Reflections on the “Catholic Thoughts on War” of Prof. Paul Griffiths

 by Albert Schorsch, III

From the Cardinal Newman Quarterly, 1(3):3,9-10, April 4, 2002.


Copyright, 2002, 2007, Albert Schorsch, III. 

In the 1/28/02 issue of the Cardinal Newman Quarterly, Paul J. Griffiths, Schmitt Professor Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, stated that many American Catholic thinkers have failed to think first as Catholics on whether the US military action in Afghanistan since 9/11/01 is morally defensible.  Prof. Griffiths's argument can be summarized:

1.      The default assumption of Catholic moral thought is that war is unjust.

2.      Overwhelming evidence is necessary to overturn this default assumption and justify war, following the Catholic just war principles (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2309)  of  just cause (lasting, grave, and certain damage from aggression),  last resort, serious prospect of success,  and appropriate use of arms not resulting in a greater evil.

3.      Such certain evidence has not been produced to date.  To claim that we have such evidence is epistemic immodesty, claiming to know more than what we know.

4.      Therefore, the US military action in Afghanistan is unjust, and is defended in reality upon American exceptionalism from moral law, rather than sound moral principles.

Prof. Griffiths's arguments provoke my reflection on five questions:

What can the citizen know with certainty of world events?

Are governments ever really capable of efficiently killing only the guilty?

Should the Church be in the business of justifying war?

In what ways is Prof. Griffiths's interpretation of Catholic just war principles incomplete?

Does the threat of mass terror and destruction justify precipitous moral action?


On Public Certainty.

Prof. Griffiths made the point that much of what is known of public events is known incompletely if not falsely.  On this point I agree.  A recent and well-known example comes from the early days of the Gulf War, in which certain Iraqi atrocities at a Kuwaiti hospital were claimed, described to the US Congress, and then later shown to be false.  Accounts of these atrocities were used in part to justify the US action in the Gulf War.  On the other hand, generations of supporters of state socialism, and some “true believers” to this day, refused to believe accounts of millions killed in the Soviet prisons, even after Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn published at great personal risk his painstaking research in the Gulag Archipelago.   Similarly, the WWII massacre of thousands of Polish leaders in the Katyn forest was not found with certainty to be on Stalin’s orders until the fall of the Soviets in 1989.  The Soviets had always blamed the Nazis and taught this lie to little Polish children.  The Chinese continue to deny the systematic reduction of the Tibetans, in spite of overwhelming physical evidence produced in part by the National Geographic Society.  These are only a few examples of state-supported falsehood.

Public falsehood has many sources such as public shame, or in group loyalty. The full horror and extent of lynchings of African Americans in the United States is only now coming into the public consciousness, many decades after these heinous acts.  

Public certainty may thus sometimes only arise a century after an event, after stakeholders in falsehood have passed from the scene.  And some public falsehoods are remarkably enduring.  Elizabeth I of England is four hundred years later regularly portrayed on American stage and screen as a benign monarch, never mind her murderous policies in Ireland and as a religious persecutor in England.

Public action does not often have the luxury of public certainty, which can come centuries hence.  Had we waited until the Gulag Archipelago was opened up to find how bad it was and why it must be stopped, we might never have stopped it in time to publicly know that it was really worth stopping.  But enough people in positions of responsibility made the judgment the gulags must be stopped based upon information initially not publicly available, and shaped Cold War public policy accordingly.  Remember, Churchill was roundly criticized at the time for his Iron Curtain speech almost sixty years ago, which to some seemed a bit hasty.  

It is here, therefore, that the Church differs a bit with Prof. Griffiths.  The Church recognizes that public decisions must be made in the context of public uncertainty.  It is not the citizens, who cannot know all, but those responsible in government, who must in any case decide, who make the choice for or against warfare.  The Church recognizes this when it states, "The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good (Catechism, #2309)." 

Government must thus do its best.  And we must do our best as citizens to keep government honest, by electing honest leaders, and preserving open systems of information and government.  Here research universities make a big difference.  But we'll never know for sure that what we are being told at any given time is the whole truth.  That is why it is best for citizens to be extremely cautious in endorsing war.   In this respect I agree with Prof. Griffiths's cautious approach.  He is right that Americans do tend to take their government's word on this matter, and factor this word into their moral judgment on war prior to examining the moral questions.  But I will disagree on a related matter further below.

On Whether Governments can Justly Kill

The answer here is generally no.  Catholic teaching asks government to make war to prevent something worse from happening, or to redress a wrong.  Government, being composed of compromises of every fashion, can be just and sometime efficiently so in the long run, but has difficulties with the short.  Governments tend to shoot first and ask questions later when public actions of self-defense are incumbent.  War kills those in the vicinity of the war, innocent or no, despite continual improvements in technology.  Technology, by the way, does not guarantee the rapid transmission of true information, but simply rapid transmission.  Thus we rightly hesitate to begin war, should diligently attempt to avoid loss of life during war, and should attempt to stop it as soon as the needs of self-defense have been met.

