There is a concept in Catholic theology, developed by Saint Thomas Aquinas among others, called Just War Theory, stating that there are certain circumstances in which a country can justifiably take part in a war. Throughout the centuries, the Church has refined its definition of what constitutes a just war. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that there are criteria for the use of military action:
The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
- there must be serious prospects of success;
- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.
There are many reasons for which this definition will preclude going to war. These reasons include going to war to build up wealth, to simply conquer a nation, or anything like this. Also, the threat must be real and serious. Therefore, there must be a real threat. If a nation says it will fire canons that may do limited damage to a building, this would probably not justify going to war.
Another very important aspect which the Catechism addresses is that all other means must be exhausted. This means using peaceful means such as the UN, or other international bodies, sanctions, and various other techniques. Until all of these peaceful techniques are used, war can never be justified.
A third condition is that the war cannot cause even greater destruction than if there had been no response to aggresive action. As a quick example, if a group took up torches and formed a riot, involving dozens of people, it would not be justified to send in tanks and destroy buildings, and kill hundreds of people.
The Catechism also states that those in the correct position, ie in the government, must make these decisions. This would normally preclude vigilante justice.
Finally, wars must conform to certain standards, even if it is found to be justifiable to go to war. War is always regrettable, but this should be minimized.
In light of this information, we must ask ourselves if the war in Iraq is justifiable. To many, including the former Pope, it is not. There is, however, no doctrine or official pronouncement made on this particular war. Therefore, Catholics are free to make their own decision regarding the legitimacy of this war.
There is however, overwhelming support for not being at war with Iraq from Catholic leaders in Rome, and all over the world. The Pope, who was Cardinal Ratzinger at the time, said the following, as reported by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:
Asked by reporters if U.S. military action against Iraq could be justified morally, he answered, "Certainly not in this situation."
"The United Nations exists. It must make the decisive choice," he said. "It is necessary that the community of peoples and not an individual power make the decision.
"And the fact that the United Nations is trying to avoid war seems to me to demonstrate with sufficient evidence that the damage which would result would be greater than the values trying to be saved," Avvenire reported the cardinal said.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops prayed for Peace, in their speech issued in 2002. (The following is from their website):
We pray for President Bush and other world leaders that they will find the will and the ways to step back from the brink of war with Iraq and work for a peace that is just and enduring. We urge them to work with others to fashion an effective global response to Iraq's threats that recognizes legitimate self defense and conforms to traditional moral limits on the use of military force.
The war in Iraq does not seem, for many, to be justifiable given the conditions outlined above. In situations where war is a possibility, all efforts must be made in order to prevent it, and to bring peace instead.