What the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about ‘just war’

Free Syrian Army fighters drive a captured Syrian military tank in Khanasir Aug. 29. As speculation mounted about air strikes on Syria, Western church leaders warned military intervention could lead to an escalation of hostilities. (CNS photo/Molhem Bara kat)
Free Syrian Army fighters drive a captured Syrian military tank in Khanasir Aug. 29. As speculation mounted about air strikes on Syria, Western church leaders warned military intervention could lead to an escalation of hostilities. (CNS photo/Molhem Bara kat)

With news on the United States’ imminent military action in Syria, some Catholics may be be asking themselves what the Church says about war. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.” (§2307)

The Church teaches, however, that some wars are justified.

Certainly, war has not been rooted out of human affairs. As long as the danger of war remains and there is no competent and sufficiently powerful authority at the international level, governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted. State authorities and others who share public responsibility have the duty to conduct such grave matters soberly and to protect the welfare of the people entrusted to their care. But it is one thing to undertake military action for the just defense of the people, and something else again to seek the subjugation of other nations. Nor, by the same token, does the mere fact that war has unhappily begun mean that all is fair between the warring parties.

Gaudium et Spes, §79

The Catechism summaries the just war doctrine in §2308-2309:

All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.

However, “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.”

2309 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.

— Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2308-2309

With these excerpts of the Catechism in mind, do you think U.S. military action in Syria is justified?