Just War and the Pacifist Offensive on Sovereignty

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Just War and the Pacifist Offensive on Sovereignty
Just War and the Pacifist Offensive on Sovereignty

The nation’s attention is rightly focused on the war in Iraq, where American and allied armed forces are bravely engaged in battle. At the same time, however, America is locked in a second war, one that is equally important for victory: the psychological battle for public opinion.

Both are difficult. Both are decisive. Even as our troops fight courageously in Iraq, the polemics on the issue of just war and America’s “unilateralism” continue. The debate is all the more important because there is the danger that while winning the ground war, we lose the battle of ideas in public opinion.

Indeed, in their impassioned quest for peace at any cost, some opponents of the war lose sight of important prerequisites for peace. They create an emotional climate that tends to obstruct clear thinking and warp the debate. They admit the possibility of just war in theory, but seem to deny there can ever be sufficient reason to wage it in practice. They argue that America cannot wage war without United Nations approval and condemn America for being “unilateral.”

Such arguments appear to be based on the blurring of the concept of sovereignty in general while attributing some of sovereignty’s prerogatives to an international organization.

In light of the fundamental importance of the ongoing war of ideas, The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP) presents some of the important issues surrounding just war and sovereignty. This is done in accordance with the principles of natural law1 as understood in traditional Catholic philosophy, accepted by authors of the various schools and found in the classical treatises on the subject.2

Of course, peace is preferable to war, and one must do everything reasonable to preserve it. War is an extreme measure to be used only when these reasonable alternatives are exhausted and, in waging war, all of the stipulations for just war must be observed.

The American TFP presents these considerations in the hope that they will help our Nation reach a consensus on fundamental principles undergirding the very concept of the sovereignty of civilized states.

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1.  The state, being a perfect society, is also the authority of last resort. There is no other political authority above it.

The state is a “perfect society,” that is, a society that possesses within itself all the powers necessary for lawfully and effectively attaining the end for which it was established and a correlative right to be obeyed by those subject to it. The state, therefore, has “self-sufficiency.” It has “the completeness of a comprehensive order, essentially independent from any other order of the same kind.”3

A state has international obligations as a member of the community of nations, but “the international order is an order of coordination and not of subordination.”4

International courts and organizations of nations are legitimate and useful so long as they are freely accepted by and respect the full sovereignty of member states.5 Such international organizations, however, depend on member states for their existence and not the other way around.

Indeed, as “natural societies,”6 states are antecedent to international organizations, which are “artificial” or “conventional” societies. These do not derive directly and necessarily from natural law because their existence is not required by man’s social nature, as happens with states.7 As artificial or conventional societies, international organizations are freely set up by states, which join or leave them in the measure that they help or hinder the states in fulfilling their ends.

2.  A sovereign state is entitled to enforce its corporate rights and those of its citizens, which may be violated or threatened by other states. Hence, a sovereign state can wage war independent of any authorization from international organizations when recourse to international arbitration proves insufficient or inadequate to safeguard these rights.

This conclusion stems from the previous one. In joining international organizations, a sovereign state cannot renounce those obligations that are its raison d’être, including the defense of its legitimate interests as a sovereign political entity and the legitimate rights and interests of its citizens. If a state could not resort to war when international arbitration proves insufficient to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests, or if war depended on authorization from some international organization, the state would lack all the powers necessary for lawfully and effectively attaining the end for which it was established.

Lacking this power, the state would actually cease to exist as a sovereign state, since it would lack an attribute of sovereignty: the power to make its own decisions as to the means needed to attain its ends. This decision-making power necessarily includes the right of coercion, that is, the right to impose its decisions by force. Without the right of coercion, sovereignty becomes an empty word. On the international level, this right of coercion translates into the right to wage war, which is but “an instance of the general moral power of coercion, i.e. to make use of physical force to conserve its rights inviolable.”8

3.  Under natural law, a nation need not wait for an unjust attack to exercise its right to self-defense; a serious and well-founded threat is sufficient for the threatened country to defend itself from the potential aggressor with a preemptive attack.

A nation’s right to self-defense encompasses not only the response to an attack on its rights and those of its citizens, but also the forestalling of probable aggression by means of a preemptive attack. Such preemptive action is offensive only in appearance.9

If it were unlawful for a prudent government to thwart the aggression which reliable sources permit it to foresee, the nation’s legitimate right to self-defense would be truncated. Experience shows that being able to strike first is sometimes the only way to survive an aggression. Hence, it is legitimate, according to natural law, for a government to forestall a probable attack, neutralizing the probable aggressor by force when there is no other alternative.

