory is introduced by the statement, “All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.” (CCC 2308) However, that statement is followed up with a quote from Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from the Second Vatican Council, that says, “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”

The conditions for legitimate defense by military force are based on the work of Sts. Augustine and Aquinas and are quite rigorous. They are outlined in section 2309 of the Catechism but have been explained and expanded by countless moral theologians and church leaders over the centuries.
First and most importantly, the war must be fought in order to confront an unquestioned danger. Economic motivations, the desire for expanded territory, or revenge are not considered just reasons. There must be no ulterior or masked motive in the declaration of a war. The “damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave and certain.”

Second, war must be declared by a proper authority acting on behalf of the nation. A private individual or group of individuals may not declare a war. Terrorist actions by groups or individuals are never allowable under Just War theory.

Third, armed conflict must be a last resort. All other means of resolving the issue must have been proven to be impractical or ineffective. All parties must have exhausted all means of resolving the conflict peacefully, including negotiation, mediation or embargoes.

Fourth, the war must have a reasonable chance of success in achieving its purpose. Finally, the good of waging the war must not be outweighed by its harm, especially to innocent non-combatants. The use of modern chemical, biological and nuclear weapons figures heavily into determining the legitimacy of a war. Some theologians have gone so far as to say that the use of those three classes of weapons can never be legitimate. If a country meets these criteria, then it may justly enter war. In addition, a country can come to the assistance of another country who is not able to defend itself if these criteria are met.

Even if the conditions for a Just War are met, there are still certain actions which are never morally acceptable in war. The extermination of a people, nation or ethnic minority (genocide) is never morally licit and must be resisted. “Only following orders” is not a moral defense. Non-combatants, the wounded, and prisoners of war are to be treated humanely. “Indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their civilian inhabitants is a crime against God and man.” (CCC 2313) Purposeful targeting of areas with large civilian populations is not allowed.

Modern popes, beginning with Pope Pius XII, who have seen the horrors of two World Wars and numerous smaller conflicts have spoken out forcefully against war and the destruction inherent in war. We as Catholic Christians are called to carefully evaluate the actions of our leaders and our own attitudes as we see our nation become involved in conflicts around the globe.

(Ruth Powers is the program coordinator for The Basilica of St. Mary in Natchez.)