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What Is Catholic Just War Doctrine and How Does It Apply Today?

Q. Last summer we remembered the 75th anniversary of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. I’ve heard some Catholic say the bombings were justified because they saved American lives. Can you explain just war thinking and how it applies to these bombings? —Robert

A. The classical Catholic just war account derives from St. Augustine (354-430), who himself draws upon the theories of Cicero and St. Ambrose. Augustine’s account was picked up with minor emendations by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), whose own rendering was normative for Catholic theorists from the Middle Ages. The Second Vatican Council re-presents the classical account placing much greater emphasis on the avoidance of war and offering a very forceful condemnation of the use of contemporary weapons of mass destruction (Gaudium et spes, 80). And the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2307-2317) develops the classical account by conceiving war as a means of legitimate societal self-defense.

Just war theory traditionally has been formulated as a set of moral principles that act as conditions that need to be met in order for the decisions entailed in launching and prosecuting wars to uphold the requisites of justice. The most important is that wars be waged to correct some manifest injustice; this is referred to as the principle of just cause. Others include that war must be the best available remedy for correcting the injustice, and therefore solutions short of war should be employed if possible (principle of last resort); that public authority — and public authority alone — rightly decide questions of going to war (principle of public authority)that all evil intentions must be excluded in war’s declaring and prosecuting (principle of rightful intention), which entails (inter alia) the wrongness of the intention to kill non-combatants (principle of discrimination); that there should be a reasonable probability of success; and that if waging war would bring about a worse state of affairs, or if actions in war are more violent than what is necessary to accomplish the war’s just aims, then having recourse to war would be unjust (principle of proportionality). Augustine and Aquinas include a condition not found in contemporary accounts, which prohibits declaring falsehoods and breaking promises to an enemy (principle of good faith), which does not however require that one’s purposes or the meanings of one’s actions be declared.

You ask about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As you say, some Catholics still defend the United States’ decision to drop A-bombs on the two cities in August 1945. Their arguments almost always include the claim that the bombings saved lives — especially U.S. lives — hastening an end to the war. Whatever truth there is in the claim —and the “saving lives” claim is disputable — the intentional targeting of the civilian Japanese populations clearly falls under the condemnation of Vatican II: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” (Gaudium et Spes, 80), which was quoted again in full in the Catechism (2314).

Read more at National Catholic Register 

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