Indeed, no country has an obligation to expose its soldiers, people, and resources to unnecessary peril. Waiting for an attack to occur usually results in greater loss in lives and resources than a first strike aimed at preventing it. Thus, the threatened country has the right and, depending on the circumstances, the duty to prevent such damage to itself by preemption. Such forceful action is required by the virtues of prudence, justice, and even charity, which governments must exercise in pursuing the common good of their people. Hence it is not only licit but, in certain cases, imperative, to wage preemptive-defensive war which, as mentioned above, is offensive in appearance only.

This principle is all the more valid in modern warfare. Given the existence of weapons of mass destruction, a government that waits for an attack to occur would be remiss in its natural duty to protect its people.10

4.  Nations can use force not just in self-defense, but to seek redress for violated physical or moral goods, such as honor, or to help unjustly attacked allied or weaker nations. In so doing, nations reestablish international order and true peace.

Whereas individuals can appeal to public authority to enforce or recover their rights, the state has no such recourse because it is the highest political authority. Thus, when the rights of a state and those of its people cannot be sufficiently assured otherwise, it can use force.11

History shows that war is at times the only means a state can use to assure its own security and survival against the unjust attacks or claims of other states or to enforce fundamental rights that it cannot renounce without grave damage or dishonor.

This right to wage war, which can be a duty at times, encompasses more than strictly defensive military actions. It includes offensive actions as well.

The reasons for offensive war are generally related to grave harm suffered by states. Some of the examples given by Catholic philosophers are: forcing rebels into submission; recovering provinces or cities from an enemy; avenging a grave offense to the head of state or to the nation; punishing another nation for helping an unjust enemy; aiding an ally; punishing nations for the violation of treaties; seeking redress for the violation of rights assured by international law.

As stated above, these wars are only offensive in appearance; in fact, they are defensive.12 These wars seek to reestablish international order in true peace. “Peace is not disturbed by the declaration of war but through the violation of rights in the juridical order, which actually makes a declaration of war necessary.”13

5.  The distinction between defensive and offensive wars is totally secondary. What matters is whether a war is just or not.

Offensive wars can be just and defensive wars can be unjust. At times, the attacked nation is the actual cause of the war, not the nation initiating the attack. When this happens, the attacked nation fights back with a defensive war that is unjust in causa, because the nation should have avoided the provocation that led to the original attack. Hence, the nation initiating the attack is only a material aggressor, not a formal one. It would not have attacked but for the fact that its rights were unjustly violated. The attacking nation is not responsible for a war made necessary by the actions of another.

Consequently, the distinction between just and unjust war is not identical with the distinction between offensive and defensive war.14

6.  Just war is not opposed to charity; it is an act of charity to wage war to liberate a people oppressed by a tyrant.

Just war is not contrary to the virtue of charity. All virtues are harmoniously interrelated, so there can be no clash between the virtues of justice and charity.15 Indeed, one cannot suppose that God, the supreme Author and Legislator of nature, would grant individuals the right of self-defense and to societies the right to wage war while forbidding them the exercise of these rights by an imperative of charity. If that were so, the right to self-defense would be useless and absurd. Such a contradiction would not stand to reason and is repugnant to divine wisdom.16

Moreover, just war aims to reestablish peace, which Saint Augustine defines as “the tranquility of order.”17 In this sense, a just war can be seen both as an act of justice and as an act of social charity, performed on a grand scale, among the family of nations.

It is also an act of charity to come to the aid of unjustly oppressed peoples,18 for “the innocent have the right to resist, charity calls for assistance, and the intervening state may justly assume the communication of the right of the innocent to exercise extreme coercion in their behalf.”19

7.  The principle that all peaceful means must be exhausted before resorting to war should not be understood in a way that would cause endless paralysis. That would be tantamount to denying, in practice, what is accepted in theory, namely, the legitimacy of war.

One can discuss ad infinitum if all possible peaceful means for avoiding war have been exhausted, because there exists no authority with the power to make infallible decisions in these matters. Such authority is not established in natural law, nor does it exist by divine institution. Hence, in principle, it is incumbent upon the political authorities responsible for declaring war to judge, according to prudence and the means at their disposal, whether or not all peaceful solutions are exhausted and recourse to war is warranted.

Also, the requirement that all peaceful means must be exhausted before the waging of war must not be understood so strictly that it leads to complete inaction. When immersed in doubt, man cannot act. Misapplied, this requirement could bring about a complete separation between principles and action, denying in practice the legitimacy of what is accepted in theory. Thus, while legitimate in theory, war would never be legitimate in practice.

Saying that a nation cannot resort to arms until all possible peaceful solutions have been pursued means all reasonable and practical possibilities. It does not mean all theoretical possibilities, whose number is infinite.

8.  The fact that war is not an inevitable phenomenon like natural disasters does not mean that war can always be avoided.

