Just War Theory

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"Principles of the Just War"
  1. A just war can only be waged as a last resort. All non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
  2. A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society and outsiders to the society deem legitimate.
  3. A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered. For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause (although the justice of the cause is not sufficient to justify war--see point #4). Further, a just war can only be fought with right purpose: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.
  4. A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.
  5. The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.
  6. The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.
  7. The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target. "Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation."[1]

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Church's teaching on peace and war are found in CCC 2302-2330.

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 modem 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.
Public authorities, in this case, have the right and duty to impose on citizens the obligations necessary for national defense.
Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations. If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace.[2]
Public authorities should make equitable provision for those who for reasons of conscience refuse to bear arms; these are nonetheless obliged to serve the human community in some other way.[3]
The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. "The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties."[4]
Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.
Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions. Blind obedience does not suffice to excuse those who carry them out. Thus the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.
"Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation."[5] A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons - to commit such crimes.


My personal view: Every war is and should be a religious war. If the combatants do not think that their actions are pleasing to God and in keeping with the laws of human nature (the natural law), then they have no business taking life or risking life in combat.

The Catholic Church is infallible in teaching about faith and morals. It is NOT infallible in declaring that the conditions for a just war do or do not exist. Church leaders may offer their opinions about particular circumstances, but they do so as responsible citizens and NOT as the authoritative teachers of the tradition.

Prudence is wisdom about practical matters. It is the virtue by which we judge what is to be done in specific situations. Intelligent, well-intentioned people often disagree about what ought to be done in particular circumstances. "A stitch in time saves nine" but "Haste makes waste." "Look before you leap" but "He who hesitates is lost." "Strike while the iron is hot" but "Marry in haste, repent at leisure." "A penny saved is a penny earned" but "Penny wise and pound foolish."

Deciding whether a particular war is just or not requires prudential judgment. The Church's claim to infallibility does NOT cover matters like this; only those elements of practical judgment that are intrinsically related to the deposit of faith are within the scope of the Church's teaching authority. The Church presents the essential principles of morality, but it is up to the well-formed conscience of the individual to determine how the principles apply to particular cases.

I think it is a grave error to attribute sin, the violation of religious traditions, to the religious traditions themselves. The Catholic and Protestant terrorists who have murdered hundreds of innocent civilians are not acting on Christian principles. The priests who abused children did not act on the principles of the Catholic Church. The Muslim suicide-murderers who have killed thousands of innocent people do not represent the best interpretation of the religion of Islam [Problem: Muhammed was a warrior who led troops in battle]. The Polish people who massacred Jews routinely from 1648 to World War II violated the teachings of the Church. "Wars of religion" are rooted in sin, not in religion. The antidote to such sins lies in embracing true religion, not in rejecting religion.


  1. Gaudium et Spes #80--the final document of Vatican II, 1965.
  2. Cf. GS 79 § 5.
  3. Cf. GS 79 § 3.
  4. 79 § 4.
  5. GS 80 #3.