Should the Church Justify Particular Wars?

Rarely.  Abe Lincoln may have had the final word on this one in his Second Inaugural Address:  Each one of the belligerents "pray to the same God."  Hostilities generally begin with or without the Church's help or justification.  Nonetheless, this justification is sought.  Witness the well-crafted religious references in the President’s speeches in the days before the attack on Afghanistan commenced.  The Church should exercise great caution in declaring particular wars just, since religious carte blanche might be implied for all that happens in war thereafter.  The Church should primarily preach its moral truths, and generally leave the justification of a particular war to the government, which can always be shown to be wrong.  One of the Church's teachings is self-defense, and the Church, since the time of Peter and Paul, recognized the need for what Augustine later called the "tranquility of order" as essential to the common good.  The Church speaks loudly when disarming of the aggressor (Catechism, #2266) is necessary, and this principle formed Cardinal George's statement on the Afghanistan war.  The Church plays a much more practical role, however, calling for the limitation to or end of  hostilities, and to the care of victims of war, than in justifying war’s beginning. 

What did Prof. Griffiths omit?

The specific role of responsible authority's prudential judgment (see above), and the Catholic teaching on the necessity of disarming the aggressor (also above).

Does the Threat of Mass Terror and Destruction Challenge the Just War Teaching?

Here I end by almost agreeing with Prof. Griffiths, that, outside of the moral imperative to disarm the aggressor which he didn't address in detail, the Afghanistan war may not yet be justified based on the conditions of last resort, probability of success (a bit of argument here, too), or avoiding greater harm.   And now I further disagree by arguing that mass terror is a special case, requiring further formal integration of self-defense into the just war teaching.

Let's say there is a terror group traveling the world with weapons that could destroy a city or a major portion of it (which there is), and has proven they are more than a paper threat by killing thousands (which they have).   It would be necessary for the public good to disarm this group (which the US and allies are trying to do).  This group capitalizes on weak or tolerant governments.  It is just to pursue this group to the end of the earth until they are disarmed? 

Yes.  The jus ad bellum, just decision toward making war, case should be met in the case of mass destructive terror on the self-defense argument alone, once an act of mass destruction has been committed.  Thus it was just, on self-defense grounds, to bomb the terrorist training camps.  Hot pursuit to disarm terror seems to suspend the last resort condition, but not indefinitely.  At this point jus in bello, justice during war, questions come to the fore.  After hot pursuit the terrorists begin to disappear, and evaporate into the countryside.  On whom does one then make war?  Every effort at that point should go into reestablishing civil order, on reducing warfare, and on preparations for the next hot pursuit until the terrorists are disarmed. 

A more difficult question not directly addressed by Catholic just war teaching arises:  Is preventative, violent intervention allowed at the point a weapon of mass destruction is simply constructed?  Such reasoning should not serve as a “Trojan Horse” past the strictures of the just war teaching.  Any state could claim that another had a weapon of mass destruction in development, and thus begin a war.  But in cases where it can be demonstrated that a regime had already used weapons of mass destruction, the self-defense argument against mass destruction takes on more force.

Those who make war are obligated to remain to restore civil society, rather than depart and leave a population in anarchy.  American abandonment of the Afghans after their war with the Soviets arguably left the door open for Al Qaeda.  The joint restoration of civil society by belligerents after war thus should be formalized explicitly within the Catholic Catechism, where currently it is only implicit.  This restoration is mentioned in other Catholic social documents. 

Was the bombing of Afghanistan excessive?  Here I agree with Prof. Griffiths's implication that it most likely was.  Some credit should go now to the US and allied military, who seem to be honestly taking stock, investigating unnecessary deaths, issuing reports, and where at all possible offering reparations.  This process should continue, and speaks well of those who do this truth-seeking in war.

The Catholic just war teaching grew over the centuries based upon assumptions, as states grew, that war will take place between cities or states, and prior to the invention of weapons of mass destruction.  Terror has changed this assumption, and brought self-defense justifications into a primary position in moral evaluation of war against terror.  But we should not ever forget how war, no matter how justly begun, is earthly injustice itself, requiring constant scrutiny and early end. 

Further discussion is necessary to explore the capacity of terror to demoralize, in every sense of the word, a world.  We should not surrender morality, and principally the just war teachings,  in order to fight terror.  I thank Prof. Griffiths for reminding us of that.  But we should better incorporate into our just war imperatives the obligation for self-defense by disarming aggressors, as well as the obligation to rebuild society. 

Copyright, 2002, 2007, Albert Schorsch, III.  All Rights Reserved. Permission granted for publication in Cardinal Newman Quarterly during 2002. Completed 4/1/02