Peace is a most precious good and every effort must be made to preserve it. “Order, peace, and harmony,” writes Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “are essential characteristics of every well-formed soul and of every well-constituted society… Order generates tranquility, and ‘the tranquility of order is peace.’”20

However, to affirm that every war can be avoided is to ignore the history of men and human nature itself. It is pacifist utopianism.21

Even the creation of a super-state or a supra-national organization endowed with some attributes of sovereignty would not eliminate war but only transform the use of force into civil war when between member states, or punitive police action when exercised against individuals or social groups.22

9.  Although individuals must participate in public life and prudently express their opinions, the final word as to war and peace belongs to government.

There are several reasons why the right to decide about war and peace is the prerogative of government:

(a) The duty to defend a right is primarily vested in that person who holds it or is its natural custodian. The state is the natural custodian of the rights of its people. War being the exercise of the power of coercion among nations in the legitimate self-defense of their rights and the rights of their people, it falls to the state, through its competent authorities, to decide for or against war.

(b) Safeguarding the rights of citizens against foreign aggression is ordinarily a matter of the common good, since war affects everyone. Therefore, according to natural law, decisions about war and peace belong to the authority responsible for the common good, which is the state.

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(c) The final decision on public matters cannot be left to the masses. Individuals are naturally inclined to look after their own interests, making it difficult to reach a consensus as to means or goals in matters of public interest. In addressing urgent matters of general concern, however, the nation needs unity, not plurality. Only common authority can assure this unity and harmonize different interests. Hence, decisions in matters of the common good, especially grave ones, belong to supreme authority in the state.

(d) Moreover, only government has the means to wage war effectively. Normally, those who have the means should decide how to employ them. Therefore, the decision to wage war belongs to government.

(e) From another standpoint, war obviously involves risks for the whole country. According to natural law, it is illicit to place a whole country at risk, as happens in a war, without proportional cause. Now then, evaluating this proportionality requires a large amount of data that ordinary citizens clearly do not have. Thus, it is up to government, rather than the citizens, to decide on war and peace.

10.  Divine Providence uses wars among men to execute the decrees of justice. Despite its tragic nature, war is an occasion for practicing virtues such as fortitude, prudence, charity, self-detachment, heroism, and patriotism.

Nations declare war on each other for one reason or another. Yet, wars invariably contribute towards the designs of Divine Providence. Indeed, without infringing in any way on human liberty, Divine Wisdom infallibly reaches its goals with strength and suavity.23 When God allows the terrible calamities that come with war, He is pursuing in the supernatural order His Divine plan for men.

Nations, unlike individuals, have no eternal life, so they are rewarded or punished in this life.24 Providence makes use of the wars waged by men to execute the decrees of its justice, since wars have consequences for both individuals and nations, considered as human groups. At times, God punishes some nations through the action of others.25

On the individual level, God manifests His divine justice and mercy in numerous ways, including wars. Though not all sinners convert with the terrible sufferings and privations caused by war, many do repent, confess their faults, and atone for them. On the other hand, virtuous people often become better. In spite of its tragic nature, war is an occasion for practicing virtues such as fortitude, prudence, charity, self-detachment, heroism, and patriotism. Death on the battlefield, accepted with supernatural conformity, can have great weight before Divine Justice to expiate not only one’s individual sins but also the collective sins of nations.26

This supernatural aspect of war must not be ignored if the reality of war is to be understood in its entirety.

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Modern warfare has such a capacity for destruction that one can ask if war itself has not become illicit, or at least if the classic doctrine on just war needs to be reviewed.

One must avoid the false dilemmas well presented by Father John Courtney Murray, S.J.: “The false dilemmas are: “(a) a soft pacifism versus a cynical hard realism; (b) universal atomic death versus complete surrender… These pernicious dilemmas represent a casting up of desperate alternatives beneath which is abdication of moral reason and submission to technological determinism.”27

This abdication would result in the death of the moral and juridical order, including the negation of the natural right of self-defense and “the natural law requirement that crime be punished and the rule of law upheld.”28

The problem of modern weapons of mass destruction does not bear on the justice of the war itself, but rather on the prudence of going to war. It is necessary that the reasons for war be of such gravity that they be proportional to the destruction feared. “[T]here are rights and goods, such as liberty or national freedom, which in the judgment of good and honest persons and according to the common sense of the people are worth defending at the cost of enduring the horrors and destruction of a modern war.”29

As Pope Pius XII states: “Among these goods some are so important for man’s living in society that their defense against unjust aggression is undoubtedly fully legitimate. By solidarity, all nations are obligated to participate in this defense and must not abandon the attacked nation. The assurance that this collective duty will not be neglected serves as a deterrent to the aggressor, and therefore, helps prevent war, or at least, in the worst scenario, to shorten the sufferings.”30

If this were not true, both national and international order would disappear and, with it, peace, for a state would be barred from defending its rights and those of its people, and would become hostage to the blackmail of unscrupulous powers.

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Peace, as such, is an invaluable good that must be acquired and maintained by all honest means, since peace is “the tranquility of order.” It is the greatest good of nations in the natural order.

All nations are obligated to strive for true peace, even if this means, at times, going to war. This is the peace we desire for America. We pray that Mary Most Holy, the Immaculate Conception as Patroness of our Country, may obtain it for us from her Divine Son, the Prince of Peace.31

May God grant America courage amid danger, constancy amid adversity, and magnanimity in victory.

March 25, 2003
The American TFP


  1. Natural law: “In its strictly ethical application… the natural law is the rule of conduct which is prescribed to us by the Creator in the constitution of the nature with which He has endowed us.” James J. Fox, s.v. “Law, Natural,” in Catholic Encyclopedia, (New York: Encyclopedia Press, 1913) Vol. IX, p. 76. Saint Paul says this natural law is written in the hearts of all men (Rom. 2:14-15). All Catholic textbooks on ethics mention natural law.
  2. Catholic doctrine on just war harks back to Saint Augustine who established its foundations solidly in the Gospels and natural law.
  3. Heinrich A. Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought, (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1947), pp. 254-255.
  4. Ibid., p. 255.
  5. Cf. Viktor Cathrein S.J., Philosophia Moralis, (Barcelona: Herder, 1945), pp. 514-516; Rommen, pp. 255ff, 614-735.
  6. Natural society: “a society, that is to say, which men are in general under a mandate of the natural law to establish, a society by consequence whose essential requisites are firmly fixed by the same natural law.” Charles Macksey, S.J., s.v. “Society,” in Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XIV p. 75.
  7. Ibid., p. 74.
  8. Macksey, s.v. “War,” in Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XV, p. 547.
  9. “Just war is called defensive in two senses. (a) In strict sense, it is defensive when the nation whose rights are unjustly attacked does not initiate hostilities, that is, does not declare or begin war. (b) In a less strict sense, it is defensive when the nation unjustly attacked declares war or strikes the first blow. Thus, if the innocent nation knew that the enemy was secretly preparing war against its independence, it would be on the defensive, even though it declared war.” John A McHugh, and Charles J. Callan, Moral Theology, (N.Y.: Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., 1961) Vol. I, p. 558.
  10. “A people menaced by, or already victims of unjust aggression, if it desires to think and to act in a Christian manner, cannot remain in passive indifference.” Pope Pius XII, “Christmas Message of 1948,” quoted in McHugh-Callan, op. cit., p. 561.
  11. Cathrein, Thesis CV, p. 512.
  12. Cf. T. Ortolan, s.v. “Guerre,” in Dict. de Théologie Catholique, (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1947), Vol. VI, cols. 1908-1909.
  13. Fr. Ludovico Bender, O.P., s.v. “War” in Dictionary of Moral Theology (Westminster, Md.: The Newman Press, 1962), p. 1297.
  14. Cf. Rommen, p. 655.
  15. “The interrelation existing among the virtues is a property by which one virtue, practiced with earnestness, in an integral, logical, and perfect sense, postulates other virtues. …Infused moral virtues …each of them is connected with charity. Roberti and Palazzini, “Virtues, Interrelation,” in Dictionary of Moral Theology, p. 1279.
  16. Cf. T. Ortolan, cols. 1908; Summa Theologica, II-II, q. 40, 1-3.
  17. Saint Augustine, City of God, XIX:13.
  18. “Out of charity, a nation that has the right of intervention may lawfully go to war to protect a weaker nation against a stronger and bullying nation, to assist a government unjustly attacked by its subjects, or to help innocent subjects who are tyrannized over by their government” (McHugh-Callan, p. 562).
  19. Macksey, p. 548.
  20. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, “The Crusade of the XXth Century.”
  21. “Peace – a cause much too beautiful, much too just and much too noble to be left in the hands of pacifists.” (Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira).
  22. Cf. Rommen, p. 650.
  23. Wisdom, 8:1.
  24. This is the underlying thesis of Saint Augustine’s City of God.
  25. Ortolan, col. 1951.
  26. Ibid., cols. 1958-1959.
  27. John Courtney Murray quoted in R. A. McCormick in “War, Morality of” in The New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. XIV, p. 806.
  28. A. Messineo, “Guerra” in Enciclopedia Cattolica, col. 1238.
  29. Ludovico Bender, Dictionary of Moral Theology, p. 1297.
  30. Pius XII, “Christmas Message of 1948” in Discorsi e Radiomessaggi (Vatican: Poliglotta Vaticana), Vol. X, p. 322.
  31. Isaiah, 9:5.

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